Property and justice
My earlier post wasn’t intended to be a comprehensive critique of libertarianism, but one interesting issue that came up in the comment thread was the justice of initial property acquisition.
Libertarianism, at least in its natural-rights form, says that holdings in property are just if they are the result of just initial acquisition and voluntary exchange. So, if someone justly acquires some property, and that property is transferred by means of voluntarily entered-into contracts, then the resulting pattern of distribution is just.
One problem that vexes this account is how property can be justly acquired in the first place. The main tradition, going back at least to John Locke, is that one acquires a right to some piece of property when one removes some resource (e.g., a portion of land) from the “state of nature.” One does this by “mixing” one’s labor with it. Determining what adequately counts as “mixing” in this scenario is notoriously difficult, and, it should be noted, Locke held that such initial acquisition is only just if one leaves “as much and as good” for others (the so-called Lockean proviso).
But beyond this question, we might also ask whether it’s correct to say that natural resources start out unowned in the first place. Why suppose that the earth belongs to no one and that, therefore, anyone may remove resources from the common pool and take them as their own private property? Does everything start out unowned, without anyone else having claims upon it? At the very least, this assumption requires defense, since it’s not obviously true.
An equally plausible assumption might be this: every person (or maybe even every living, or at least sentient, creature) has a prima facie claim on an adequate portion of the earth’s resources to enable it to live a good life according to its capabilities. In other words, the earth is held in common by all living creatures to support their needs.
The plausibility of this assumption can, I think, be buttressed by considering the alternatives: if no one has such a claim, then how can anyone be expected to survive and flourish? Alternatively, if only some have such a claim, then there must be some morally relevant difference between those who have this claim and those who don’t. But what could this be?
The assumption that all sentient creatures have a prima facie claim to some portion of the earth’s goods is, at least, not obviously false, and it strikes me as having equal or greater plausibility as the assumption that material resources start out as unowned and open to unlimited private appropriation.
Even, however, if there is a theoretically possible immaculate conception of private property along the lines proposed by natural-rights libertarians, once we turn to the real world, we’re faced with the fact that very little of the existing pattern of property distribution is traceable to a pure origin. As philosopher Peter Vallentyne, a “left”-libertarian puts it:
According to libertarianism, the justice of the current distribution of legal rights over resources depends on what the past was like. Given that the history of the world is full of systematic violence (genocide, invasion, murder, assault, theft, etc.), we can be sure that the current distribution of legal rights over resources did not come about justly and that adequate reparations have not been made. At the same time, however, we have little knowledge of the specific rights violations that took place in the past (e.g., we have little knowledge of all but the most egregious rights violations that took place more than one hundred years ago). Thus, we have little knowledge of what justice today requires.
To treat the current distribution as a just baseline, then, would require ignoring the very principles of justice that natural-rights libertarians want to uphold in the first place. At the very least, this calls into question the usefulness of this ideology in providing clear-cut answers to problems facing us in the real world. By contrast, the alternative proposed above: that everyone has a prima facie claim on adequate resources, could provide concrete guidance in assessing the justice of currently existing arrangements.