Consequentialism, Rights Theory

Eudaimonist Libertarianism

In his most recent post, Kevin Vallier argues that as potential moral foundations for libertarianism, “Utilitarianism is too consequence-sensitive and self-ownership is too consequence-insensitive.”

I agree with him, almost. (I think that utilitarianism is too consequence-sensitive and that most versions of self-ownership theory are too consequence-insensitive; but I think self-ownership itself escapes the charge if it is grounded in a consequence-sensitive way.) But before we plunge into the treacherous waters of public-reason contractualism — Kevin’s suggestion for a third approach that avoids “the Scylla of consequence over-sensitivity and the Charybdis of consequence-insensitivity” — I want to say a bit on behalf of a different third approach, the eudaimonistic virtue ethics of the Aristotelean (and more broadly Hellenic — I’m inclined to include Platonic and Stoic elements as well) tradition.

In an earlier post, Kevin considers the possibility that Aristotelean eudaimonism might constitute a third approach; but on his reading of “Aristotelian libertarians like Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl and our very own Roderick Long,” our view is that “a proper understanding of the virtue of justice entails complying with at least some general principle of non-aggression, a corollary of the self-ownership principle.” Hence Kevin concludes that eudaimonistic libertarianism simply amounts to another self-ownership view, and so “does not provide a third approach” after all.

I won’t speak for the Dougs, whose version of Aristotelean libertarianism I take to be significantly more consequentialist than mine. (They see libertarian rights as part of a “meta-normative framework” to safeguard human flourishing, whereas I see respect for rights as a constitutive part of human flourishing.) But one of the advantages of the eudaimonistic approach, as I understand it, is that it avoids both the excessive consequence-sensitivity of utilitarianism and the excessive consequence-insensitivity of deontology.

Central to most major schools of Hellenic thought is the principle of the unity of virtue. This is usually defined as the claim that one can’t have one virtue without having them all. (The doctrine comes in both a weak form, that one can’t have one virtue completely without having them all, and a strong form, that one can’t have one virtue to any degree without having them all. For the record, I defend the weak version but not the strong one.) But the claim that each virtue entails all the rest is better understood as a corollary of the real unity-of-virtue thesis, namely that the content of each virtue depends reciprocally on the content of all the other virtues. For example (to simplify somewhat), if courage is the virtue of responding appropriately to danger, and generosity is the virtue of responding appropriately to others’ needs, then when meeting other people’s needs is dangerous, there is no way to define what course of action generosity requires independently of defining what course of action courage requires, and vice versa. The final contents of the virtues are thus constructed out of their prima facie contents, subject to the constraint of mutual determination.

The upshot of all this, for present purposes, is that virtues with prima facie consequentialist content, like benevolence, stand in reciprocal determination with virtues with prima facie deontological content, like justice. Since the content of justice is partly determined by benevolence, justice will not be indifferent to good consequences. But on the other hand, since the content of benevolence is partly determined by justice, deontological considerations will play a role in determining what counts as a good consequence. Hence on a eudaimonist conception, justice will avoid both excessive consequence-sensitivity and excessive consequence-insensitivity.

I take the self-ownership principle to be a reasonable interpretation of justice’s prima facie deontological content; I also take it (on the basis of libertarian economic and social theory) to be on the whole reinforced, rather than moderated, by the consequentialist considerations emanating from some of the more result-oriented virtues. Hence while the self-ownership principle is not particularly consequence-sensitive in its own right, that is no objection when it is embedded in a eudaimonist context, because it has been grounded via a consequence-sensitive process of justification, and asking for further consequence-sensitivity would be double counting.

One final quibble: when Kevin says that “left-libertarians conjoin self-ownership with a principle of equal resource ownership,” it’s worth pointing out that this is only one (relatively recent) use of the term “left-libertarian”; there are other, older uses that do not call for equal resource ownership.

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  • Damien S.

    ‘One final quibble: when Kevin says that “left-libertarians conjoin
    self-ownership with a principle of equal resource ownership,” it’s worth
    pointing out that this is only one (relatively recent) use of the term
    “left-libertarian”; there are other, older uses that do not call for equal resource ownership.’

    Older?  What of Bakunin and Proudhon and Kropotkin?  I guess they were simply “libertarian” at the time, not “left-libertarian”, but I’ve assumed “left-libertarian” these days tended to refer to their various original forms of libertarianism and anarchism.  “Property is theft!” and all.

    • Unfortunately, the working definition of “left-libertarian” that’s been given at this site – usually by people who don’t identify as such – are far too specific (like “self-ownership + common resources”), and specific to pretty standard, American conceptions of libertarianism. I myself don’t identify as “left-libertarian” or “libertarian” anymore, because I’ve come to reject the bulk of the substance of “libertarian” ideology as it’s commonly understood in America. I’d just call myself a social anarchist.

      But semantics aside – even when I was a “left-libertarian”, something like “self-ownership + equal resource ownership” wouldn’t have done justice to my view. I didn’t even believe in self-ownership at all even then – I think it’s at best an unecessary concept, and at worst pure nonsense. And I wasn’t the only self-identifying “left-libertarian” who simply rejected the “self-ownership thesis”. I think it would be a much more productive exercize for the bloggers here to actually try to form a conception of “libertarianism” that *doesn’t* rely on any concept of “self-ownership” at all.

