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Posts Tagged ‘Property Rights’

At the Daily Beast, Keli Goff has a piece on “Why Blacks Aren’t Libertarians.” In fact, however, she may be a libertarian; at least, nothing in this piece shows why she cannot be. However, she definitely rejects a kind of dogmatic, absolutist libertarianism that she has encountered – and reasonably so, in my view. Here is the rub:

I presented the caller with the same hypothetical I do to so many of my self-professed libertarian friends: I’m injured in a plane or car crash. There is one hospital located in the town in which the crash has taken place. Do you believe the hospital has a right to refuse to treat me on the basis of race, and that the government has no moral or legal imperative to require the hospital to treat me?

One can make a convincing argument that a florist refusing to provide flowers to a same-sex wedding, or an upscale restaurant not welcoming African Americans, aren’t really major civil rights issues. (Frankly, in this day and age, if a restaurant refused to serve me I might use the power of the Internet to help put it out of business, but I wouldn’t see the point in suing someone to serve me when there are plenty of other dining options.) But when it comes to issues like government-mandated access to health care and education for all Americans, there is more at stake.

I would say that the hospital has a legally enforceable duty to accept anyone at imminent risk of death or injury. This is the “safe harbor” exception to the right to exclude that constitutes part of the bundle of private property rights. The safe harbor exception holds that in cases of dire emergency, you lose the right to exclude others from access to your property.

There are at least two important categories of cases here. One consists of cases in which there is no time to obtain consent: my wife is suffering a heart attack, and to save her I have to break into a locked building and take out its defibrillator. We should be able to assume consent in many cases when it is costly to obtain an answer from the property owner, and the foreseeable costs to the property owner are nil (e.g., I will compensate for any damage I cause).

Another category consists of cases in which original appropriation ends up leading to a monopoly, which if exploited could cause severe harm. One such example is Bill Bradford’s old chestnut: you fall out of an apartment window and on the way down grab a flagpole; the owner of the flagpole leans out and demands, “Let go!” Obviously, you have no obligation to let go. Robert Nozick gave an example of appropriating an oasis in the middle of the desert and demanding all the worldly goods of those who pass by in dire thirst.

So it seems clear to me that the hospital example fits into the latter category. If you’re in a life-or-death situation, you must be given access to the hospital. Now, that doesn’t mean you could conscript (enslave) a person to perform surgery on you – the right to exclude from one’s own body admits of no exceptions. And in extremely rare cases, a free society might therefore result in people’s avoidable deaths from lack of care – but of course that sort of thing happens now, all too often.

Now, I don’t know what Ms. Goff means by “government-mandated access to health care and education for all Americans,” but if she means large bureaucracies that provide these services at immense taxpayer cost on an ongoing basis, then she is indeed not a libertarian, as libertarians would not support that agenda. But neither does such an expansive government role in those industries follow from the emergency exception to the right to exclude just explored.

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Matt Zwolinski of Bleeding Heart Libertarians has written an excellent series of posts on the libertarian justification of property rights. Here‘s the latest.

The first and most important thing to note about both Locke and Nozick’s arguments is that, unlike utilitarian arguments, they are individualistic rather than collectivistic in nature. 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. Now, this probably seems like an extremely tough argumentative hurdle for the defender of property to clear. Could it really be the case that each and every individual is better off under a system of private property rights than he would have been without one?

The answer is, or can be, yes. Almost everyone today is vastly better off, and freer, because of the system of private property rights. In those rare, possibly pathological cases in which a person is worse off due to the system of property rights, the Lockean justification of property rights provides a rationale for some kind of “re”distribution as a matter of justice, a point that Matt notes at the end but defers to a future essay. In the event, this is one area where I tend to agree with BHL’ers: there should be a basic income of sort to replace the welfare state, which would probably have to be set at a few thousand dollars a year in the present-day United States in order to ensure that literally everyone is better off due to the private property system, despite its coercive nature.

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Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there have been some interesting posts recently on moralized and non-moralized conceptions of freedom. Jason Brennan says defining liberty to mean only negative liberty is “linguistic revisionism” without philosophic import. He then makes the case that bleeding-heart libertarianism (or Rawlsianism or various other non-traditionally-libertarian conceptions of property rights) does not necessarily violate the “non-aggression axiom.” Finally, he argues against moralized conceptions of freedom. I agree with the first two posts but not the last one.

