Monday, 6 June 2005

Libertarian-bashing for fun (and Nozick)

There's some instructive libertarian-bashing going on over at Richard Chappell's 'Philosophy, et cetera' blog, based largely it seems on the poor chap having to wade through the late Robert Nozick at school -- for which he has my sympathy. Read here and here and here (and half a dozen posts either side, to boot).

It's instructive for two reasons, the first because of his wonderful use of the Straw Man argument, at which poor Richard is a master; the second because it underscores once again just how bad are Robert Nozick's arguments for liberty -- as Sean Kimpton pointed out in 'The Free Radical' a few years back. When it comes to defending liberty, as Sean concludes, Robert Nozick, like many anotther supposed advocate for freedom "while advocating a libertarian political philosophy is doing more harm than good..."

[Nozick] is considered by academics to be the leading advocate for libertarianism and freedom amongst modern political philosophers, but his weak arguments are too easily trumped by self-serving intellectuals who only feel obliged to answer Nozick, rather than more substantial political thinkers like Rand....

But perhaps it is the very weakness of his arguments that add to his attraction, he is the ideal libertarian straw man - easy to knock down, and to burn while he's down.

But Nozick does have value. He shows us that if your arguments lack foundations you will undo your conclusions, no matter how true they might be.

[UPDATE: My detailed response to Richard's arguments are here. My more 'spirited' response is here.]


  1. "Straw man"? I haven't mischaracterized the self-ownership argument (which, far from being self-evidently weak, in fact holds a fair bit of intuitive appeal).

    And my more general point, about the importance of substantive rather than merely formal freedom, applies to all libertarians. If you have anything of substance to say in response, I would be curious to hear it.

    (Thanks for the post though, as I hadn't come across your blog before. It looks interesting.)

  2. Hi Richard, you said: "I haven't mischaracterized the self-ownership argument," and indeed you haven't. What you have micharacterised is the notion that libertarianism rests on the principle of self-ownership (a mischaracterisation Nozick also makes I'm afraid, and on whom perhaps your mischaracterisation rests).

    As Sean Kimpton says in the article I link to in the blog above, "As you are not a separate entity from your body, it is not strictly speaking true, that you own your body. Rather, you are your body, and must [therefore be free in order to] take certain actions in order to sustain yourself."

    It is from this starting point that we get the idea of rights in general (that it is right to take certain actions in order to sustain ourselves) and property rights in particular (the right to keep what we've produced in order that we may be able to sustain ourselves). As Ayn Rand argues, "The source of rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A - and man is man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man's nature for his proper survival."

    There's more in Sean's article, and also down there on my sidebar, particularly in the Cue Card Libertarianism section.

  3. It doesn't sound like there is any significant difference to that position which would allow it to escape any (let alone all) of the criticisms in my recent posts.

    I note in particular that your position is still open the following objections:

    1) The irrational promotion of merely formal over substantive freedom.

    2) The problems relating to initial acquisition (and the subsequent illegitimacy of actual holdings).

    3) The problems posed by ongoing needs and Intergenerational Justice.

    4) The coercion and exploitation of those who lack bargaining power and reasonable alternatives (i.e. the poor and disadvantaged).

    If you think you can respond effectively to any of these specific points, I'd love to hear it. (Perhaps you could respond in comments to the appropriate post, or else write up a new post yourself in response.)

  4. Hi Richard,

    1) Of course libertarians value substantive freedom. But we don't accept that infringing people's actual freedoms can increase substantive freedoms. Society or government is not responsible for increasing people's abilities to acheive their own goals - that's a matter of individual responsibility. The role of government is to stop people from violently harming others or taking their property without consent. Government cannot effectively increase "substantive freedom", and there is no reason for it to do so.