      • berserkrl

        Yes, the Wikipedia link identifies three flavours of left-libertarianism; you identify with one, I identify with another, and Kevin was talking about a third.  

        As for self-ownership, I resist abandoning the idea because ownership of X means the right to make the decisions about what to do with X.  So to deny self-owership is to deny that people have the right to make decisions about their own lives.

        • ” So to deny self-owership is to deny that people have the right to make decisions about their own lives”

          That seems mighty question begging to me. I mean, why do we need to make it about “ownership” to have some conception of people making decisions about their own lives? Why does one have to presume a framework of “ownership” as a starting point? In other conceptual schemes, “ownership” is simply not a prerequisite of “decision-making” in this sense. I don’t need to be a “private owner” of something to have a principle of decision-making.

          I don’t think I need to attach a notion of “ownership” to myself to believe in my own personal autonomy (or to reject the ownership claims of others over oneself for that matter; it seems like a rather limiting binary assumption to think “either I own myself or I’m subject to the authority of others”). So it’s baffling to me as to why it is necessary to speak of people as objects of ownership in the first place, and how we can really be talking about “ownership” at all in any commonly understood sense of the term.

          • The debatable premises (which I reject) that your argument seems to rely on, Roderick, seem to roughly be as follows:

            1. All rights are property rights; property right = liberty.
            2. In order to have “legitimate decision-making power” about something, one must be a property owner (specifically a “legitimate” one); without a specific right to property, there is no right to make decisions about anything – including one’s own actions.

            We (critics of market/propertarian libertarianism) tend to call notions like this “propertarianism” due to the reduction of everything to the terms or framework of property. Property is presupposed as a conceptual scheme of sorts.

          • berserkrl

            I believe you have an article on defending precisely this notion.

            I don’t recall it.  I have argued that the reason libertarianism accepts such strong property rights is that property rights are much harder to justify on libertarian grounds than on any other grounds, so only the strongest basis for such rights could pass the libertarian filter.

            In order to have “legitimate decision-making power” about something, one must be a property owner (specifically a “legitimate” one)

            Yes, but that’s just a terminological point; I take the second as a restatement of the first, not as some deeper basis.

            Property is presupposed as a conceptual scheme of sorts and is applied in a pretty reductionistic manner.

            How is it reductionistic?

            The problem with “self-ownership” is that it’s basically a buzzword embedded with a bunch of different concepts, all roled into one, such as: metaphysical human agency, free will, normative personal freedom, right, property, control. “Self-ownership” talk consistently conflates and switches back and forth between these connotations and areas. 

            Well, a lot of different people use the concept; I’m sure some use it in a  muddled manner, but I don’t see it as essentially muddled.  I don’t think most self-ownership theorists confuse it with free will, for example. 

            Your argument absolutely identifies property rights with the prerequisites for human agency and the legitimacy of decision-making power

            But it’s just a restatement, not a prerequisite.  Is H2O a “prerequisite” for water?

        • Anonymous

          Denying self ownership does not deny the position that people have the right to make decisions over their lives.

          You’re committing a simple fallacy (denying the antecedent.)

          • berserkrl

            I don’t see the fallacy.  Self-ownership just means the right to make decisions over one’s own life.  It’s just a handy restatement.  It’s not something deeper on which the right  to make decisions over one’s own life is based.

          • Don’t get too bent about it, this is part of a somewhat (to me) baffling set of arguments I may have publicly called “wankery” a few years ago — undoubtedly without due respect. The basis seems to me a linguistic confusion. Whereas we might all agree that one can “own”, say, a sonic screwdriver, not all humans agree that one person can “own” another — and neither side of that argument wants to be convinced that “other-ownership” is possible or permissible. But when we talk about “self-ownership”, we fall into a muddle. As far as I’ve seen, nobody who argues for “self-ownership” argues for it in the same sense as one might “own” a sonic screwdriver (and thereby, in whatever fashion, hypothecate, encumber or transfer it); rather, “self-ownership” refers to something that its advocates recognize as using the other sense of “own”, meaning “of mine own self”, and far more primally than any talk of mere property — and it is here that a linguistic confusion between “ownership” and “property” comes into play. Perhaps “ownness” would be a better word. The tetragrammaton, after all, is “I am that I am”, not “Me is my property”.

          • berserkrl

            Well, if to own something means to have the right to decide what happens to it, then I do think we own ourselves in the same sense that we own a screwdriver (sonic or otherwise).  It’s true that (on my view) we can alienate (sell or give away) the screwdriver and we can’t alienate ourselves, but I think that difference is grounded not in different senses of ownership but on the different natures of what’s owned (I can alienate the screwdriver from myself, but not me from myself, because I am me).

          • This is one of those issues that seem to be a major problem. I mean, I can definitely alienate all sorts of body parts from myself, so in what sense I cannot alienate myself?

            Is my kidney inalienable or alienable? If it is alienable, which it does seem to be, it apparently defeats the whole purpose of the distinction.. since I can make enforceable contracts involving alienable things, i.e., the kidney can be removed by force, if necessary.

