Rights Theory, Social Justice

Libertarian Arguments from Slavery: Caplan as Exemplar

A slavery argument for libertarianism holds that some non-libertarian property scheme permits actions that bear strong moral analogies to slavery. Since slavery is bad, the property scheme is bad.

A large majority of us BHLers aren’t much fond slavery arguments for libertarianism. Our glorious DJ MZ has said as much before.

Now enter our blog’s friend and sparring partner, Bryan Caplan. To raise some questions about the BHL project, he constructs a slavery case, the case of Able Abel:

Suppose there are ten people on a desert island.  One, named Able Abel, is extremely able.  With a hard day’s work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island.  Eight islanders are marginally able.  With a hard day’s work, each can produce enough to feed one person.  The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable.  Harry can’t produce any food at all.

Bryan then asks a number of questions, such as whether the bottom nine have the right to tax Abel to support themselves. He even raises Nozick’s famous question: if we can tax people to provide for welfare, why can’t we force them to work for it? Bryan puts it this way:

Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?

In this case, Bryan concludes that Able is “clearly” a slave. And he concludes that Jason Brennan (whose post he was criticizing) can’t be right to hold that if capitalism were bad for the poor that he would support significant redistribution. After all, suppose that private property rights were bad for the islanders; they wouldn’t have the right to enslave Abel, right?

Now in my recent post on the concept and conceptions of social justice, I offered a reply to Bryan. My intention was to diffuse the force of his case against the conception of social justice Jason outlined. Here’s what I said:

A conception of social justice helps to specify what counts as the fruits of one’s labor in a massive system of social cooperation which depends on a vast range of conventional rules. That’s why Bryan’s testing social justice against micro examples is problematic, because it masks indeterminacy in macro-level social norms that we want a standard of social justice to evaluate. Consider the many “incidents” of property rights, such as whether homesteading land means that you own the air miles above your plot. In Bryan’s case, disputes over the “height” of our property don’t matter. But in our complex society, such disputes matter a lot because the efficiency of airline travel depends on how they are resolved. A conception of social justice can help us determinate what system of efficient property rights can be morally justified in this case of indeterminacy.

Bryan was not impressed. He reconstructs this paragraph in argumentative form as follows:

1. There are many questions where property rights aren’t – and perhaps never will – be clear.

2. Therefore, it’s OK to take stuff from the able rich without their consent and give it to the not-so-able not-so-rich.

From what I can tell, I never defended (2). I’m not sure what part of the post led Bryan to think otherwise. But instead of bickering, let me draw a broader moral about libertarian slavery arguments by extending my original point.

In an extended social order, people disagree about the scope and nature of property rights. These disagreements are not just moral and philosophical. They are often boring and concrete: property lines, torts, etc. The political philosopher’s question is this: given that we disagree about how to define and distribute property, what could justify a particular scheme of property rights? Specifically, what considerations might we offer to show that each person has reason to accept a system of general rules and practices that govern property rights claims?

Bryan’s case of Able Abel assumes a background of property norms (norms that may well be justified). Specifically, he draws on the simple, plausible Lockean intuition that people can acquire property through mixing their labor with unowned stuff and that they can legitimately transfer the fruit of their labor to others via free choice. To take Abel’s property is to steal from him (duh). And to make him work, day in and day out, to provide you with goods is to enslave him (obvi).

So if the desert island’s property norms are justified, then Bryan is right: Abel is a kind of slave.

But wait. Bryan is right only if the desert island’s property norms are justified. That means to figure out whether Bryan is right, we must ask whether the desert island’s property norms are justified. Surely that question must be answered before we can assess Bryan’s claim that redistribution is on par with slavery.

That was my point: claims of social justice must be assessed first. Bryan’s slavery judgments depend on social justice judgments.*

In defending this claim, I in no way deny that Bryan may be right that Abel is a slave. After all, the correct conception of social justice might very well vindicate Bryan’s claim. In fact, in many cases, I think it will!

That aside, I hope that we can now see the hazard of hard libertarian arguments from slavery. In an important sense, they beg the question against the advocate of social justice.

Let me end by quoting one of the great living libertarian political philosophers, Loren Lomasky, making basically the same point:

“It seems impossible to frame acceptable principles for the allocation of property rights by reference to the standard of noninterference. That is because what will count as interference is itself a function of rights to property and so cannot noncircularly be employed to establish those rights” (Persons, Rights and the Moral Community133).

