Liberty, Academic Philosophy

Blogging at, part 5: More on Liberty and Property

A few weeks back, I posted an essay at arguing that property rights necessarily restrict freedom. I noted in that post that I thought that property rights enhance freedom in certain ways too, and promised to go into that more in a future post.

Thanks to a skirmish with David Friedman (my parts of which are here, here, and here), that promise took me a little while to fulfill. But I’ve finally gotten around to it with my last two posts.

The first of those looks at the justifications of property rights given by John Locke and Robert Nozick. Both of them, I argue, implicitly recognized the coercive nature of property rights. But unlike G.A. Cohen, they believed that this coercion could be justified. And both of them attempted to provide that justification in a strikingly similar way – by pointing to the effects of a regime of property rights on productivity and social welfare. So does that make them utilitarians in natural rights clothing?

Not so fast. In my second post, I explain that the crucial difference between the Lockean/Nozickian justification of property rights and a utilitarian one is the individualism of the former, and the inherent collectivism of the latter.

For the utilitarian, all that matters in justifying an action (or an institution like property rights) is its effect on overall well-being. On the utilitarian view, then, property rights are justified if the overall benefits they produce are greater than the overall harms they produce, regardless of how those benefits and harms are distributed among different individuals. For Locke and Nozick, on the other hand, property rights are only justified if they benefit (or at least do not harm) each and every individual.

I then go on to show how Locke and Nozick’s apparently social-welfare based arguments attempt to meet this individualist justificatory hurdle. I also note that their arguments about productivity could be developed to provide an interesting rejoinder to Cohen’s liberty-based critique of property rights:

As we have seen, a substantial part of both Locke and Nozick’s argument for property rights is based on the claim that private property rights make people and resources more productive. But if we think carefully about what this claim really means, it suggests that most of the property that exists today simply wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for private property rights. In a state of nature, we wouldn’t be arguing about how to distribute iPhones, or access to CT scans, or university educations, because people simply wouldn’t have bothered to invest the resources necessary to create these things without the protections and incentives provided by property rights.

And this makes the status of the claim that property rights restrict liberty a bit unclear. Cohen’s argument is that the poor individual who can’t afford a train ticket is being coerced by a system of property rights – if she tries to get on the train without paying for a ticket, men with guns will stop her. And that’s true enough, as far as it goes. But can we conclude from this that property rights in general are restricting her liberty? After all, without a system of property rights, the train she’s trying to board wouldn’t even exist in the first place. So if property rights merely prevent her from using a resource that wouldn’t even have existed in the absence of property rights, does it really make any sense to say that property rights restrict her liberty?

You can read the whole thing here.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to say about this. For instance, I don’t get into questions about the distinction between justifying particular acts of appropriation and justifying a system of private property rights. And I also glide over the notoriously difficult question about the appropriate baseline by comparison to which property regimes must be measured. I hope to get into some of these complexities in a future post. But midterms are coming up. 🙂

  • Ethan Pooley (furball4)

    Should be “collectivism of the *latter*.” Paragraph 4.

  • Sean II

    The girl-without-a-train-ticket story has some interesting rhetorical implications, in terms of how we should argue on behalf of liberty and property.

    As long as the girl is waiting on the platform without a ticket, we stand at a pretty serious disadvantage. I’m a libertarian, but the image of her stranded there makes even me want to conspire against the conductor and help her sneak a free ride.

    Looking backward in time to find out how the train came into being is crucial, but still only half of the story for her.

    The other part is: what is best for the girl going forward? We could steal her a ticket here and now, and thereby start chiseling away at the system of property rights that brought the train into being. But if we do that, it becomes by some increment less likely the girl will ever own a car, own a piece of capital, own a means of producing whatever she can produce to trade for transportation in the future.

    The girls must consider not only what the property regime has done, in bringing forth a train and tantalizing her with a ride she cannot at this moment afford. She herself must ask the question: before I go disrupting them, what might property rights do for me in the long run?

    BHLs spend a lot of time talking about the poor and the least well-off, and what should be done on their behalf. Often an assumption creeps in to the effect that absolute poverty will always be with us in significant numbers. But isn’t the main argument something different? Isn’t the real plan to have a whole lot less of the least well-off, even before the first UBI checks have been printed?

    There seems no way to increase the girl’s ultimate liberty by stealing her that ticket, because if the logic allowing the ticket to be stolen is followed with even a little bit of consistency, there will be a lot less liberty of every kind waiting for her, when she detrains at the next station.

    • In that regard I think it possible to be both Libertarian, AND utilitarian. We pursue some goals not only because they have been justified in our minds through our ideology or morality, but also because we are convinced that they will help everyone, including those who are most in need.

      • Sean II

        Let me add that, even though we’re all aware of libertarian theorists who SAY they are willing to kill people with runaway trolleys or let their own kids starve to death on crazy deontological grounds, it’s all just tough talk and bullshit.

        Show me a person – whatever his stated principles – who doesn’t operate with a consequentalist veto in real life…and I’ll show you one of two things: a psychopath or a fictional character.