Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On the "Other" Kind of Left-Libertarianism

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.]


Please see Joel Davis' critique of this post, as well as my reply.


Anonymous said...

Recently I've begun leaning to the position of , which combines the land-value tax idea of Henry George with the idea of distribution of that money as a citizen's dividend. I lean at least in direction to the privatization of everything except for the zoning of land and the collection of that land's rent, which I think makes me close enough to a left-libertarian to comment here:

1)For egalitarian distribution, I don't want equal distribution of wealth, but of unearned earning power when possible. Unearned earning power comes from such things as one's parents' wealth, from one's geography, from the economy of one's region (such that working is worth more in a country with the means of production already built up), etc. There would still be inequality, if all that was shared, for one reason because some would work more than others, but also because some people have talents of higher value than others (the unearned DNA at play). Even language is unearned earning power, but it is equally shared already

2)"Coercive enforcement of use limits" translates as "zoning" to me, which government is capable of. As far as protecting future generations, a cap-and-trade on CO2emission is a measure I support, but I'm not sure what you meant about gold.

3)Geological locations are distinct because they are in fixed supply despite human effort, and they are part of the basis for productive activities, so they are unearned earning power.

4)The collected value of geological resources and the value of locations which would be collected with a land-value tax, can be distributed unequally in a dividend so as to give poor children and people in poorer countries the money to obtain means of production of their own. Some of the money would need be tracked (which a bank account can do easily) to only be spent for business investment. This could also be used to compensate disabled people.

Land could still be zoned for more conservative uses when the community government desired. I see letting people without much inheritance have access to land value similarly to letting a starving person in a woods have access to the food in a cabin except for not requiring compensation and not possibly being the fault of a bad decision. The taking of my money through taxation does not pain me as much as being poor with very little options, even with the tax system we have today

In the meantime of any left-libertarian idea reforming the current authority structure, I recommend to take comfort in your friends and your fantasies, making as much of an intentional community as you can

Danny said...

Hi there; thanks for stopping by!

On (1): First and foremost, I don't think you're a left-libertarian at all; you seem very much like a liberal egalitarian. What separates you from left-libertarianism is captured in your first point, in which you advocate the redistribution of "unearned" earning power. This is not an unheard of position, but is very much outside of the realm of libertarian thought, as it's unclear how one could coherently maintain that individuals are full self-owners if we viewed their unearned advantages as social resources. That's not a condemnation, of course; there are a lot more liberal egalitarians out there than left-libertarians, and the former position is arguably the far more consistent and coherent. But there's really no way that you could be a libertarian of any stripe with a stance like that. For a rebuttal to that position, by the way, you might be interested in Part 2 of David Schmidtz' Elements of Justice.

(2): On your second point, I agree that governments are capable of "zoning," as you call it. My point was that left-libertarians treat this issue in a very rationalistic way, as if there's some "natural" way to do it, but that's ridiculous if you think about it. Any egalitarian standard for the distribution of resources will underdetermine the way that resources should be distributed in critical ways.

I agree with your (3) entirely, but would point out that the concept of "unearned earning power" on its own is fundamentally irrelevant in thinking about a libertarian framework. It may be that there are other justifications for redistributing benefits gained from the use of nonhuman nature (as the Georgists argue), but the justification will not be that people have no legitimate claim to productivity that they did not earn. This addresses your (4) as well.

Joel Davis said...


I'd write more but my laptop battery is about out.

Danny said...

Hi Joel, and thanks for dropping by! I've posted a reply to your comments here. Please feel free to comment on that post as well!

Unknown said...

I'm with Anonymous above.

I'm notionally libertarian in outlook but think the intergenerational feedback effects make it totally unworkable, and that's what drives my leftism.

I accept the core weakness of doctrinaire libertarianism -- "all the freedom you can afford, and not one drop more" but desire the bottom-up and laissez faire positive attributes.

Churchill's pro-LVT speeches of 100 years ago, and
the general Geo-libertarian position lead me to the hope that doctrinaire libertarianism stripped of the rentierism in natural resources would be necessary and (perhaps!) sufficient for a superior social order.

IOW, I just tack on the "left-" part to dilute and adjust my libertarianism on points where I suspect it wouldn't actually work that well in contact with the real world of mostly very stupid people.

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