Saturday, June 25, 2005


Libertarianism could be understood, in the most basic interpretation, as the view that property rights are of fundamental value. Thus understood, libertarians hold that individuals own themselves, and so may not be used or damaged without their consent. But we can distinguish between Right and Left-wing libertarians. Most libertarians are right-libertarians: they hold the unprincipled view that natural resources may be appropriated by some so as to leave none left over for others. This is not a viable position, for reasons explained in the linked post. Left-libertarians, by contrast, hold that all individuals have an equal right to natural resources. Ideally, they would begin (emerging from the 'state of nature') by giving everyone an equal share of natural resources, and then letting voluntary exchanges in the free market continue things from there.

But even this improved version of libertarianism fails, for reasons I have explained before. Any allocation of absolute property rights would allow the owner to destroy the resource in question, thereby depriving future generations of their fair share. Unless, that is, those shares were reserved in advance, but there would not be enough resources to split into indefinitely many positive shares. That's a problem regarding the origin of property rights. But even if resources could (somehow) be initially allocated in a fair manner, just transfer may be impeded by ignorance or accident, so there's no guarantee that market transfers will "preserve" the justice of the distribution. They might also cause some people to acquire an unacceptable amount of power over others. These objections point to internal problems: the libertarian principles of initial acquisition and just transfer offer an imperfect treatment of property rights.

There are also external objections which can be made, by pointing out that libertarianism is just fundamentally wrong-headed. Property rights are not of fundamental value. It's ludicruous that anyone should hold them to be more fundamentally important than human flourishing. We should instead take human welfare as our ultimate value - as utilitarians do - supporting whatever social/political institutions would be most conducive to this end. (This would no doubt lead to some form of conditional property rights, and probably redistributive taxation, rather than the property-rights absolutism of libertarianism.)

I have so far assumed that libertarians take rights as fundamental. They might instead claim that freedom (understood in the 'negative' sense of freedom from interference) is their fundamental value. But that also fails. Firstly, it fails on its own terms: enforcement of property rights is a form of coercive interference, and a reasonable resolution of the resulting "conflict of liberties" will lead to significant welfare rights for the poor. Secondly, it also suffers from the external objection that it is fundamentally misguided: what really matters is not merely freedom from interference, but rather, substantive freedom.

So, even left-libertarianism is, I think, quite misguided. Nevertheless it's interesting to consider what it involves in practice. Some left-libertarians argue for quite substantial taxation, to bring us closer to the ideal of 'equal initial resources' (e.g. for the next generation) that they believe is required by justice. Hillel Steiner offers three forms of "just tax" that can be rightfully imposed on property owners to achieve this end. The first and main one has already been mentioned: rectification for illicit appropriations of natural resources. The second is from bequests: dead people cannot own things, so nor can they transfer (bequeath) ownership rights to their descendents -- that's a legal fiction that ought to be got rid of. The property of the dead thus reverts to its natural status of common ownership, and can be distributed accordingly. (Realistically, I don't see that this would help much in practice: people would just make sure to transfer more of their property before they died.) Third, Steiner argues that genetic information is a natural resource that people (illictly) appropriate for procreative purposes, and so they must pay recompense for this too. That's rather silly though. Even if genetic info is in some sense a "natural resource", its use does not infringe upon the liberty of anyone else - it does not prevent them from using it too - so there are no grounds for recompense, unlike the first case.


  1. > so there's no guarantee that market transfers will "preserve" the justice of the distribution.

    You can guarantee that any fair trade will over time result in certain people and groups will have less and less resorces under a fair trade system. In fact fundimetally as subsets of the comunity drop out of hte competition perfect fair competition without anything to mitigate this concentration of resources (admittedly wills partly adress this). Will inevitably tend towards one man owning everything.

    > The second is from bequests: dead people cannot own things, so nor can they transfer (bequeath) ownership rights to their descendents -- that's a legal fiction that ought to be got rid of.

    Of course people will donate stuff (in the form of trusts for example) if that was a law. So you would have to outlaw donations charity and generally speaking any sort of positive unpaid human interation. Of course that society might work but I doubt anyone besides the most incredibly hard headed philosopher would actually support it.

    A publicity campaign about how antisocial it is to give money to your children might raise the level of taxation possible.

  2. Steinel's suggestions, which you summarize in your last paragraph, seem to me to provide the means to reply to (at least one of) the objection(s) to "left-libertarianism" which appears in your second paragraph.

    Consider the situation when the ideal society first emerges from the "state of nature." The left-libertarian can support a heavy tax on those resources which any individual member uses up or encloses for him or herself (as an alternative to an equal allocation of available resources to each member of this society). The taxes thus collected could then be redistributed in equal shares to all the existing members of society. If this tax is raised (say) each year, then this method would ensure that anyone who uses fewer resources than his or her "share" would be provided compensation for the difference. It would also ensure that anyone who uses more resources than his or her share would be be forced to compensate the others. In effect, those who use a lot of a given resource would be paying those who use very little of that resource for the privelege of using more.