It’s true that people use “freedom” to mean different things. Hobbes infamously defined it as the absence of physical constraint. Jason prefers something like “ability to realize one’s ends.” Both of these definitions are non-moralized. As Jason makes clear, positive liberty is not only not good by definition, it is not always good. My freedom to swing my fist into your nose unprovoked does not deserve respect — but it’s still freedom, in this non-moralized sense.

Now, Jason is absolutely right that nothing substantive turns on how we define our terms. He’s also right that simply defining freedom as justice (that which is, in the final analysis, right) abuses ordinary language and is tautological. On the other hand, I will note a tension between the claim that positive liberty is not always good and this claim:

The thing that Marxists and others mean by “positive liberty” is valuable and worth promoting. One of the best arguments for classical liberal institutions is that as a matter of fact they do a good job getting people positive liberty.

But if positive liberty is not only not good-by-definition but is also not good-by-inference, then the mere fact that a system tends to promote positive liberty is not a point in that system’s favor. The fact that system X makes it easy for people to swing their fists into other people’s faces whenever they want, thus helping them achieve their ends, is not a point in favor of the justice of system X. Now, the claim might be that swinging fists into people’s faces hurts the positive liberty of those victims, and I agree — but I don’t agree that we can simply sum up positive liberties across people and truthfully say that everyone ought to try to maximize that sum. That’s a controversial moral claim. Indeed, Matt Zwolinski refutes the view strongly here, and even says, “No serious libertarian intellectuals think about libertarianism in terms of maximizing liberty.” I don’t know how this statement squares with what Jason says he and David Schmidtz are arguing about how we ought to evaluate the regime of negative liberty.

Furthermore, I don’t think we can rule out all moralized conceptions of freedom as tautological. People in ordinary language use freedom in a moralized but non-tautological sense all the time. When someone says, “I can say what I want, it’s a free country,” she’s not saying, “It’s a country where I can realize my ends.” She’s saying something like, “In this country, we are not supposed to be subject to the arbitrary domination of others’ wills.” Freedom as non-domination means a great deal to people, arguably more than the mere ability to realize one’s own ends. The reason slavery is so repugnant is not really that it makes the slave unhappy, but that it enshrines an extreme form of inequality and domination. (I’m making a substantive, controversial moral claim here.)

But freedom as non-domination is also not the whole of justice. Marxists like G.A. Cohen arguably accept non-domination just as much as libertarian anarchists like Murray Rothbard. They just disagree about the proper conception of property rights, which also belongs to the domain of justice. Now, if you are persuaded about the libertarian account of property rights, then a Marxist regime imposed without consent looks like unjust domination, un-freedom. Still, even if we read back into “freedom” claims about justice, freedom-as-non-domination is not tautological: it doesn’t simply define freedom as justice. Yet it is a moralized conception of freedom common in everyday discourse.

Update:

Jason Brennan responds by e-mail:

Thanks for posting that. Does this clear up things?

1. I don’t literally mean that positive liberty is always good, but rather that it tends to be good and tends to be worth promoting. Schmidtz and I talk at some length in BHOL about how there’s not clear measure of positive liberty, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make good estimates. If people are living longer, have more options, have more money, have more technology, etc, they will usually have more positive liberty.

2. I prefer to use non-moralized definitions of liberty: Neg lib = absence of obstacles, pos lib = power or capacity. But Schmidtz and I note that in common language, we often mean much more specific ideas when we use the terms “liberty” or “freedom”. If someone says, “X is a free country,” we assume she means they protect a wide range of negative liberties. My raise gave me the freedom to enjoy life, we assume she means positive liberty as capacity/power. And so on.

Schmidtz and I would agree with Matt Z and Nozick that negative rights are side constraints–we shouldn’t have a utilitarianism of rights. But negative and positive liberty are different. Negative liberty first and foremost should be respected, and then promoted. Positive liberty is to be promoted (when it’s good, and if doing so is consistent with our rights).

My response to Jason:

Thanks for the response. It clarifies a great deal. I clearly misread your position on positive freedom. I can’t quarrel with your description of the conceptual landscape below. Substantively, too, we’re not far apart, though I don’t think it’s generally morally impermissible to refrain from promoting the positive liberty of humanity in general (for instance, in order to focus on one’s own life projects).

