Monday, June 13, 2005

A Reasonable Resolution

My previous post established a conflict within libertarianism, in that enforcing property rights will involve coercive interference against non-owners who try to make use of the property. In particular, we have a conflict between:

(i) the liberty of the rich "not to be interfered with in using their surplus goods and resources for luxury purposes"; and

(ii) the liberty of the poor "not to be interfered with in taking from the rich what they require to meet their basic needs."

In this post, I will look at how the conflict may be resolved, i.e. which liberty has moral priority. (I continue to draw heavily from J.P. Sterba's 'From Liberty to Welfare', from which all quotes are taken unless otherwise stated.)

Let as assume for the sake of argument that the poor person has no other means to achieving his basic needs (perhaps there are no jobs available, or employers discriminate against him, or he is disabled, etc.). This should not affect the right-winger's judgment that the poor still have no right to take from the rich, as a matter of principle.

Now, a moral resolution of this conflict could yield one of three conclusions:
  1. The liberty in (ii) has moral priority over that in (i), such that the rich man's liberty here ought to be sacrificed for the sake of the poor man's.

  2. The liberty in (i) has moral priority over that in (ii), such that the poor man's liberty here ought to be sacrificed for the sake of the rich man's.

  3. Neither the rich nor the poor man are morally required to sacrifice their liberty for the sake of the other's. Both rich and poor are at liberty to use the surplus resources of the rich; the conflict shall be resolved by a power struggle.

I would immediately object that #3 isn't much of a resolution. We want morality to be able to tell us how to deal with conflicts of interest in a peaceful manner. To answer "battle it out" is really no answer at all.

But how are we to decide between #1 and #2? Here Sterba makes use of that fundamental principle of morality, "ought implies can":
People are not morally required to do what they lack the power to do, or what would involve so great a sacrifice that it would be... unreasonable to require them to perform such an action.

Pretty common sense stuff, really: the demands of morality must be reasonable demands. If I say, "you ought to X", and you respond "that's hardly reasonable!", then you are suggesting that X is not a moral requirement after all. (For example, if you promised to attend a departmental meeting, but then catch pneumonia and end up in hospital, it would be unreasonable to require you to go to the meeting anyway.)

Now we can ask: are the demands made in #1 and #2 unreasonable ones? (Note that if a demand is reasonable then it may or may not be morally required. It's only unreasonable demands that give us a particular verdict: an unreasonable demand is definitely not morally required.)

#2 fails this test. It is unreasonable to ask the poor man to relinquish his liberty in (ii) that is required for him to meet his basic needs. "In the extreme case, it would involve asking or requiring the poor to sit back and starve to death." This is too great a sacrifice, and not one that could reasonably be asked merely for the sake of preserving the rich man's liberty (i). We can thus rule out resolution #2.

#1, by contrast, seems to pass this test. It is not unreasonable to require the rich to sacrifice their liberty in (i) for the sake of the poor man's liberty in (ii). No doubt the rich man would prefer not to make such a sacrifice. He has self-interested reasons to want to keep his surplus wealth for himself, and he may even have some claim to deserving it due to his past efforts and contributions. "Yet, unlike the poor, the rich could not claim that relinquishing such a liberty would involve so great a sacrifice that it would be unreasonable to ask and require them to make it." It is at least possible that this could be a moral requirement. #1 remains a moral possibility.

I have already made an initial objection to #3. But Sterba's "reasonableness" argument also applies here. A power struggle between rich and poor will generally favour the former. So it would really be no more reasonable to require the poor to accept #3 than it would be to require them to accept #2. So we can also rule out #3.

That leaves us with #1. It is the only moral resolution that is "reasonable to require everybody affected to accept." (You may not be convinced that #1 is reasonable for the rich man. But surely you concede that it is more reasonable than the demands that are made on the poor in #2 or #3. So assuming you propose to make any moral resolution here, it surely must be this one that is made.)

Four further points can be made:

A) In cases where the poor are in such ill condition that they are incapable of acting on their liberty in (ii), the argument can be repeated for an agent acting on their behalf.

B) Due to the "reasonableness" clauses, the poor man's liberty in (ii) is not unconditional. If he has other (reasonable) options open to him, such as fair and equitable employment, which he chooses not to take, then it will no longer be reasonable for him to demand that the rich man relinquish his liberty in (i), and it would instead be reasonable for the rich man to demand the wilfully poor man to relinquish his liberty in (ii). That is, resolution #2 may result instead, in the appropriate circumstances.

C) We have established a "negative welfare right" rather than a "positive" one. That is, we have only established that the poor have a right not to be interfered with in taking surplus from the rich to provide for their basic needs. We have not established that the rich must take positive action to provide for the poor (e.g. through the provisions of a welfare state). However, as Sterba writes (p.242):
[T]his difference will have little practical import. For in recognizing the legitimacy of negative welfare rights, libertarians will come to see that virtually any use of their surplus possessions is likely to violate the negative welfare rights of the poor by preventing the poor from rightfully appropriating (some part of) their surplus goods and resources. So in order to ensure that they will not be engaging in such wrongful actions, it will be incumbent on them to set up institutions guaranteeing adequate positive welfare rights for the poor. Only then will they be able to legitimately use any remaining surplus possessions to meet their own non-basic [luxury] needs.

