Front Page Titles (by Subject) Liberty, Property, and Social Welfare - Literature of Liberty, April/June 1978, vol. 1, No. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Liberty, Property, and Social Welfare - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, April/June 1978, vol. 1, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Liberty, Property, and Social Welfare
“Liberty and the Redistribution of Property.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (Spring 1977): 226–239.
Does liberty require socialism and the redistribution of property?
It is claimed that liberty is less infringed when government coercively redistributes property from the wealthier producers to poorer citizens than when government coercively protects affluent producers from the acquisitive desires of the poor. This argument relies on “prima facie rights” and the “importance-to-the-agent factor.”
The “redistributive alternative” (RA) is argued to be fairer than the “property rights view” (PRV). Redistribution (RA) would seem to raise the overall level of social welfare and the satisfaction of wants. The poorer recipients appear to have a greater desire to use or consume the goods than do the producers in PRV.
Conceiving of liberty as the right to do whatever one wishes, we grant that RA involves curtailing the liberty of wealthy producers to do as they wish. But PRV seems to violate liberty to a greater degree since poor nonproprietors are prevented by legal penalties from doing what they wish, namely consuming the goods in question.
The PRV objection—that property laws do not curtail the liberty of the poor since the poor have no “right” to the property—ignores the prima facie rights possessed by everyone. All rights appear to be of this “weak,” tentative, and conditional sort: immunities from coercion conditionally valid so long as other factors do not override them and justify restraining one's liberty of action. Property laws, in this view, infringe a prima facie right of the poor by curtailing their liberty and action.
But do we have a standoff or dilemma since both positions, PRV and RA, appear to curtail liberty? No, because the relevant question is which alternative curtails liberty to a greater degree.
What cuts this Gordian Knot is the importance-to-the-agent factor. To formulate this criterion which measures the degree to which people infringe liberty: “the more important the blocked course of action is to the person, the more the person's liberty is curtailed (other things being equal).” Arbitrating the rival claims of PRV and RA with this measuring rod, it is asserted that “the recipients have a greater desire to use or consume the goods than do the producers. Thus it would be more important to the recipients to use or consume the goods than it would be to the producers.”
Is it possible to arrive at a noncontradictory definition of liberty that avoids the embarrassing and compromised claim of some doctrines to curtail liberty less than other doctrines? Also, how can we establish a scientific and objective measure of the relative “importance-to-the-agent factor”? How could one disprove a rich man's claim that he valued the marginal unit of his fortune as of far more importance than would a poor man?