Libertarianism without inequality

by Chris Bertram on October 17, 2003

I’ve just started, as part of a reading group, Michael Otsuka’s “Libertarianism Without Inequality”: . Otsuka is a political philosopher at University College, London, and well published in journals like _Philosophy and Public Affairs_ , so I’m expecting this to be an important contribution to the literature on self-ownership and justice. We’ve covered chapter one so far, in which Otsuka outlines his claim that robust self-ownership is compatible with equality, understood along the lines of Richard Arneson’s equal opportunity for welfare rather than Dworkinian equality of resources. What I say here is therefore highly provisional, probably involves misunderstandings, and probably gets an adequate answer from Otsuka later in the book. But anyone else who has _either read the book, or is reading it_ should feel free to post comments (we’re doing about a chapter a week and I hope to post some remarks on each chapter as we read).

Otsuka’s claim is that contra-Robert Nozick self-ownership, understood as a right of control over your own body, carries no implications in itself for further ownership rights over external objects. Nevertheless, he want to permit individual appropriation, but to subject it to a proviso. Nozick’s own proviso, in _Anarchy, State and Utopia_ , is notoriously weak and permits individuals to grab parts of the world just so long as they leave other individuals no worse off than they would have been had no process of appropriation ever taken place (in other words, leave others no worse off than, say neolithic hunter-gatherers). Otsuka rightly seeks a more robust limitation, but the egalitarian proviso that he endorses, namely, that acts of appropriation should only be permitted if they leave others with an equal opportunity for welfare just looks far too strong to me. Certainly, it is going to be too strong for most people approaching the issue from a libertarian direction (even a left-libertarian one).

The dialectic, coming from that direction, looks to me to be like this. Self-ownership on its own is just too weak to give people the kind of control of themselves that they ought to have. There may be fun things that we can do with our own (and, with their permission, other people’s) unclothed bodies, but we also need access to land, resources (apples, acorns, ambergriese) and so on. And we don’t want to depend on everyone else giving their permission before we lay our hands on that stuff, because that leaves us at the mercy both of their possibly capricious wills and of the difficulty of getting them all to agree. So, we should permit appropriation (and, moreover, permissionless appropriation) just so long as such appropriation doesn’t worsen the situation of others.

If we make this proviso too weak, we end up permitting propertyless proletarians, and so there are people who, despite being self-owners, depend on others in order to live. Their freedom then, as embodied merely in their self ownership, isn’t worth having. (Note that the libertarian has tacitly conceded this point earlier, by urging that mere self-ownership without the possibility of appropriation isn’t enough to give people the effective control over themselves we value.) Now the natural way to go at this point is to insist on a more robust proviso, with a tougher notion of what no-worsening requires. But Otsuka’s egalitarian proviso, being _comparative_ in nature, doesn’t appear to me to be quite what we’re looking for.

Presumably, from a libertarian point of view, we want appropriation to be possible without getting the prior permission of others. But Otsuka’s proviso would need us to check whether our act of appropriation would have the effect of giving us greater (and others a less) opportunity for welfare than fairness requires. Surely, an alternative notion of worsening, more robust than Nozick’s but weaker than Otsuka’s could get us what we want (viz: freedom to appropriate coupled with a guarantee for everyone of sufficient independence from the will of others). Why not, for example, say that appropriations should be permitted just so long as they permit others to enjoy the capability to achieve a range of valuable functionings (on Sen-Nussbaum lines)? That’s an absolute standard and one which is far less epistemically demanding on the would-be appropriator and allows them to go about appropriating, using, trading etc etc, without getting the permission of others (which is what the libertarian wants).

Against this, we might want to say that if equal opportunity for welfare (or a related egalitarian principle) is what justice demands on independent grounds, then there is good reason to have the proviso incorporate this principle as soon as we have established that self-ownership itself carries no particular presumption about the proper distribution of objects in the world. But then it looks very much as if liberal egalitarians get just about everything they want out of this “reconciliation” of egalitarianism and self-ownership and libertarians get just about nothing. (To be continued).



Prometheus 6 10.17.03 at 4:28 pm

But then it looks very much as if liberal egalitarians get just about everything they want out of this “reconciliation” of egalitarianism and self-ownership and libertarians get just about nothing.

I don’t see the problem here.


dsquared 10.17.03 at 4:45 pm

4 to 6 week delivery time at Amazon, so I think it’s people with access to college libraries only on this one :(


Jacob T. Levy 10.17.03 at 6:28 pm

There are lots of copies at the Seminary Co-op at Chicago; for those of you not across the street from it, click (ships in 1-2 business days)


Micha Ghertner 10.17.03 at 7:52 pm

There may be fun things that we can do with our own (and, with their permission, other people’s) unclothed bodies, but we also need access to land, resources (apples, acorns, ambergriese) and so on.