    2) Well, that is a problem, since property rights are necessary for our survival and for our freedom. However, the solution must come from reality. What land is illegitimately held? Does it matter? How can the land be fairly apportioned? Some suggestions: When New Zealand was first settled by Maori and later by Pakeha, unused land was developed and legitimately held. Land was illegitimately taken in three ways: during intertribal wars, after the Land Wars (though this is debatable - land was taken in retaliation for attacks on settlers and government agents), and by the government since 1840 using taxation, the Public Works Act, etc. Most of these historical wrongs cannot be fairly solved without making the problem worse - for example, re-confiscating farmland which has been in the same hands for generations. However, the government should give most of it's land back either by issuing shares, selling it to pay debt or allowing homesteading (in the case of national parks, for example).

    3) In the case of "intergenerational justice", evidence suggests that individuals will rationally take care of their property, and not destroy it. Governments are more likely to be pointlessly destructive (the example of Saddam burning oil wells comes to mind) rather than profit-seeking individuals. Your idea of "ongoing needs" is particularly collectivist - you say that individuals have the right to certain resources regardless of their own actions. In the case of children, libertarians accept that, but we expect adults to be responsible for their own lives (children are a voluntary obligation). The difference is the idea of self-ownership. Maybe you could explain why others have a right to the products of an individual's labour?

    4) People are "forced to labour" by reality. TANSTAAFL. In the case of employing desperate poor people, the poor employee benefits. Even if the benefit from the exchange is unequal, it's still consensual. I don't see a problem.

  5. Thanks for the response, Phil. As a general point, it seems to me that you are providing utilitarian rather than principled (rights-based) defences of this problem. I have no problem with that since I'm a utilitarian myself, but of course it does nothing to defend the rights-based libertarianism that I'm attacking. Now to get to specifics...

    1) Suppose all the natural resources and means of production are owned by a small elite -- in fact, let's make it just one person, to bring out the force of this objection. In what sense is the rest of the world "free"? He can hold them to ransom, effectively making them his slaves before granting them the resources they need. But libertarianism allows this. Its only concern is that people are officially free. It allows de facto slavery.

    (See also the problem of joint-ownership discussed here. If we suppose that the natural resources of the world initially belong to everybody jointly, then the libertarian premises imply that everyone is "free" despite the fact that they cannot do anything without everyone else's permission. This is not a form of freedom worth having -- I'm sure you would agree. But it's all you grant the proletariat.)

    2) You haven't really addressed the main problem I discuss in the primary linked post. If we begin with resources in the 'commons', then what justifies unilateral appropriation, if you lack the consent of others who make use of the commons? What gives you the right to deprive them of their liberty to use the commons? This seems a straightforward violation of everything that so-called "libertarians" are supposed to stand for.

    As for actual illegitimacy, it means that, since people have no absolute entitlement to their holdings, the government may forcably redistribute the wealth to the needy, assuming this would have better consequences. The libertarian's "rights" talk becomes utterly ungrounded. You have no right to your stolen goods.

    3) "evidence" is an appeal to utility, not rights. Libertarians believe that individuals have a right to dispose of their property however they please, and that includes destroying it. My argument thus constitutes a reductio of the libertarian premise. This also ties in with the acquisition premise -- how can you have a right to unilaterally seize common resources without leaving "enough and as good" (as Locke would say) for others, including future generations? Again, it's simple theft.

    4) The poor person "benefits" compared to what baseline? He most certainly does not benefit compared to a more egalitarian initial distribution of the common resources. By ignoring these alternatives, you engage in an "arbitrary narrowing of the options". (I discussed this in my initial acquisition post.)

    5) "Maybe you could explain why others have a right to the products of an individual's labour?"

    That's easy: it improves people's substantive freedom, which is what *really* matters (see #1 above). It thus has better consequences. (I'm a utilitarian, recall.)

    If you'd prefer a rights-based defence, then I'd say that every has an initial equal right to the common resources. Your labour does not create goods ex nihilo, your work must always involve some natural material -- and others have as much right to that material as you do. Your taxes thus pay compensation for your use of the material world. That's the cost of our consent for you to use those materials that are as much ours as yours.

    (You mention "self-ownership", but seem not to have read my post on that topic. I'd encourage you to do so.)


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