* I don’t mean to deny that any and all slavery judgments are dependent on social justice claims. Of course, some slavery judgments can feed into determining what counts as socially just. No chattel slaves, for one.

  • Séan Llew

    Interesting. In yet another scheme, Able is not a slave: he is their King.

  • Séan Llew

    It’s an easy strategy. All he needs is for 5 single unit producers to join him. He can then control the output of resources according to his particular moral stance. Seems to me a far more likely situation in this analogy than him agreeing to just be their bitch.  I realize this point has little to do with your point posting, but, hey I am at least Libertarian enough not to let that fact control my discourse.

    • Nothing to apologize for – you have a valid point in the sense that Caplan’s thought experiment is strangely framed in a way that (1) simply assumes this lone individual to be vastly naturally superior, and surely not at all in some way dependent on the rest of those peons over there and (2) ignores the possibility that Able’s position of economic power can be used as leverage to produce something we could arguably call “coercion”. Caplan’s assumptions are elitist and anti-egalitarian. No surprise.

      How nice it is for Caplan to present the (dubiously assumed) natural elite as the ones who are prone to be enslaves.

      • Aeon Skoble

        No, the point is that what’s true for Able Abel is true for everyone.  Property rights are even more vital as a protection for the weak than they are for the strong.  Indeed, I would think it’s right in line with BHL-ish intuitions that one reason to favor a robust conception of strong property rights is that it benefits the least well off.  See De Soto’s excellent book “The Mystery of Capital,” or my much more superficial video “Property Rights are the Little Guy’s Best Friend.”

        • Aeon Skoble

          Above post edited to include links.

        • I believe your response is a red herring.

          It’s quite explicit that Caplan’s narrative is focusing on the “property rights” of the lone, strong, naturally superior individual – as against the encroachment of those who are deemed to simply be naturally less fortunate by virtue of insufficient productive capacity. This whole narrative about “the productive”, which curiously always goes back to elitism, is problematic. This is *not* about benefiting the “least well off” – it’s about demonizing them while glorifying “the producers”.

          Caplan is one of the last people who could be seriously seen as having a bleeding heart.

          • Aeon Skoble

            Not a red herring.  I’ll let de Soto do the heavy lifting here; systems of weak property rights make things worse for the little guy, Leninist rhetoric notwithstanding. See also Roderick’s similar point below.

          • A system of “strong property rights”, we when are explicitly being given a scenario or picture of the world in which “the strong few” are the ones who can meaningfully enjoy them (and in which any attempt by the rabble to assert their interests in conditions of significant inequality is characterized a priori as essentially an assault on “the producers”) is a system of privilege.

            I don’t think Roderick would entirely agree with your position, insofar as it presumes an elitist world-picture and an implicit “vulgar libertarian” stance. Caplan, in the piece, is explicitly *not* concerned with benefiting the least well off as much as he is assuming their natural inferiority and justifying their socio-economic position.

          • Damien S.

            Stronger property rights are better than weak ones, but that doesn’t mean absolutely strong property rights are better than moderately strong ones.  Especially if absolute rights interfere with the provision of public goods which *also* make things better for the little guy.

          • Isn’t it also almost trivially true that the amount of benefit you receive from strong property rights is going to be proportional to the amount of property you actually own? So If I’m poor, it may be true that I benefit from property rights. But Mark Zuckerberg surely benefits a hell of a lot more.

  • Regarding the Abel scenarios, the Supreme Court has (though somewhat cryptically) already settled the issue in post-Civil War income tax cases. In accordance with the Lockean proviso, the bottom nine only have a right to tax Abel if he will cause waste or spoilage of natural resources, or if he somehow figures out how to monopolize a resource. 

    So, if he catches a fish or two, Abel is under no legal obligation to share (though he may have a moral one if people are starving), and no one has the right to tell him how many hours he must work. But if Abel catches a whale he has no legal right to let portions of the whale rot while the island starves.

    However, the bottom nine have substantially more power to tax Abel if he employs the labor of others to help him catch fish. (In modern-day terms Abel will need to get an employer identification number from the IRS as soon as he begins controlling the labor of others.)

  • j r

    Please excise the sweeping generalization, but the fundamental problem with this conversation is that it assumes the hard libertarian premise that paying taxes is a burden.  In our present economy, paying taxes is a burden like the maintenance costs on a Porsche are a burden.  Sure, it would be nice to find a mechanic that isn’t ripping you off; nonetheless, it’s a rather pleasant burden to have and you’re not going to trade the 911 in for a Honda anytime soon.

