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  • Richard J. Arneson (a1)

Left-libertarianism is a version of Lockean libertarianism that combines the idea that each person is the full rightful owner of herself and the idea that each person should have the right to own a roughly equal amount of the world's resources. This essay argues against left-libertarianism. The specific target is an interesting form of left-libertarianism proposed by Michael Otsuka that is especially stringent in its equal world ownership claim. One criticism advanced is that there is more tension than Otsuka acknowledges between private ownership of self and equal ownership of the world. This emerges once one notices that self-ownership should not be conceived merely in a thin, formal way but also as a thicker substantive insistence on wide individual freedom. A second criticism is that in other respects the formal idea of self-ownership that Otsuka and other left-libertarians embrace is an extreme doctrine that merits rejection.

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1 On the idea of left-libertarianism, see Steiner Hillel and Vallentyne Peter, eds., The Origins of Left-Libertarianism: An Anthology of Historical Writings (Hampshire, England, and New York: Palgrave, 2000); and Steiner and Vallentyne , eds., Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics: The Contemporary Debate (Hampshire, England, and New York: Palgrave, 2000). In the latter work, see esp. Peter Vallentyne, “Introduction: Left-Libertarianism—A Primer,” 1–20.

2 Otsuka Michael, Libertarianism without Inequality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

3 For interesting criticism of the norm of self-ownership, see Lippert-Rasmussen Kasper, “Against Self-Ownership: There Are No Fact-Insensitive Ownership Rights Over One's Body,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 36, no. 1 (2008): 86118. As the title of this essay indicates, Lippert-Rasmussen argues that self-ownership is not acceptable taken as a basic, nonderivative moral principle—one whose validity is independent of all empirical facts. So construed, the claim that people have strong rights of self-ownership is vulnerable to objections such as the following: if it were the case that forcing an individual to labor for another always greatly boosted the well-being and enhanced the agency powers of the person who was forced, nobody would judge the forcing to be immoral. Lippert-Rasmussen raises an interesting issue, but it may be that social philosophers who affirm rights of self-ownership mean to affirm the rights in a manner that is conditional on certain facts of the world as we know it continuing to hold true. I argue against self-ownership affirmed in this derivative or conditional way.

4 Locke John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett Peter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). On the interpretation of Locke, see Simmons A. John, The Lockean Theory of Rights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); and Waldron Jeremy, The Right to Private Property (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

5 Otsuka, Libertarianism without Inequality, 1.

6 On libertarianism, see Nozick Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974); and Cohen G. A., Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). I want to acknowledge that my reflections on libertarianism and left-libertarianism are deeply indebted to pathbreaking writings on these topics, from opposed perspectives, by Nozick and Cohen, and also to excellent explorations by Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne, and Michael Otsuka (see Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics: The Contemporary Debate and the essay cited in note 21 below).

7 A response to a threatened rights violation can be proportionate even though the cost one imposes on the violator exceeds the loss one would suffer from the violation. If someone tries to cut off your legs, it may be morally permissible to kill the person if that is necessary to prevent him from doing this, even though losing one's life is worse than losing two legs.

8 Here is an example to illustrate the point in the text. It is not strictly inconsistent for me to maintain that my wife is morally required to be sexually faithful whereas I am morally permitted not to be sexually faithful. Both moral claims could be true (valid, acceptable) together. However, if I have no good rationale for maintaining this pair of claims, my position is incoherent.

9 This claim in the text slides over tricky issues. Consider a “no waste” proviso: One is permitted to appropriate unowned plots of land as private property provided one works the land productively in some way and does not let it go to waste. In a scenario in which persons live isolated from one another, this “no waste” constraint bars me from appropriating land if my personal traits do not enable me to work it productively (given isolation, there is no possibility of appropriating land and contracting with another able-bodied person to work it). Should the “no waste” proviso be construed as violating the proposal in the text that rules regarding permissible appropriation cannot discriminate among persons on the basis of their personal traits? To answer this question one would have to clarify the proposal.

10 See Railton Peter, “Locke, Stock, and Peril: Natural Property Rights, Pollution, and Risk” (1985), reprinted in Railton , Facts, Values, and Norms: Essays Toward a Morality of Consequence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 187225; Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, chap. 4; and Arneson Richard J., “The Shape of Lockean Rights: Fairness, Pareto, Moderation, and Consent,” Social Philosophy and Policy 22, no. 1 (2005): 255–85.

11 Otsuka, Libertarianism without Inequality, 15. Otsuka's second right implies that other people—governments included—have no moral right to tax the income that self-owning individuals gain just from using their minds and bodies in mutually agreed upon ways. Nor would other people—governments included—have a moral right to regulate activities that self-owning individuals freely agree to conduct among themselves. Whatever terms individuals freely agree to are the terms on which they should interact. So says Otsuka's second right. Although extensive and in a way strong, this right is also very limited, and in a way very weak. The right to use one's mind and body as one chooses implies nothing about what rights one has, if any, to use or own any part of the Earth other than one's body. Otsuka's second right does not ensure that one is entitled to the air one breathes, the physical space one's body must occupy, or the land one must stand on in order to stay alive on this Earth.

12 Ibid., 43. Otsuka is here quoting a formulation in Arneson Richard, “Primary Goods Reconsidered,” Noûs 24 (1990): 429–54, at 448.

