Matt Zwolinski on Property Rights

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.

7 thoughts on “Matt Zwolinski on Property Rights

  1. Do you think BHL’ers would really stop at, philosophically, such a low rate? And then given public choice concerns, wouldn’t conceding the point and enacting the system lead to a vast expansion of such a program in reality? In the latter case, the amount of coercion would be very, very large.

    1. Some of them might, some of them wouldn’t, which is why I phrased my agreement pretty tentatively. The political economy concern is a fair point, and I don’t know the answer. The “in-principle” solution is clear; what I would support as an actual policy proposition is less certain. However, the PE concerns for a cash basic income are much less than for housing subsidies, food stamps, etc., all of which create large producer interests that lobby for more spending.

  2. Of course, as you know, Friedman (Milton) supported a negative income tax plan and self-described libertarian Charles Murray supports a version of a guaranteed income. So you wouldn’t be alone!

    1. Oh, I know! At the very least, it’s really hard to argue that it wouldn’t be better than what we have now.

  3. There are two different arguments here: 1, a UBI is an inherently good idea as a matter of justice, and 2, a UBI is a good idea in the current world because it’s an improvement over the welfare-state we know. I’m ready to be on board for 2, but not 1.

    1. Fair enough. If I were persuaded that literally everyone would be better off in a world of fully protected private property rights than the open-commons world, then I would agree w/ you.

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