Last week I set out Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long’s argument that libertarianism can’t be reasonably dismissed as strange. (A modest objective, to be sure.) After all, Long writes, mainstream libertarianism holds that each individual has a right not to be aggressed against, aggression being defined descriptively (not normatively) as the initiation of physical force. What’s weird about that? To those who object that libertarians believe in only that right and no others, Long responds that other alleged rights, say, positive welfare rights, would have to conflict with the right not to be aggressed against, making for an incoherent theory. As I summed up the argument:
If people had rights in addition to the right to be free from aggression, that would indicate that they had enforceable claims against others whose alleged rights violation did not entail the use of aggressive force. (If it did entail the use of aggressive force, we would … not be talking about an additional right.) That would in turn indicate that the one whose alleged other right is violated could legitimately use force to compel others to act in a certain way. (Remember, that’s an important part of what it means to have a right.) But since by stipulation those others had not used aggressive force, the force used against them in defense of the alleged other right would itself entail aggression.
In other words, Smith’s right to be free from aggression would clash with Jones’s proposed other right. That is incoherent, unless we dump the right not to be aggressed against — which would open up a horrendous can of worms.
But that was only one half of Long’s paper. It’s worthwhile to look at the second half.
Long begins by addressing a claim that critics of the libertarian theory of property rights often make, namely, that using a resource in someone else’s possession without consent does not constitute aggression:
Libertarians, notoriously, condemn as unrightful any interference with private property. But how is this connected with the libertarian position on aggression? After all, someone could acknowledge a right to be free from initiatory force, but deny that seizing someone’s external possessions counts as initiatory force, or indeed as force at all.
(Matt Bruenig makes this objection to libertarianism, to which I respond here.)
This is an important matter for libertarians, as Long explains: “Since libertarians accept the Positive Thesis” that human beings have only the right not to be aggressed against, “they can acknowledge a right to control external resources only insofar as interference with such control would constitute initiatory force.”
But how can interference count as initiatory force when perhaps no force at all is used? If I see your bicycle leaning up against the fence at your home and use it, without asking, to run errands, how can it be said that I have initiated force against you? I don’t seem to have used force at all.
To see why libertarians reasonably interpret this as aggression, Long asks us to
Imagine a world in which people freely expropriate other people’s possessions; nobody initiates force directly against another person’s body, but subject to that constraint, people regularly grab any external resource they can get their hands on, regardless of who has made or been using the resource. Any conception of aggression according to which the world so described is free of aggression is not a plausible one.
In a note Long embraces “a broadly Lockean account in which a person’s right to exclusive control over her possessions is seen as closely analogous to her right to exclusive control over the molecules currently composing her body.” But he hastens to add that “I do not take my present argument to depend on the correctness of this account, since at the moment my thesis is not that the libertarian view of property is true, but rather that it is, while the welfare-statist view is not, intelligible as an application of the Positive Thesis,” that is, that persons have a right not to be aggressed against.
Thus, Long continues, some uses of external possessions would have to count as aggression, and stopping such uses would therefore not count as aggression; in fact it would be permissible under the libertarian theory of rights, since rights entail the permissibility of using force against violators. “In short,” Long writes, “we are committed to a system of property rights – that is, a set of principles determining when one may, and when one may not, interfere with a person’s control over some external resource.”
As already indicated, Long’s purpose is not to show that libertarian rights theory is “decisively superior” to a theory of welfare rights, but only that welfare-rights theory has serious problems not found in the libertarian theory.
We must back up a step. Long notes that welfare statists are not committed to rejecting property rights. Rather, the welfare statist believes that when government transfers resources from one person to another, it is simply recognizing and enforcing the recipient’s (alleged) rightful property claim to those resources. That is, the welfare statist “is asserting a right, on the part of one group, to exercise control over certain resources that have heretofore been under the control of another group. Hence the libertarian and the welfare-statist disagree, not about the existence of property rights, but about the transfer conditions of those rights.”
Indeed. Libertarians hold that resources may be transferred only by consent. But, Long notes, “for the welfare-statist, such a transfer of property rights can be triggered not only by mutual consent, but also by, e.g., Y’s need, regardless of X’s consent.”
The question is whether the welfare-statist approach has serious flaws that the libertarian theory escapes.
Keep in mind that mainstream libertarian property-rights theory gets off the ground with the Lockean labor-theory of just initial appropriation. This then leads to what Long calls “justice in transfer (mutual consent), and justice in rectification (say, restitution plus damages).” He continues:
I count as initiating force against a person if I seize an external resource that she is entitled to by the application of those three principles. If she is not entitled to the resource under these principles, but is in possession of the resource anyway, then my seizing the resource counts as force, but not as initiatory force, so long as I am acting on behalf of whichever person is entitled to the resource; otherwise I am initiating force against that person.
For Long, “this is at least a possible and coherently intelligible way of instantiating that right” to be free from aggression — which is more than can be said for the welfare statist’s theory of rights. I refer you to Long’s paper for the details. Suffice it to say here that problems abound with a theory which holds that a person can be transformed from a legitimate holder of a resource to an aggressor with respect to that resource without having done anything at all.
Moreover, the welfare statist doesn’t say that individuals in need have a right to appropriate resources directly. Only the government has that right.
But now it is the government’s right to control … resources that stands in need of justification. Since governments, on any liberal view, are not mystical bodies of social union but are simply collections of individuals, on an equal moral footing with the individuals they govern, a government can have no rights in excess of the sum of the rights of the individuals composing it.
Thus “the libertarian’s ethical and political commitments should now be, if not compelling, then at least comprehensible” — which is what Long sought to accomplish with his paper.