J. C. Lester is a philosopher specializing in libertarianism. Apart from articles, dialogs, and book chapters—many available online—he is the author of Escape from Leviathan: Libertarianism without Justificationism (paperback 2012) and Arguments for Liberty (2011).

Editer’s Note: This post is part of a series by philosopher J. C. Lester critiquing Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org blogger Matt Zwolinski’s posts on understanding freedom. Here Lester responds to Zwolinski’s “Liberty and Property,” “More on Property, Freedom, and Coercion,” and “Against Moralized Freedom.”

Liberty and Property

… 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 point of private property is that it minimizes infractions of liberty. It does this by limiting acts of license: acts that would proactively impose.

… 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.

Hobbesian freedom is having unconstrained action, and it clashes with similar freedom among people. Lockean liberty is the absence of aggressive constraints, and it does not clash with similar liberty among people. They are completely different things.

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.

That is only limiting Hobbesian freedom of action that is also license (proactively or aggressively imposing on others) and hence not limiting Lockean (libertarian) liberty.

… 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.

However, this consequence is easily avoided by understanding and applying the correct pre‐​propertarian libertarian theory of liberty. For to the extent that private property in land begins to proactively impose on non‐​landowners it is thereby not libertarian. This, of course, is largely a theoretical possibility in the real world, but any putative empirical cases can in principle be dealt with in an entirely libertarian way.

… 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.

This is wrong. That is not the kind of freedom that clear‐​thinking libertarians are concerned with. Libertarians are concerned with something more like ‘people not being aggressively constrained by other people’ (I formulate this as ‘the absence of proactive impositions’ for reasons of clarity and precision that I cannot briefly rehearse here). And merely protecting one’s non‐​aggressively‐​acquired‐​and‐​held property (such as from would‐​be free riders) is precisely not to aggressively impose on the liberty of others. I cannot completely blame Cohen for being so utterly confused when so many of the advocates of libertarianism are almost as confused as he is.

More on Property, Freedom, and Coercion

… Why do I say that property rights limit freedom? I start with the belief that to be free is to not be subject to interference by other people. …

From a libertarian viewpoint, it would be clearer to say that “to be free is not to be subject to aggressive interference by other people.” And then we need an abstract theory of such “aggressive interference” from which property is derivable.

… I then note that property rights are, at their core, socially and legally enforceable licenses to interfere with others. If I have a property right in a piece of land, I get to physically interfere with anybody who tries to use that land without my consent, or call on the police to do my interfering for me. So my having a property right in the land limits your freedom to use it.

On the contrary, it would be more accurate to say that “property rights are, at their core, socially and legally enforceable claims to stop others interfering with us. If I have a property right in a piece of land, I get to physically defend myself from anybody who tries to use that land without my consent, or call on the police to do my defense for me. So my having a property right in the land limits something more like your Hobbesian freedom‐​of‐​action to use it and not your Lockean freedom‐​from‐​aggressive‐​interference.” Of course, all this is clearer with a more precise and explicit abstract theory of libertarian liberty than that we “not be subject to interference by other people”. And then we can see how property is objectively derivable from observing liberty.

Against Moralized Freedom

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.

It greatly confuses matters to conflate 1) an objective theory of libertarian liberty as the absence of interpersonal aggressive constraints (however that might be formulated) and 2) whether there is a moral right to such liberty. Admittedly, it is a common confusion among libertarians. However, it is a far worse confusion to view libertarian liberty as mere interpersonal freedom of action, as Zwolinski does.