            And what about the so-called “slavery contract”? If my contract is about my body (as in “I surrender my body to you, so that you may do as you please”), instead of about my “right to self-ownership” or w/e, then why is it not alienable?

            If I can make a contract about selling my kidney, why can’t I make a contract about selling my body?

            Sorry for being a little off-topic, but I’ve read your piece about inalienable rights a couple of years ago and doubts have been accumulating ever since.

          • djr

            Well, you can kill your neighbor, too, but it doesn’t follow that you have a right to kill your neighbor.  So what difference does it make that you can sell parts of your body or, conceivably, enter into a legally enforceable slavery contract?  Roderick’s point is presumably just that you can’t actually alienate yourself; I have some doubts about that, but it’s clear enough that your ability to alienate some parts of your body poses no problem for that thesis.

          • berserkrl

            If you did read my piece then you know my answer:  you can alienate a body part after it’s removed from you but not before.  And no specific performance for service contracts, only damages.

          • Well, you didn’t explicitly talk about “why I can alienate a body part only after it’s removed from me”.

            In your piece you said that I cannot alienate my *rights*, but I think that’s kind of missing the point. What I want to alienate is my specific body part, for example, not my rights.

            Saying that “my rights are inalienable” doesn’t address the question of why my body part is inalienable.

            And the justification you give in this topic (I cannot alienate myself because “I am me”) doesn’t seem to apply to a specific body part. And this makes me wonder whether it even applies to my whole body.

          • Anonymous

            That strikes me as a strong claim.

            I am not sure why one would accept that ‘having the right to make decisions over’ is equivalent to ownership, or vice versa.

            For example, stewardship and representation/authorization also give one ‘the right to make decisions over.’

            I could own my body.  I could represent it.  I could be a steward of it.  All very different things.

          • berserkrl

            Stewardship and representation are temporary, revocable permissions, not a final right.

          • Anonymous

            Further, there is a specific implication in your attempt to drawn an equivalence here – that anyone who does not believe in self-ownership does not, by logical consequence, believe in self-determination.  This is where playing at definitions becomes quite polemical

          • David Riesbeck

            Unless you’re willing to devolve into mere terminological quibbling, you should give us some good reasons to think that the concept of ownership or property that we use everyday (I own my car, you own stock in Coca-Cola, neither of us owns the lamp-post down the street) cannot be identified with the right to make decisions about what to do with something.  If your gripes are just lexical, then add a mental footnote to all of Roderick’s uses of “ownership” — tag them as “ownershipRod” — and get over it.  If you disagree with him in substance, you must think that the concept of ownership can’t be adequately understood as he proposes to understand it.  I’d love to hear an argument against it, but that argument has got to involve an alternative account of the concept.  And of course, even if some other account *is* preferable, it doesn’t follow that we don’t have rights of self-ownershipRod which ground other rights of ownershipRod. 

          • Anonymous

            You seem to have missed my point.

            Where did I take issue with what Rod said?  Rod never said that denying self ownership means denying people have control over their lives.  That’s what Berserk said.

            I never said ownership does not imply the right to make decisions about what to do with something.I said that ownership is not the only way in which one can have the right to make decisions about what to do with something.This is just a very simple point about logical implication as contrasted with logical equivalence.Clearly, if I own something I necessarily have a right to use it.

            But if I have a right to use something, I do not necessarily own it.

          • djr

            So long as we’re focusing on what the other one missed, you seem to have missed the rather obvious identity of ‘berserkrl’ with Roderick Long (that’s what the ‘rl’ stands for). 

            Nor am I accusing you of denying that ownership entails the right to make decisions about what to do with something.  Quite apart from the truth of BerserkRod’s identification of ownership of X with the right to make decisions about X, your “very simple point” is just a mistake.  Neither of your examples — representation and stewardship — shows that the identification is mistaken.  For in neither case does the person who “represents” or “stewards” X have full rights to make decisions about X.  BerserkRod’s claim is not that having a right to make *any* decision about X is identical to or entails ownership of X; it is, unless I misunderstand BerserkRod, that ownership of X is the right to make decisions about X full stop.  On this account we would expect that one could stand in other relations to people and things involving less expansive rights to make decisions about them; but those relations fall short of *ownership* precisely because there are some decisions that the subject cannot make about the object;do not own my children because I do not have the right to do whatever I please with them.  Not only is Rod’s account *compatible* with your alleged counter-examples; it seems to offer an illuminating *explanation* of how and why these cases differ from ownership. 

            So much for a “very simple point about logical implication.”

          • Anonymous

            Haha, quite right.  That’s amusing.  I did not know Berserkrl was the author.  Silly of me.

            Nonetheless, I really don’t see any good reason to run together autonomy and self-ownership/property-in-the-person.

            Look, there are two sides to my point.

            1. ‘The right to make decisions about one’s life’ is not ‘the exclusive and unlimited right to make decisions about one’s life.’  Authorization and stewardship are clearly forms of the first.  And authorization is a form of the second.  Unless, of course, self ownership is limited.  In which case not even self-ownerhsip is part of the second.  Rather, it would have to be exclusive and limited – which would make it like stewardship.  

