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Thoughts on LIbertarianism Property Rights and Self-Ownership

April 15, 2010
 I read an interesting post at Crooked Timber called Libertarianism, Property Rights and Self-Ownership. A key part follows:

So what do libertarians believe? 1) That we should maximize freedom. 2) That we should get the most freedom we can, by treating liberty as property, and everyone as their own property (at least at the start). 3) That in fact treating liberty as property, and everyone as their own property, necessarily will (or will tend to) maximize freedom. 4) That we should treat liberty as property, and everyone as their own property.

I take it that pretty much all libertarians would like to believe all of 1-4. This is what makes them a family. But 3) is not a normative principle of political philosophy so much as a falsifiable hypothesis. Suppose there’s a problem with 3 (we’re getting there). That will create a split. Some libertarians will stick with 1). Those are the liberal libertarians, the ‘thick’ sort, like J.S. Mill. Some others, on the other hand, will stick with 4. That is, there are no rights but property rights. Liberty is property. And everyone is their own property. This makes for a very serious and fundamental philosophic split down the middle, to put it mildly. Because 4 can be regarded as a kind of feudalism + minimum welfare state: everyone is given one lump-sum gubmint handout at birth – herself. Feudalism + welfarism is a cheeky formula for thin libertarianism, to be sure. But it brings out its genuine kinship with other views like: your parents owns you at birth. The king owns you at birth. God owns you at birth. The local lord owns you at birth. These ‘propertarian’ variants are but one step from propertarian libertarianism.

I thought this was an nicely reasoned post, but there are a number of false dichotomies that set up straw men, in response to which, a few thoughts:
— The self ownership rhetoric and resulting theory is probably best thought of as a heuristic. Some may take it too far, and it may not produce correct results in all instances, but it produces good results in the vast majority of cases.
— I would posit that libertarian beliefs 1 and 4 are held by most libertarians independent of a causal connection between them (I’d also add add some more utilitarian conception of human welfare into the mix as well). In some situations falsifiable belief 3 may be untrue, but that just means that the libertarian needs to fall back on how relatively important he believes each of 1 and 4 to be to determine how to approach that situation. For example, assume some amount of redistributive taxation really does increase liberty in a meaningful sense. You might want to do some of it, but even increasing aggregate liberty wouldn’t justify making some people slaves.
One can be a "thick" libertarian who believes some significant account needs to be taken for claims of self-ownership (even if such claims are not always dispositive) and a "thin" libertarian who believes that effects on liberty should inform what property rights people have. Sure, this calls for some exposition of how you would adjudicate such claims, but I haven not thought enough about that to offer a more rigorous explanation of how that might be done.
For now it is enough to show that is a viable third way and is probably consistent with how most libertarians would actually think about such issues.

From → Philosophy

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