Libertarianism and Absolute Property Rights

Although I’m a strong advocate of property rights, I agree with most of what Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan says on the subject at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog:

The left believes that libertarians believe:

Property Rights No Matter What: People are self-owners. Respecting their self-ownership requires a particular kind of laissez-faire property-rights regime. We should have that regime no matter what, even if it immiserates the poor and systematically leads to widespread poverty.

In fact, hardly any self-described libertarians believe this. Instead, in one way or another, most believe that a system of property rights is supposed to solve real human problems and make our lives better. Most libertarians advocate free markets and property right in large part because they think this will tend to make people’s lives go better.

The left wants us to have a debate over whether “property rights no matter what” is true. They’ll win that debate.

What we’re trying to say in this blog is that if you look carefully at what the (smart) left means by “social justice”, almost all us classical liberals and self-described libertarians count as caring about social justice.

At least as a matter of moral theory, it’s a bad idea for libertarians to defend absolute property rights regardless of consequences. Doing so is both intellectually weak and unlikely to persuade anyone not already strongly sympathetic to libertarianism. The defender of absolute property rights will have to face painful hypotheticals such as the following:

What if redistributing a tiny fraction of George Soros or Rupert Murdoch’s fortune is the only way to save 1000 innocent people from starvation through no fault of their own? What if the only way to save the world from an asteroid strike is to violate the property rights of some misanthropic individual who doesn’t care if civilization is wiped out?

As I have pointed out previously, libertarian property rights absolutists are not the only ones who face such problems. The same issue arises with any theory of absolute rights:

Let’s say you believe that torture is always wrong. Then you would not resort to it even in a case where relatively mild torture of a terrorist is the only way to prevent a nuclear attack that kills millions. What if you think that it’s always wrong to knowingly kill innocent civilians? Then you would oppose strategic bombing even if it were the only way to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. How about absolute rights to freedom of political speech? If you are committed to them, that means you oppose censorship even if it’s the only way to prevent Nazi or communist totalitarians from coming to power and slaughtering millions.

But the fact that advocates of other ideologies run into similar problems when advocating absolute rights is no reason for libertarians to replicate their mistakes.

Rejecting absolute rights as a matter of moral theory does not mean we should always reject them as a matter of policy. Political realities such as slippery slope problems, interest group power, and knowledge limitations might justify absolute prohibitions against some types of behavior even though there may be rare instances where it is actually justified. For example, while I recognize that there are rare cases where Kelo-style “economic development” takings cause more benefit than harm, I am skeptical that real-world governments subject to interest group lobbying are likely to confine their use to these unusual cases. For that reason, I favor an absolute ban on economic development condemnations in the real world, even though I would prefer a different policy if we had a completely benevolent government with perfect information. Similarly, one can favor an absolute ban on torture on the grounds that cases where it is the best way to prevent massive terrorist attacks are extremely rare, and real-world governments are unlikely to confine its use to those cases if given the opportunity to engage in it.

Rejection of absolutist rights theories also does not require us to be pure utilitarian consequentialists. While I would be willing to sacrifice free speech or property rights in order to stave off disaster, that doesn’t mean I have to sacrifice property rights for small increases in economic efficiency or free speech to protect oversensitive people from the psychic pain of exposure to opinions they find highly offensive – even in cases where potential offended listeners derive greater utility from censorship than the would-be speakers would from expressing their views.

Finally, while I agree with Jason’s major point, I’m only partially convinced by his characterizations of both libertarians and left-liberals. As he recognized earlier in his post, there are some “hard libertarians” who do support absolute property rights completely independent of consequences, or at least claim to do so. On the left, there are many who define “social justice” in terms of a broad ideal of economic equality that goes far beyond attention to utilitarian considerations, and concern for the plight of the innocent poor. Even if liberals and libertarians agreed on empirical issues, the differences between the two ideologies wouldn’t disappear completely. But they would surely decrease by a lot. Regardless, a libertarianism that eschews absolute rights theory is both sounder and more likely to win converts than one that is indifferent to consequentialist considerations.