Libertarian Philosophy in the Real World: The Politics of Natural Rights
Nozick’s Libertarian Project: An Elaboration and Defense
Perhaps harkening back to Talmudic disputations, it is often joked, “two Jews three opinions.” Something similar may rightly be said about libertarians, who are always discovering new subjects to quarrel about. In addition to existing disagreements over (among other things) the correct moral grounding for libertarian rights, the relative virtues of ordered anarchy and the minimal state, foreign policy, open borders, intellectual property, we can now add the question of “thin” versus “thick” libertarianism.
The first view, which appears to be the dominant one, holds that libertarianism should be regarded exclusively as a political ideology. Meaning for anarcho-capitalists, the elimination of all states or, for minarchists, dramatically limiting the role of the state to its few legitimate functions. On this account libertarianism only requires that we, acting individually or through the state, respect the natural rights of other persons against force and fraud, and does not impose any positive duties, such as beneficence. Continue Reading »
Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia is widely acknowledged as a brilliant work of political philosophy, even by many theorists who reject its key conclusions. Among his enduring contributions are the arguments he formulates for the stringency of property rights, highlighting their essential connection to the exercise of personal autonomy. For example, while not (as often claimed) adopting self-ownership as the mainspring of his defense of libertarian rights, he famously wrote that: “Seizing the results of someone’s labor is equivalent to seizing hours from him and directing him to carry on various activities…The process whereby they take this decision from you makes them a part-owner of you; it gives them a property right in you” (emphasis in original). ASU, 172.
In this process, he addresses many of the considerations that have been invoked by others to limit the scope of ownership rights. This “parade of horribles” includes a stranded hiker whose survival depends on breaking into a deserted cabin (“Cabin”) and a misanthropic inventor who is unwilling to lend humanity his asteroid-destroying device (“Asteroid”). See my Nozick’s Libertarian Project: An Elaboration and Defense, 130. Continue Reading »
Righting Past Wrongs. Lindsey next takes NRL to task for being indeterminate with respect to the rectification of past injustices. More specifically, he rightly observes that current property holdings are shaped by grave injustices committed against Native Americans, and by wars, slavery, etc. He then erroneously asserts that “radical libertarians today [who shall go unnamed] generally hold that the government should affirm and protect the current pattern of property holdings and that any redistribution of property by government is illegitimate.” Then, he asks, “What gives?” Continue Reading »
Brink Lindsey, a well-known libertarian-minded journalist and VP at the Cato Institute, has recently published an online essay titled “The Poverty of Natural Rights Libertarianism.” His broadside is directed against the “radical” strand of rights-based libertarianism, that he characterizes as holding “only a minimal ‘night-watchman state’ or full-on anarcho-capitalism can satisfy the requirements of justice.” (for ease of reference, I will hereafter refer to this doctrine as “NRL”). His central claim is that NRL “is simply too open-ended, too indeterminate, to bear the burden that radical libertarians expect it to carry. In other words, it is impossible to derive a full-blown, operational legal order from these first principles.” (see his introduction; the essay is not paginated[i]). As I will show below, he makes a number of quite rudimentary errors, thus rendering his critique hopelessly feeble and ineffectual. Continue Reading »
As promised, here is my reply to Professor Narveson on the subject of libertarianism and the ethics of abortion, just published online in Libertarian Papers. The Abstract for my essay is as follows:
Jan Narveson criticizes the view expressed in my Libertarian Philosophy in the Real World that there is no orthodox libertarian position on the ethics of abortion. He asserts that fetuses lack the defining characteristics of personhood, and thus are ineligible for what he terms “intrinsic” rights under his, and presumably any other, plausible libertarian theory. My counterargument is threefold: (i) Narveson’s contractarianism can be interpreted in a way that is consistent with the pro-life perspective; (ii) because his theory permits no principled distinction between the moral status of third trimester fetuses and newborns, the contrary reading of his social contract produces a result that is implausible and even repellent; and (iii) even if his version of contractarianism does imply a unique, aggressively pro-choice stance on abortion, there are competing libertarian theories that are receptive to pro-life views.
