Libertarianism, Property Rights and Self-Ownership

by John Holbo on April 15, 2010

OK, I’m going to try to raise the philosophical tone of this whole libertarian thing. It’s the least I can do. Snarking is a base motive, after all.

Jacob Levy has earnestly maintained in comments that it is unfair to judge libertarianism by the standard of Bryan Caplan‘s attempts to turn the Gilded Age into a Golden Age of ladyfreedom, and I would just like to say that, in a sense, Jacob is perfectly correct. Let me make this first point briefly (because lord knows this post is going to be long enough). Sometimes people distinguish ‘thin’ and ‘thick’. ‘Thin’ is the kind of ‘propertarian’ libertarian that Caplan can’t be because the whole inability to make contracts/own your own property thing is a straight-up deal-breaker. ‘Thick’ is the kind of libertarian Caplan can’t be because of all the Mill stuff in my previous post: can’t let society play the tyrant. It’s perfectly reasonable for Jacob to maintain that if you are going to pillory libertarianism, in a theoretical sense, you should pick one or the other of these two sorts – or both. But Caplan is neither, in his arguments about women’s freedom under coverture. What is Caplan really? I dunno. I suppose he’s a momentarily strayed ‘propertarian’, although I’m happy for him to speak for himself on this point.

But Brad DeLong and others fire back that it’s reasonable to hold libertarianism to account for the bad company that keeps it. Well, I dunno. I agree that it calls for diagnosis, but you still want to keep the theoretical point separate. Maybe that will even help with the diagnosis. [click to continue…]