    The idea that the poor are getting some sort of free ride, while the rich are subsidizing everything is an idea that can only survive in an internet debate or at a Tea Party rally.  It is as equally absurd as the opposite progressive notion that all rich people are vampires living off the blood of the toiling classes.  The truth is that we have is a really complicated system of middle class transfers, where it’s almost impossible for the average person, upon his or her death bed, to make an accurate assessment of whether they took more or contributed more to the rest of society.  And that is the point.  People like to keep score to some extent, but not really.  The assistant sits at a desk, the manager gets an office, and the director gets a bigger office.  At the same time, it’s taboo to speak about salaries.  We want to know roughly where we are in the pecking order, but not at too precise a level.

    Taxes are not ‘taking from the productive and giving to the unproductive.’  Taxes are more like the lottery or an endless rounds of the credit card game at lunch.  Every once in a while someone cashes out big time, but for the most part we’re just taking turns paying the tab.

    • berserkrl

      The idea that the poor are getting some sort of free ride

      The libertarian objection to taxation is not a defense of the rich against the poor.  After all, under our system the rich are the chief beneficiaries of taxation and the poor are the chief victims.   Once you include all effects, direct and indirect, the chief direction of redistribution in our society is upward, not downward. 

  • Damien S.

    “Taxation is slavery” is complete bullshit given modern taxes, far more so than “taxation is theft”; it doesn’t even pass the smell test.  What’s slavery?  Forced labor.  Who’s forced to labor here?  No one.  If you want to be an idle bum, no one’s going come and whip you to do anything.  If you do choose to work, people will come  and take a share… but income tax proper has an exemption of more than 10x the historical income; until you’re making over $8000 I think, no tax.  Payroll/self-employment tax, yes… but that goes to Medicare and Social Security, which you’ll get in return if you live long enough.  And you’re still not forced to work.

    Property tax is tied up with the nature and origins of property.  You can think of it as theft, or social rent, or defense/road fees, but it’s not slavery.  Especially if you can pay tax out of  own rent.

    Sales tax… more intrusive into even low-income transactions, but still not forced labor.

    “He even raises Nozick’s famous question: if we can tax people to provide for welfare, why can’t we force them to work for it”

    Hey, maybe because taxation isn’t slavery.

    • berserkrl

      But if I take the products of your labour after you’ve produced them, then I have, by means of force, retroactively made it the case that you were working for me rather than for yourself.  How is that not analogous to forced labour?

      And if you want to be really strict about “forced to work” — well, slaves aren’t forced to work either.  They always have the option of not working, and instead taking the whipping/starvation/whatever that ensues.

      Which step of Nozick’s Tale of the Slave do you stop at?

      • j r

        A film of a train entering a tunnel is analogous to sexual intercourse, but I can assure you that they are quite different phenomena.

      • Heretic_966

        “But if I take the products of your labour after you’ve produced them,
        then I have, by means of force, retroactively made it the case that you
        were working for me rather than for yourself.  How is that not analogous
        to forced labour?”

        Well, the main difference appears to be this: you knew that the products of your labour would be taken (since taxation is predictable you can include it in your future plans), so you could have declined to labour in the first place. The slave doesn’t have that option.

        Of course, there are some taxes – like wealth taxes, for example, or land taxes – that a worker could not have included in her plans.

        “And if you want to be really strict about “forced to work” — well, slaves aren’t forced to work either.  They always have the option of not working, and instead taking the whipping/starvation/whatever that ensues.”

        They are forced in the sense of being compelled by another human being. People have to work to survive, but that is because of their biological needs, not the threat of external voilence.

      • Damien S.

        Is that supposed to be a good argument?  An example of the sorites paradox?  Starting at slavery, making a sequence of small changes, and claiming triumphantly that the final step must be slavery, despite the huge differences between the endpoints?  Like asking when a pile of sand becomes a heap, or blue become green, or a chimp a human.

        It’s not even a very good sorites.  At step 4 he jumps clear out of slavery into serfdom, at least in conventional language.

        Thanks for giving me a reason not to take Nozick seriously!

        • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

          Damien,
          I don’t think you should dismiss Nozick’s argument until you understand it better than you seem to. He is not claiming that slavery and living in a liberal democracy are the same, or morally equivalent. His point is that they are wrong for the same reaon, i.e. they trample on the right of autonomous agents  to decide things for themselves. Slavery is just a much more eggregious example of this impermissible coercion.

          Consider the following example. A bartender deliberately shortchanges a patron out of $1, counting on the customer’s inebriation to disguise the theft. This behavior is wrong for obvious moral reasons. Now consider an investment scam artist who cheats a person out of $1 million, constituing their entire life savings, taking advantage of his victim’s lack of financial knowledge.

          These acts are wrong on the same moral principle, even if one act is much worse than the other.  If you think you have a refutation of Nozick’s argument, let’s hear it.

          • Joe J Grimm

            Scamming me for $1 from me and stealing all of my money are wrong for different reasons.

             The case of the single dollar is not even clearly wrong, since I am not clearly harmed if I never notice the loss. The case of bankrupting me is wrong because it destroys my ability to provide for my material needs and puts me in severe, possibly fatal, distress.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Well, OK, gee…how about rounding up the $1 in my example to whatever the smallest amount is that qualifies in your mind as a “clear wrong,” and then comparing it to the $1 million scam. Does that help you see the point? 

          • Joe J Grimm

            Theft for a little or theft for a lot are both wrong because they violate natural property rights. But theft for a lot is wrong for an additional reason: it causes the victim hardship and suffering. Thus robbing me of all of my money is wrong for an additional, and different, reason than robbing me of a trivial amount (can we agree that a penny is trivial?)

    • Martin Brock

      You don’t get Social Security back if you live long enough. If you pay FICA taxes now, you owe benefits to current beneficiaries, and if you live long enough (and if the program persists long enough), future FICA taxpayers will owe benefits to you. This description of the system is not only more accurate than yours as a practical matter. It is also more consistent with the law as interpreted by courts.

      Comparing Social Security taxes to “investment” and benefits to “return on investment” is Orwellian nonsense. The payroll tax is a direct, flat tax on labor, even excluding other categories of income like dividends and capital gains, and the revenue from this tax flows directly to beneficiaries. It doesn’t purchase any future production, quite the opposite. Consumption of the unproductive elderly is the purest form of consumption.

      The investments yielding Social Security benefits are investments in the labor taxed. The people making these investments are not FICA taxpayers, and the investments do not entitle the investors to any Social Security benefits. The primary investors in this regard are parents.

      State socialists add “public schools”, but students educated in public schools later pay taxes supporting public schools. Children supported by parents (and other guardians of course) do not later pay taxes supporting their parents. They pay taxes supporting older people generally, including older people who never supported children.

      • “The payroll tax is a direct, flat tax on labor . . . ”

        For libertarians interested in self-ownership (i.e., in having their labor recognized as personal property, not income), it’s important to understand that the payroll taxes falling on employee wages (federal withholding, Social Security, and Medicare income taxes) are not direct taxes on labor. 

        If they were, they would be unconstitutional because not apportioned among the states, or proportional to a given class of property (i.e., they’d be in violation of the Direct Tax Clauses).

        As much as the taxes appear to be falling directly on wages, they are indirect on wages.  This is because the real target of the tax is something else, so the effect on labor is deemed to be indirect, and therefore Constitutional because indirect taxes only need to be “uniform throughout the states.”

        • Martin Brock

          Thanks for the newspeak lesson, Rick, but I thought the 16th amendment superseded the Direct Tax clause anyway.

          • Martin, that’s the great myth I’ve been trying to dispel for decades. The federal withholding, Social Security, and Medicare income taxes on wages don’t even need support from the 16th Amendment. 

            Regarding the Direct Tax Clauses, the 16th Amendment’s sole purpose was merely to removed doubt about taxes on one category of income taxes, those derived from property sources (which our current payrolls taxes are not), and whether these kinds of income taxes were causing a direct tax on property. 

            For example, after the 16th it becomes Constitutionally clear that: taxes on rental income are not direct taxes on real estate, taxes on interest or dividend income are not direct taxes on capital, taxes on income from hiring labor are not direct taxes on labor, taxes on capital gains are not direct taxes on capital or real estate, etc.

          • Martin Brock

            So what would be a direct tax on my labor? Cutting off my hands and selling them for dog food?

          • To levy a real Constitutional direct tax on your labor, the federal government needs to apportion liability for the tax among the 50 states and let the states collect the tax for them.

