Post No.: 0315
Robert Nozick, who supported the school of libertarianism, believed in a minimal state that had no distributive justice (welfare state) or paternalism (people should not be stopped from harming themselves if that’s what they want to do, even if, for instance, their minds are compromised from the addictive (controlling?) nature of addictive drugs). Libertarians believe that even if the state could do a good job at getting us to help others, it should not do so because this would be coercive.
Libertarianism, in its purest form, states that there should be no paternal legislation, no restricting of peoples’ liberty even for their own good, no legislation based on any moral code, and no taxation or redistribution of wealth (which are argued to be akin to theft and forced labour). The role of government is to protect rights – not to promote happiness. People can do whatever they like as long as it doesn’t harm other people. Libertarianism presumes the just acquisition of all initial holdings and the free choice of transfer (a free market exchange). The hardest workers or most talented or moral people don’t necessarily have to be the most highly rewarded.
‘Self-ownership’ is a concept that was first put forward by John Locke. In many countries, we have a right to free speech, religion, privacy and now sexual identity – so why not to individuality as a whole?
But for the categorical libertarian – what grounds these natural rights? Why do individuals have a natural right to life, liberty, property and self-ownership? And if so, why don’t individuals have other natural rights, such as to health? But Nozickian libertarianism doesn’t care if the money raised through taxation is well spent or is spent in a way that’s beneficial to all (even for oneself); nor does it care if the poor deserve or don’t deserve any redistribution of wealth.
Libertarianism cannot however be used to justify existing inequalities in society because of the history of violence and plunder from which existing property relations have developed, such as European imperialism capturing much of the ‘West’ through historical invasions, seizures of land from natives, the slavery of black people, and other (not very libertarian) gains and injustices precisely through violations of individual natural rights in the acquisition and transfer of resources in the past!
Many who’d benefited and/or still benefit from a historical injustice will argue that it wasn’t due to the actions of their own generation, or moreover themselves as individuals. However, one did and/or still does benefit from those historical events nonetheless. And if people started out with ill-gotten gains then any gains that followed from that position will be unjust too, even by libertarian standards.
What if a parent steals billions through fraud and immediately gives all of it to his/her children? The parent accepts doing wrong and any forthcoming punishment to him/her, but we cannot touch these children or the billions they now have because ‘they had nothing to do with the crime despite benefiting from it’(!)
If all historical injustices in acquisition and transfer were corrected, such as to compensate all descendants of slaves or victims of colonialism, the world would be an incredibly different place to today at every single level e.g. if there were no imperialism, colonialism, expropriation, slavery, genocide, racism, if women had equal rights as men from the very start, etc. then we wouldn’t have the wealth distribution we have today. Today’s wealth distribution is thus manifestly unjust and this calls into question the extent to which we’re all morally responsible for our efforts and outcomes. So if libertarians want their kind of utopia, they’ll need to somehow correct all of these historical injustices before we can really move on and say with confidence who’s really entitled to own what. Even Nozick lucidly understood this problem.
Redistributive taxation and ‘affirmative action’ (or ‘positive discrimination’ e.g. towards groups known to have been historically discriminated against) are considered unjust unless they remedy some past injustice – so Nozick concedes that a one-off redistribution of global wealth would be needed to generate a just starting point for a free market. But how can this be realistically calculated and achieved? It’s not only those direct later generations who’ve gained following from a force, theft or fraud conducted by one of their ancestors, but whenever anybody today freely exchanges resources on the market, that resource may not have reached their possession to be traded with another party had it not been for a fuzzy force, theft or fraud conducted by someone else in the first place i.e. you may have unjustly gained your position in society from the unjust actions of your far relatives, as well as from those who’ve exchanged unjustly-gained resources with you.
In essence, all/most of white US wealth is based on a seizure of land from the Native Americans. Returning all the proceeds of all ill-gotten colonial gains could actually mean giving every related thing to the surviving Natives. The UK can hardly be smug either – a lot of current British Empire wealth was based on (other) invasions and slavery too.
Nozick believed in private property rights, but if one owns one’s own labour, then if you build a robot, which in turn builds something – then do you own that something or does the robot? And if one owns that something then do our parents own us and everything we therefore do?! So even if people own themselves and their own labour, why exactly does it follow that they should receive all the fruits of their labour? After all, people make use of a variety of things other than themselves or their own hard work or talents when they contribute to the labour market e.g. the education they received, the public infrastructure, the social valuation of the goods collectively produced, etc., so wouldn’t it make justified sense for individuals to receive only a part of the fruits of their labours?