            But let’s ignore that.  Fine, ownership is an exclusive and unlimited right to make decisions about one’s life.  But that doesn’t make ‘exclusive and unlimited right over’ equivalent to autonomy, or the only way to construe a  notion of  ‘having the right to make decisions about one’s life,’ which could be compatible with a conception that does not imply exclusive-and-unlimited-right-over (though I’m not even sure property rights do that.)

            2. The right to make decisions about one’s life is not necessarily only capable of being had through ownership.  Rights in general are not necessarily only capable of being had through ownership.   One could, for example, have a right in virtue of what one is rather than in virtue of what one owns.  It’s slight of tongue to swap possessing a quality with possessing a thing.  ‘1st son of the king’ is not a possession, and yet it granted prerogative.  

            Being is not owning.  And one could multiply the distinctions.  Possessing is not owning.  Being entitled is not owning.   Using is not owning.  And yet I could just as much be said to have rights in virtue of my possession-of, use-of, coincidence-with, identity-with, investiture-in, or entitlement-to my body (and so on).

            So go ahead and say, ‘self ownership implies having the right to make decisions about one’s life.’

            Just don’t say ‘if one has the right to make decisions about one’s life, one owns oneself.’

          • djr

            Sorry, man, but your whole response just begs the question when it doesn’t completely miss the point. You’re obviously working with some concept of ‘ownership’ that differs from Rod’s. In the absence of any argument in favor of your conception over his, you’re indulging either in fallacious argument or in semantic quibbling. I haven’t got time for either one, so ciao.

          • Anonymous

            It’s semantic quibbling that has a substantive point.  If you don’t want to listen to my opinion, you could take up literature on the subject:




            And really, my point initially was not so much any of the sketchy arguments I’ve made, but the simple fact that there is argument, and that defining that argument out of existence by saying ‘self-ownership’ simply is ‘having the right to make decisions over one’s life’ is rhetorically violent to all those who value autonomy but are critical of its being cached out in terms of property. 

  • berserkrl

    Yes, just as the Konkinite sense of “left-libertarian” is older than the Vallentyne/Steiner/Otsuka sense, so the Kropotkinite sense is older than both.  But the Krokoptkinites don’t use the term much any more.  

    The three senses are distinguished here:

    Incidentally, Proudhon, unlike Kropotkin, wasn’t opposed to private ownership.  He said “property is theft,” but he distinguished between legitimate and illegitimate forms of private ownership, calling one “possession” and the other “property.”

    • Kevin Vallier

      What term would you use to distinguish the left-libertarianism I referred to in my post and other versions? In a previous post, I used the term “philosophical left-libertarianism” but in the post you I decided to simply link to an exemplar of the view I was discussing.

      • berserkrl

        Well, all three are philosophical, I suppose; so “philosophical” isn’t much of a distinguisher.  Until terminological consensus emerges, saying “some left-libertarians” instead of “left-libertarians” would avoid attributing Vallentyne-Steiner views to the ALL cadre.

        • Kevin Vallier

          That’s why I didn’t use the term “philosophical left-libertarianism” again but I also don’t want to say “some left-libertarians” because that makes the group sound more uniform than it is. I mean, I don’t know how to put you in a group with Peter Vallentyne that is opposed to people like Walter Block, Robert Nozick, etc. You’re good at coining terms. Help us out! Or how about calling the Otsuka, Vallentyne, Steiner view “resource left-libertarianism” as opposed to “cultural” left-libertarianism or left-Rothbardianism or something. Maybe ALL-libertarianism vs. resource left-libertarianism. I don’t know!

          • berserkrl

            We could always go with “correct left-libertaranism” and “mistaken left-libertarianism.”

            Seriously, I’m not sure what terminology to use.  I don’t like “ALL-libertarianism” (though I do sometimes use it) because it seems circular to name the Alliance after the position and then name the position after the Alliance.  “Cultural left-libertarianism” makes our focus sound narrower than it is, and “left-Rothbardianism” is itself too narrow.  Most (though not all) ALL folks are either agorists or mutualists, so “agorist/mutualist left-libertarianism” is more accurate (though not perfectly so), but — to mix metaphors — it’s an ungainly mouthful.

            I sometimes call the Vallentyne/Steiner/Otsuka position “neo-Georgist” but that’s not perfectly accurate either.

            The Wikipedia page for left-libertarianism used to define the Vallentyne/Steiner/Otsuka position as “philosophical” left-libertarianism (as opposed to the ALL variety, which was “anti-corporate” left-libertarianism).  That was an annoyance, especially to the philosophers in ALL.  The current version of that page is quite good now (thanks in large part to Gary, I believe) but doesn’t offer much in the way of terminological advice.

          • The Chartier/Johnson book, Markets Not Capitalism, which I take to be sort of the definitive anthology of this species of left-libertarianism,  talks about “left-wing market anarchism.” 

            That’s a nice-sounding label. And I actually take it to be descriptive of most of the key players in the field – Chartier, Johnson, you, and Carson for instance. 
            But it makes “anarchism” a defining feature of the view. And I wonder whether it ought to be.  Seems to me that a lot of the main insights of Long-style-left-libertarianism can be taken on board by non-anarchists. But maybe you take the anarchism to flow directly enough from the other core insights to be considered an essential part of the body of thought?

