Liberty Matters

Jan Narveson’s Comment on Peter Vallentyne


I think that the idea that Mankind owns The Earth In Common and Equally is untenable as well as, in the case of Locke, unmotivated. Peter’s latest argument here is interesting, but seems to me flawed. He says, “Suppose that: (1) one person unconditionally owns a tract of land and some buildings on it (as Jan might hold), (2) she transfers full ownership of the buildings to her husband, and (3) she transfers full ownership of the land to her husband, except that it is conditional on his making an annual payment to each of the two adult children (while alive) equal to one third of the competitive rental value of the land. This situation can arise under Jan’s version of right-libertarianism. Left-libertarianism merely allows something like this arises for all natural resources. Jan and others can reasonably reject this substantive view. I don’t, however, see how this view is any less compatible with maximum equal negative liberty than Jan’s preferred view.”
Here the problem is that while it is easy to see how some individual who owns something can give it to someone else with liens, and so, as Peter says, such “a situation … can arise” on my version of libertarianism, it simply doesn’t follow that libertarianism can even allow that this could be the general case. For obviously, at the start, somebody has to be in the position of the initial extender of that qualified right to others, meaning that that person was not under the obligation to make an annual payment. But if Peter’s idea is right, everybody including that person has to be in that condition – and where could that come from in a regime of pure negative rights? (Of course, you could succumb to the theological infection and suppose that God, who after all made it all, was in that position and … but we have seen through such gambits.)

More generally: Vallentyne’s idea that we can solve the otherwise embarrassing problem of attributing a workable value to what “everyone” is supposed to get in the scheme of universal ownership of undeveloped resources seems to me not workable. The value of strictly natural resources qua natural is zero. This remains true no matter how far mankind has come along: unless and until someone is in a position to exchange the resource with someone else, in return for something else, there is no economic value to discuss. But once there is, it arises from the activities of individual people in using bits of nature. The idea that when Jones comes across x in a strictly natural state and “takes it into his possession,” he is thereby, as the unjustifiably fashionable phrase has it, depriving someone else of the liberty of taking it, is entirely mistaken. Everyone’s liberty is constrained by everyone else’s liberty, which means that nobody gets to aggress against anyone else – to deprive anyone else of the fruits of his or her labor, or inflict wounds, disease, or death on any innocent person. And to claim that Smith is noninnocent because he has undertaken to use something not previously used by anyone else, is a misuse of the notion of “aggression.” It is logically impossible for us all to acquire the same item: Ownership means control, and if your and my desires, interests, willings are different with respect to the use of particular item x, then somebody must necessarily be frustrated. The full possession of any given thing presents a zero-sum game. And there cannot – logically cannot – be a universal solution to such a game.

But libertarianism doesn’t have that problem, because it is essentially historical: If person A gets there first, then x is no longer in a state of undeveloped, unpossessed nature, and so person B who comes next cannot in his turn make an initial acquisition of x. Instead, B will be aggressing against A if B undertakes use of x without A’s permission.

Writers on Locke tend to talk about three possible cases of legitimate acquisition: finding, making, and transfer from some previous owner – i.e., initial acquisition, creation, and transfer. But the first two are not generically distinct, for when anyone takes anything into use, that person is creating value: The item now serves a purpose that it didn’t before (even if the owner chooses not to alter it, like those who leave their suburban yards wild instead of planting and mowing grass there.) That’s why A is now in a position to consider exchange, if some B is likewise in possession of something else, y, such that A’s and B’s situations with respect to those things can be voluntarily reversed – A supplying B with x and B supplying A with y.

That is why Locke is essentially right. All rights are rights to act, to do or not do as we choose, and the ownership of things is just the right to perform actions involving the things in question. When those things are inordinately complex and “artificial,” requiring immense technology to produce (such as electron scanning microscopes), the point may be more obvious but the logic is precisely the same.

"The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions."

If we could talk of equal ownership of nature, each person’s share would have a value of zero, since what is supposed to be shared in that condition has that value. And once we are into sharing things that do have value, that value arises from use, from work, and so the Vallentynian egalitarian would be giving us all a share in everyone else’s labor – the very thing that his theory says we are not entitled to do with anything insofar as it does have human labor “mixed with it.”
Thus “left” libertarianism is not a coherent theory. There isn’t “left” and “right” libertarianism: there is either libertarianism or not. (Or: There is libertarianism supplemented by one sort of mistake (say, Marxist), or that sort supplemented with another sort (say, Henry George’s, as just discussed), and so on. But basically there is just the one fundamental moral idea: that no one is to use force or fraud (which I think can be analyzed into a sort of force) against anyone who has not in his turn used it against others; or in Hobbes’s terminology, no one is to make war against any peaceable person; or in Locke’s, that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”