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 Community, 133).
* 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.
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