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Life, Liberty, and Property

  • David Kelley (a1)

The words “liberty” and “liberalism” have a common root, reflecting the commitment of the original or classical liberals to a free society. Over the last century, the latter term has come to represent a political position that is willing to sacrifice liberty in the economic realm for the sake of equality and/or collective welfare. As a consequence, those who wish to reaffirm the classical version of liberalism – those who advocate liberty in economic as well as personal and intellectual matters – have invented a new word from the old root; they call themselves libertarians. Both in doctrine and in etymology, then, partisans of this view define themselves by their allegiance to liberty. Yet they spend most of their day-to-day polemical energies defending property rights and the economic system of laissez-faire capitalism that is based upon such rights. Evidently there is a strong link between liberty and property at work here. What is that link?

The history of political thought is full of ideas and controversies about precisely this question. My goal here is to raise the question in a specific form, one that I think captures a basic difference in approach between classical liberals and most libertarians today. The difference is not in the substance of the position – it is not a disagreement about how the ideal society would be constituted – but rather in the way the position is to be defended. The key question is: can the right to property be derived from the right to liberty?

Of course a property right is a right to kind of freedom.

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Hillel Steiner , “The Structure of a Set of Compossible Rights,” Journal of Philosophy 74, 767–75.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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