This dialog occurs against the backdrop of Chapter 10 of LPRW, titled “Political Issues for Which There is No Doctrinaire Libertarian Position.” More specifically, I note that there are “dominant views among ‘movement’ libertarians and in the writings of prominent libertarian intellectuals regarding national security, abortion, and immigration.” I then analyze whether “these judgments can be derived from our first principles, or just happen to be the views of a majority of committed libertarians based on a different set of normative judgments, or on controversial empirical assumptions.” I conclude that the latter supposition is correct.
Had I the space, I might have included intellectual property protection in the mix, but that seemed to me to be a subject of less general interest. In any event, my view is that libertarians (and our doctrine) would benefit if greater attention were paid to demarcating the useful limits of natural rights theory.
There is an interesting debate now underway between two of the moderators of the popular Bleeding Heart Libertarians site, who also happen to be co-authors of a book on the morality of humanitarian military interventions. One author, Professor Teson, takes the view that such intercessions are permissible if they are in support of a just cause; if the harmful consequences of the military strike are proportional to the number of innocent lives at risk; and if the leader(s) authorizing the intervention have soberly and in good faith attempted to calculate the costs and benefits of their actions. Professor van der Vossen, in contrast, holds that the track record of such intercessions is so poor that Teson’s second condition can almost never be satisfied.
This is a timely and well-reasoned debate on an important ethical issue, and certainly worth reading. For the reasons outlined in my comments on the second of van der Vossen’s posts, I side with Teson. However, this piece is directed towards a separate, distinctly libertarian objection to humanitarian interventions. That is, even if we accept that such measures may sometimes satisfy Teson’s conditions, they are still impermissible because financed by coercive means. Continue Reading »
One reason why libertarianism is such a hard sell is that we have no political experience with any set of institutional arrangements other than the nanny/regulatory/welfare state. Accordingly, it is difficult for voters to imagine how a polity built on laissez faire principles would address the various social problems that may arise in a modern society. Zoning is a great example. It is ubiquitous, and critics across the ideological spectrum have accused it of causing a wide variety of harms, including housing inflation, environmental degradation, thwarting educational choice, and so on. Yet it endures, with nary a dissenting voice in mainstream politics. Continue Reading »
I have written previously on this blog regarding antidiscrimination laws. I support them when they are employed, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to end and then redress gross injustices committed against disfavored minorities. Antidiscrimination laws might at least in theory still be justified if required to protect an affected class. So to take an obvious example, medical professionals serving in emergency rooms must take all comers, providing each with the same level of service and care.
I think there are precious few examples in our present circumstances where such impartial treatment would have to be mandated by law. Instead, as discussed below, our antidiscrimination statutes are now being used to persecute dissenters from the majority’s worldview. They unjustly violate our basic rights of conscience and free association, privileges that belong even to bigots. Continue Reading »
Professor Jan Narveson, a well-respected political philosopher, has written a piece titled “Resolving the Debate on Abortion and Libertarianism” in the journal Libertarian Papers, critiquing my argument in Libertarian Philosophy in the Real World that there is no doctrinaire individualist position on the ethics of abortion. That is to say, that there is no clear-cut logical path from the basic moral principles all (or mostly all) libertarians would affirm, to an aggressive pro-choice stance. I am putting the finishing touches on a reply, which I will forward to the editors of LP, and hope to see it published soon thereafter. At that time, I will cross-post my reply here. In the meantime, if interested, have a look at Narveson’s essay.
I have written three prior posts (here, here, and here) expressing skepticism about non-interventionism, the foreign policy favored by most libertarians. As set forth in these essays, I contend that while non-interventionism is a credible defense strategy, it is not the doctrinaire individualist position and, indeed, that libertarians may reasonably reject it.
Part of the basis for my stance is the obvious potential counter-example presented by WW2. It is non-controversial that in the few years prior to our entry, Roosevelt flouted the principles of armed neutrality, actively and openly assisting the Brits against the Nazis, while coordinating with other Western powers to deny Japan access to the war materials it needed to continue its brutal aggression in East Asia.
Thus, more hawkish libertarians often cite WW2 as a triumph of the interventionist approach, saving the world from conquest by the Axis powers, and thereby sparing countless millions from death or enslavement. There is no denying the aggression of or the massive, unspeakable war crimes committed by Germany and Japan prior to our entry into this war, so non-interventionists wishing to vindicate their preferred policy are driven to formulate “creative” responses. Continue Reading »