Saturday, December 01, 2007

Implicit Interference

Does economic redistribution score badly in terms of negative liberty? A good friend recently suggested that I was advocating increased "interference" in people's lives on this basis. But this strikes me as mistaken (an incredibly common - almost universal - mistake, but no less wrong for that). As I explain in 'Wealth and Liberty', the institution of property is inherently coercive:
[I]n a wealthy society like ours, no individual lacks the physical or material capacity to meet their needs. There are plenty of resources nearby, sitting in shop windows. Anyone is capable of taking those resources. Their problem is that other people in society won't let them. Security guards will interfere, using force to block the individual's access, or to reclaim what they now call "stolen" goods.

(That's not to say we should do away with property, or anything silly like that. Some forms of interference are justified, after all. But we shouldn't let that blind us to its coercive elements, which - upon appreciating - we may seek to mitigate.)

Now, my friend objected that theft is relatively rare, and thus taxation licenses far more interference than do exclusive property rights. But this is irrelevant. Imagine a tyrant whose totalitarian control is so ubiquitous that nobody ever dares step out of line. He thus never actually has to actively exercise his power by interfering with people. That doesn't mean the people are free, of course. The violation of negative liberty instead comes from the threat of interference.

Contrary to my friend's suggestion, then, a relative lack of theft does not mean that property rights are less of an imposition against our negative liberty. Quite the opposite: the imposition is so complete that most of us would not dream of acting against it. We fully internalize the fact that we are not at liberty to take goods that are deemed to be "owned" by another. This societal ordering closes off to us actions that we could otherwise have performed. (Again, it's probably for the best, but one shouldn't pretend it's not a form of ubiquitous interference that has a huge impact on the options available to us every day of our lives.)

It's worth noting that this sort of implicit interference is distinct from Pettit's notion of domination (the modal capacity of one person to interfere with another). If Nora can do whatever she wants, but it is by her husband Torvald's leave - a general permission he could, but let us suppose won't actually, withdraw - then she has negative liberty but suffers domination. Pettit argues for the importance of domination by asking us to imagine that Nora learns of Torvald's power over her, and thus becomes servile, making extra efforts to please him and ensure that he never feels any need to exercise his power by interfering with her. Clearly, as Pettit says, Nora's freedom has not thus increased, even if active interference is now even less likely than before. But my earlier remarks show that this is no argument for non-domination. What Nora suffers here is an increase of implicit interference: the threat of potential interference shapes her behaviour, obstructing her from behaving the way she might prefer or freely choose to, were it not for the shadow of the tyrant.

The difference between negative liberty and non-domination is instead seen in cases where actual non-interference is guaranteed, e.g. by the potential dominator's reliable preference not to interfere. It may be that Torvald could interfere if he wanted, but so long as he actually doesn't want to (and this is certain not to change), who cares? David Braddon-Mitchell asks us to imagine a fantastic neuroscience which allows us to prove to Nora that there is zero probability of Torvald actually interfering with what she wants in life. Why, then, should she care about merely counterfactual coercion? (In practice, of course, there are no such guarantees. So we have very good practical reasons for fearing and opposing domination. But these thought experiments show that the value is instrumental.) Pettit responds that insofar as we think of each other as agents, such deterministic guarantees are ruled out. But that just shows the value of non-domination to be ineliminable, not non-derivative.


  1. Richard,

    I agree with your basic point that property is preserved by coercion in any case, so the idea that a lower tax rate or lassiez-faire economy is somehow inherently less coercive is unsupportable.

    At the same time, high-tax rates can interfere. First, they encourage more inspection of income and property by various tax agencies (like the IRS). Second, depending on how progressive a tax scheme is, and what sorts of income it taxes, higher tax rates do interfere with larger life projects. Some people want to be rich, own a nice home, buy an antique racing car, etc.

    That isn't to say such schemes are inherently unfair. I take it that making people free is a balancing act. It's just to say that some people can have their autonomy reduced through higher taxes.

