It appears that over at Reddit.com, a fellow going by sblinn decided to share one of my previous posts on resource-egalitarian left-libertarianism with the rest of the Reddit community. So a big thank you goes out to sblinn for checking out my work and posting it over there! I received some criticism, though, in the comments section of the listing by someone named Joel Davis, who appears to be a communist [edit: later in the comments thread, Joel claims not to be one, so I'm not entirely sure what to make of the fact that he defends points he calls communist throughout his reply...]. Joel clearly put a lot of time and effort into his comments, and so I wanted to try to think about some of his points here.
First, Joel wonders:
Isn't "property" itself a system? Can't we solve this "problem" by just choosing not to enforce property, thus securing egalitarian conditions through a net decrease in coercive authority?
I do agree that property -- or more specifically, any society's set of conventions for recognizing claims to possessions and adjudicating disputes arising over those claims -- is a system of social organization, and that such a system could be dispensed with if a society so chose. And I can see why Joel would conceive of such a move as involving a net decrease in coercive authority. After all, by abandoning a set of social conventions for dealing with property claims, we would seem to dissolve the mechanisms by which those conventions were enforced, and also the mechanisms by which those kinds of conventions were formed in the first place. And that seems like a curtailment of a certain kind of authority.
But it's less clear to me why Joel thinks that such a move would bring us closer to egalitarian ideals. It seems like in the absence of a property system, there would either arise a set of social relationships that were substantially similar to a sort of property system, except without any unifying set of conventions (since that would seem to be a property system itself), or else there would be a system in which claims over possessions were not widely recognized and protected.
In the former case, we seem to wind up right where we started. I don't see why having a pluralistic system of property rights would militate against inequality any more than a more universal system of property rights would. To defend this, one would only need to point out that whatever possession-respecting manner in which some members of a pluralistic society related to each other with egalitarian results could simply be practiced on a society-wide scale. And by doing so, we could coherently claim to have instituted a sort of property system, though it would likely need to be different than the sort of property system we generally see in practice today.
In the latter case, where there is no generally accepted set of cultural institutions regarding possessions, and where individuals have not created a similar -- though pluralistic -- system to put in the place of one, it would seem like the only remaining alternative would be to not recognize claims to property at all (since doing so would seem to involve one of the two possibilities already discussed). But such a system would be anarchy in the pejorative sense of the word. People would simply do whatever they wanted with other people's property -- remember, if they restrained themselves from this, we would be dealing of an example of the sort discussed in the previous paragraph. If this would bring about egalitarian consequences, it would only be in the sense of mutual destruction. But more likely, egalitarians would be angered to find that the strongest could exercise their power over the weakest, generating a different sort of inequality, but inequality nonetheless.
So I really can't see why Joel would think that the abandonment of property altogether would tend towards egalitarian goals. It must be noted here that I have spoken of property in a broad sense, and many people have historically talked about the elimination of capitalistic standards of property as if they were talking about dispensing with property altogether. But presumably, there would still be a desire to kick trespassers out of one's house in the communist utopia, and to have the trespasser seen as the morally faulty party in such a scenario. And one simply can't make sense of this besides through an appeal to something like a right relating to one's own house, which would be a sort of property right. A property right of a different kind, to be sure, than the one which enables the capitalist to bequeath access and title to the means of production to his children, but a property right nonetheless.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the latter sort of system would not be something that left-libertarians would want to endorse, at least as far as I can discern. Most left-libertarians seem to be in favor of property rights of some kind, though they might be open to the second sort of set-up in which there is no property system as such, but rather a kind of pluralistic, decentralized approach to dealing with these rights. And the reason it makes sense that left-libertarians favor these rights is that left-libertarians believe in self-ownership partly because they want people to have the freedom to "do what they want with their own." Hence Peter Vallentyne began his entry on Libertarianism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy with the claim that "Libertarianism holds that agents initially fully own themselves and have moral powers to acquire property rights in external things under certain conditions." So in summary, I agree that one can abandon a property system if one wants, but I don't see why this would tend to encourage equality, and unless the alternative to a property system were substantially like a property system, I don't think a left-libertarian would want to endorse it (remember, my post was about left-libertarians, and so might not respond to other sorts of views).
