Liberal Critique of Libertarianism
Liberal critiques of libertarianism matter because libertarians claim to be liberals. Indeed, they often claim to be the only true liberals in a world of imposters. As libertarians interpret it, liberalism confers on individuals an absolute right to conduct their lives as they choose as long as they respect the equal rights of others to do the same. They contend that this principle justifies state power only when used to enforce rights against force, fraud, and theft, and that it precludes almost all public interference in the free market, the redistribution of wealth, and any form of welfare state. On this view, those who today defend such redistributive practices in the name of liberalism betray, rather than fulfill, basic liberal ideals.
Not surprisingly, such claims have not gone unchallenged. Many see no difficulty in justifying the redistribution of wealth and at least a modest welfare state on liberal grounds. Both libertarians and welfare liberals (as I refer to them) claim impeccable liberal credentials. But this dispute is not just over labels: What is at stake are different conceptions of what it means to take individual liberty seriously and of how political institutions can best do so. Welfare liberals offer a variety of reasons for rejecting libertarian conclusions regarding their commitment to further individual liberty.
To understand these objections, it is important to specify libertarian assumptions a little more sharply. Libertarians accord overriding importance to basic rights, but they also characterize these individual rights in a distinctive way. They interpret them as involving self-ownership. To say that a person is a self-owner is to say that decisions about how his or her unique bundle of personal assets, resources, and capacities are to be invested over the course of his or her lifetime is ultimately up to him or her. As long as others’ rights are not at risk, self-owners have the final determination over their own affairs.
Libertarians believe that this idea has far-reaching implications for the rightful acquisition of property in external goods. According to them, it is both possible and likely that, starting from a position in which the external resources of the world are unowned, self-owners will quite legitimately acquire unequal holdings in these external assets. Furthermore, they contend that the right to decide how these acquisitions should be used carries over from the original ownership of personal assets. A self-owner’s legitimate acquisitions are no less their own than the bundle of personal resources (talents, skills, and energy) they used to obtain them. Therefore, the confiscation of these acquisitions through redistributive taxation, even when inspired by noble causes (human equality, the common good, and social justice), must violate basic liberal rights, for it denies self-owners the final say over how the fruits of their labors are to be used. It is an act of aggression not fundamentally different from theft.
Critics like G. A. Cohen, Will Kymlicka, Richard Arneson, and others deny that these libertarian conclusions automatically follow even if we accept the premise of selfownership. They counter that the inference holds only if the world (other than persons) is initially “unowned,” so that external resources (land, fuel, food, etc.) belong to no one until self-owners invest their labor in acquiring them. But by itself, the thesis of self-ownership does not rule out the possibility that these external resources are initially owned by humankind in common. If we accept this view (like many natural rights theorists, including Aquinas and Locke), there need not be a straightforward move from ownership of one’s person to a right to the unlimited accumulation of external wealth. For the community as a whole would retain a right to place limits on the legitimate acquisition of wealth by individuals because it, too, has rightful claims that require enforcement.
This line of argument allows welfare liberals to defend redistributive taxation without denying self-ownership. If the state is the agent of the whole political community, as liberals have traditionally thought, under this argument, it presumably has at least a limited right to dictate the terms on which self-owners can draw on the common stock of resources owned by that community. On this view, redistributive taxation enforces limits on private appropriation and makes available funds that the community can then deploy to ensure that access to the common stock of resources is not unfairly denied to any of its members. Thus, public redistribution need not be on a par with theft, but rather is a device for balancing the entitlement of individual self-owners to accumulate wealth and the residual right of the whole community to a fair share of the resources of the world and their fruits.
Libertarians vigorously contest this argument and deny its compatibility with the self-ownership principle. They insist that it effectively eviscerates that principle by licensing the communal exploitation of personal assets. It is misleading, they say, to depict public redistribution as a restoration of resources wrongly expropriated from a common pool. Rather, it directly confiscates acquisitions that reflect the personal skill, talent, and energy of producers and denies them what self-ownership requires: a right to the full fruits of their efforts and their contributions. Libertarians often support this counterargument by seizing on an unfortunate phrase used by John Rawls in his famous defense of a welfare liberal position presented in A Theory of Justice. There Rawls argued that a just society should regard “the distribution of natural talents” as a “collective asset” (p. 87). According to libertarian critics, this notion gives the game away. Welfare liberalism institutes communal ownership of personal assets; therefore, it must be inconsistent with self-ownership.
But this description is not a fair construal of the position taken by Rawls and by welfare liberals more generally. As many welfare liberals point out, among them Jeremy Waldron in The Right to Private Property, Rawls does not treat talents themselves, but rather their distribution, as a collective asset. This formulation is regrettably obscure, but Rawls’s point follows. The question of how far individuals may personally benefit from the natural distribution of skills and talents depends ultimately on the scheme of legal rules and conventions in place. Different sets of legal rules and conventions allow distributive outcomes to be determined by the natural distribution of personal assets to greater or lesser degrees. Because these conventions form an alterable public framework of rules, the state can consider imposing rules that require those favored by the natural distribution of personal assets to transfer some of their acquired wealth to those relatively ill favored.
