The argument presented in my last main essay poses a fundamental challenge to libertarianism. If property necessarily restricts freedom, and if libertarianism is supposed to be a political philosophy that takes freedom to be its highest value, then how can libertarianism be compatible with the institution of property?
I think that the libertarian has a good response to this challenge. But before I present it, I want to indicate why I find another and more common response to be unsatisfactory. In so doing, I will provide a defense of the meaning I have attributed to the term “freedom” in my previous essays here.
Let us begin by briefly recalling the argument presented in my last essay. Both Herbert Spencer and G.A. Cohen claim that property rights interfere with freedom because property rights are (moral or legal) licenses to coerce. If I own a piece of land, I may legitimately use physical force to keep you off it. You are not free to use my land without my consent. And if all land is owned by somebody else, then you are not free to use any land without someone else’s consent. Absent such consent, you are subject to restraint, interference, and physical violence. To be in such a condition is to lack freedom, not in any obscure “positive” sense of the term, but in precisely the negative sense with which libertarians would seem to be most concerned.
That the individual who owns no land is subject to interference by others seems undeniable. But what the libertarian can perhaps argue is that this is not the kind of interference that renders him unfree. Interference with the activity of another only renders that person unfree, we might say, when it does so in a way that violates his rights. Someone who is enslaved against his will is unfree. But someone who is forcibly prevented from enslaving another is not. In both cases, the person’s actions are coercively interfered with. But freedom is a moral term, the argument claims, not a neutral one. And it is only interference that violates its target’s moral rights that counts as a genuine infringement of freedom, on this view.
I find this response unsatisfactory, and criticized the moralized notion of “freedom” on which it depends in my first several posts in this forum. Those critiques, however, were brief and not sufficiently comprehensive. So, in what follows, I want to pull the various strands of that critique together in one place. There are three main problems with the moralized notion of freedom and the use to which it is put in responding to concerns about libertarianism and property.
First, the moralized notion of freedom conflicts with at least a significant part of our ordinary usage of the term. If a criminal is justly convicted of a crime and locked away in a cell guarded by men with guns, most of us would wish to say that he has been rendered significantly unfree. But on the moralized notion of freedom, freedom is not infringed unless rights are violated, and ex hypothesi the criminal’s rights have not. Therefore, the moralized view is committed to saying that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the imprisoned criminal is actually free.
Of course, the fact that a particular way of using a word conflicts with one of the ways in which it is ordinarily used is not necessarily a fatal flaw. Perhaps the ordinary usage is imprecise or mistaken. Or, as George Smith has suggested and as seems undoubtedly correct, perhaps the term is one that is ordinarily used in multiple and incompatible ways. Still, it’s a cause for some concern. Whenever we take a word that has one meaning in ordinary language, and assign it a different meaning in our specialized use, there’s a danger of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and mistaken reasoning. These might not be reasons for abandoning the specialized usage, but they are certainly reasons for being cautious.
The second problem is a more worrisome one, and has to do with a potential circularity in the libertarian argument. Many people are attracted to the libertarian conception rights because they view those rights as effective means of protecting the individual from pervasive and oppressive interference by others in his own affairs. Self-ownership is more attractive than its denial, for instance, because under a regime of self-ownership you get to decide how to dispose of your own body, free from coercive interference by anyone else. A regime in which people are able to own their own houses is attractive for precisely the same reason. Most of us don’t want to have to ask permission from a central planner before we paint a wall in our bedroom, or put a new dishwasher in the kitchen.
Libertarians often draw on and play off this intuitive appeal when arguing for the superiority of the libertarian conception of rights over alternative views. But for the libertarian who adopts a moralized conception of liberty, this move is completely illegitimate. For if one holds the moralized conception of liberty, then liberty is defined not as freedom from interference per se but merely as freedom from interference with what one has a right to do. If one then says that we have the right to self-ownership, and private property, etc., because those rights protect liberty, then one has argued oneself right into a circle. “We have the rights we have because they protect freedom, and freedom is the liberty to do the things we have a right to do.” From a logical standpoint, this is rather like defining the Bible as the Word of God, and then arguing that God must exist because the Bible tells you so.
Of course, the libertarian can avoid circularity by divorcing his theory of rights from concerns about liberty-as-noninterference altogether. What is really fundamental to libertarianism on this view, is not liberty but property – specifically, one’s property in oneself. Stephan Kinsella seems to advocate a version of this view explicitly, and it seems also to be the most consistent way of reconstructing Rothbard’s view. A fundamental concern for the protection of property will entail certain kinds of non-interference – non-interference, that is, with legitimate property titles. But it is property and not non-interference as such that is doing all the real moral work on this theory. Thus one might follow Brian Doherty in calling this form of political philosophy “propertarian,” rather than “libertarian.”
A view like this, which takes property as fundamental and cares for liberty only in the moralized sense of non-interference with property rights, is consistent and recognizably libertarian. But I am not convinced that it is the best libertarian view. Property, on my view, is important because it is conducive to liberty; not the other way around. I believe in private property because I believe that it helps people to better direct their own lives free from oppressive control by others. And, for me, a concern for liberty forms not only the justification but also the limit of property rights. If I was convinced that it really was the case that a system of private property led to the oppression of workers, I would have second thoughts about defending such a system. If the system of private property really did force workers to take low-paying jobs where they would be ordered about in every detail of their lives from how many bathroom breaks they get to what kind of political speech they could engage in on their own time, then this would, for me, count strongly against the morality of such a system.
My support of private property is not based on the a priori conviction that property must be compatible with liberty, rightly understood, no matter what the facts turn out to be. Rather, liberty for me is an independent value, and the right way to discern the relationship between it and property is to actually look at the world and see when and whether the institutions we advocate promote it and when they don’t. This, to me, is libertarianism with one’s eyes wide open. It is a libertarianism in the classical liberal tradition of Smith, Hume, and Hayek. And it is a libertarianism well worth defending again today.
I shall have more to say about it in my next post.
Matt Zwolinski is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego. His research deals with issues at the intersection of ethics, law, and economics. He is the founder of and a regular contributor to the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians.