John Locke Lite

The strange philosophy of a "left libertarian".


Libertarianism Without Inequality, by Michael Otsuka, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 180 pages, $39.95

People fight about love and lucre. They also fight about labels. A little tussle is under way right now among academic political theorists over the label libertarian.

Advocates of massive redistribution who seek to make every property title subject to expropriation have decided they want to be known as "libertarians." Since it's hard to appropriate a label outright, they're willing to share it: They have taken to calling themselves "left libertarians," to distinguish themselves from "right libertarians." One of them, Philippe van Parijs, uses the term "real libertarianism," because he feels real liberty is about doing whatever you want to do, which means you have a right to be comfortably supported by others, even if you are able-bodied but refuse to produce anything and instead spend all your time surfing and hanging out.

The central goal of these "left libertarians" is to show that one can maintain a core commitment to what John Locke termed "property in one's person"–and thus can call oneself a libertarian–and yet support a state that is empowered to redistribute property on an ongoing basis in accordance with some formula of fairness or justice.

The latest attempt to capture the libertarian label for a radically egalitarian redistributive state is Michael Otsuka's Libertarianism Without Inequality, a collection of essays that try to reconcile individual freedom, egalitarian redistribution, and consensual government. (The middle section, which seems to have been added to pad out an otherwise very thin book, attempts to defend some rather implausible claims about criminal justice and the right to self-defense. Since they're not particularly relevant to the issue of "left libertarianism," I'll set them aside.) The work is an attempt to say something interesting by exploring the author's hunches and intuitions. It fails.

Otsuka, a reader in philosophy at University College London, was a student of the analytical Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen, who holds forth at Oxford University and to whom Otsuka dedicates the book as his "teacher, mentor, comrade, friend." Cohen gained some fame for a series of attacks on Robert Nozick's defense of free market capitalism –collected in his book Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Inequality–that simultaneously demonstrated Cohen's flair for bizarre examples and his weak grasp of economics and bargaining theory.

Otsuka attempts to show that the radically egalitarian redistribution he favors is intuitively plausible if you share his intuitions (which many people will not); that he is entitled to call himself a Lockean after he has reformulated Locke's ideas sufficiently that they have "been fully cleansed of the regressive ideological commitments of Locke's (and more recent) times"; and that as a "Lockean" he is committed to fully consensual government, so long as a nonconsensual super-government is around to make sure that nothing bad happens.

Otsuka complains that "even many of Locke's more moderate or left-leaning interpreters have not yet provided a sufficiently egalitarian reconstruction of his political philosophy." In other words, Locke wouldn't agree with Otsuka, but once Otsuka has "cleansed" Locke's ideas and made them "sufficiently egalitarian," Otsuka can call himself a Lockean.

Otsuka seeks to reconcile libertarian self-ownership with what he calls a "welfarist specification of the egalitarian proviso." That proviso requires that all the unowned stuff in the world be so divided that each person (take a deep breath) "would be able (by producing, consuming, or trading) to better herself to the same degree as you, where 'betterment' is to be measured in terms of welfare understood as the 'satisfaction of the self-interested preferences that the individual would have after ideal deliberation while thinking clearly with full pertinent information regarding those preferences.'"

Able-bodied persons would get only a little, while the disabled would get more, and those with very expensive tastes and little ability would get the most, since they would need the most to satisfy their preferences. (Of course, somebody would have to measure all those abilities and work out how each person's ideal deliberation would proceed, but solving such problems for every human being should be a pretty easy task for any reasonably qualified college professor.)

This scheme is Otsuka's response to Locke's proviso governing the appropriation of unowned resources. In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, Locke said an appropriator would have to ensure there was "enough, and as good left" to meet the objection that appropriation might be "any prejudice to any other Man." In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick adopts a formulation similar to Locke's, specifying that you may acquire previously unowned resources "if and only if you make nobody worse off than she would have been in a state of nature in which no land is privately held." Otsuka asserts that the alternative proviso he proposes is "convincing" and "fair," although he offers no reason that anyone else should find it either convincing or fair. He seems unaware of Locke's arguments for why appropriation of unowned resources meets Locke's proviso.

According to Locke, "he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen but increase the common stock of mankind. For the provisions serving to the support of humane life, produced by one acre of enclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compasse) ten times more, than those, which are yielded by an acre of Land, of an equal richnesse, lyeing waste in common. And therefor he, that incloses Land and has a greater plenty of the conveniencys of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to Nature, may truly be said, to give ninety acres to Mankind."

The only way to satisfy Locke's proviso is to create exclusive property rights, for the simple reason that people produce more when they can reap the rewards, which ensures that there is more for all and thus that appropriation is not harmful to others. Both Locke and Nozick rely on the historical evidence that property is more conducive to wealth production, which makes everyone better off. It seems never to have occurred to Otsuka that there was a reason they wrote what they wrote; it's just a matter of being intuitive, plausible, fair, etc. Why bother with history, evidence, or reasons when you can consult your intuitions and leave it at that?