            This should make it apparent why this kind of tax is not appealing and unlikely to be levied, and why indirect taxes are much preferred.

  • Hmm.  Caplan clearly loves him som Ayn Rand.  Because, you know, just like in his scenario Steve Forbes, Paris Hilton, Prince Charles, Tori Spelling, etc. are always the Able Ables and their clerks, assistants, brokers, plant operators, reporters, researchers, resource managers, publicists, doctors, lawyers, more lawyers, even more lawyers, and of course lobbyists, let alone consumers of their products contribute nothing, zero, nada at all.  Nope. Everyone else except that Able Able 1% are useless parasites who should be sitting around wishing droit du seigneur would come back into fashion so they could selfishly improve their own gene lines by robbing the 1% of their precious bodily fluids.

    At least Caplan’s consistent: the poor can’t afford to pay him as much to glamorize them as the wealthy can.  So he doesn’t.

    figleaf

    • Well, at least there’s one commentator besides myself who clearly sees (or isn’t trying to handwave away) that Caplan’s whole thought experiment is predicated on anti-egalitarian elitism, and by extension, a sense of classism.

  • Joe J Grimm

    It is wrong for Harry to starve when he could be fed, also Harry is justified in securing the necessities of his survival. It is therefore wrong for Abel to refuse Harry food and if he does Harry is justified in claiming some of it as his own. The other 8 are obliged to support justice, and so must act to ensure that Abel shares his food with Harry, to the extent that this is not possible they ought to share their food with Harry as well.

    If Abel does not actually have a surplus store of fish then he has no special obligation. The claim that Abel is able to haul in 10x as much fish as I am is not
    definitively knowable. In the past he has done so, but maybe those
    conditions have changed. We also don’t know what sort of physical risk
    Abel takes on to do this, maybe he fishes in a very dangerous area and I
    avoid that region, so far he has been lucky but that doesn’t mean that
    if compelled to risk again he will win again.

    I also submit that “slave” is not the correct term for the person who works the least and has the most. Likewise, “master” is not the correct term for the person who works the most and has the least. There are forms of re-distribution that would enslave Abel, but there are also many that would not.

    In response to Nozick’s taxation vs. slavery I submit the following distinction:

    To resist taxation requires coercion. Suppose that Abel has a month’s worth of salt fish stored up and I decide I want some. I tell Abel that I’m going to walk into his shed and get a snack. If Abel wants to stop me he has to use coercion against me.

    On the other hand, to demand labor requires coercion. I Abel had no store of salt fish and I wanted a snack and told Abel to get me one and he refused then I would need to coerce him in some way.

    Lastly, I have a question about how others understand non-violent coercion:

    Suppose that rather than raid Abel’s house for food the other 9 tell him
    that until he feeds Henry they will not acknowledge him, they will shun
    him. There is neither physical violence nor the threat of physical
    violence, but I would call this coercive.

    I don’t think that shunning, or an coercion, against Abel would be justified until he had acted to physically block Harry from accessing food; at which point Harry’s need to defend his life would permit the use of physical and social force to acquire food.

  • berserkrl

    A large majority of us BHLers aren’t much fond slavery arguments for libertarianism.

    As one of the minority, I think it’s a tremendous mistake to give up the slavery argument. 
    It’s of a piece with the tendency of neo-Rawlsian libertarians to blunt the radical edge of social justice by abandoning causal/agential considerations in favour of purely distributional ones.

    A conception of social justice helps to specify what counts as the fruits of one’s labor in a
    massive system of social cooperation which depends on a vast range of conventional rules.

    This is very similar to Kropotkin’s argument against private property — all products depend on the input of society as a whole.  But I don’t think it works — either to establish Kropotkin’s conclusion or to establish Kevin’s.

    On a Lockean theory, rights to external property are analogous to rights to the matter composing one’s body; in both cases, one acquires title to previously unowned material
    by incorporating it into one’s projects. 

    So what about my arm?  Do I have a right to it? The particles that compose it are ones I came by via a “massive system of social cooperation which depends on a vast range of conventional rules.”  It is thanks to the details of that system that I am able to earn the money to buy food, or obtain the tools to grow my own food, etc.  So in one sense (though not the sense that anyone actually intends in using that phrase, I think) my arm is not the fruit of my labour alone, because a social system of cooperation explains how I came by it.

