Review: Libertarian Equality

Libertarian Equality, by Italian author Fabio Massimo Nicosia, is a surprising book on left-libertarian political philosophy. It’s not often that left-libertarian thought pops up in Italy, so a brand new book on the topic is a refreshing novelty. In Italy – and probably elsewhere too – right-wing libertarian epigones, particularly of a Misesian-Rothbardian orientation, have been spreading their ideas for about twenty years now, mostly on the internet, with little truly original to show for it. Fabio Massimo Nicosia, a jurist, clearly detaches himself from the anarcho-capitalists (with whom he was involved for some time in the past) in virtue of his personal, professional and philosophical-legal culture, which led him to develop his own original ideas.

Throughout the book, Nicosia has a recurring polemical interlocutor, that is Murray Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism. This is not by chance. The Austrian school, particularly the late Rothbard, appears to have had a relatively strong albeit posthumous influence on the libertarian debate in Italy, to the point that “Rothbardianism” has become the prevalent strain. For the last twenty years or so, right-libertarians have shaped mainstream liberal (in the European meaning of the word) thinking, until they monopolized and gave (their own) meaning to the very notion of freedom. In Libertarian Equality, Nicosia takes nothing for granted and starts from the basics. He investigates the canonical definition of freedom as defined by Gerald MacCallum, only to find out that it ends up incorporating authoritarian behaviors.

Nicosia neatly separates “freedom as a private good” from “freedom as a common good”, and underlines how the former can result in the “freedom of the authoritarians”; in other words, it is not characterized by the constitutive element of reciprocity and turns into real domination of one part over the other. For example, we cannot say, as Felix Oppenheim did, that Hitler was the freest man in the world, without questioning the very notion of freedom thus understood: If anything, Hitler was endowed with a “coercive power particularly intense,” which is different from freedom properly understood.

More broadly, Nicosia differentiates between “libertarian inclination” and “authoritarian inclination,” both being analytical models of individual personalities. Such differentiation allows him to avoid the mistakes of a certain natural-law philosophy (in Rothbard’s sense), namely that “Libertarian rights” are inherent in all men. On the contrary, they are just something someone can aspire to; for, if the libertarian inclination were a universal given, we would already be living in a libertarian society. Arguing this way, Nicosia thinks he can avoid falling into a naturalistic fallacy, as he does not see the libertarian rights as a “duty,” but as the description of a particular being, namely the normative product of a libertarian inclination.

The axiom of the libertarian inclination is represented by the motto “A’s ‘you must’ is not B’s legal and moral obligation”: this not only delegitimizes the state, but above all involves geo-communism, which means that the Earth and the natural resources are common property and any one-sided appropriation does not entail that others should be forced to respect such appropriation. As a consequence, general consent is always needed to validate private property, which otherwise must be seen as an institution entrusted exclusively to power relations.

Nicosia then discusses the so-called Lockean proviso, from which he derives two possibilities: either that each one owns a share of Earth of equal value, or that the dispossessed are compensated. This is the first premise of what the author calls “universal profit.” Nicosia identifies several (thirteen!) premises on which universal profit may be based, but then he specifies that all of them are based on the principle of compensation, and as such they must be judged the second best choice, the best solution being that each person self-assign a universal profit through free coinage, of which the book highlights the redistributive and egalitarian effects.

Then Nicosia takes up a few themes already covered in his previous works, particularly the now classic L’abusiva legittimità – Dallo stato ai common trust (The abusive legitimity – From the state to the common trusts), such as portraying the State as an institution based on the abuse of dominant position, when the state is considered within the framework of competition law, and pinpointing the public goods argument for the State, followed by a discussion on the very notion of public goods. In opposition to the state, inefficient and coercive, Nicosia presents a new paradigm, namely an institution that he himself conceived and called “common trust.”

According to Nicosia, the paradigm of classical political philosophy is founded on scarcity. It prompts human beings to join together and give up some of their own wealth, in terms of money, by subjecting themselves to constraint and taxation. The common trust, on the other hand, is an institution that goes exactly the other way. First of all, it is based on voluntary participation, as nobody can be forced to join a common trust; coercion and taxation are not among its functions; rather the valorization of the common and of both natural and artificial capital are. Here Nicosia presents one of his recurring topics, which is state property, the huge properties of the State, which, according to Italian law, do not belong to the State’s institutions but directly to the citizens. As the author suggests, the management of state property and of all the common capital would be entrusted to the common trusts. The latter would manage the property in order to extract an income for the benefit of the citizens; at the same time, the common trust constitutes a monetary base, which is where universal profit and free coinage tend to coincide and overlap.

Every citizen would then be the recipient of an equal share of the common trust’s profit. Nicosia is not at all opposed to free economic initiative, which indeed he considers an essential element of the notion of freedom, because everyone has the right to be what he is by sheltering himself from coercion, and also because the equality of which the author speaks does not come from the intervention of a flattening authority – which would be a derogation from the notion of equality – but is rather an outcome of the free interactions without the privileges of real capitalism, such as grants, patents, copyrights and other restrictions imposed on free competition. According to Nicosia, once those restrictions have been eliminated, we would see both libertarian and egalitarian effects; but not absolute equality, an outcome that the author does not deem desirable.

What we get is then a maximization point, in which perfect equality matches perfect freedom. An unstable balance, confirmed by Nozick’s notion that freedom upsets models and reproduces inequalities. Such unavoidable inequalities, however, would not reach dramatic levels, as they would be eased by maximum free competition, universal profit and free minting.

This process however cannot be considered an end in itself, because industrial automation processes, in a perspective of abundance (which is the basis of the common trust), tends to make the very notion of the ownership of large production means obsolete, so that this geo-communism can eventually turn into real libertarian communism, a communism of luxury and abundance, not scarcity, a communism compatible with the wider individual self-realization once the troubles created by the struggle for survival become a thing of the past.

Speaking of self-realization, we should add that Nicosia, drawing on his culture as a jurist of administrative law, does not adopt a strict reading of the notion of self-ownership. Rather than of subjective rights, he prefers speaking of legitimate interests reinforced in utilitarian terms, always keeping in mind that self-ownership is a double-edged notion, being often invoked by the anarcho-capitalists to justify both instances of real supremacy and their alienation, and therefore also self-reduction into slavery. Here Nicosia criticizes paid employment, a theme which leads him to talk about Marx, of whom he highlights the limits. Contrary to the German philosopher, given the obvious primacy of power over production, Nicosia sees the State as the framework of the economic system (the State is the capital insofar as it’s the direct owner of both natural and artificial common property), and not as a simple superstructure.

In conclusion, Libertarian Equality makes for profoundly inspiring reading. It surely presents viewpoints that are original, especially for the European panorama, but that can be a useful tool for an American audience too. The hope is that this important work will end up being part of the debate.

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