Update: See the bottom of this post for further discussion.
So earlier today I wrote a post about why consider myself a left-libertarian if I disagree with the views of some of the most prominent thinkers who call themselves left-libertarians, and a fellow named Dan Waxman asked:
I'd be interested to know your rationale for rejecting the Steiner/Otsuka/Vallentyne style left-libertarianism (i.e. self-ownership coupled with a very stringently egalitarian proviso regarding the initial acquisition of external worldly resources).
I feel as though temperamentally I am in a similar position to you - I also have a problem with oppression and mistreatment, and I think that in a libertarian society - including (especially?) the ones which reject common world ownership - these evils would be far less common. But I don't think I have worked out a satisfactory answer to my own conflicted intuitions about the initial acquisition of property, and, to be perfectly honest, I don't think it helps that the literature is notably thin on actual *arguments* either way. At most we get a bald assertion that the earth is originally unowned from Nozick and co, then we get people like Cohen and Otsuka complaining that this assertion is 'blithe,' without putting forward any argument whatsoever for their alternative! So like I said, I'd be interested to know your thoughts, especially if you've come to some kind of stable reflective equilibrium on the issue
I think that's a great question, and want to take the opportunity to post a few thoughts in rejection of the resource-egalitarian liberarian point of view (though in actuality, it is not a single point of view; these objections may variously miss the mark when applied to specific views which preempt them). I might try to flesh these objections out a little bit in a future post (or series of posts), but for now I just want to put them out there. If they don't make sense, I'll be happy to try to clarify. I'm going to put off for now the task of trying to justify a particular alternative view of property rights, and confine this post to attacking this view. Without further ado:
1) Freedom disrupts patterns. The point of an egalitarian distribution would be to secure liberty for all, but it seems clear that any kind of real, effective liberty would produce inequality. In order to maintain equality, constant coercive redistribution would be needed. If the resource-left-libertarian is truly committed to liberty and effective self-ownership, then she must countenance the inequality that would result even if there was at one point an egalitarian distribution of resources. This was Cohen's argument in Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality. But if the resource-egalitarian libertarian is comfortable with this, then her position seems to reduce to some claim that the thing that's wrong with our property regime is merely that it doesn't have the right sort of history. Is this a reasonable basis for a political philosophy? Is the problem with our society really just that a hundred years ago, things weren't alotted equally? I just don't think there's anything there.
2) Society is not like a situation where everyone comes to a negotiating table to claim their fair share, or where we all move away from a starting point to pursue our individual lives. The system of resource ownership is a dynamic and evolving system, with new participants coming and going all the time and different allocations of resources every day. If we wanted to ensure that everyone got a particular share of natural resources (regardless of what rule is used to determine what kind of share it would be), and we refused to engage in coercive redistribution (as this would seem to impinge upon effective self-ownership), we would seemingly need to have coercive enforcement of use limits. But these measures would require us to make projections about the future which we simply cannot make, and to make assumptions about the availability of natural resources which can't be based on anything besides speculation. The resource-egalitarian libertarians want this to be a rationalistic framework, but there's simply no objective way to do anything like this. Do we save a bunch of the gold for future generations? How much? Are we sure that someday people won't be able to make gold out of other stuff, making our non-use unnecessary?
3) Value and wellbeing do not come from access to natural resources. The value of natural resources is subjective, changes over time with different circumstances, and is not directly related to the value of the things that are made with those resources. Treating them like a commodity with timeless value doesn't make sense. And if they lack this special kind of status, then it's not clear why we should focus our entire political theory on them as if a proper way of dealing with them would fix all of our problems.
4) The original objection to the appropriation of the natural commons was based on the idea that natural resources provided the means for production. In today's society, the means of production are increasingly detached from natural resources. The lack of access to the means of production is not a lack of access to natural resources, and most people complaining about the former would look at you pretty strangely if you "solved their problem" by dealing with the latter. If lack of access to the means of production is a problem, then the solution will not be found in an egalitarian resource distribution.
There are probably other reasons I could offer in favor of rejecting this view, but I think those four will do for now. Hopefully that helps! [Note: I apologize for the sloppiness of this post; I wrote it right after I finished work...can you tell? If something is confusing in an interesting way, please let me know.]