Wednesday, April 13, 2005

(Some) Libertarians Assume Everyone Else Shares Their Foundational Premise

Will Wilkinson has a piece up on possible justifications of property rights, particularly the justification by reference to support of social institutions which enable a market to function properly, which made me think about the self-ownership justification of property rights, of which the argument Will looks at seems to be a sub-category (Initially, I thought that Will was making the self-ownership justifies property rights argument, a view which this post reflected, but, as he has pointed out in the comments, if anything he is criticizing it, and so the post has been altered).

Perhaps the hardest-line version of the self-ownership argument I have seen is the one provided by one of Nozick's critiques of Rawls in Anarchy, State And Utopia, where he claims that one of the things wrong with Rawls's Original Position - a thought experiment which derives a set of just social, political and economic institutions by asking us to consider which we would rules endorse for these institutions if we did not know the social stratification of society or our place in any social stratification which would follow the implementation of these rules - is that it treats all property as communal, because it takes it that we can distribute it as we please. Infamously, Nozick says that Rawls treats all property as if it were manna from heaven, which miracously appeared and to which no-one had any prior claims. It is true that Rawls's device does treat property as if no-one had any prior claims to it, but since it is supposed to give us the rules for a just set of social, political and economic institutions, of which property rights are indisputably one, this is totally unsurprising and perfectly justified, for how are we supposed to decide what a just set of property rights might look like if we assume from the beginning that some property rights already exist and are inviolable?

If absolute property rights of the sort Nozick favours emerged from the thought experiment, then we could assume that they were justified, but since they don't, in the absence of an argument that the thought experiment is badly set up, we can assume they are not. To point out that a device for thinking about what a just set of social institutions looks like does not arrive at your favoured conclusion, and thus condemning it, without providing any argument against the device itself, is simply sloppy argumentation: it's analogous to a sadist saying, 'the original position doesn't allow me to grab people off the street and torture them to my hearts content, so it must be wrong'. All arguments, notoriously, if they are logically valid, must assume their conclusion in their premises, but there is a difference between just assuming your conclusion, and actually providing an argument (for example, I can say: 'luck egalitarianism is false, ergo, luck egalitarianism is false' or I can say 'luck egalitarians are compelled to say that any outcome which is chosen is just; if adultery was punishable by death, luck egalitarians would have to say that any executions of adulterers would be just; such a conclusion is ridiculous; any moral theory which produces ridiculous conclusions is pro tanto false; luck egalitarianism is pro tanto false').


Will Wilkinson said...

Hi Robert. I don't remember saying anything about the original position or absolute, inviolable property rights. I was noting that claim that some gains from cooperation are "social" and thus open to distribution according to some rule of distributive justice doesn't follow from the observation that there are broad social enabling conditions for the mutually advantageous cooperation. I didn't say that property rights are absolute or that a principle of redistribution can't be justified on some other grounds. I don't happen to believe that self-ownership grounds absolute property rights, and I don't think I displayed any tendency to believe it.

Rob Jubb said...


re-reading your piece, I see that the passages which look like they might be assuming a self-ownership property rights argument are in fact critiques of Mashaw for doing something like that in the argument that interdependence justifies redistribution because the market doesn't distribute those benefits adequately. I apologise - I can only imagine I got carried away with the Nozick-bashing, a pastime perhaps dangerously close to my heart - and I will alter the post to make it clear that you don't in fact do this.

Shuggy said...

Ah, the old Rawls/Nozick debate. As I understood it, Nozick more or less adopted in its entirety Locke's concept of property rights. But this was demolished by David Hume (for me, that is) who said you can't claim a right to property by "mixing it with your labour" but rather it's when the said property is stolen from you and society recognises it and returns it - only then can you talk about a "right to property" in any meaningful sense.

Rob Jubb said...


Nozick forgets a crucial part of Locke's defence of property rights, that they are justified by the empirical fact that they are for the good of all: this is why, until the invention of money, having more property than can be used or taking when there is not 'enough and as good' is unjustified. Remove some unspoken empirical premises about the well-being of those without property in a proto-capitalist society, and Locke is actually quite leftish, whereas Nozick believes that property rights, once acquired, are inviolable.

As for the point about Hume, Hume's critique of Locke is part and parcel of his attack on natural, i.e. pre-social in the before-a-state sense, rights. If you think that only rights which are recognized by the relevant legal system, indeed, Locke's natural rights to property cannot exist, but merely asserting it begs the question. This is to say nothing of the obvious quandary you are left in when confronted with legally correct but morally abhorent regimes.