[Paleopsych] Reason: John Locke Lite: The strange philosophy of a left libertarian

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John Locke Lite: The strange philosophy of a left libertarian 
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    [6]Tom G. Palmer

    [7]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 its hard to appropriate a label outright, theyre
    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 ones
    personand thus can call oneself a libertarianand 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 Otsukas 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 theyre not particularly relevant to the issue of
    left libertarianism, Ill set them aside.) The work is an attempt to
    say something interesting by exploring the authors 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 Nozicks defense of free market capitalism
    collected in his book Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Inequalitythat
    simultaneously demonstrated Cohens 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 Lockes ideas sufficiently that they have
    been fully cleansed of the regressive ideological commitments of
    Lockes (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 Lockes more moderate or
    left-leaning interpreters have not yet provided a sufficiently
    egalitarian reconstruction of his political philosophy. In other
    words, Locke wouldnt agree with Otsuka, but once Otsuka has cleansed
    Lockes 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 persons 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 Otsukas response to Lockes 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 Lockes,
    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 Lockes arguments for why appropriation of
    unowned resources meets Lockes 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 Lockes 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; its 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 Otsukas 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, its
    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 ones 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
    consistencys 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

    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 wouldnt 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
    Otsukas 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 Otsukas 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 authorityeven 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.

    Tom G. Palmer is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute..


    6. http://tomgpalmer.com/
    7. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0199243956/ref=nosim/reasonmagazineA/

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