An episode of the Tom Woods Show (a libertarian podcast series) recently discussed a piece I wrote a few years ago for Tax Justice Network on the ethics of taxation. I thought this was a pretty interesting and intelligent discussion and well worth listening to.
The setup, however, was a little disingenuous. One gets the impression listening to the show that libertarianism is entirely free of evaluative assumptions and that in contrast the opponents of libertarianism are hopelessly mired in contentious assumptions about what is or isn’t valuable. They continually point out, for example, that in my piece I didn’t argue for a specific view about how wealth ought to be distributed (a little much to expect in a 1,000 word article!).
The truth is that libertarianism is itself knee-deep in highly contentious evaluative assumptions. It’s easy to overlook this when we imagine that libertarianism is all about free exchange between consenting adults. But the whole system doesn’t get off the ground unless we make two assumptions about natural rights:
Assumption A: Each human has a natural and morally fundamental right of ownership over her or his own body.
Assumption B: Humans can acquire natural and morally fundamental rights of ownership over land and material objects in the external world.
Assumption A is pretty plausible (although not entirely uncontroversial: a utilitarian would claim that our rights over our own bodies are grounded in facts about the promotion of well-being). But Assumption B is incredibly contentious, and indeed it is defended by only a small minority of moral and political philosophers (even smaller if we set aside the ‘left libertarians’ who argue that assumption B is compatible with egalitarianism).
This is not to say that there is no such thing as property. But it is generally assumed that property rights are social constructions rather than natural rights, which we can shape as we choose according to what we take to be valuable. On the one hand, many think it important for human flourishing that a person has some things over which they can express their autonomy; hence there is a need for legally protected property rights. On the other hand, many judge it morally important to ensure that each person has enough for a decent standard of living and that the gap between the haves and the have-nots does not become too wide; hence the need to make the right to property conditional on the payment of taxes to facilitate redistribution of the wealth.
What are we to do if human judgements about what is valuable conflict (a point continuously returned to in this podcast)? I’ve got a simple, old-fashioned answer: political parties represent the options and the people vote. Libertarians can argue for their conception of economic conception of economic justice, egalitarians and sufficientarians* can argue for theirs, and we can let the voters decide.**
What are the arguments for Assumption B? None is offered in this podcast. I can understand why ducking the issue is an effective PR strategy for the libertarian. Libertarianism is far more attractive when its moral assumptions (particularly Assumption B) are kept covert, when it presents itself as a simple rallying call for ‘freedom.’ But the fundamental concern of the libertarian is not freedom but the protection of ‘natural’ property rights. The problem is that it’s far from obvious that such things exist.
*Sufficientarians argue that justice requires that everyone enjoys conditions of life that place them above the threshold that marks the minimum required for a decent (good enough) quality of life
**I’m not saying there isn’t a fact of the matter as to which theory of justice is correct, but while controversy about the ethical truth persists we should decide by democracy which conception of justice to aim at.