  2. "I take it that making people free is a balancing act. It's just to say that some people can have their autonomy reduced through higher taxes."


  3. I happen to know this good friend of yours. This is where I think he goes right and you go wrong.

    You seem to confuse two questions. 1. Whether the institution of property itself engenders greater interference. And, 2. whether, given that there is an institution of property and its concomitant greater interference, whether taxation engenders greater interference even beyond that. The answer to 2. is YES. One oft mentioned reason among many for thinking YES, is that by taxing the government does not merely appropriate property, it appropriates your labor. One might think that theft undoes the interference of property because the negative liberty lost by the individual (namely taking the things he sees in front of him) is thereby gained. But when the government appropriates, no negative loberty is gained (the government is not a negative liberty bearer in typical cases).

    Taxation doesn't undo the interference from 1, it adds to it.

    As for 1., by the way, it isn't clear that the answer is NO. The question should be, in the long run would there be greater interference in a society without the institution of property or in a society with the institution of property. The question you ask is whether in the short run, given a society exactly like this, is there greater interference having the institution of property or not having that institution. It is unclear to me why your short run question is interesting.

    My intuition is that in the long run, the institution of property engenders less interference. This is precisely because more money / greater aggregate supply is, in many ways, greater negative freedom. In the short run, for whatever it is worth, the institution of property probably does engender more interference.

  4. Ah, remember though that what I advocate is taxation for redistributive purposes (e.g. UBI). The ultimate beneficiaries are individual persons who most certainly are "negative liberty bearers", and by granting them more "tickets" (money), we increase their negative liberty by rendering them less liable to interference by security guards and the like. So I don't see how you can avoid the conclusion that taxation can "undo" (or at least mitigate) the coercion inherent in the system of property rights.

    P.S. As a consequentialist, I agree with you that the long-run question is much more interesting. (And I think the goal of liberty is best served by the sort of property rights I advocate, i.e. ones that are subject to some degree of redistribution.) But I also want to address the concerns of deontological libertarians, who consider taxation to be intolerable for the immediate coercion, regardless of the long-run effects. So that's why I discuss that.

  5. You seem to agree that the taxing part does decrease negative liberty, but argue that the redistribution part compensates. I see how redistribution might mitigate the interference of taxation. But I do not see how redistribution could mitigate the interference of the institution of negative liberty. The things proscribed by the institution of negative liberty are still proscribed after redistribution. Post-redistribution one still cannot walk into a store and take something you like without paying. At best, redisributive taxation has a net null effect on total interference. More likely, it will dramatically increases total interference. I guess I can't see how you can resist the view that taxation does not undo the interference gained by the institution of negative liberty.

    Perhaps you are assuming some principle of decreased marginal negative liberty for money. So that the negative liberty lost by a well-to-do person having a dollar appropriated is less than the negative liberty gained by a struggling person receiving a dollar out of nowhere. This is a very controversial and metaphysically complicated principle. It is not even clear that it is intelligible. What could make the negative liberty gained by one more than the negative liberty lost by another? Will it depend on how the two are disposed to use money?

    Also, an interesting P.S. However, I don't see the pull for the deontological libertarian. She does not think that negative liberty is simply having a greater number of actions that she can do. See your "closes off to us actions that we could otherwise have performed." As I understand it, for the d.l. the very notion of negative liberty derives from the notion of ownership. Negative liberty is directing the things you own. The notion of increased negative liberty on that view, is internally contradictory, and therefore mischaracterized by you. You do not have more negative liberty my owning more things. You can only lose negative liberty, and this happens when things you own are directed by others as by redistributive taxation.

  6. It's true that specifically taking the loaf without paying is still not an available action. But nor is it a very interesting or important one. Far more important is the action taking the loaf (somehow), and this is made available to people by giving them money. While they previously could not obtain the loaf without suffering interference (due to the institution of property), now they can (by using their newfound cash). That's a plain increase in negative liberty.