            (Incidentally, I think “market-” is a good modifier for various species of libertarianism. So, for instance, market-libertarianism is, IMHO, a much better label than “right-libertarianism” for distinguishing between Nozickian views and Steinerian ones in contemporary philosophical discourse)

          • berserkrl

            I agree with you — though most ALL-type libertarians are anarchists, I’d be reluctant to make anarchism a defining feature of the view.

            I obviously also agree with you in preferring “market” to “right” as a prefix.  But while it does a decent job of ruling out Kropotkin et al, I’m not sure how good it is at ruling out Steiner and Vallentyne.  They’re by no means anti-market across the board.

      • Kevin, part of my objection to the way you’ve identified “left-libertarian” is that it identifies it with only one specific question or issue or concept – common ownership. There are a multitude of different layers and concepts within a given notion of “left-libertarian”, as well as between different notions, including quite a few that at least don’t directly have anything to do with “the property question”.

  • I should add: it seems like part of the reason that historical, social anarchism tends to be pretty much excluded or non-considered for the category “left-libertarianism” in these parts is that none of those thinkers really were working with the modern libertarian framework (including “self-ownership”; kropotkin, bakunin, and proudhon didn’t really have a “self-ownership thesis” of any kind). This is why the closest working definitions we get tend to refer to stuff that either is a lot more contemporary, stuff that comes from the discourse of American libertarianism as it currently exists, or attempts to re-read the individualist anarchists in contemporary libertarian terms (hence Roderick’s reference).

  • Perhaps my notion of “the good life” would be too consequence-sensitive for Roderick, but I definitely think a case can be made that “libertarianism” itself, for the most part, bumps into irreconcilable conflict with the ability of many people to “flourish”, and it gives plenty of ground to *vices* rather than virtues.

    For example, in whatever cases in which simply eliminating a currently existing government intervention would (at least initially) make a bunch of people worse off, that’s a tension between libertarianism and “human flourishing”. In such a case, the consequences of libertarianism create less liberty and diminished overall well-being.

    Or to the extent that the libertarian’s “property rights” constitutes a green light to engage in vice – because the propertarian is, in principle, commited to recognizing the “right” to be an asshole (in ways that may very well cause significant suffering in others) – then it can’t be so easily “synthesized” in some framework of “virtues”.

    I don’t think a coherant reconciliation or synthesis can be made between the absolutist or near-absolutist stances on property and markets and the state that tend to come packaged with libertarianism and the egalitarian intentions that “left-libertarians” (in Roderick’s sense) want to promote (or have the pretense of promoting). Because at the end of the day, if one is ultimately still ideologically commited to recognizing the “right” to, say, discriminate or segregate, or to restrict the ability of others to survive – then all of the “virtues” that one may very well sincerely believe in effectively become swallowed by the politics. It would seem that the only way in which a “synthesis” could be made would be to posit a theoretical (utopian) libertarian society in which the dominant culture itself thought like altruistic commies, thus simply not “excersizing” the negative side of the “rights”.

    • Aeon Skoble

      RE the objection you raise in the 3rd paragraph- you’re conflating the moral and the legal/political here.  Morally speaking, you’re correct that an alleged right to vice isn’t consistent with a framework  of virtues.  But it doesn’t follow from that that the political/legal order can allow a space for choices that some consider bad or that may indeed turn out to be bad.  Partly because of the role of choice or self-directedness in the development of one’s flourishing.   I’m not cultivating virtue if all my decisions are made for me.

      • I anticipated the objection of a dichotomy between the moral and the political. I’m essentially telling you that libertarian politics is amoral (and remains amoral even in a view like Roderick’s), and that’s a failure. My point is that, at a practical level, hardcore libertarianism must always allow its conception of “freedom” to trump “virtue” and “human flourishing”. The project of attaching egalitarian virtues to it may be noble, but if the framework itself largely remains intact, the effect is that the “virtues” only work as just that – noble intentions. They still have to take a back seat to the political sacred cows: property rights and anti-statism. If one maintains the fundamental “right” to consistently stomp all over all the virtues that are supposed to reinforce “freedom” in the first place, then the virtues remain at the level of personal sentiment, and aren’t truly integrated into the politics as some “unity”. They are an afterthought tacked on to it, but with no political weight – libertarianism remains compatible with all of the “vices” that may be destructive to our ability to be free and “flourishing” human beings. How does one create a “unity of virtue” between the unrestrained egoism and license of libertarianism property rights and the other-regarding “virtues” entailed in egalitarianism? One can’t – property rights always swallow the latter.

        • Anonymous

          On the other hand, the destruction of competitive property right, even by any of the competing standards presented in these blog posts, would certainly mean the end of material production worthy of supporting billions of people.  The market division of labor is necessary for flourishing– if part of flourishing is material well-being.

          • I’d highly doubt the notion that “material production” as such relies specifically on libertarian rights to exist. Considering that we largely do not live in a libertarian society, and large-scale material production does exist, the assertion seems baffling. But reading your last sentence, it seems you’re conflating “the division of labor” in general with “libertarian property rights”. I don’t think that makes much sense.  

