Monday, October 09, 2006

You Have To Go On Living Afterwards, Or, Some Complaints Against Left-Libertarianism

An inescapable leitmotif of this blog is, I both suspect and hope, the need to take seriously the complexity and variety of moral discourse. Like one of my intellectual heroes, the ones I really hate are the reductionists. They do lack imagination, since, after all, the whole point of being a reductionist is to reduce the number of things that can be said about something, to deprive our language of particular ways of describing things, to squeeze everything into ideally only one concept. I think that left-libertarianism is a kind of reductionism, at least to some degree and as I understand it.

Consider, for example, the case for a basic income, which I think more or less forms the centrepiece of a left-libertarian theory of distributive justice. The idea is that citizens of a state ought all to be provided with a yearly or perhaps monthly grant of enough money to allow them to live a basically decent, although by no means luxurious, life, paid for usually out of a tax on land values. Although there are a variety of ways of justifying such a distributive theory, the common core to them all is that this satisfies the Lockean 'enough and as good' proviso: any disadvantage anyone suffered as a result of property being appropriated by a particular individual, and hence taken out of the commons, where all could benefit from it, is eliminated. A life can be led without relying on the demand others have for your labour, and so you are free. In the terms a left-libertarian friend of mine used to build his theory, it gives you the freedom to say no.

I am skeptical about a basic income exhausting our duties of distributive justice, both in terms of direct redistribution of income and wealth, and in terms of indirect redistribution of such goods through provision of other goods and services. I am skeptical about it exhausting our duties of direct redistribution for two reasons. Firstly, because it suffers from the difficulty that Paula Casal has identified with theories of distributive justice which focus on providing enough, which commonly get called sufficientarian. The problem which both a basic income and a sufficientarian theory of distributive justice have is that any amount of income and wealth that is named as satisfying the requirements of justice will either be too much or not enough. Casal describes the problem with a low threshold of need in a sufficientarian theory of justice like this:

the lower the threshold, the easier it is to understand the urgency of passing it, but the harder it is to explain the sufficientarian indifference between benefiting millionaires rather than people who are just above the threshold

This to me seems an obviously directly transferable critique of basic income theory. I could understand, for example, why a theory of justice might demand that everyone had enough money to pay their rent and eat frugally, but would find it very difficult to understand why it was not prepared to redistribute any further, especially if there were members of the society in question who were vastly more wealthy than that. Her criticism of a threshold which is too high requires somewhat more translation:

The higher the threshold, the easier it is to understand why sufficientarians do not see any reason to benefit individuals who are above it but the harder it is to understand their indifference to benefiting those who are far below rather than just below the threshold

Rather than the problem being the achievement of a threshold, as it is with sufficientarianism - whose argument against egalitarianism rests in part on the relative desirability of the differential distribution of goods when there are not enough to be useful to all of those who could benefit from them - the problem for a left-libertarian basic income is, I think, to explain how a relatively high basic income is about freedom. Once you are talking about the freedom to go for lengthy skiing holidays, I'm not sure I'm that bothered any more.

Sufficientarianism at least has something of a get-out from this problem, in that it can propose a variety of standards of need. It can propose a threshold for bare survival, for a minimal satisfactory life, for an adequate amount of self-respect and so on. This allows it, for example, to differentiate between different types of need, which make demands of different levels of seriousness on us, so that our obligation to ensure that people do not starve to death is recognised, as it surely is, as being much more demanding than our obligation to allow them the opportunity for regular and meaningful leisure time, or, say, a decent standard of secondary education. It can also differentiate between the different needs of different people, so that, for example, an able-bodied young man is not seen as requiring the same resources as a young mother with a disability, or within the same life at different times, so that someone when healthy has different needs from when ill. None of this is open to a theory which claims that a basic income guarantee exhausts our obligations as a matter of distributive justice, because it does not differentiate between different circumstances.

But this is, I think, just part of a wider problem with left-libertarianism. Because its theory of justice begins and ends with freedoms associated with property rights, left-libertarians tend to hold at least the weaker, but often the stronger, of these two propositions:

1. As long as some act is understood as uncoerced, in the sense that people do it freely against a background of compensation for the loss of their property rights in the commons, there is nothing else for the state to concern itself with.