The rich will also want to protect themselves from poor agents who would otherwise have some discretion over when and how to employ their liberty in (ii):
In order not to be subject to that discretion, libertarians will tend to favour the only morally legitimate way of preventing the exercise of such rights: They will set up institutions guaranteeing adequate positive welfare rights that will then take precedence over the exercise of negative welfare rights.

D) The present argument has been aimed at those libertarians who take liberty as their fundamental value. But an analogous case might be made against "propertarians" (i.e. property-rights absolutists) by building on the argument for merely conditional property rights.


  1. If you take the underlying thinking of, say, distributism into account, you see that it aims at promoting the poor out of poverty so that "the poor" becomse the empty set. There need be no conflict between the principles once one recognises that it can be resolved by eliminating the defective cases, renormalising as it were. "Redistribution of wealth", socialist style, does not in fact or in principle achieve this but rather aims at maintaining them on a drip feed with supportive care. See the articles on my publications page like for some constructive proposals. You should view those as the first stages of a transition of course; they would require the state to start

  2. There is a problem with this thinking, unless what you are talking about is purely land. Except for land, anything of value exists because somebody created it. Somebody made the decision, made the arrangements, provided the materials (which he could have consumed, instead of investing), and did the rest of the work, or paid others to do the rest of the work. To say that after this the creator does not have the right to consume his product, but any random person who has not bothered to do any of the above (including being among those paid to do the work) does strikes me as absurd.

    There is another issue here. It may well be that one feels that he has a moral responsibility to help those less fortunate or even those who are just lazier. It does not follow from this that he has a right to force others to help others less fortunate.

    Had I been alive and of age on Dec 8, 1941, I would have considered it a moral imperative to join the army and fight the Japanese and the Germans. This does not imply that I would have supported the draft. It is one thing to say that I feel that I am morally required to take this action. It is another to say that it is morally permissible for me to force another to take this action, regardless of their convictions.

    Libertarians do not oppose charity. We oppose charity at gunpoint, which is theft, not charity. One practical problem with charity at gunpoint is that it is very easy for the person receiving it. There is no doubt that it will be coming. This invites free riders who could produce, but do not bother, to accumulate. Like any parasite, they will, as they accumulate, create more and more strain on the system they feed off of (but to which they contribute nothing) until eventually, the system collapses. This is what will have happened when the American government goes bankrupt in about 30 years (or sooner). We will have just accumulated more parasites then we can safely indulge. Because we have provided these people with the false security of cradle to grave freedom from responsibility, they will be in a position where they could not work if they wanted to. Note that freedom from responsibility is not the same thing as freedom of choice. One is a right, the other is a dangerous illusion.


  3. "Redistribution of wealth", socialist style, does not in fact or in principle achieve this but rather aims at maintaining them on a drip feed with supportive care.

    I refer to this drip feed as "hospice for the well". It kills the pain of poverty, and any incentive to leave the state of poverty. Of course some people will never escape poverty (for example, the severely mentally retarded or physically disabled) such people are what they are through no fault of their own and should be helped by private people and organizations. Then there are the pathologically lazy. I am not particularly concerned with what happens to those who can produce, and choose not to.

  4. Cxx, I agree that traditional (conditional or "means-tested") welfare schemes may be counterproductive -- that's why I favour unconditional basic income, to complement the free market, as Milton Friedman proposed.

    But the main post above isn't suggesting that in actual fact we should set up our institutions so that type-#1 ad hoc redistribution is the norm. That would be most impractical! However, given that type-#1 redistribution would be justified in principle, given the background conditions described, it clearly becomes imperative that we set up our institutions in such a way as to avoid such background conditions!

    In other words, what the argument shows is that there is no absolute "natural right" to property. If set up wrongly, then so-called "theft" might -- in some cases -- be morally right. So we (society) must instead take care to construct rightful property -- a precondition of which is that no-one is in a position to reasonably demand a type-#1 redistribution. This requires some form of welfare rights; the question remaining is how best to implement this in practice. My suggestion, of course, is a UBI.

  5. There is no "liberty of the poor to not to be interfered with in taking from the rich what they require to meet their basic needs."

    Even if you argue that they should have a right to do so, its not properly termed liberty, and the assertion that they have such a right is debatable, and if you do assume such a right than it can be met (at least in a wealthy society) within a relatively libertarian structure of laws, regulation, and taxation. Certainly government could be much smaller than the current total of American federal, state, and local governments and still provide everyone with a bear minimum to meet their basic needs.

    The problem here is that "poverty" and "basic needs" keep getting defined upwards, or to look at it in another way they get defined in relative terms. As people become more wealthy poverty is defined as a fraction of that average wealth. As society is becomes wealthier "basic needs" gets defined to include more and better things (rather than say a a cot to sleep in and gruel three times a day)

    - Tim

  6. "Certainly government could be much smaller than the current total of American federal, state, and local governments and still provide everyone with a bear minimum to meet their basic needs."

    Yes, I agree. (But note that the present argument merely establishes the minimum level of redistribution that is morally required; whether it is also right to redistribute beyond the 'basic need' level is a further question.)

    I think your first remark is bringing in a morally loaded sense of the term 'liberty'. That's not how I'm using the term. On my use, poor people are currently not at liberty to take surplus goods from the rich, and criminals are not at liberty to leave jail. These are both restrictions on liberty; whether they're justified is a separate question. (As you say, "the assertion that they have such a right [to the liberty in question] is debatable" -- which is precisely why I am debating it, after all! The present post argues, pretty compellingly I think, that the poor in fact do have such a right in certain circumstances.)


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