    But it would be grotesque to conclude that society owns my arm, or that society is entitled to decide whether I own my arm or to what extent.  To conclude otherwise would be to sanction — well, slavery.

    • But Roderick, the notion of a relation to external things is *not* analogous to what is an *internal relation* or at best a phenomenological sense of selfhood (which is the closest to a coherant definition of “self-ownership” that I’ve ever seen – coming from Shawn Wilbur).

      That’s part of why the libertarian definition of “self-ownership” tends to be hopelessly confused – applying an already formed notion about external property to the self, and then claiming that the self in this sense is actually the “foundation” for external property. Then adding the confusion between what would seem to be a *metaphysical* meaning for “self-ownership” (“I inherently own my body due to my nature as a human”) with a *moral-political* meaning (“I have the right to own my body”) that is at best just a catch-phrase for a basic intuition, shared by many non-libertarians, that other people do not rightfully own you.

      And I’d take issue – even offense – at the notion that one requires a “title” to oneself. I’d simply argue that you can reject anyone else’s authority claims over you without making a positive assertion of authority over yourself – you simply place the burden of proof on authority claims – making the “self-ownership” thesis unnecessary for a norm of liberty. In other words, you don’t need to claim to own yourself to reject that others own you.

    • Kevin Vallier

      “This is very similar to Kropotkin’s argument against private property —
      all products depend on the input of society as a whole.  But I don’t
      think it works — either to establish Kropotkin’s conclusion or to
      establish Kevin’s.”

      I can’t see why you think that my point about social justice assumes that all products depend on the input of society as a whole. I’m talking about what claims people have reason to recognize as binding on their conduct and will. I’m simply drawing from Rousseau and Kant who thought that the justification for a system of private property requires a justification for the recognition of morally valid property rights claims. Moral and political claims rest on facts about what persons have reason to recognize in the conduct and will of others.

      After mulling over our differences over the last year or so, I can’t help but wonder if our deep difference is this: on the neo-Rawlsian view, normative claims are established via a system of reciprocal recognition. In this way, we (or at least I) follow continental political philosophers like Rousseau, Kant and Hegel and (in my particular view) on British Hegelians like Green and Bosanquet. But you seem to hold that the normativity of property rights claims depends solely on whether they meet some mind-independent standard.

      But I know you. And I know (a lot of) your work. And I know that you repeatedly deny that normative claims can be established via mind-independent facts alone (subject to appropriate Wittgensteinian quibbles about the very notion of mind-independence). So I’m perplexed. I see myself as offering a constructivist account of the normativity of property rights. You want to defend a constructivist account as well. Where do we differ? I want to pinpoint it.

      So in that spirit, let me ask you this: how exactly does John’s demand that Reba respect his property rights achieve authority over Reba? How is it, on your view, that Reba has reason to respect John’s demand? Is it that John has satisfied the relevant Rothbardian conditions? And then you give a eudaimonist story in which these Rothbardian conditions are a constitutive means towards possessing the virtue of justice (and other virtues that stand in reciprocal determination relations) and so of the content of eudaimonia as a whole? And the reason that Reba has to respect John’s claim is that her flourishing similarly depends (in the constitutive sense) on recognizing the same rules of acquisition, transfer and rectification?

    • Martin Brock

      Your arm is not the fruit of your labor, in no small measure, because it is the fruit of your parents’ labor instead, and parental labor is increasingly devalued by statutory imposition. In a more natural state, parents expect far more compensation for it. The Social Security program, which is far more like the support of aging parents by their children than like Lockean investment, is particularly inequitable in this regard.

      “Incorporating it into one’s projects” is a very broad characterization of Lockean propriety. Locke’s “property” in natural resources involves natural resources that one uses to produce while one uses them to produce, not title in perpetuity.

      For example, Locke explicitly states that hereditary title involves a compact with the state, not what he earlier calls “property” on a stateless frontier. He calls this compact “paternal power” rather than “property”.

      One could go further than Locke (as I do) and argue for property in a natural resource to which one has added value by his own labor; however, added value of this sort depreciates, so even this standard of propriety does not imply title in perpetuity, only title for the duration of (and to the extent of) the added value. Persistent title requires persistently adding value by one’s own labor as well as accounting for the value added vs. the intrinsic value of the natural resource.

      Society never decides who governs a natural resource by writ of forcible propriety. The enforcers of standards of propriety always decide.