2. As long as some act is understood as uncoerced, in the sense that people do it freely against a background of compensation for the loss of their property rights in the commons, there is nothing else for anyone else to concern themselves with.

This elevation of voluntarism to either the sole principle of state action or, even more radically, the sole principle of moral action tout court, is not only bizarre, but strangely self-defeating, I think. It is bizarre because there are clearly voluntary agreements in which no-one else's property rights are harmed which are, at the very least, a matter of concern to others, and quite possibly a matter of concern for the state. Whatever Chris Woodward may or may not have said, I think that most people regard it as a matter of public concern that students, even adult students, do not sleep with their teachers. A left-libertarian though, ought to have no problem with students being paid to sleep with their teachers, which I think you would have to be seriously deranged to think was not at all troubling.

It is self-defeating though, because it denies the existence, in denying the existence of legitimate moral concerns beyond those associated with a lack of coercion, of the very features of the moral world which permit the existence of coercion in the first place. The reason, for example, you can be coerced when starving into working is that starvation is a terrible thing to suffer. The reason coercion is effective is that it threatens something valuable, like the experience of not being starving. If, as the elevation of voluntarism to the position of sole moral principle suggests, there is nothing bad except being coerced, it is hard to see how coercion occurs at all. What, after all, is so terrible about starvation, or not getting medical treatment, or not being able to provide your children with a decent education, and if none of these things are so terrible, how can you be threatened with them?


Phil said...

Because its theory of justice begins and ends with freedoms associated with property rights

Hang on. Who are these left-libertarians that you're arguing against? Because I've been calling myself a libertarian socialist - & identifying with the libertarian left - for more years than I care to remember; I'd been a left-libertarian (at least by my own lights) for several years before I even heard of right-libertarianism.
And my critique of right-libertarianism is precisely that its account of liberty is impoverished by its concentration on property rights. A libertarian, as I've always understood the term, believes in the maximisation of liberty, i.e. effective freedom of action; a libertarian socialist believes that coercion by capitalism (and by arbitarily-distributed ownership rights) is just as liberticidal (to borrow an Italian term) as coercion by government.

I'm not making this stuff up. The libbo left was terrifically big in the sixties.

Rob Jubb said...


I think you are confusing property rights per se with actually existing property rights, but I'm thinking of left-libertarians in the Chris Dillow style, if that helps. In the lingo - which isn't to say it's the only lingo - you may be more of an anarchist.

Anonymous said...

As I understand left-libertarianism, it certainly isn't committed to basic income - it could go for capital grants, safety nets, provision in kind (e.g. free education, medical care, etc)

In so far as people are libertarian, I think there'd be a presumption against further interference, but in so far as they're more left then I think they can recognise other concerns. At least they can accept some kind of tax to fund their basic income (or whatever), which means it doesn't exhaust their interests in redistribution.

Rob Jubb said...


I'm really not sure what beyond a basic income left-libertarians - in the sense you and I understand the term - can offer. What distinguishes them from liberal egalitarians - and I hope you get the direction of the voluntarism critique - is that they think that you have a strong right to self-ownership, much like right-libertarians. That means that labour, per se, is not taxable, but that additional value which may be added to any particular bit of labouring flowing from appropriations from the commons is. Thus, while left-libertarians may have some other scheme of redistribution other than a basic income, the rationale - and I think the criticisms, particularly the voluntarism one - is the same: the redistribution compensates for the removal of the land from the commons, and the rest, insofar as there is any rest, depends on the voluntariness of the exchange in question, roughly. The fact that what is being compensated for is the removal of land from the commons also makes me rather skeptical about the possibility of anything other than cash transfers: you don't get health care out of the the ability to take apples off the tree.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure whether I'd call myself a left-libertarian all things considered, but I certainly think they've identified one very attractive ground for redistribution. Thus I'm with the 'left' side, but I don't know how 'libertarian'.

I don't see the publicly announced tax rate on doing X as any interference on people's liberty to choose whether or not to do X. If you want to be, say, a lawyer you're welcome to - and still have the choice - but I don't see any right to a particular given pre-tax income.

On a personal level, I also don't object to giving some benefits in kind rather than cash. I know it's probably a restriction on liberty but, aside from being possibly more efficient, it's the old 'is a disabled person entitled to a violin?' thing. Plus I'm just a paternalist who knows what's good for other people too...