Joel's next substantive point is this:
It (obviously) doesn't follow that just because there will be some inequality that we need to endorse a system of property as it exists today.
And this is undoubtedly true. I certainly didn't mean to suggest in anything that I said that the only alternative to the left-libertarian views I challenged in my other post involved a wholesale endorsement of today's property norms. Even the most right-wing libertarian views don't entail that. So to the extent to which my previous post suggested anything like this, I apologize for the confusion.
The point I had been trying to make starts with the claim that with an egalitarian initial allocation of resources, differences in luck, effort, and ability would eventually bring it about that some individuals would end up with more than others. This would not be the case because of any defect in the initial distribution's fulfillment of egalitarian ideals, but rather because it would simply be impossible to engineer an egalitarian distribution such that the tendencies towards movements away from equality would be preempted indefinitely. This is not a point that I introduced, and is accepted by both right-libertarians like Nozick and egalitarians like Cohen. I didn't think it particularly necessary to defend it in depth because...well...very few people disagree with it. But I again apologize if I didn't articulate the point as clearly as I might have.
This is important in the context of our discussion of left-libertarianism because the reason that the left-libertarian wants the egalitarian distribution of resources in the first place is because she wants there to be equality without the kinds of coercive redistributions that I and others have claimed would be necessary to preserve equality, even with an egalitarian initial distribution. That the left-libertarians in question want this can be easily evidenced by Michael Otsuka's somewhat recent choice to name his excellent book Libertarianism Without Inequality, and I think you'd be rather hard pressed to find one of these people who would disagree with that characterization. Accordingly, my argument is that if it isn't true that an egalitarian initial distribution would ensure equality over the long term, then the left-libertarian argument would essentially just be an objection to the mere fact that there was not an egalitarian intial distribution -- that is, that a society did not have the right kind of history.
Joel's next point is:
...if [by "self-ownership"] you mean control of your body, then most communists would agree with that as a human right. If you mean it (as is often the cause) already-bundled with private property, then they would disagree, but only for the propertarian aspects. If "property" isn't legitimate in the first place, then denial of it can't be an infringement on self-ownership. Just like a person who dies can't claim that the still living "stole time" from him. The time wasn't his, he has no natural or moral claim to it, and he's just being an obstinate spook.
The problem here is that what communists think is entirely beside the point. A left-libertarian is not a communist, and vice-versa. So it may be true that one can save self-ownership by making it purely formal, as Joel suggests, but this option is not open to the left-libertarian, and so this point is a non-sequitar.
This applies to a number of Joel's next points, which I will not address here. The problem appears to be that Joel thinks that I was trying to engage with communists, when I simply was not. The article was about a very particular approach to political philosophy, and I think I made that very clear.
A point that I will address, however, stemmed from my claim that there would not be any objectively acceptable way to implement the left-libertarians' principles even if we accepted them at face value. Joel responded that all moral codes suffer from the same problem of non-objectivity. But I think that Joel misunderstood my point. I didn't mean that the left-libertarians' moral principles were not objectively true, and that this was a problem for them. If I had argued this, then Joel's criticism would be a good one.
But my argument was that even if we grant the left-libertarians their point, and accept that what one needs to do is perform an egalitarian distribution of resources that ensures that everyone gets their fair share, the left-libertarian would have no way to carry out such a plan. It simply doesn't make sense. Accordingly, they'd need to construct a somewhat ad hoc system to approximate their ideal. And this would be fine except for the fact that their approach to political philosophy is a rationalist one, and not an instrumentalist one. This, I think, creates a tension for their view, since on one hand they seem to want to set the conditions that would allow for an impartially legitimate society, but on the other hand it wouldn't be strictly possible to determine how to set those conditions. That seems like it's a problem to me.
I guess having gone through this, all I can say is that I don't really know what Joel was trying to accomplish here. He very rightly showed that my critique of left-libertarianism is not a very critique of communism, and basically tried to show that my points of contention with the former view can be avoided by taking a position incompatible with that view. And in some cases, I haven't disagreed. But I don't really[Hmm...I'm not sure what happened here, but it looks like the end of this post got chopped off. Oops!]