    This "taxation method" has the advantage that it does not deprive future generations of their fair share of natural resources. You can see this by examining the example of land (a natural resource). Each year, as the population of the ideal society grows, each person's share of the land taxes collected that year becomes smaller. (If N=population, and X=the total amount of money raised by land taxes, then each person will each year receive a share equal to X/N; as N gets bigger, X/N gets smaller.) Thus, each year, each existing person gets an equal share of the total amount of land being used during that year. This holds true even as more and more people come into existence each year (i.e. are born).

  3. Yeah, I guess something like that might work.

    A theoretically simpler option would be to require people to replace the value of any resource they appropriated. That should be possible because privatization tends to lead to greater wealth and productive efficiency, as owners develop the worth of their property. After some amount of time and effort, they should thus be able to repay society for the originally appropriated resource, plus (perhaps) some extra in 'rent' or 'interest' for the time that they borrowed it.

    So maybe left-libertarianism can be made to work after all? I still don't like it, of course, for the reasons outlined in my "external objections". But at least it's not internally inadequate like the right-wing version is. I guess that's something.

  4. (Well, at least with regard to initial acquisition. I think it still falls victim to the 'just transfer' problems.)

  5. Yeah, I'd agree that the market is, in general, a pretty good (utilitarian) mechanism. But that still leaves the question open as to whether certain restrictions or redistributions could have even better results, and thus be better. The sort of libertarian I have in mind would not grant that. He does not care about utility, he thinks that the free market is inherently just (no matter the results), and that redistribution etc. violates people's rights. Naturally, I think it is a mistake to ignore consequences in such a way. Human flourishing matters more than property rights.

    "In a proper system, enforcement of property rights only happens to correct a coercive interference, and thus it is perfectly legitimate to enforce property rights."

    Your response presupposes a rights-based view of freedom. That is, it isn't properly "interference" if you're merely stopping someone from doing what they have no right to do in the first place. But this cannot work for the liberty-based libertarian (who my objection here is aimed at), for he takes liberty as fundamental, and derives rights from that. This sort of libertarian must concede that there is a genuine clash of liberties here. (My argument is here, if you wish to discuss it further.)

    Also, I think your rights-based definition of freedom is implausible on independent grounds. For one thing, it implies that we do not "interfere" with criminals when we put them in jail. But we patently do. It is a justified interference, of course, but it is interference none the less. The jailbird is not free; indeed, imprisonment is the paradigm case of unfreedom.

  6. > He neglects the principles of comparative advantage, diminishing marginal utility, and subjective economic value, all of which mitigate against this tendency.

    I did not even adress economies of scale and so forth. But I dont need a theopretical example the real world will do fine.

    > Is it really in my economic advantage to own every last rutabaga in the world? Certainly not; at some point I will reach the optimal number and stop acquiring more.

    But that isnt what happens is it. has bill gates stoped acquiring things?
    Besides if you dont want to own anything that doesnt solve the problem since you just drop out of the race. if I DO want to own everything then I am the one you have to watch out for.

    > Further, his analysis treats economic life as though it were a closed system, with only so many units of value in play. This is incorrect.

    I personally thing that technological advances will inceasingly become the domain of the rich and powerful as it becomes far beyond hte ability of an individual to make a individual leap of much concequence. For example genetic engineering or some sort of energy source from fusion etc. Things no individual could achieve.

  7. OK well to take a wider frame of reference with more statistical validity are the richest 100 people richer now or poorer now than they were lets say 10 years ago?
    How about the largest 100 companies?

    I think you will find that both of them are much larger/richer. and this is fighting against progressive taxation and so forth, if there were not such restraints their growth would probably be faster.

    However I dont think bill gates has got much poorer lately has he? he has been at hte top of the rich lists for a long time and the numbers have tended to get bigger. Still if you have some proof he is getting poorer I'd be interested.

  8. > The richest 100 people are most certainly richer than they were ten years ago. But the poorest one billion are also richer than they were ten years ago.

    I am not sying the system doesnt work in general, I am just saying it has potential long term problems things that you may well be able to deal with with subtle things such as progressive taxation etc.

    > As to Mr. Gates, I think he's earned every penny he has, and unlike some, I do not resent him for it. On his way up, he has transformed all human societies for the better.

    I think you may misunderstand - I certainly dont want to attack him - he played the game and he played it well. No one should hate him for winning the game anymore than we should hate the lions if they beat us. But you can change the rules a bit to change the style of game (or outcome) that you want.

  9. Anyway the poorest (being africa) grow slower than hte richest (being anywhere else) the system at the moment benefits from certin poor places like china being run "very well".

  10. "As to Mr. Gates, I think he's earned every penny he has, and unlike some, I do not resent him for it. On his way up, he has transformed all human societies for the better."

    without intellectual property laws which the state grants via privilege shifting costs off of one group (Microsoft owners) onto the users of the software in the form of higher prices - Gates obviously wouldn't be nearly as rich and there wouldn't have been any need for open source software.

    BillG (not Gates)

  11. It's interesting that you say that libertarianism is based on prpoerty rights.

    Take for example the anarchist, who, in my opinion is "no wing" but according to that meme quiz you put up, is on the bottom left libertarian. If the anarchist believes that no-one should "rule" than does that not also mean that the anarchist might concede that no-one should govern property, thereby diluting the property-focused argument of both law and libertarianism.


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