Rawls argued that such rules are required as a matter of basic justice. But whatever else might be said against his position, it seems compatible with the thesis of self-ownership. The presence of rules placing limits on external acquisition need not imply that people are not owners of their original personal assets. Therefore, the bare thesis of self-ownership leaves open the possibility of rules requiring redistribution of acquired assets.
But suppose these welfare liberal counterarguments fail and we grant that libertarian conclusions do follow from the thesis of self-ownership. What about the thesis of self-ownership? Many welfare liberals are troubled by the fact that, in the minds of some libertarians, self-ownership rights are fully alienable. Hence, self-owners may, among other things, sell themselves into slavery. These libertarians accept this idea on the grounds that property rights imply the right to use and abuse. Although it may be foolish for self-owners to enslave themselves or engage in other forms of self-abuse, they have the right to do so. But, as even John Stuart Mill saw, there is something paradoxical about a theory that claims to take individual liberty seriously and yet permits slavery under certain conditions. If any conclusion seems illiberal, surely this one does.
This concern raises deeper doubts about the liberal credentials of libertarian premises. What makes the thesis of self-ownership true? Why should liberals accept it? The answer depends on the form the statement regarding self-ownership takes. Libertarians sometimes suggest, as David Boaz does, that self-ownership is rationally self-evident. However, this view is hard to accept. As we have seen, one possible implication of the self-ownership thesis is that slavery can be morally legitimate under some circumstances, but many will think it self-evident that slavery is never legitimate under any circumstances.
Furthermore, it is inconvenient for the self-evidence claim that Locke (often treated as a libertarian hero) rejected self-ownership in the form proposed by contemporary libertarians and that Kant (also regularly recruited by contemporary libertarians to their cause) repudiated self-ownership in any form.
An alternative and better answer is that the thesis of self-ownership provides an interpretation of individual freedom and its value. On this view, liberals should endorse self-ownership because it is the best available characterization of what it means to respect individuals’ equal rights to freedom and independence. This idea seems plausible up to a point. Self-ownership implies that my personal concerns are my own business, that I am ultimately responsible for my life, and that I may lead my life as I choose. These notions certainly sound like fundamental liberal desiderata, and respecting self-ownership rights may often coincide with respecting people as independent and free. Still, there are several reasons to doubt that self-ownership is an adequate characterization of the kind of liberty that liberals should care about. Here are two.
First, welfare liberals can insist that respecting self-ownership rights, or indeed any scheme of rights and entitlements, cannot be an end in itself. The value of respecting such entitlements ultimately depends on deeper requirements. To be fully consistent with liberal principles, they often argue, we must establish that respecting these entitlements can guarantee everyone access to adequate opportunities to fully enjoy their liberty. A society that fails to provide this guarantee cannot really claim to be showing equal respect to the freedom of all its citizens. Welfare liberals deny that societies that do no more than rigidly respect self-ownership rights (as libertarians interpret them) could pass this test. They argue that even if self-ownership rights are consistently respected, there will still be many individuals who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in disadvantaged social circumstances, deprived of resources necessary for a minimally rewarding pursuit of their personal projects and conceptions of the good. These individuals lack an adequate opportunity to make the most of their liberty. As Rawls might put it, their freedom is effectively surrendered to arbitrary contingencies.
Welfare liberals conclude that the state should be prepared to redistribute wealth to prevent this outcome. The possibility that redistribution of this sort might violate self-ownership rights need not trouble proponents of this argument. They can deny that self-ownership is the form of freedom that ultimately matters. To them, the rights that should be of fundamental concern to liberals are not self-ownership rights, but rather rights guaranteeing everyone adequate opportunities to exercise their liberty in personally fulfilling ways.
Second, the libertarian stress on self-ownership rights encourages the view that violations of such rights are the main, and perhaps only, interferences in individual liberty that call for public action or remedy. Now infractions of liberty can count as violations of someone’s rights only if we can identify agents to hold morally or legally responsible for violating them. Earthquakes and tornadoes may interfere with individuals’ liberty and deprive them of property, but it obviously makes no sense to regard them as agents whom we might blame for violating their victims’ rights. Libertarians think that what goes for earthquakes and tornadoes also goes for the aggregate effects of free exchange: Even if a person is rendered penniless by those effects, his rights are not violated unless he can hold a specific agent responsible for a violation, and this ability to find a morally culpable agent usually will be lacking. On these grounds, libertarians deny the need for a public remedy in such cases.
But welfare liberals counter that this view of the infringements of liberty that should trigger remedial action by the state is unduly narrow. Why should the test be that of whether an agent responsible for a violation can be found, rather than that of whether the relevant interferences and the costs to their victims are humanly preventable? Economic deprivation and social disadvantage are not unpredictable natural events that human agents are powerless to stop, like tornadoes and earthquakes. Rather, they are the predictable results of voluntary human actions that have adverse consequences for the liberty of some. Even if specific individuals cannot be held morally responsible for such infringements of liberty, we might still expect a liberal state to assume responsibility for preventing or compensating for them. This suggestion opens up another possible pathway leading from liberal assumptions to nonlibertarian conclusions.
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Originally published .