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Here are the essay questions from the final exam I gave in “Introduction to Political Philosophy” last semester. How would you answer these questions?

3.1
Rights to Property
Answer one of these questions.
1. What is John Rawls’ “difference principle,” and how does he defend it?
What are its implications for the welfare state? Is the argument persuasive?
Why or why not?
2. Robert Nozick criticizes “patterned” principles of justice in holdings, like
Rawls’, on the grounds that they authorize unjust redistribution of wealth.
Why do patterned principles authorize redistribution? Why is redistribu-
tion unjust? Are those arguments persuasive? Why or why not?

3.2
Evaluating Moral Arguments
Answer one of these questions.
1. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally imper-
missible to take away anyone’s life, health, liberty, or possessions without
her clear consent. 2. Governments take away people’s possessions (taxa-
tion) and liberty (imprisonment) in certain circumstances. 3. Therefore,
governments must obtain the clear consent of every person they govern.
4. Virtually no government on earth has obtained the clear consent of ev-
eryone they govern. 5. Therefore, virtually all governments systematically
violate the rights of their subjects.”

2. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally
impermissible to allow someone to die when one could save that person
without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. 2. The
consumption of luxury goods is not of comparable moral significance to
human life. 3. Therefore, if one can save another person’s life merely
by transferring money that one would otherwise have used to purchase
luxury goods, one is morally bound to do so (i.e., it would be morally
impermissible not to). 4. Today, people in the rich world have surplus
money that they spend on luxuries, money that we know could save lives in
the poor world. 5. Therefore, people in the rich world are morally bound
to transfer money that would otherwise be spent on luxuries to people in
the poor world who would otherwise die.”

Notably, only one person who answered 3.2.1 thought the argument was sound, and only a small number of students who answered 3.2.2 thought this argument was sound. Both arguments are valid.

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George Will has a good column today on civil asset forfeiture abuse. He highlights an ongoing case in Tewksbury, Mass., where the DOJ and local police department are colluding to seize a motel from the owners because some drug dealers have stayed there in the past. The government is not claiming that the owners knew or even should have known about criminal activity at the motel; they can seize the property anyway, accusing an inanimate object of committing a crime. The Institute for Justice, who put out the recent Policing for Profit report blowing the whistle on ongoing forfeiture abuse around the country, is representing the owners and challenging the forfeiture on both Eighth and 10th Amendment grounds.

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Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have a thought-provoking piece entitled, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism,” in the latest Cato Unbound. They criticize postwar libertarians (specifically mentioning Mises, Rand, and Rothbard) for seeing property rights as absolute and, in their view, regarding the welfare of the working poor as irrelevant to moral justifications for capitalism:

In the remainder of this essay, we will discuss one particular way that neoclassical liberalism has a better grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the libertarianism of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. It is not the only contrast, but one of the clearest and most important differences between these two schools of libertarian thought has to do with the proper nature of concern for, and obligation to, the working poor. On this issue, the neoclassical liberal position is that the fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system. And this position, we will argue, has a far more solid grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the justificatory indifference to which the postwar libertarians are committed.

They go on to cite John Locke, Adam Smith, and Herbert Spencer (yes, Spencer!) as classical liberals who would be more sympathetic to the neoclassical-liberal project of justifying markets partly on the basis of their consequences for the welfare of the least well off. However, they also argue, plausibly, that Rand and Rothbard in particular were not indifferent to the fate of the poor, simply that they viewed the coincidence of respect for individual property rights and a better life for all as a happy fortuity. (Mises was more of a consequentialist and perhaps after all a comfortable fit within neoclassical liberalism.)

I would stress that (more…)

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Another bizarre case of town government versus the property owner.

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — DeKalb County is suing a local farmer for growing too many vegetables, but he said he will fight the charges in the ongoing battle neighbors call “Cabbagegate.”

Fig trees, broccoli and cabbages are among the many greens that line the soil on Steve Miller’s more than two acres in Clarkston, who said he has spent fifteen years growing crops to give away and sell at local farmers markets.

For my own, briefer and less stressful encounter with town government, see here, here, and here.

HT: Our esteemed ringleader, Grover Cleveland.

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