The result of Otsuka's appeal to his own intuitions is an assignment of property that would have to be changed every time its value changed (which happens constantly in a dynamic market) and every time the population of the world changed (which happens many times a minute). Also, no property could be inherited, as that would be unfair. Otsuka, like the other "left libertarians," fails to distinguish between wealth and value, which are economic concepts, and property, which is a legal concept. Legal institutions can reassign property titles, but if property is constantly, chaotically, and unpredictably reassigned, it's not "property" at all; it has no legal security.

If the way we know about changes in wealth and value is through changes in prices, and prices are generated by exchange of secure property titles, then eliminating the security of property would mean there would be no way to know how wealth or value had changed. The "solution" to the problem of maintaining the kind of equality Otsuka seeks would entail eliminating the very means by which the solution could be reached. The entire enterprise is not merely impractical; it is self-defeating.

Libertarianism Without Inequality is a good example of the dead end so much contemporary political philosophy has reached. Rather than being informed by history, jurisprudence, economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, or even a close knowledge of classic texts, it posits outlandish examples as the central tests of all theories. Thus Otsuka explains "self-ownership" and the right to the fruits of our labor by asking us "to imagine a highly artificial 'society' of two strangers, each of whom will freeze to death unless clothed. Unfortunately, the only source of material for clothing is human hair, which can be woven into clothing. One of the two is hirsute and capable of weaving, whereas the other is bald and incapable of weaving." Otsuka concludes that to force the hairy one to weave his own hair into (presumably rather uncomfortable) garments for the bald one merely to achieve an egalitarian outcome would be a violation of the hairy one's rights. That kind of philosophizing provides little or no useful guidance in the world in which we live.

After affirming that full libertarianism is achieved when you can sell your body hair to other people but the state (or someone) assigns you your property in everything else and adjusts your shares on what, for consistency's sake, would have to be at least a minute-by-minute basis, Otsuka goes on to show that the kind of government he has in mind would be radically voluntary. It would be like Nozick, man! Only better!

Otsuka spills a lot of pixels discussing such staples of the theory of political legitimacy as the difference between express consent and tacit consent and whether residence constitutes consent. His approach reads like a parody of libertarianism, according to which people might give their "consent" to live in radically unequal, feudal, slavish conditions, meaning that libertarianism (as Otsuka understands it) would lead to truly disturbing forms of oppression. But that would be cool, as far as Otsuka is concerned, because they would be chosen.

Otsuka brings up exit rights only to dismiss them as uninteresting. He never tries to apply the theory of consent to interesting real-world examples, such as condominium associations, gated communities, and religious cloisters that have rules governing pet size, loud music, religious observances, and so forth. (I consented to governance by my condo association when I bought my condo. People who like large pets would not have consented and so wouldn't live in my condo building. But no one can put me to death if I play my music too loudly or invite my boyfriend over for the night.) None of that for Otsuka. Instead, in Otsuka's world, people would freely choose to be governed by feudal lords with powers of life and death over them.

After a tedious and unhelpful treatment of consent, Otsuka gives the game away. Remember that all that free choice has to be fair to everyone else, so your property would be constantly readjusted to reflect the claims of others, as demanded by Otsuka's proviso. That means there would have to be constant readjustment of property claims among people subject to different governments. There would also have to be some adjudication of conflicts among the governments. Otsuka therefore imagines "a fluid confederation of political societies and monities [a monity is 'a political society of one'] that is regulated by an interpolitical governing body." He explains:

"It would be necessary for this governing body to possess limited powers which encompass the overseeing of the drawing of the boundaries that demarcate these societies and monities and the settling of disputes that might arise among these parties. While the legitimate authority of the governments of the various societies would be based upon consent, the legitimate authority of this governing body would not necessarily be so based. Given the disorder and chaos which would ensue in the absence of such a governing body, all individuals would legitimately be subject to its authority–even those who do not consent to it. Hence, the ideal of political societies as voluntary associations would need to be underpinned by involuntary governance at the interpolitical level."

In other words, Otsuka "solves" the problems his theory of political legitimacy throws up by positing a nonconsensual government that would rule over the consensual ones. That body would exercise power legitimately because without it there would be "disorder and chaos." But legitimacy is supposed to be a solution to the problem of who has the authority to exercise power, a problem that Otsuka simply waves away in a footnote.

In that note, Otsuka concedes that, "given this interpolitical governing body, what I have just called the 'governments' of what I have just called '[political] societies' would not retain complete monopolies on the powers to legislate and punish. Therefore, given my definitions at the beginning of this chapter, we do not, strictly speaking, have 'governments' and 'political societies' here." Still, he says, "they are close enough to be called that."

Libertarianism Without Inequality is kind of like a serious book, but not really close enough to be called that.?