An Epitome of Libertarianism.

Author:Mack, Eric
  1. Introduction

    I use "epitome" in the old-fashioned sense in which it means an illuminating synopsis of a larger body of work. In that sense, this essay is an epitome of libertarianism on two levels. It is, I believe, an illuminating synopsis of core themes from my recent book, Libertarianism (Mack 2018). And, I believe, that recent book itself is an illuminating account of key ideas that have been offered in defense of the underlying principles of libertarian doctrine--including that doctrine's affirmation of a robust private property and market-based economic order. This essay focuses on three philosophical approaches in support of libertarian conclusions: the natural rights approach, the cooperation-to-mutual-advantage approach, and the indirect utilitarian (or indirect consequentialist) approach. Libertarianism itself delves more deeply into the arguments that characterize these approaches. One understated theme of this essay (and of Libertarianism) is that the indirect utilitarian approach tends to morph into the cooperation-to-mutual-advantage approach, and at crucial junctures, the mutual advantage approach tends to appeal to natural rights ideas.

    After a brief introductory chapter, chapter two of Libertarianism, "Philosophical Antecedents," explores the natural rights views of John Locke ([1689] 1980), the cooperation-to-mutual-advantage doctrine of David Hume ([1740] 2000), and the indirect utilitarian views of John Stuart Mill ([1859] 1987) and Herbert Spencer ([1851] 1970). Chapter three, "Libertarian Foundations," provides a sympathetic rearticulation of Robert Nozick's revival and reaffirmation of Lockean natural rights theory (Nozick 1974) and of F. A. Hayek's restatement of basic classical liberal principles along Millian (Hayek 1960) and Humean (Hayek 1973) lines. Nozick and Hayek both see themselves as defending individual freedom as the primary political norm. Chapter four, "Economic Justice and Property Rights," offers a fairly elaborate reconstruction of Nozick's rights-oriented historical entitlement theory of justice in holdings (Nozick 1974) and of both Hayek's critique of "social" or "distributive" justice and Hayek's defense of strict compliance with the "rules of just conduct" (Hayek 1960, 1973, 1976) as the key to cooperation to mutual advantage. Both Nozick and Hayek maintain that it is unjust to deprive individuals of discretionary control over themselves and the extra personal goods they have acquired through peaceful production and trade.

    "Further Philosophical Roads to Libertarianism" surveys developments in libertarian theorizing after Hayek and Nozick. (1) It begins with an examination of Hillel Steiner's natural rights version of left-libertarianism. Steiner seeks to unite natural rights of self ownership with a view of economic rights that includes an equal right of all to the earth (Steiner 1994). "Further Roads" then turns to Loren Lomasky's largely Humean view that our basic personal and property rights reflect the terms that rational individuals concerned with safeguarding and advancing their life-defining projects would all endorse to regulate their interactions (Lomasky 1987). This chapter then explores Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl's grounding of libertarian "meta-norms"--especially the right to self-direction in one's choices and actions. These meta-norms are understood as the only principles that are reasonably enforced within a society composed of individuals, each of whom properly seeks his or her own self-perfection (Rasmussen and Den Uyl 2005).

    Finally, this chapter explores David Schmidtz's indirect utilitarian articulation of and support for conceptions of justice that are most conducive to human beings living well together (Schmidtz 2006). Utilitarianism maintains that the ultimate standard for ranking alternative overall social outcomes is the extent to which they realize net aggregate happiness or well-being. However, indirect utilitarianism maintains that if individuals or state agents directly seek to promote what they take to be the best available overall social outcome, their conduct will be counterproductive; desirable social outcomes are better achieved indirectly through agents' steadfast compliance with certain rules and institutions. Libertarian indirect utilitarianism maintains that the best recipe for the attainment of desirable social outcomes is strict regard for individual freedom and property and contractual rights.