          • Anonymous

            Healthy material production goes on in spite of the state’s theft, misallocation, intervention and playing favorites. The US state could not be as large a parasite as it is without something so nourishing to feed on. What market phenomena do exist carry the burden.

            It is true that there can be a forced division of labor– like e.g. slavery.  It is an inferior form of production, however.  Without unique property being exchanged, no real prices emerge by which to conduct economic calculation for evaluating the past and guessing the future demands of consumers. Slavery kills a large chunk of calculability. Then there are the obvious disincentives of production in the slave environment…  

            Philosophical anarchism of the 19th century often did not appreciate this necessity of libertarian property. Hence why Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism is a leap forward.

            I am in agreement that many self-identifying libertarians use the moniker to cover what is really liberal corporatism, light welfarism and statism.  E.g, look at the overwhelming support for “school-choice” that BHLs seem to have (a few posts back).

          • berserkrl

            Philosophical anarchism of the 19th century often did not appreciate this necessity of libertarian property. Hence why Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism is a leap forward. 

            In some respects yes, in some respects no.  I think many of the 19th-century individualist anarchists were more attuned than Rothbard was (though Rothbard was certainly more thus attuned than is the average libertarian thinker) to the recognition of the degree to which prevailing features of contemporary capitalism (such as the hierarchical firm, and the separation between labour and management) are the products of pro-plutocratic state intervention, and not something to be defended under the banner of free markets.

          • Anonymous

            Rothbard lectured citing Weinstein, Kolko, etc. In terms of the internal corporate relationship between labor and management you may have a point. I do not know Rothbard well enough to say.  Yet, still, management is not what characterizes the market’s uniqueness, but entrepreneurship.

            State interventions to cartelize, organize unions for corporate collusion, and generally dish out protections to favored players– obviously hurt the entrepreneurial function. The more smooth working the market– the more the artificial antagonism between labor and management goes away.

            Besides, under liberal corporatism the union management often side with the corporate management– who then work together with the state to screw the people (consumers and job seekers).

          • berserkrl

            Quite true.

        • Aeon Skoble

          Neo-Aristotelian libertarianism distinguishes liberty and license.  I don’t know you, so please be assured that I ask this question purely for information and not to be querulous: have you read Norms of Liberty?  Because your objections seem quite alien to anyone who finds the argument therein persuasive.

        • berserkrl

          What left-libertarians in my sense argue is that violations of libertarian property rights are one of the chief causes of the ability of assholes to screw up other people’s lives.

          • Aeon Skoble


  • Gordon Sollars

    “They see libertarian rights as part of a “meta-normative framework” to
    safeguard human flourishing, whereas I see respect for rights as a constitutive part of human flourishing.”

    Why can’t rights be both?  The two roles seems mutually re-enforcing.

    • I say they can be neither. There are plenty of contexts in which consistently applied libertarian “rights” does not “safegaurd human flourishing” so much as stifle human flourishing, and in constitutive terms you can have all the theoretical libertarian “rights” in the world and not flourish at all – you can be in immense suffering or simply die. Being excluded from the benefits of the community, while still being “free” to go elsewhere, or being “free” to beg, or still technically having a “right” to not arbitrarily be murdered, isn’t my idea of “flourishing”. “Flourishing” requires the practise of virtues that create tension with libertarianism – because absolute property rights and anti-statism don’t have anywhere near a perfect 1 to 1 ratio with “flourishing”.

      • Gordon Sollars

        There are two different arguments here.   You can think that *libertarian* rights are not the best way to promote human flourishing and still argue that some set of rights perform the roles of both “safeguarding” and “constituting”.  Roderick’s essay seems more about “what is the right way to think about rights” than about defending the particular content of a set of rights.

        As to the content, however, nothing like a “1 to 1 ratio” between libertarian rights and flourishing needs to be shown, as it could be case that no set of rights provides that ratio.  Furthermore, it could also be true that we would all be better off with only libertarian states and yet, given that we do not have only them, some “using of the state” does enhance personal freedom.  Being in “second best” situations is quite difficult.

      • berserkrl

        you can have all the theoretical libertarian “rights” in the world and not flourish at all – you can be in immense suffering or simply die

        True.  But if our arguments are right, you are far less likely to suffer these ills under a (genuine) libertarian system than under any other system.

    • I argue in my dissertation, particularly chapters 2 and 3, that rights are both normative (at the personal level of analysis: ethics) and metanormative (at the structural level of analysis: politics, economics, law).

      Similarly, there’s a divide among libertarians as to whether the right to liberty or the right to property is the most fundamental. I see them as being inseparable, but one might say that from the personal level of analysis the right to liberty is most fundamental and from the structural level of analysis the right to property is most fundamental.

      As for whether liberty is the highest political end, as classical liberals and libertarians tend to believe, I have to say no. In chapters 7 and 8 of my dissertation (published in Libertarian Papers), I argue that eudaimonia, not liberty, is the highest political end but that genuine politics presupposes liberty and proscribes aggression and the state. There I develop a nonstatist conception of politics as discourse and deliberation between equals (in authority [a la the Lockean state of nature]) in joint pursuit of eudaimonia.

  • Damien S.

