Rules and Laws: similar but not the same

An unintelligent but often heard objection to libertarianism is that in a world without a state, people would not know what side of the road to drive on. The argument confuses rules and laws. Laws are mandates from government, which regulates actions of the populace and which is enforced by the threat of sanctions. Rules, on the other hand, are a set of principles governing behaviour within a particular area or activity and are normally set and enforced by the proprietor – it is closely related to ownership.

Whereas laws apply to all who reside in a certain jurisdiction, rules only apply to whoever engages in the particular activity or are on the particular property to which they apply. For example, a law can prohibit smoking generally, whereas a rule can only prohibit smoking on a specific property. Any proprietor can apply whatever rule he would want, but would be subject to market forces in his design of the rules. It would obviously be convenient for all road owners in a certain geographical area to apply similar rules to their roads, to make the customer experience better. However, there would be no guarantees, as there isn’t in the world we live in today. We Brits know that better than most.

Laws are sanctioned universally whereas rules can only be sanctioned by the proprietor. For example, there are traditionally 11 players on a football team, and the English Premier League enforces that rule within the games taking place under their brand name. They have however no power to enforce the rule at a game of kick-around in the local park.

Sanctions for breaking a law is determined by government and have no relation to subjective impressions of the severity of the violation. For example, recreational drug use is by many seen as a victimless crime, but the state enforces often draconian sanctions on delinquents. In contrast, a rule stating no drug use can obviously only sanction drug use on a particular property, and importantly, if a person is found in violation of the rule, he would have had the opportunity to inform himself of the consequences ex-ante and therefore implicitly agree to be sanctioned accordingly if found using on the property.

These are hardly subtle, rather they are very important differences. Whether one believes that human existence should be regulated by laws or by rules depends on whether one believes in the sanctity of property rights. As libertarians we hold property rights to be inalienable, and as a consequence disagree with laws but readily accept rules. We do not want traffic accidents more than the next person, we just do not believe it is the governments right to determine what side of the road we should drive on.

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