13 John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, in Laslett, ed., Two Treatises, sec. 34.

14 Otsuka, Libertarianism without Inequality, 32.

15 Ibid., 2–3.

16 How does the Otsuka proposal violate condition 2? This is a matter of interpretation. Otsuka requires that an appropriation of a part of the Earth that would improve one's welfare beyond bare survival is permissible only if that appropriation in the circumstances would achieve equal opportunity for welfare for all persons. This requirement does not, on its face, discriminate among persons on the basis of the personal traits they happen to possess. However, the more able one is, the less one is permitted to appropriate, and the less able one is, the more one is permitted to appropriate, and this is the intended impact of the formulation. The Otsuka rule on permissible appropriation is set so as to nullify the impact of differential native endowments of personal traits on the distribution of well-being. Equal opportunity for welfare is achieved by forbidding persons favored in personal traits to appropriate unless they help those disfavored in personal traits to the required extent. I contend that the description “varies the amount one is permitted to appropriate according to the quality of one's native personal traits” is too close to the description “discriminates on the basis of one's native personal traits” for it to be acceptable to draw a line between them for the purpose of deciding whether the Otsuka rules are discriminatory.

17 Ibid., 33–34.

18 Am I being unfair here? Otsuka says that substantial real freedom to do what one chooses with one's own body and mind and egalitarian world ownership would be compatible in some circumstances. I say that substantial real freedom regarding oneself would be incompatible with egalitarian world ownership in some circumstances. When we examine these cases of conflict, we find that egalitarian world ownership of the sort Otsuka finds congenial trenches too harshly on real freedom regarding oneself for the resultant doctrine to claim libertarian credentials. The resultant doctrine appears counterintuitive even to someone of my persuasion, who disavows libertarian self-ownership.

19 Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 174–82.

20 For one view of how to accommodate luck in moral principles, see Arneson Richard, “Luck Egalitarianism Interpreted and Defended,” Philosophical Topics 32, nos. 1 and 2 (2004): 120. For another view, see Cohen G. A., Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

21 Vallentyne Peter, Steiner Hillel, and Otsuka Michael, “Why Left-Libertarianism Is Not Incoherent, Indeterminate, or Irrelevant: A Reply to Fried,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 33, no. 2 (2005): 201–15; see p. 209.

22 Vallentyne, “Introduction: Left-Libertarianism—A Primer,” 4–5.

23 There are two different ways of measuring the cost of one extra rescue in order to fix the point at which further rescues are not required. One might hold that with this one contemplated extra rescue effort, the total cost of the rescue efforts undertaken by the rescuer (over her lifetime? over a shorter stretch of time?—there are different possibilities here) exceeds a stipulated level. Alternatively, one might hold that as the rescuer engages in more and more rescues, the cost to the agent of the next single rescue effort tends to mount, and eventually reaches a point at which the cost to the agent of that next single rescue effort, given what that effort would achieve, is sufficiently high that the agent is not morally bound to undertake it.

24 How can a person in need have a right that you rescue some person other than herself? Does the disjunctive right proposed in the text make sense? Yes, I say. When a set of people hold a disjunctive right to aid on your part, each has a conditional right that you aid her unless you are instead giving aid to another person in the set. This sort of conditional right is no more mysterious than a back-up job offer. Being the recipient of such a conditional offer, I have a right to be offered the job if and only if the first-ranked candidate, to whom the job has been offered, turns it down. I thank Ellen Paul for pressing for clarification on this point.

25 Some philosophers who are otherwise tempted to a position close to affirmation of full self-ownership balk at voluntary slavery. See Mill John Stuart, On Liberty (1859), ed. Rapaport Elizabeth (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1979), chap. 4, para. 11.

26 For more on this point, see Arneson Richard, “Joel Feinberg and the Justification of Hard Paternalism,” Legal Theory 11 (2005): 259–84.

27 Vallentyne, “Introduction: Left-Libertarianism—A Primer,” 4.

28 Nicholas Jolley emphasizes Locke's theological premises and their bearing on the proper interpretation of his moral and political views in Jolley , Locke: His Philosophical Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), chap. 10. In this connection, see also Simmons, The Lockean Theory of Rights, chap. 1.

29 Humans are semirational agents, who possess limited rational agency capacity. Humans fail to be fully rational in forming beliefs on the basis of the available evidence, reasoning correctly from given premises, discerning the good and the right, and so on.

30 Simmons, The Lockean Theory of Rights, 46–59.

31 Locke, First Treatise of Government, sec. 42, cited after Simmons, The Lockean Theory of Rights, 327. I follow Simmons in supposing that, on this point, we may take the views of the author of the First Treatise as likely close to those of the author of the Second Treatise, so here what is said in the former work should inform our interpretation of the latter. At least, Locke nowhere in the Second Treatise contradicts the views on the duty of charity explicitly stated in the First Treatise.

32 Locke, Second Treatise, sec. 6.

33 See note 21.

34 Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 178–82.

35 Ibid., 30; see footnote at bottom of page.

36 The statement in the text is indebted to the discussion in Thomson Judith Jarvis, The Realm of Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), chap. 6. Thomson adds that the moral importance of a particular right on a particular occasion is a function of how bad the consequences will be for the right-holder if the right is not respected. Thomson favors a formulation which does not permit aggregation of costs incurred by many non-right-holders if the right is not infringed to balance the costs incurred by the right-holder if the right is infringed. Instead, we are to compare the costs that would be incurred by the one non-right-holder who would suffer the most from the fulfillment of the right. She calls this aspect of her view the “High Threshold Thesis.” In my view, it merits rejection.

37 Here I am simply assuming that policies and actions that will bring about good consequences, as picked out by the right principles of outcome assessment, will coincide with policies and actions that merit the description “left-wing.” To argue for this, I would need to defend a standard for evaluating consequences and show that producing good consequences so understood requires left-wing policies, not right-wing ones, in actual and likely circumstances.

I thank Ellen Paul for her astute criticisms and questions directed at an earlier draft of this essay.

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