The Capabilities Approach and Libertarianism
We want to describe a society not only where nobody’s rights are violated, but where everyone – even the least of those among us – is living well.
Ask libertarians why they support libertarianism and you’ll get plenty of different answers, but most will cluster around the ideas of natural rights and/or the non-aggression principle. We have the rights to life, liberty, and property, sacrosanct so long as we do not infringe on the like rights of others. That is, so long as we don’t aggress against others.
But I don’t really believe this is what most libertarians think, nor what they should think. Consider a world where enforcement of property rights is perfect and government violence is minimal, but where all the property is owned by a rich, cohesive majority group, large enough to function economically on its own. Further, members of the majority loathe the minority group, and uniformly refuse to sell or lease them property; neither will they employ them except perhaps for dangerous or degrading jobs for exploitative wages; neither will they educate them in their first class schools.
I think most libertarians, if they take the hypothetical seriously, will acknowledge that something is wrong here. It does no good to say that this would not happen in the real world. The close analogy of Jim Crow aside, there is nothing logically inconsistent about this world and its libertarian operating principles, and we’re talking about whether abiding by these principles is really enough to declare a society just, or good in some sense. So those libertarians who refuse to bite the bullet must agree something more is needed than the usual justifications for libertarianism and “Anything peaceful” slogans.
What we really want is a concept of flourishing. We want to describe a society not only where nobody’s rights are violated, but where everyone – even the least of those among us – is living well. I’d like to describe one conception of flourishing that hasn’t really been discussed much among libertarians. Developed by economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum, the “capabilities approach” (or “CA”) is a framework for evaluating societies in terms of the effective capabilities that all individuals have to live the kinds of lives they want to live.
The capabilities involved are conceived broadly as those things necessary for a full and satisfying human life. Feel free to use your own intuition for what “full” and “satisfying” mean. Constitutional favorites like the freedoms of expression, worship, association, property rights, and freedom from violence are all important capabilities libertarians can get behind, but access to adequate food, shelter, and medical care would also be included in most lists of capabilities. Nussbaum in her influential list includes such items as opportunities for sexual satisfaction, being able to play, and “being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.” I suspect libertarians will raise their eyebrows at these, but nothing at this point demands that it is the government’s role to provide these more controversial capabilities. Right now we’re just describing a flourishing society. It would be hard, at least for me, to imagine any society that could be described as flourishing that didn’t include a wide scope for individuals to play and have access to the natural world.
Perhaps some conservative readers will doubt the importance of opportunities for sexual satisfaction. The word “capability” is used in the CA to emphasize that we’re talking about ensuring options, and not requiring anyone to exercise those options. Within the CA, a person may choose not to pursue sexual satisfaction outside careful moral boundaries or at all, just as one may fast (by not eating accessible food), or decline to vote or worship.
The capabilities mentioned above are also debatable. There can be reasonable disagreement about any list of capabilities. Indeed, Sen himself has always refused to offer any list of capabilities. But any enumerated list should also be seen as open to account for changing circumstances. Perhaps in 1990, Internet access was just a nice-to-have, but a quarter century later (optional) access to high speed Internet is arguably essential to a flourishing human experience.
The CA involves a multiplex of values. Though in desperate straits pragmatism might lead us to prioritize food and shelter over Internet access, in principle the capabilities are incommensurable and cannot be traded off one for another. No amount of GDP can make up for suppression of political or religious liberties. Likewise, good health care and access to the fine arts does not make up for the inability to own property – including productive property – and the kind of wealth a stable property rights regime can facilitate.
Capabilities are seen as effective freedoms to do and to be things a person has reason to value. The word is italicized for a reason. As with my two-tier society example above, laws and other formal guarantees don’t matter if central capabilities are frustrated at the level of private interactions. Thus in my scenario the capabilities of the minority to own property and access economic and other meaningful opportunities are de facto obstructed, even though they and the majority group are technically equal before the law. Taking another example, if women are born into a society where their upbringing, social expectations, and education all direct them to, say, remain within the home to raise children or pursue certain traditional kinds of “feminine” careers, then their effective freedoms are abridged.
The CA thus stresses the social context in which individuals live their lives. Stifling norms enforced by the threat of social alienation can limit freedom just as effectively as violence (government or private). Widespread unconscious prejudices meanwhile can result – as if by an invisible fist – in emergent patterns within society that no lover of individual liberty would describe as healthy or compatible with flourishing. The upshot of this emphasis on the social context is that a libertarian interested in a CA model of freedom must engage with feminism and other critiques of social behavior and organization.