    What also gets me is that libertarians talk about the dangers of regulatory capture and government distortion of the economy and such… and then want to protect all the ill-gotten gains from such by enshrining the existing property distribution.  I’ve asked how land titles get be legitimate, when they’re mostly traceable back to theft, but we really don’t need to go back that far to be troubling.  Thus why libertarianism strikes a lot of people as “loot the country, then declare property sacred and close the door to any countermeasures.”  Hayek talked about market rules being ‘fair’ and thus the outcomes being fair even if uneven, just as a fair game having winners and losers is fair (but we can choose whether to play such games), but I don’t recall him talking about making sure the starting position is fair…

    • Anonymous

      It is not possible to make starting positions equal– if that is what you mean by “fair”.  Further, given that the modern state has (and is) been the most responsible for injustice, and is indeed unjust by its very existence, how can you invest it with the adjudicating power to fix past wrongs?

      • I’m not sure the point of the notion of “starting position” is to actively try to make it perfectly “equal”, but to treat people equally irrespective of whatever their starting position is – which libertarian “rights” can’t seem to do at any practical level. Those who don’t already have some basic degree of power and privilege are unable to “practise” their libertarian “rights” in much of a meaningful way – they are effectively serfs in a libertarian society.

        • Anonymous

          Ok. I will entertain your notion for a moment. What is your solution for avoiding serfdom?

          • A completely different set of values.

          • Anonymous

            These values will translate into definite actions in effort to attain specific ends. If communal spirit is the goal, then that is fine. The market, which relies on unique property exchange, is not the end all be all of life.  But when individuals within a community want to feed, shelter, clothe, and find time to enjoy education, leisure, etc., how will they do it without defined property?  Even closed religious sects often have side businesses to keep it going.

            Aren’t humans the propertarian animal anyway?  If you deny individual property– won’t it just show up in the aggregate, probably in the hands of a defacto landlord? How will these new anti-propertarian values avoid tragedy of the commons?

            How will people holding your antiproperty values deal with individuals that want to hold private property and engage in free market transactions?

    • That’s because libertarian “rights” simply are not fair (to those without much of an ability to meaningfully excersize them, and to those who are negatively affected by others excerisizing them), and do not map well with a notion of societal well-being.

      Libertarianism is fundamentally naive about the relationship between “property rights” and freedom, and general human well-being. The moment that “respecting property rights” means that one must more or less passively accept their own suffering or effective constraints on one’s own freedom, it enters into *tension* with “human flourishing”. That’s the point at which I go “screw your libertarian rights”.

      • Damien S.

        The arbitrarily oppressive State is dead!  Long live the arbitrarily oppressive landlords! 🙂

        • berserkrl

          Left-libertarians (in my sense) have argued in detail that it is state power that upholds the power of landlords.

          • Damien S.

            There’s merit to that, but the anarcho-capitalist vision is generally one where landlords maintain all their existing rights somehow without that state support.

          • berserkrl

            True, most anarcho-capitalists expect (mistakenly, on my view) that landlord power will be undiminished (or even enhanced) under market anarchy.  But maintaining landlord power isn’t part of their program; i.e., if after the market anarchist revolution the power of landlords plummets, most anarcho-capitalists would say “oh, okay.”

    • berserkrl

      Damien S.,
      What also gets me is that libertarians talk about the dangers of regulatory capture and government distortion of the economy and such… and then want to protect all the ill-gotten gains from such by enshrining the existing property distribution.

      Well, depends which libertarians you have in mind.  Check out:
      Karl Hess’s Where Are the Specifics?;
      Rothbard’s Confiscation and the Homestead Principle,
      The Problem of Land Theft,
      Land Monopoly Past and Present,
      and Massacre at People’s Park;
      Gary Chartier’s Libertarians for Redistribution;
      and pretty much anything by Kevin Carson.
      I think it’s pretty clear that none of these libertarians are well described as seeking to “protect all the ill-gotten gains from such by enshrining the existing property distribution.”
      Heck, even Robert Nozick called for massive redistribution of existing property titles.

      • Damien S.

        Thanks for the links; interesting reading.  I’d seen Rothbard on land monopoly before — and had people tell me that everyone makes mistakes, when brought up.  (I also have to note his quaintly referring to North America as “virgin land”.)

        I’d note that being anti-IP, pro-union, and pro- Boeing workers homesteading Boeing factories if Boeing got half its money from the state, are not what most people thinking of as libertarian these days, including I’d say most self-styled libertarians.  Especially the ones Ron Paul is representing or bringing in.  There’s perhaps more common ground between those writers and radical leftists than there is between those writers and the people who invoke their names today.

        • berserkrl

          Yup, that’s why the Alliance of the Libertarian Left exists.  We’re trying to build a better libertarianism.

      • Anonymous

        Could I please have the cite where Nozick calls for “massive redistribution of exisiting property titles.” Thanks.

        • berserkrl

          Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 230-231.

          • Anonymous

            Interesting: my copy of ASU doesn’r reflect Nozick “calling for” (your words) massive redistribution of property titles. I guess we are looking at different editions. My copy reflects a far more conditional, nuanced view about what might be required by way of rectification “in the short run” assuming that a particular society had a particular sort of history, etc. 

