(Page 2 of 3)
Next, what’s idiosyncratic about the libertarian idea? It’s the way most people think about these issues, which was the point of my article. To use an old example from Murray Rothbard, if you see a person seizing a watch from someone, in judging who is the aggressor and who the victim, it makes a world of difference who owns the watch. Likewise if someone peacefully walks onto private property or into a home uninvited. Most people would agree with the libertarian view.
As for the charge of circularity, I (and the libertarians I know) do not justify entitlement in terms of the noninitiation of force. We justify entitlement in terms of the conditions under which human beings, in light of their nature, may flourish in a social setting. Justice and rights theory are aspects of morality. “Morality as I conceive of it has both personal and interpersonal dimensions (which are … inextricably linked): it is concerned with personal flourishing and with what we can reasonably be said to owe others,” Gary Chartier writes in Anarchy and Legal Order: Law and Politics in a Stateless Society.
To be sure, it is a marker of entitlement that no initiation of force occured in the acquisition of goods, but that simply means that no one else had previously satisfied the conditions bestowing entitlement and hence the acquisition violated no other person’s rights. 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. (James Sadowsky’s classic essay, “Private Property and Collective Ownership,” is relevant here.)
Where’s the circularity, Mr. Bruenig? There is indeed a close relationship between the conceptsentitlement and aggression, but as Roderick Long wrote in private correspondence, “Master and slave are interdefined; so are parent and child. It’s not circular because we can define the whole relationship.”
Let’s go at Mr. Bruenig’s argument in another way. In a follow-up post, “The Libertarian Bizarro World,” he writes,
If you are a libertarian who believes justice requires the following of a certain liberty-respecting process, you have to explain how anything can come to be owned in the first place. That initial move is, by any coherent account, the most violent extinction of personal liberty that there ever can be.
On a fairly traditional account (e.g. Hobbes’ account), liberty and freedom are defined as: being free of bodily restraint. Being able to walk about the world freely and without people stopping you and saying you can’t go here or there is a fairly appealing notion of liberty. This is what things are like (analytically speaking) prior to ownership. Prior to anyone owning things, you should presumably be free to move about the world however you see fit. And if someone were to come up to you and physically restrain you from moving about the world, you would rightly understand that as a restriction on your liberty.
But physically restraining you from moving about the world is exactly what property ownership does. Whereas before ownership you have full liberty to walk about the earth as you’d like, after ownership, you don’t. Should you try, someone (the person claiming ownership of, for instance, a piece of land) will physically restrain your body.
It is true that in the libertarian (and in most people’s) view, the lives and property of each person represent restraints on the physical freedom of everyone else. That’s what it means to respect other people, to treat them as ends and not merely as means. But Mr. Bruenig’s conception of freedom entails the freedom to disregard the lives and interests of others. Observe this exchange from the comments section of the blog:
Me: So a valid account of freedom would entail everyone’s being able to walk through anyone’s home at any time.
Matt Bruenig: Yes. Now maybe you have some good reasons for why we should violently destroy that freedom. But that’s what they are: reasons for violently restricting people’s liberty.
Apparently the homeowner’s status as an end in himself does not count as a good reason to restrict (not necessarily violently) the intruder’s “liberty” to use the homeowner as a means to his own ends.
Of course, libertarians don’t define freedom in merely physical terms, as Mr. Bruenig does. Libertarians don’t talk about freedom in a vacuum, focusing on one isolated person’s ability to move anyway he chooses. Rather, they advocate the freedom of all persons in society. If everyone is to be free, freedoms cannot conflict; they must be compossible. Smith’s freedom cannot morally include the freedom to enter Jones’s house uninvited, or the freedom to thrust his fist against Jones’s head. It doesn’t much matter if you call these prohibitions limitations on freedom or exclusions from the concept freedom. In the end, Mr. Bruenig is making a trivial point.
Even when pressed, Mr. Bruenig stuck to his physical, amoral, and relativist notion of freedom. When he wrote that a purported trespasser is an aggressor only if you think the “victim” owns the property, I commented, “And a rapist is aggressive only if you think the woman owns her body.” I received no reply.
Why should persons be free of bodily restraint, able to walk about the world freely? The likely answer is that each owns himself or herself, body and mind, and thus has a right to autonomy. But if that is so, they may not ignore the equal freedom of others — otherwise all are not free — and they should not do so because a fully human life consists in a life of reason, not force.