If we are concerned about each individual living the kind of life they have reason to desire, and that outside observers might describe as a full and rich human experience, then we have to grapple with the fact that human beings are dependent by nature, and diverse in their needs. A person with severe mental or physical handicaps, for instance, requires a significant level of care from other people on a full time basis in order to achieve their potential. Even people with common disabilities (e.g., blind, deaf, or wheelchair-bound persons) require greater resources to achieve a level of independence consistent with a full life, including infrastructure modifications (ramps, braille, etc.) and specialized personal equipment. But the CA also makes it clear that everyone moves through phases of their life where they are dependent upon others. Childhood and old age are the obvious examples.
Acknowledging the fundamentality of human dependency might fit uneasily with the rugged individualism that pervades libertarian rhetoric. But it’s not a showstopper. The CA seeks to build a robust but contingent independence for the individual out of institutions, attitudes, and education, all with the collaboration of that individual. At the very least, the CA encourages an awareness of dependence, and cautions against the historical tendency to leave dependent care to female family members, unremunerated despite the drastic impact to the abilities of caretakers to live their own lives according to their own ends.
The non-aggression principle and property-rights-über-alles are both too single-minded to satisfy the multiplex values of the CA. Ayn Rand-inspired libertarianism attempts to use some concept of flourishing, but it’s hostile to notions of dependency. But whatever their elevator pitches, as I mentioned at the beginning, I believe most libertarians do grasp at a broader view of human flourishing when they defend libertarianism. Consider the Cato Institute’s relatively new project, HumanProgress.org. In addition to traditional libertarian concerns about economic and “negative” liberties (rights from interference, in contrast to rights to certain goods or services), this project highlights a number of other improvements to quality of life around the world. These pertain to the environment, rates of violence, access to mobile telephony, gender equality, etc. From the About page:
The Internet, cell phones, and air travel are connecting ever more people – even in poor countries. More children, including girls, attend schools at all levels of education. There are more women holding political office and more female CEOs. In wealthy countries, the wage gap between genders is declining. Our lives are not only longer, but also healthier. The global prevalence rate of people infected with HIV/AIDS has been stable since 2001 and deaths from the disease are declining due to the increasing availability of anti-retroviral drugs. In wealthy countries, some cancer rates have started to fall. That is quite an accomplishment considering that people are living much longer and the risk of cancer increases with longevity. Our dwellings are larger and, in many ways, of better quality. Workers tend to work fewer hours and suffer from fewer injuries. Shops are bursting with a mindboggling array of goods that are, normally, less expensive and of higher quality than in the past. We enjoy more leisure and travel to more exotic destinations. To top it off, we enjoy more political freedom and economic freedom.
Clearly some libertarians care about more than just whether their property rights are respected. Part of the justification for libertarianism is the argument that it has been reforms in a libertarian direction (i.e., “some combination of private ownership, competition, free trade, deregulation, and moves toward liberalization”) that have given us the progress we see around the world.
That libertarianism with its strong emphasis on protecting negative liberties has been and can be a powerful means of advancing human capabilities broadly is ultimately an empirical claim. It is thus possible that some form of libertarianism is not only compatible with the CA but also its best hope. Ingrid Robeyns, a capabilities scholar (and no libertarian) acknowledges the possibility of such a hybrid.
The question of what, if anything, the government ought to do depends on the exact reach of the capabilitarian theory one is defending but also on the answer to the question of whether we need the government to deliver those goods and what can realistically be expected from a government. Just as we need to take people as they are, we need not work with an unrealistic utopian account of government. It may be that the capabilitarian ideal society is better reached by a coordinated commitment to individual action or by relying on market mechanisms.
Most capabilities scholars assume a wide role for government action, but of course libertarians have powerful arguments against political means. Libertarians are trained to understand how effective the spontaneous order of the market can be at achieving social ends. Public choice economics warns us that political actors respond to the same incentives (and succumb to the same vices) as private actors. A long tradition of libertarian skepticism about democracy and recent work in “rational irrationality” models of democratic behavior further caution us against putting too many issues in the care of government. And, while of course everyone groans when the libertarian at the party interrupts to hold forth about government agents with guns enforcing this and that, the libertarian sensitivity to coercion adds a valuable perspective to a political conversation that is all too sanguine about government regulation as the go-to means to do anything.
So what would a capabilitarian libertarianism look like? I have discussed the relationship between libertarianism and the capabilities approach at greater length in a short series of essays at the Sweet Talk blog. In short, though, a capabilitarian libertarianism would be some species of so-called Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, a collection of diverse libertarian perspectives united by a commitment to social justice, or the belief that “addressing the needs of the economically vulnerable by remedying injustice, engaging in benevolence, fostering mutual aid, and encouraging the flourishing of free markets is both practically and morally important.” These libertarians concur that libertarianism requires a liberal justification of some kind. Engaging with the CA in particular is worthwhile because it is a rich, interesting, and ultimately more demanding alternative to the more popular liberalism of John Rawls and the social contract tradition. It therefore speaks well of libertarianism if it can successfully engage with the capabilities approach, learning and teaching alike.