Violently Destroying Liberty Is Important For Flourishing, Libertarian Argues

Last week, I pointed out that libertarians are huge fans of initiating force against people (I, II). Initiation of force is, after all, what underlies all private property regimes.  If you don't believe me, go walk into some house the law says you cannot walk into and see what happens. Enclosing unowned land, which anyone may access, and turning it into owned land, which entails violently destroying everyone else's previously-existing liberty to access it, is unilateral, non-consensual aggression under any neutral meaning of the word.

I am not breaking ground in this debate. Robert Nozick himself, the most capable and intelligent libertarian theorist in history, recognized it. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he wrote this about one theory of initial appropriation of unowned property:

It will be implausible to view improving an object as giving full ownership to it, if the stock of unowned objects that might be improved is limited. For an object’s coming under one person's ownership changes the situation of all others.Whereas previous they were at liberty (in Hohfeld’s sense) to use the object, they now no longer are.

The liberty-destroying nature of all scarcity-allocation schemes (e.g. libertarianism) is a function of scarcity itself. You cannot avoid it. Absent total unanimous consent, implementing and administering a system of scarcity allocation requires coercing, aggressing, and initiating force against those who do not go along. This is just as true for libertarianism as it is basically all other theories of economic justice.

Thus we can't ever actually be debating about whether we are for or against aggression or coercion. That's ridiculous. Folks on all sides of the debate are for using force that is consistent with their theory of what belongs to whom (called "defense") and against using force that is inconsistent with their theory of what belongs to whom (called "aggression"). The debate then is always between the conflicting theories of what belongs to whom, i.e. theories of entitlement. Arguments that proceed as if aggression itself can tell you what belongs to whom are vacuously circular and always assume exactly what is in contention, i.e. what truly belongs to whom.

Now some libertarians wont ever be able to understand this fairly simple point. That is because cultural hegemony is a hell of a drug, and also probably because if you've been prancing about the world acting like the non-aggression principle itself can tell you what belongs to whom for a long time, giving it up would probably be a pretty big blow to your self-concept. There is not much you can do to help these people, not that they care anyways.

But smarter libertarians, Robert Nozick for instance, concede the basic point and instead argue for a specific theory of entitlement. That is, they engage in the debate on the theory of entitlement level, not by assuming one such theory and circularly arguing that they are merely against aggression or coercion or the initiation of force.

This is what Sheldon Richman (heh "Richman") sort of does at Reason when responding to my original piece, which is perfect. Once you can get a libertarian to get off their question-begging silliness about theft and aggression, you are basically 90 percent of the way to victory. Sadly, his effort at it is a totally fractured mess, drawing upon a whole host of mutually incompatible libertarian approaches to entitlement.


This is my favorite of his multiple and inconsistent approaches.

We justify entitlement in terms of the conditions under which human beings, in light of their nature, may flourish in a social setting. [...] Flourishing requires the use of physical objects, including shelter and other uses of land, in an environment of respect for and from others. Thus to violate a person’s property is to violate that person.

I've seen this before, though never so poorly put. First, note the question-beg right at the end on "a person's property." You have to be careful with libertarians. They will question-beg ownership even when that is exactly what you are debating if you don't watch them. The debate we are having is onwhether that actually is the person's property in the first place. An argument that assumes it is in order to reach that conclusion is obviously not valid.

But if we ignore the circularity in the last sentence, you actually do have a theory of entitlement here. It goes like this: we should set up a scarcity allocation scheme that leads to human flourishing and libertarianism is that scarcity allocation scheme. But this is an empirical claim that is absolutely debatable. I certainly would say that massive inequality and low-end poverty is not great for the flourishing of those on the bottom, certainly not relative to, say, a social democratic system where folks on the bottom have so much more income and economic security than libertarianism could ever offer.

Moreover, just seriously look at the text he wrote: "Flourishing requires the use of physical objects, including shelter and other uses of land." That right there is an argument for positive welfare rights, nothing more and nothing less. It says restricting people's liberty is essential because we need to ensure people can use physical objects (like shelter) in order for them to achieve their flourishing. That is literally the dominant justification for the welfare state right there!

