February 4, 2013 columns

Liberty and Property

Zwolinksi argues that libertarians are right to support private property, but also that private property is more complicated than we sometimes think.

Libertarians care about justice. And justice, I have argued in previous posts, is incompatible with the goal of maximizing freedom. But this means that freedom and justice can sometimes come into conflict. It means that, not always but sometimes, fulfilling the demands of justice will require limiting freedom. Sometimes we have to choose.

An especially vivid and significant example of this conflict can be seen in the relationship between freedom and property. In this post, I will explain the nature of that conflict. In the next, I will say how I think libertarians ought to respond to it. To anticipate, though, my thesis is that although property rights entail significant restrictions on freedom, those restrictions are nevertheless justifiable in light of the many moral benefits that property institutions bring including, notably, benefits in the form of countervailing enhancements of freedom.

Libertarians are virtually defined by their commitment to both liberty and rights of private property. Some libertarians, such as Jan Narveson, even go so far as to equate the two—arguing that liberty really just is property.

I think that there are plenty of good reasons to be enthusiastic about both liberty and property. And, indeed, there are plenty of good reasons to believe that liberty and property are very closely related. 

But we shouldn’t allow the freedom-enhancing power of private property to blind us to its costs—or even to the fact that some of those costs are measured in the currency of freedom itself. That property has the power to limit freedom as well as to protect it shouldn’t be surprising, really. After all, imposing limits on others’ freedom is part of the point of private property. The Hobbesian state of nature is a state of war precisely because and to the extent that each individual has the liberty to do “anything which, in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means” to the preservation of his own life—even if that thing is the crop you just harvested or your body itself. The freedom of each person to do anything he wishes is a recipe for a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Peace, prosperity, and stability are only achieved when each individual agrees to lay down some of this unlimited liberty and to respect the rights of others.

I suspect that most libertarians will have no serious problems with what I have said so far. My freedom to steal your bread and punch you in the face is, anyway, a pretty unattractive kind of freedom from a moral point of view. So if private property simply places limits on that kind of freedom, that’s a feature, not a bug. 

But not every liberty suppressed by property is so easily written off. Private property limits not just the freedom of thieves and aggressors, but of innocent individuals seeking nothing other than to make an honest way in the world. Consider, in this vein, what Herbert Spencer had to say in his Social Statics about private property in land. For Spencer, the equal freedom of all entails an equal right of each person to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants. But what if land can be legitimately appropriated as private property?

[I]f one portion of the earth’s surface may justly become the possession of an individual, and may be held by him for his sole use and benefit, as a thing to which he has an exclusive right, then other portions of the earth’s surface may be so held; and eventually the whole of the earth’s surface may be so held; and our planet may thus lapse altogether into private hands. Observe now the dilemma to which this leads. Supposing the entire habitable globe to be so enclosed, it follows that if the landowners have a valid right to its surface, all who are not landowners, have no right at all to its surface. Hence, such can exist on the earth by sufferance only. They are all trespassers. Save by the permission of the lords of the soil, they can have no room for the soles of their feet. Nay, should the others think fit to deny them a resting-place, these landless men might equitably be expelled from the earth altogether.

A property right in land is a right to control access to that land. It is a “right to say ‘No’.” But if all land is privately owned, and all landowners have a right to say “No” to all non-landowners, then non-landowners are not equally free with landowners. They exist in a state of dependence. Like feudal serfs or the most abject slaves, they live only by the consent of those in command.

For Spencer, this was a reason to reject private property in land altogether. So, too, for the later Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen, who argued in strikingly similar terms that lack of property in general, and lack of money in particular, constituted a serious form of unfreedom. According to Cohen, to lack money is to be liable to continual interference by others. A woman who wants to take the train to visit her sister in Glasgow but cannot afford the ticket will be physically prevented from boarding the train, or physically ejected from it once her lack of a ticket is discovered. She thus lacks the freedom to take the train, just as much as she would if men with guns patrolled the station on orders from the government and prevented her from taking it.

In fact, men with guns do patrol the station on orders from the government to prevent the woman from boarding. They are called the police. And in enforcing the property rights of the owners of the train, they necessarily restrict the freedom of non-owners.

Now, the thing to note about Cohen’s argument, and Spencer’s for that matter, is that it is based on a perfectly ordinary understanding of what freedom is. Cohen is not arguing that the poor lack “positive” freedom or “real” freedom or any other adjectival form of freedom of novel origin and dubious merit. He is arguing that they lack precisely the kind of negative freedom that libertarians purport to be concerned with—freedom from liability to physical interference by other human beings. 

Being poor isn’t like being crippled or sick, in other words. These, Cohen concedes, might plausibly be construed as a mere physical inability to exercise one’s freedom, not a lack of freedom itself. But poverty is different. A crippling disability would limit your ability to do what you want even if you were alone on a desert island. Disabilities are natural facts, and the restrictions they impose are physical, not social in nature. But lack of money would be no obstacle to a solitary man on a desert island. And this is because money is an essentially social device. It derives its value from a system of norms that are socially recognized and socially enforced. And without that enforcement—without the fact that behind money and property institutions more generally there are men with guns standing ready to enforce the claims they represent—money would be nothing.

Libertarians, as George Smith recently noted, have generally responded to this argument by insisting that real freedom is not absence of interference per se but rather absence of interference with one’s rights. I’ve criticized that response before and will say more about it in my next post. I will also say what I think the proper libertarian response is, and what its limits are.