Bertram wrote this.
Caplan just wrote this.*
Caplan employs a common argumentative tactic. The left will often make certain arguments trying to show why we should limit economic liberty. However, as Caplan argues in the link above, or as Nozick argues in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, if we take those arguments seriously, then those arguments also seem to be grounds to limit civil liberty as well. Why limit one but not the other? In the post above, Caplan asks, “If unequal bargaining power or asymmetric information is a reason for government to intervene in economic relationships, why isn’t it also a reason for government to intervene in personal relationships?” Or, consider that many on the left think it’s unfair that naturally untalented people should make less money than naturally talented people. They think this justifies government intervention. Why not also have government intervene to help naturally shy or uninteresting or ugly people have more friends and romantic encounter? N.B.: If you say, “Oh, that wouldn’t work,” then you seem to be saying you would be in favor of such intervention if only it did work.
Usually, left-liberals just assert that civil liberties are important while economic liberties are not. That’s the difference. They may be right, but that deflates their arguments. It means that their objections to economic liberties do no independent work. Their objections do not actually show that the state should intervene or limit economic liberties. Rather, these objections presuppose that the economic liberties do not have the same status as the civil liberties.
A good example of this problem occurs in Murphy and Nagel’s The Myth of Ownership. Murphy and Nagel point out (as if libertarians didn’t already know this) that the current scheme of income, property ownership, and wealth would not exist without the government and taxes that support it. My current income causally depends upon certain institutional facts, including social conventions created by or at least maintained by my government. In the state of nature, I’d make, let’s say, 1/200th of my current income. Murphy and Nagel conclude that I don’t thereby have a natural right to my income, since it’s not as though I would have that income in the state of nature. Call this argument the Institutional Dependency Argument (IDA).
Whatever the merits of the IDA, it’s dangerous argument for liberals to advance. Consider we might could call “everyday liberalism”. Everyday liberalism holds that people have a special claim to their bodies and deciding what to do with their time. Why can’t the government set up a corvée—a tax paid by labor—or labor armies in lieu of or in addition to monetary taxes? I do not own my pre-corvée time any more than I own my pre-tax income. After all, in the state of nature (which Murphy and Nagel use as a baseline to judge our benefit from government), I would not have 80+ years of expected life; I’d maybe have 25 years, if even that. Government and the taxes supporting it create our longevity and the distribution of life expectancies. (Some of this creation comes about directly, through health provisions, but most of it comes indirectly, through market forces operating against the background of the rule of law.) Most of (or at least a big chunk of) my lifetime results from social convention or government action. So, by the IDA, I cannot be said to have a natural right to choose how to spend my time. In the state of nature, I have no time to spend. We cannot evaluate the justice of the corvée separately, as if the corvée were an intrusion onto our time, but must instead evaluate the justice of the social system as a whole. Similar arguments could be made concerning other purported liberal rights.
Murphy and Nagel say that you don’t really own your pre-tax income, because but for government and the public goods it provides through taxation, you wouldn’t have any income. However, we can extend their argument to defend the corvée, not just the income tax. An authoritarian can say that you don’t really have a right to your body or your time, because but for government and the public goods it provides through taxation (including, if it wants, through the corvée), you’d probably be dead, and thus not have a body or any time.
Why would the IDA work to block a libertarian’s objection to income taxation but not a liberal’s objection to the corvée? What’s the difference?
Here is Murphy and Nagel’s answer, which they offer while responding to a libertarian comparison of free contracts and other liberal freedoms: “Egalitarian liberals simply see no moral similarity between the right to speak ones mind, to practice one’s religion,…and the right to enter into a labor contract…unencumbered by a tax bite.” Murphy and Nagel say that some liberties are at “the core of the self” and must be protected against the state; others are not at the core. They believe this holds even though by their own logic they must admit that their favored kinds of liberties would have little worth (or would not exist) outside of the state’s protection, and so the state makes these rights possible.
Okay, maybe Murphy and Nagel are right. Maybe economic liberty does not merit a high degree of protection while civil liberty does. However, notice how this response just neuters their entire book. Murphy and Nagel’s book doesn’t prove natural rights libertarianism is false; it presupposes natural rights libertarianism is false.
They offered the IDA as an argument against liberterianism. The libertarian responds by saying, “Doesn’t the IDA undermine left-liberalism as well, not just libertarianism?” They respond by saying, “Oh, no, because civil liberties, unlike economic liberties, are special.” But this just means that the IDA is irrelevant to determining whether a government action violates our rightful liberties or holdings. Rather, the action, in the debate between Murphy and Nagel and libertarians, is over which liberties are basic. And this, Murphy and Nagel must admit, is not decided by the IDA.
*One relatively minor point on Caplan. As Caplan points out, in dating, bargaining power is often unequal. If a movie star and an ugly, poor, desperate maid started dating, the movie star probably could just dictate the terms of the relationship. However, one might object, as a matter of fact, people do not usually enter into such uneven relationships. As Caplan himself knows (as a fan of Murray’s last book), smart, pretty, well-off, educated people date and marry each other, etc. Few people seek out unequal relationships where one person has substantially more bargaining power than the other. In contrast, in employment, one side often really does have substantially more bargaining power than the other side. While I expect someone to raise this objection to Caplan, I’m not sure it does any real work. After all, even if the facts were different–even if attractive, rich people usually did try to marry ugly poor people in order to create unbalanced marriages–few on the left would advocate having the state intervene.