In closing, I just want you to notice that Richman here is advocating the violent destruction of liberty for purposes of achieving human flourishing. What a statist.

Labor Mixing

Apparently a fan of Karl Marx, Richman's next turns to the labor mixing theory of entitlement. It goes like this:

Fundamentally, one is entitled to a parcel of land as the initial appropriator, not because force was not used in its acquisition, but because the land was unowned when one mixed one’s labor with (transformed) it and brought it into one’s sphere.

This has been panned so many times in so many places even within libertarianism that is kind of shocking to see it still trotted out. For my money, Proudhon absolutely demolished this in his book What Is Property?. Among other things, the problem here is that it is never convincingly explained why on earth someone's totally unilateral decision to "mix their labor" (whatever that means given that labor is not a substance but an action) with something requires other people to give stuff to them, in particular to give them their access to that land.

Suppose my friend and I had planned to play frisbee on unowned land plot X next friday and then in between that time Richman did some ritual labor dance that magically entitles him to violently exclude everyone else from X for the rest of the history of the world. When I show up on friday, what does Richman say to me? You can't play frisbee here because of some labor mixing he did? Excuse me Mr. Richman, when did I ever ask you to mix your labor with this land? When did I ever agree to this economic regulation you pulled out of nowhere that says I can't access things you mix your labor with? Why am I being asked to essentially pay you for work I never asked you to do?  My day of frisbee is taken from me, a great cost as I love frisbee.

But really, this is all just a prelude to libertarian Robert Nozick's fantastic takedown of this theory in his lovely book Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Why does mixing one’s labor with something make one the owner of it? Perhaps because one owns one’s labor, and so one comes to own a previously unowned thing that becomes permeated with what one owns. Ownership seeps over into the rest. But why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules … mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?

Indeed, libertarian Robert Nozick, indeed. One might also add that labor-mixing homesteading followed by an unbroken chain of "voluntary" transactions is not actually how our current distribution of wealth came about. See also native genocide, African enslavement, or really just history in general. It is less than clear, even if you believed in this goofy theory of entitlement, what exactly it is supposed to tell us about what to do now.
Other than that, Richman doesn't really have much going on here. There is a paragraph about "compossibility", which, if you think hard on it, is nothing but the point that scarcity forces you to violently restrict liberty because, in a scarce world, actual liberty to move about as you like may conflict with other people's liberty to move about as they like. And while it is true the resolution of this conflict requires the violent destruction of liberty so conceived, it does not tell us how to go about that violent destruction. Do we violently destroy liberty the way libertarians prefer or the way socialists prefer? That again requires a theory of entitlement to figure out, meaning that talking about compossibility does not itself tell us anything about what system is the best one, just that you need some system to pick winners in the game of competing interests.
But broadly here, I just want to underscore the whole upshot of this discussion. My goal, in the immediate stage, is to force libertarians to stop pretending that things like non-aggression, coercion, and force initiation do anything in the debate. They don't. Since the words get their meaning from an underlying theory of entitlement, the debate is always and anywhere about theories of entitlement. It is not about aggression or coercion or force. All arguments that turn upon those concepts are vacuous and question-begging. All of them.
Once we get rid of all of that noise (which Richman thankfully does), then the debate turns to theories of entitlement. If you think jokey labor-mixing gets you there, have at it. If you think flourishing is empirically maximized in libertarianism despite substantial evidence to the contrary, then have at it. But if I am not convinced by your theories of entitlement, always remember that what you are proposing to do is violently impose them on me against my consent, silly statists. You are, relative to my theory of entitlement, embarking upon a project of massive theft, just as I am, relative to your theory of entitlement, embarking upon a project of massive theft. So that whole vacuous rhetorical game is pointless, and we need to focus in on theories of entitlement, which real-life Ron Paul libertarians rarely do.
So for a libertarian like Richman to say, as he did in his first piece, that everyone basically agrees with libertarians is utter nonsense. The vast majority of people clearly do not agree with libertarian theories of who is entitled to what. If they did, you wouldn't see majoritarian support for raising taxes on the rich, raising the minimum wage, and so on. But you do.