All these discussions of self-ownership get bogged down when we try to move from ownership of self to ownership of physical resources. Even though I favor a libertarian conception of property rights, I concede that “mixing one’s labor with the land” is a pretty weak argument for initial aquisition, as are all of the post hoc provisos attempting to limit this aquisition.

Much more fruitful, in my opinion, is the approach taken by Bryan Caplan. (Note: I don’t know if this approach is original to him or if someone else thought of it first)

Instead of focusing on physical property aquisition, Bryan posits a pure service economy, where physical property is overly abundant, while labor is not. If we agree that individuals have a right to own themselves, it seems to follow that individuals own their own labor as well. Such an economy can lead to inequality very quickly, but the egalitarian no longer has a strong argument against this outcome, because the premises are accepted by (almost) every egalitarian.

This is somewhat similar to Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument.


Tom Runnacles 10.18.03 at 12:36 pm

‘4 to 6 week delivery time at Amazon, so I think it’s people with access to college libraries only on this one :(‘

Irritating, since I’d quite like to get stuck in to this one.

I may now have to get off my behind and work out how to get access to the British Library.


Nicholas Weininger 10.18.03 at 4:21 pm

I’d second Micha Ghertner, and add that “sufficient independence from the will of others” is an impossible criterion to achieve through any system that promotes “equal opportunity for welfare”. At least, it is in the real world, where you can’t magically rewind everything to the original position and do the appropriations all over again.

If people are subject to redistributionist taking of their property in order to satisfy the supposed need of others for “opportunity for welfare”, then they are dependent on others’ will; you’ve destroyed the village in order to save it.

A fundamental moral assumption of libertarianism as I understand it is that different people’s utility functions are morally incomparable– not equal. Now, not all libertarians share this assumption, but at least some important schools do– I’m pretty sure the Austrians do, for example, if I understand them correctly. Incomparabilism and egalitarianism are not reconcilable, because any attempt to satisfy an egalitarian criterion will involve making interpersonal utility comparisons.


David W. 10.19.03 at 12:54 am

Interesting stuff. Sounds like Otsuka’s trying to rehabilitate Locke’s oft-overlooked “enough, and as good” limitation on property acquisition (2nd Treatise, section 33). Of course, for Locke, and for subsequent libertarians, this became irrelevant with the invention of currency.

Sounds like a good read–I’m going to order it today if the price is reasonable (otherwise I’ll request it from my university library and read it much later on). However, I lean towards postmodernism (or perhaps just away from liberalism) enough to not think freedom must be connected to some version of a classical Lockean self-ownership conception of the self that I don’t see so much at stake in rescuing it from twin dangers of justifying massive inequality and incoherence. Looking forward to future installments in this series, hopefully I’ll be caught up in a chapter or two and can discuss this substantively.


Michael Otsuka 10.19.03 at 7:26 pm

Thanks very much to Chris for starting this and to others for joining in. It’s very gratifying to receive feedback of this sort. Here are some responses to Chris’s post:

I understand a libertarian right of self-ownership to encompass a ‘very stringent right of control over and use of one’s mind and body that bars others from intentionally using one as a means by forcing one to sacrifice life, limb, or labour, where such force operates by means of incursions or threats of incursions upon one’s mind and body’ (p. 15).

One’s full possession of such a right is, however, consistent with one’s being forced by other means to sacrifice life, limb, or labour. If, for example, someone else possesses all the world’s resources and offers you food on condition that you work for him, then he has forced you, on pain of starvation, to work for him. Yet he has not violated your right of self-ownership as defined above. Libertarians and others who object to violations of self-ownership should also object to one’s being forced by these other means to sacrifice life, limb or labour.

Hence I introduce the notion of a ‘robust’ right of self-ownership which protects against being forced by these other means. I define ‘a libertarian right of self-ownership as “robust” if and only if, in addition to having the libertarian right itself, one also has rights over enough worldly resources to insure that one will not be forced by necessity to come to the assistance of others in a manner involving the sacrifice of one’s life, limb, or labour’. (p. 32) In other words, a robust right of self-ownership is a right of self-ownership plus enough ownership of the world for one’s own survival.

I then go on to argue that such a robust right of self-ownership is consistent with the acquisition of worldly resources in a manner which preserves equality of opportunity of welfare. I do not attempt to derive such an egalitarian principle of acquisition from a right of self-ownership or from considerations of autonomy, freedom, and independence more generally. Rather, I derive it via an appeal to considerations of fairness. (Here David W. is right that I try to rehabilitate ‘enough, and as good’ and that I do not think the invention of money rendered this proviso irrelevant.)