    Beyond these accounts of libertarian theorizing, the final chapter of Libertarianism, "Objections: Internal and External," explores in some detail the internal debate between anarchist and minimal state libertarians (Childs 2017; Cowen 2017; Nozick 1974; Roth bard 1973, 1978, 2017). It then turns to critical discussions of some objections to libertarian doctrine offered by egalitarian and socialist philosophers (Cohen 2009; Murphy and Nagel 2002; Rawls 1993).

  2. The Natural Rights Approach

    The central idea within any full-fledged natural rights view is that some morally portentous fact (or set of facts) about each person is the basis for ascribing to each person one or more basic moral rights. Libertarian or libertarian-leaning natural rights doctrines take these basic moral rights to be protective of each individual's pursuit of happiness, well-being, system of rational interests, or life-defining plans and projects. More specifically, those basic moral rights constitute each person's moral claim not to be interfered with by others in the course of the pursuit of happiness, well-being, rational interests, or life-defining plans and projects. Each individual is to be permitted to pursue their own valued ends in their own chosen way--except, of course, through conduct that interferes with others in their pursuits of their valued ends in their chosen ways.

    A theory of rights will be a coherent guide to action (or constraint on action) only if each individual can enjoy the rights it ascribes to him or her without violating the rights that the theory ascribes to others. The coherent articulation of a basic right to freedom from interference requires that no individual's enjoyment of the right against interference demands that anyone else's right against interference be violated. If rights conflict in this way, some actions will be both permissible (as exercises of a right) and impermissible (as infringements of a right).

    The way to specify people's rights to freedom from interference so that they will not come into conflict is to construe each person's freedom to consist in his or her discretionary control over some discrete set of resources for action. (2) Individual A exercises freedom whenever she does as she sees fit with the resources for action over which A has rightful discretionary control. A infringes upon B's freedom when she does as she sees fit with resources over which B has rightful discretionary control. When A infringes upon B's freedom in this way, she is not merely exercising her freedom, because she is not merely doing as she sees fit with the resources over which she rightfully has discretionary control. (3) The codification of moral rights in terms of each individual's rightful discretional control of a distinct set of resources for action ensures the "compossibility" of the rights of all persons (Steiner 1977). Given this compossibility, no "higher" moral principle is needed to tell us whose rights should be sacrificed for the sake of someone else's enjoyment of rights.

    Thus, libertarian natural rights theory tends to proceed by spelling out people's basic rights to freedom in terms of each individual's right to dispose of one's own person--one's mental and physical attributes--and one's legitimately acquired extra personal holdings as one chooses. The right to freedom from interference is the right to discretionary control over oneself and one's legitimately acquired possessions. Since one can be deprived of this discretionary control by deception and fraud, one's fundamental right to freedom includes a right against being subjected to such deception and fraud--that is, a right that others abide by their contracts. The need to codify the basic right to freedom in terms of a right of discretionary control over a discrete domain of resources for action explains why libertarian or libertarian-leaning theories--even those that disavow the natural rights approach--repeatedly invoke the idea that each individual is sovereign within his or her "domain" or "sphere" of freedom (See Mill [1859] 1987, p. 9).

    Of course, to assert that people possess natural moral rights over themselves, their legitimately acquired possessions, and the fulfillment of their contracts is not to assert that these rights are in fact respected by other individuals, associations, or political or legal actors. It is not to assert that existing law will recognize (much less protect) these rights. To say that these rights are "natural" is not to say that people naturally abide by them in the way that physical objects naturally "abide by" descriptive physical laws. Natural moral rights are indications of what constraints on conduct each individual may properly demand from others. They are indications of what actions by others do wrong to individuals and may permissibly be resisted. By identifying what sorts of actions violate moral rights and may permissibly be resisted, these natural moral rights specify the scope and the limits of permissible coercive actions on the part of individuals and political and legal institutions.

    These rights are "natural" in the sense that the moral claims they express are not created by any agreement among individuals, by any strongman's proclamation, or by any legal enactment. Nor are these rights a function of social expediency; they are not moral claims that society or the state grants to individuals because it is useful for society or the state to extend certain immunities to those...

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