[Guest post by David Killoren]
Richard's posted recently about left-libertarianism. Here I'll just say a few things, in no particular order, about that view. There will not be much in the way of argument here; this will be mostly a series of pronouncements.
First of all, as Richard notes, various libertarians who advocate property rights typically start out with the claim that agents "fully own themselves," and move from there to the claim that agents have property rights which extend over other things, e.g. the products of their own labor. This, however, is not the direction of inference I prefer; I don't think it is obvious that agents own themselves, so I don't think it is legitimate to begin by making that claim. In my own view, the beginning should be with the claim that legitimate property rights derive from the creative activity of an agent, and extend over whatever is the product of the agent's creative acts. And I think that agents fully own themselves only insofar as they are the products of their own creative acts.
So, I think that while it is neither obvious nor self-evident that agents own themselves, it is self-evident that a creator has some sort of right to freely use and dispose of her creation. Let me put that latter point in a slightly different, perhaps more correct, way. Suppose you and I disagree about what ought to be done with some object; you want to dispose of it one way, and I want to dispose of it another way. I think it is self-evidently true that, if I am the object's creator, then that is a reason why our dispute should be resolved in my favor. Perhaps this reason can be overridden by other reasons, but, according to me, there is automatically some weight thrown behind the wishes of a creator for her creation. The claim that such weight gets thrown is a claim which I will call "the creator principle," and my assertion is that the creator principle is self-evidently true.
"If it weren't for me --": sentences that begin that way usually end up asserting some right to something or other. Suppose I spend the day making a quilt. You want the quilt. "But it's my quilt," I say, "because if it weren't for me, there wouldn't be any quilt." I think that when we say things like this, we aren't simply basing our claims of ownership on the above counterfactual conditional. I think what we mean is to say that since I am somehow the cause of the quilt, you can't have the quilt unless I'm willing to give it to you. Why is this line of reasoning so routinely held to be valid? I don't have any good explanation. I can only report that it does seem, to me and to many other people, to be valid.
Another example: Many (most? all?) of the people who believe that God created the world, also believe that having created the world entitles God to do pretty much whatever he wants with, or to, the world. God, they will say, may destroy the world, or abandon it, or turn it into a paradise, or do whatever he wants. If you want to argue with such people, you are better off trying to show that God did not create the world; it will be difficult to convince them that even if God did create the world, he still isn't entitled to dispose of it however he pleases. They are likely to think that the latter assertion is self-evidently false, and that its negation is self-evidently true.
I think this example does show that people do, in a kind of automatic way, ascribe special rights to a creator, deriving from his or her creative activity. Of course, since people do all sorts of stupid and groundless things automatically, I don't expect the above example to be particularly convincing to anyone. But perhaps by considering this or similar cases in more depth, something convincing might emerge.
By the way: Human creative activity is, of course, not at all like divine creative activity, and this makes application of the "creator principle" to human situations a bit more complicated. Whereas if God wanted a chair, he would simply will it into being, a human being who wants a chair must begin with some raw material -- a piece of wood, say -- and chop away at it until it takes the shape of a chair. Since human beings do not create the raw material of the world, they cannot, by means of the creator principle, lay claim to that raw material. This, I think, is the basis of a rationale for the left-libertarian view that natural resources should belong to everyone in common, and to nobody in particular. One can argue that, in the case of chair-making, for instance, the chair-maker does not own the wood out of which his chair is made, but does own the change made to the wood, since the change is what the chair-maker has created. This change is the difference between the chair and the wood. So, what the chair-maker owns is not a chair; it is rather a chair "minus" the wood out of which it is made. Metaphysically, this is weird, but I think it can be worked out, although I won't attempt to work it out here.
I'll finish by saying this: Besides the creator principle, I think there are other, conflicting principles, which are also self-evidently true. For instance, I think that some principle, asserting that there is some presupposition in favor of those policies or political institutions which maximize aggregate human well-being, is self-evidently true. Perhaps there are other self-evidently true principles (e.g. egalitarian ones); however, I can report that, when I consider questions about public policy or political institutions, these are the two principles which seem to be most pressing. Anyway my view is that, in the sorts of issues with which libertarians concern themselves, weight gets thrown behind more than one sort of claim, and that the correct decisions, policies and political institutions can be identified by watching the resultant interplay and conflict among those claims.