Chris proposes that a libertarian’s commitment to effective control over one’s life and independence from the will of others will drive the libertarian to a different principle of acquisition: ‘Why not, for example, say that appropriations should be permitted just so long as they permit others to enjoy the capability to achieve a range of valuable functionings …?’ This is, he notes, an absolute standard rather than (as in the case of my egalitarian principle) a comparative standard.

I believe that such an absolute standard is subject to the following decisive objection: It would licence your staking a claim to 90% of the earth in a state of nature, leaving you much better off than anyone else, so long as the 10% you leave behind for others would be enough to allow everyone else to stake a claim to just enough to guarantee the stipulated absolute level of valuable functionings. Such hogging of the world’s resources strikes me as manifestly unfair, and I’m driven to an egalitarian principle of acquisition as the remedy for such unfairness.

Even if I’m right that fairness favours my egalitarian principle of acquisition over the absolute functionings principle, I’m still open to Chris’s objection that my reconciliation of equality with self-ownership leaves the egalitarian with ‘just about everything’ and the libertarian with ‘just about nothing’. I’d reply that the robust right of self-ownership which I leave the libertarian is something highly significant – namely a right not to be forced (either by incursions on one’s person or by deprivation of resources) to sacrifice life, limb, or labour for the sake of others. I concede, however, that, in reconciling equality with robust self-ownership, I haven’t necessarily also reconciled it with other things libertarians care about. I am, myself, worried that the egalitarianism I endorse is inconsistent with a justifiable agent-relative prerogative to favour those close to oneself. I don’t address this worry in Libertarianism Without Inequality, but it’s something I’m addressing in work in progress.


Chris Bertram 10.20.03 at 10:53 am

It is great to have some author participation Mike! Thanks.

I don’t have a ready response to your decisive objection, and it is a point that I’ve been worrying over for several months anyway in relation to sufficientarian approaches generally. So just a few ad hoc reactions on that point:

(1) As a matter of contingent fact, I’d guess that a 90:10 split between one person and the rest would actually undermine their capabilities. It is a familiar point that relative differences in income can undermine the poorest’s access to various goods.

(2) I doubt that many Lockeans are going to accept a simple “laying claim” as sufficient to establish title. Some kind of physical engagement with the stuff to which claim is laid (by labour-mixing or whatever) might be necessary. Of course, that move and any elaboration of it needs proper motivation, but it seems like a reasonable line to pursue.

(3) I’m still concerned by the thought that the original motivation for a proviso is to block appropriation where such appropriation would worsen the situation of others. Perhaps you think it obvious that if you treat me unfairly you thereby worsen my situation. That isn’t so obvious to me, especially where the standard of fair treatment is something as abstract and theory-driven as equal opportunity for welfare.


Michael Otsuka 10.21.03 at 10:28 am

Some replies to Chris’s latest post:

Re (1): Even if my 90:10 case is not one of them, there must be cases in which one person acquires in a manner which makes him significantly better off than others while leaving them with enough to function at the stipulated level. These would be cases of unfair acquisition. (It’s relevant that you and I have enough to function at this level, consistent with the Duke of Westminster’s owning over 4.5 billion pounds worth of inherited land and property.)

Re (2): I reject a labour-mixing requirement on grounds that it’s unfair to the incapacitated (see p. 22, n. 29). But even if we include such a requirement, we could imagine a case in which one person stakes a claim to a disproportionately and unfairly large amount of land on an island by, say, ploughing it.

Re (3): The motivation in Locke for ‘enough, and as good’ is that leaving that much ensures that such acquisition is not ‘any prejudice to any other man’ (sec. 32). Nozick offers a specific interpretation of ‘no prejudice’: one’s acquisition is no prejudice if it doesn’t make others worse off than hunter-gatherers on common land. I think the following is a more natural interpretation of ‘no prejudice’: one’s acquisition is no prejudice if it leaves others with as much opportunity to improve their lot through acquisition as you – i.e., it makes them no worse off than you insofar as opportunities to acquire are concerned.


Mike Huben 10.28.03 at 6:09 pm

The Lockean Proviso can also be interpreted as unmet whenever price arises for a natural resource. As soon as there is a price, a newcomer no longer has the same opportunity.

Henry George’s single tax (on land) solves that problem by making all pay the full rental value of the land, and not privileging firstcomer’s acquisitions. At first, while the Lockean Proviso is met, there is no tax because the land has no price. As price rises, the rent goes up.

There is no right without a coresponding duty, including property rights which create duties for all towards the property owner. Duties to cease or refrain from former, current, or potential use of what is now property. Doesn’t such INVOLUNTARY duty conflict with notions of self-ownership?

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