  • red_anonymous

    I always had a problem with expecting the government to level the playing field if I’m physically weak or weak in defending my property so as to have a watchman protecting my negative rights, yet at the same time curbing it and preventing it from leveling the field if I happen to be weak in money decisions or producing goods in such a way that I might starve to death. It sounds to me a somewhat arbitrary expectation…

  • j_m_h

    I take Bryan’s argument to be this: If we assume a conclusion then we much accept it. So what. I realize that I’m rejecting Bryan’s thought experiment here but it’s not a well crafted thought experiment because it does not really capture the essence of the problem. It captures the essence of the argument (which Bryan what’s to support).

  • good_in_theory

    The communist solution to Bryan’s problem:

    Begin with principle: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

    Define social necessity: 10 units of subsistence.

    Add principle:   All shall be equally free to use their time as they please

    Import qualification: each individual takes 14.4 hours to perform the maximum amount of daily work of which they are capable.

    Perform simple math: 1.8x units of subsistence/hour = 14.4 units of subsistence.  x = 8 hours

    Solution: Each individual works 8 hours.  (Harry is named the ‘manager’ of the island, and sings the internationale 8 hours straight out of solidarity.)

    Each individual receives 1 unit of subsistence.  Each individual is free to trade their remaining leisure time for more goods if they so wish, and each has 6.4 hours of leisure.  All have successfully established the 8 hour working day.  Conversely, each member is equally free from necessity.  Nobody dies.  But Able, who is more able, is more free in his leisure than the rest.

     Each member is equally enslaved.  But each member is also equally free.  Both utilitarian efficiency and libertarian non-coercion have fallen by the wayside.

    One must be forced to be free.

  • In conclusion, Caplan is a pig, and it will be pretty fruitless (especially for a bleeding heart) to engage a pig on their own terms. There are good reasons to reject the terms of the pig – precisely because of your bleeding heart. And pigs should be called out for being pigs.

  • Martin Brock

    Caplan’s scenario is economic nonsense, because it ignores comparative advantage for example. If ten islanders work all day to produce enough food for 18 people, nearly half of the food spoils. Abel sells his surplus for practically nothing, because nothing is his next best offer, and since he sells his surplus so cheaply, the others stop working to produce food. The market has this effect, not Abel’s enslavement.

    So does Abel then idle himself all day rather than sell his surplus so cheaply? No. The other islanders, who are less able than Abel to produce food, find other things to produce instead, and they trade their other produce for Abel’s food.

    Property in the island’s natural resources, the food that Abel gathers and the land from which he gathers it, raises other questions. Did Abel plant the mango trees? Where he did he get title to the land? If the other nine islanders hold title to this land and its mango trees, Abel must rent the right to gather mangos. Do these rents enslave him? Does Kaplan wish to argue in this direction?

    Since the other islanders are less able harvesters, wouldn’t they hold their titles dearly? Wouldn’t they demand a very high price in mangos for title to their mango bearing lands?

    More to the point, when dividing the island’s resources into individually owned parcels in the first instance, wouldn’t the other islanders demand a larger share of these resources than Abel? Is Abel also a more able statesman (forcible imposer of titles) than the others? If Abel demands a right to harvest mangos anywhere he likes on the island, why isn’t he a thief? If Abel is a thief, can’t he be properly enslaved? The 13th amendment says he can.

    Suppose Hapless Harry is totally disabled, i.e. he can never produce food or anything else on the island. Furthermore, by whatever division of the island’s resources the islanders enact, Harry owns none of it. If every exchange is equitable, ignoring any value of charitable sentiment, Harry necessarily starves. That’s a given.

    Under the circumstances, can a sufficiently powerful group of the other islanders compel Abel to contribute to Harry’s support? Can they enslave Abel to this extent? Caplan assumes fundamentally that the answer is “no”. He accepts as a moral absolute that any such enslavement is immoral, but this sufficiently powerful group of the other islanders accepts a different moral absolute.

    Or maybe the other islanders agree that all of the island’s resources belong to Harry or to a trust for Harry’s benefit, with other islanders having only limited rights to harvest subject to Harry’s right to receive limited rents. Why would Kaplan sanction the theft of Harry’s rents? If Able objects to working for Harry under the circumstances, he may always go for a swim. Being totally disabled, Harry has no similar option.

  • Isn’t there some equivalent to Godwin’s Law that applies to slavery as well? If there isn’t there should be. And for the same reasons.