We live in a society – a community – so do people have complete self-ownership if they choose to live amongst other people? People forgo their status as an isolated individual who can do whatever they want and have no responsibilities towards others when they choose to live in a social society – we cannot discount the people around us. In a society, one’s success or failure isn’t wholly of one’s own doing – wealth depends partly on luck so it isn’t completely deserved e.g. it depends where and amongst whom someone was born. It’s lucky for a basketball player to be born and raised into a time and place, a society, where jumping and putting balls in a hoop is prized and richly rewarded. If this person was born with some advantages e.g. as a male who ended up being good at basketball, because men’s basketball is more popular and lucrative than women’s basketball, then that’s down to luck too. (It’s related to a common bias where people think that if they succeed then it was down to personal hard work and skill but if they lose then it was down to bad luck, yet if someone else succeeds then it was down to at least some luck but if they lose then it was down to their lack of personal hard work or skill!)
Consequentialist libertarian/laissez-faire economist Milton Friedman thinks that people have the same rights as Nozick posits but follows utilitarianism (which was examined in Post No.: 0289) in denying that rights are natural – he claimed that they must be defended only in terms of the value of their consequences i.e. the overall outcome. He also accepted that life is unfair but it’s folly trying to rectify what nature has spawned. Nozick further argues that one is entitled to the inheritance of a fortune even though there’s no sense in which one morally deserves it. Nozick thus didn’t care whether all participants begin or are born with an equal opportunity, and didn’t endorse a meritocracy. His core argument is that resources should be owned either by the people who made them or by the people who acquired them through a free exchange.
So if a shop doesn’t want to serve homosexuals then one libertarian perspective is that it’s the shopkeeper’s choice because it’s his/her own shop, goods and property, and he/she should therefore be able to do or not do whatever he/she wants with them and him/herself. (In any case, one doesn’t even have to accept any legal tender until a contract/agreement has been made.) Thus even supporting libertarianism doesn’t completely help us to answer some fundamental questions about liberty (these may constitute some of the disagreements between libertarianism and liberalism).
People can do whatever they like as long as it doesn’t harm others – but so many actions do directly or indirectly harm others e.g. psychologically, by influencing young impressionable children, or pollution.
If the government’s role is to enforce contracts and protect people against aggression, theft and fraud then how are they going to do that without money (i.e. taxes)? How minimal is ‘minimal taxation’? How much will all this cost, especially since force, theft and fraud still occur in the free market? In other words, whatever level of taxation there currently is, it can be argued that it’s currently insufficient to uphold even this ‘minimal government’ that some libertarians suggest, because people/firms still occasionally get away with force, theft or fraud in the free market.
Taxes also pay for defence, policing, fire protection and other public goods, and so it therefore pays for peace, economic and political stability – and without these, one ironically wouldn’t be able to get rich in a (perfectly free) market at all without being a dictator or warlord. (Try building a Google or Facebook company in a failed state.)
Some interpretations of libertarianism argue that true needs are different from entitlements though, and so taxation to provide for the true needs of e.g. shelter, food and survival, are acceptable. But this would again reveal that taxation is insufficient at current levels to provide all the true needs of the entire world – hence why famine and disease still occur around the world today.
Individual property rights are established and enforced by the government. Also, if a democracy wishes to support a socialist redistribution of wealth then wouldn’t this be the very democratic wish of this nation? (And we could argue that individuals have the free choice to leave this country if they don’t like it. If you consent to live in a country then you must live by its rules – just like if you consent to work for an employer then you must work by its rules, or leave.) So taxation by consent of the governed is arguably not coerced. (And for those libertarians who think that ‘dog-eat-dog nature always knows best’ – property rights and consent are arguably unnatural anyway e.g. you don’t see predators asking prey whether they wish to be eaten or not(!) Dogs don’t typically eat dogs in nature either – woof!)
A counterargument is that a majority mustn’t coerce the minority, even after voting e.g. if an individual doesn’t consent to publicly-funded healthcare when the majority of individuals do, then he/she’s being unjustly coerced by the majority. But this will mean that libertarianism is often at odds with democracy.
If libertarianism were fit as a cultural meme then why isn’t it more popular across the world’s population? Because of extreme inequality, the majority will always be the relatively poor, and the relatively poor will (or in theory should) always rationally vote for a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.
Superficially, libertarianism seems like a no-brainer; but when we dig deeper it has flaws – albeit all schools of philosophy have their own merits and flaws! There are many magnitudes of libertarianism though, from extreme to less extreme interpretations. This is just a brief exploration so that you can study more about it, and other schools of philosophy, if you want.