          • berserkrl

            Well, of course it’s conditional — doubly so, since a) rectification comes into play only on condition of an unjust history, and b) the choice of a particular rectification scheme is conditional on the nature of the unjust history involved (and our knowledge of it).  But look at his examples:  the tentativeness is not about whether a lot of rectification is needed, but rather about whether it will follow the traceable history of individual property titles à la Rothbard, or instead just presume that certain generally richer groups should be forced to pay certain generally poorer groups.

            As for it’s being “short run,” that’s not a synonym for it being slight in amount.  Any rectification scheme like that had better be done as quickly as possible, both for deontological and for consequentialist reasons, I should think.

          • Anonymous

            Thanks for the reply. Several points in response:

            First, since Nozick never expressly discusses the application of rectification to the U.S., but only to hypothetical cases, the examples of possible remedies that he suggests (e.g. the difference principle) would only be just if the historical conditions he posits are met. It is quite plausible to deny that the U.S. satisfies such conditions.

            Second, he is careful to note that the question of rectification is “very complex,” and that the implementation of any solution should await the development of a fully worked out theory. For obvious reasons, many philosophers believe that the moral force of the case for rectification diminishes with each passing generation. It is far less likely that I suffered harm as a result of an injustice done to my great, great, grandfather, than with respect to a comparable wrong done to my father. 

            Third, the “in the short run” language occurs in the following context: “past injustices might be so great as to make necessary in the short run a more extensive state” (my emphasis). I believe he is talking about something like Great Society programs. I see no indication he has anything in mind like “massive redistribution of property titles.”

            Finally, he suggests in another section (p.158) that some wealthy parties would be exempt from rectification if they did not benefit from any past injustice. He gives Henry Ford as a possible example, i.e. if both victims and victimisers bought his cars, he did not gain from the harm done to the victims.  

            In short, I believe it is a substantial overstatement to say that “Nozick calls for the massive redistribution of property titles.”


          • berserkrl

            On pp. 152-153, Nozick tells us how he expects the principle of rectification to operate:

            “This principle uses historical information about previous situations and injustices done in them (as defined by the first two principles of justice and rights against interference), and information about the actual course of events that flowed from these injustices, until the present, and it yields a description (or descriptions) of holdings in  the society. The principle of rectification presumably will make use of its best estimate of subjunctive information about what would have occurred (or a probability distribution over what might have occurred, using the expected value) if the injustice had not taken place. If the actual description of holdings turns out not to be one of the descriptions yielded by the principle, then one of the descriptions yielded must be  realized. … If the principle of rectification of violations of the first two principles yields more than one description of holdings, then some choice must be made as to which of these is to be realized. Perhaps the sort of considerations about distributive justice and equality that I argue against play a legitimate role in this subsidiary choice.”

            How on earth could this fail to result in massive redistribution of property titles?

          • Anonymous

            If you think that the passage you just quoted, when read with the points/quotations  I raised above, implies a “call for massive redsitribution of titles,” then so be it. I don’t see your logic at all, but at this point I will just invite those interested to read the relevant portions for themnselves and make up their own minds.

          • What if we replace “calls for massive redistribution of titles” with “explicitly endorses a moral principle which, combined with reasonably uncontroversial beliefs about the unjust origins of currently existing titles, implies that a massive redistribution of titles is morally obligatory”? Not quite as catchy, but I think it captures the spirit of Roderick’s point, which I take to be basically correct.
            [Loren Lomasky, incidentally, develops this idea in his “Libertarianism at Twin Harvard” article in Social Philosophy and Policy”

          • Anonymous

            Well, I respectfully dissent from your reformulation, for the reasons outlined above.

          • Can you explain why you think it is plausible that property titles in the US do not meet the conditions Nozick sets out? Do you think that current property titles do not have a great deal of injustice in their history, on a libertarian understanding of injustice?

          • Anonymous

            Beacuse most of our population consists of the descendants of relatively recent immigrants who were not responsible for slavery or the mistreatment of the native americans, and to redistribute from them would violate Nozick’s notion of side constraints, which precludes using innocent persons as a means of achieving “social justice” by rectification or otherwise.

          • I know this is the blogosphere, and so we’re accustomed to jumping right to slavery the minute the subject of historical injustice comes up. But surely there are other examples of injustice – especially for a libertarian! – in US history.

            And even in the case of slavery, why not follow Rothbard’s suggestion of making reparation from land holdings of the US government? Or from identifiable descendants of slave holders? I realize the issue is complex, and that tracing the effects of injustices can be complicated. But surely that’s no excuse for throwing up one’s hands and giving up?

          • berserkrl

            The receiver of stolen property does not necessarily have to be morally culpable in order to be legitimately deprived of the property, at least on Nozick’s theory.  (And likewise Rothbard’s, though not Narveson’s.)  If I steal your watch and give it to my unsuspecting nephew, you still have a right to get the watch back.  (And my nephew has a claim to damages — but against me.)

  • Anonymous

    I think Jan Lester’s book, Escape From Leviathan, is a good example of (in his words) “deontological consequentialism.” He argues very well that we do have “natural rights”, but we must take heed of the consequences for “want sastisfaction” that will result from the political order we choose.  

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