    "Perhaps you are assuming some principle of decreased marginal negative liberty for money."

    Sure (or if you don't think liberty itself can be quantified, we can instead talk about the value of a liberty). The liberty to not be obstructed in obtaining the basic goods necessary for survival is clearly more important than the liberty to not be obstructed in one's accumulation of luxury goods, say. This shouldn't be controversial (though it's an interesting question how to spell out the precise details).

    P.S. I'm addressing the kind of deontological libertarian that takes liberty (non-interference) as fundamental. You're right that others may take ownership as fundamental (and then derive a moralized conception of freedom), but I don't think such 'propertarianism' is even on the table as a view worth addressing.

  7. Liberty is the absence of initiation of force, not all absence of force.

    If someone attacks me and I hit back in self-defence, my attacker's liberty is not affected at all. But my liberty is affected by his initial attack.

    In the shop example, the person who takes goods without paying (or other agreement) is the one initiating force. This is because the goods are the result of the seller using his body to do work. Goods and money are, in essence, the stored output of our work. Taking those goods or money without the consent of the person who created them is morally equivalent to forcing that person to do work for you against their will, i.e. slavery.

    Taxation can still be justified, mainly on the grounds that we all derive benefit from shared goods such as roads or police so that the gain in economic efficiency from a general tax compared to individual charges, outweighs the loss of liberty.

    But using force to prevent theft does not infringe the liberty of the thief and more than using force in self-defence infringes the liberty of the initial attacker.

  8. Nigel, see my response to Gabriel and subsequent discussion (comments 6-10) here. A teaser: "My point is precisely that property-claims initiate force against others. The original privatization unilaterally removes others' access to what would otherwise be a common resource. That's an aggressive imposition of harm on innocent people, without their consent. We then threaten aggression against them, merely for wanting to use the resource in the same (peaceful) way as we do."

  9. I agree there is a problem of initial allocation of land and other natural resources.

    Liberals don't worry too much about this, partly because there is no indisputably fair way to allocate natural resources and Locke's approach is as good as any, but mostly because we know, at least in New Zealand, the method of initial allocation has only a tiny effect on people's wealth when compared to human action and the rules that govern it.

    But there is no 'privatization' of the items for sale in shops. Those items have been private since they came into existence with the exception of the raw materials which make up only a tiny fraction of the value of most items now for sale.

  10. Richard, it looks like you're presupposing that natural resources in the state of nature belong to everyone. But the typical libertarian position (though not Locke's!) is that natural resources initially belong to no one. And that's why initial property acquisition isn't, on their view, coercive.

  11. Dog Pipes - all I need is that unowned resources are accessible to everyone. Appropriation involves barring others access, i.e. coercion. Normative facts about ownership don't change the physical facts about who is interfering with who.

    Nigel - the misappropriation of raw materials is not so easily dismissed, since they remain essential to any physical product. The consistent deontological libertarian would require others' consent (perhaps bought through bargaining) to obstruct their access to said materials. This would be terribly impractical, of course, which is a good reason not to be a deontologist here!

  12. Richard, it looks like the right response for a property-rights libertarian is to say that denying access doesn't count as coercion (or, if it does, it's not the sort of coercion that violates rights). After all, by simply existing, I'm occupying a region of space-time, and I'm therefore denying access to it (in that all others are obligated to leave it be, just as in the appropriation case); nevertheless, I'm not coercing anyone (or at least not in any way that violates their rights).

  13. Hi Richard. I know you posted this ages ago. I'm currently looking into republicanism, and am interested by your comment here about domination being a type of interference. You say "Pettit responds that insofar as we think of each other as agents, such deterministic guarantees are ruled out", and note the irrelevance of this. I was just wondering where Pettit responds to an argument like yours, as I would love to read it? If you could lead me in the right direction, it'd be great.

  14. Hi Max, I'm not sure if it's in print at all. (The exchange between Pettit and DBM was at a conference.)


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