Liberty Matters

Jan Narveson’s Comments on Eric Mack and Michael Zuckert


It is easy to misstate and to misread the view of us “reductivists” on moral matters, and it may be that Eric and I agree more than he thinks. His marijuana growers are of course right to complain about the thieves who deprive them of the fruits of their labors. The ground of their complaint is of the essence: Others intervened to lower their utility level – their quality of life -- relative to a nonaggressive Lockean baseline. But the complaint itself is expressed precisely and correctly in emotivist-approved terms – those thieves are a bunch of “shits.” To say this we surely need no further metaphysics, do we? (Of course, government intervention here is nearly at its worst and makes it most unlikely that the growers will be recompensed. In such a situation, use of “deontological” language is sure to flourish!

Eric’s response to me interacts with a point of Zuckert’s. The baseline of interaction is always the same: Lockean (and Hobbesian) nonaggression. Interactions that worsen no one’s condition are permitted; interactions that lower anyone’s condition are not. Aggression mucks up social relations, giving victims reason to react defensively, instead of being free to do their best with their natural endowments, such natural resources as may remain, and exchanges with others who have increased their property meanwhile. In the largely hypothetical original state, a person’s capital is mostly natural and affords a barely tolerable living; in developed social conditions, it makes even the day-laborer remarkably well off by comparison. But all that changes is the level of typical legitimate possessions of the rest of society. Given the potent combination of normal entrepreneurship plus normal levels of compassion, as time goes by this level gets very high.
None of the above entails anything about how much actual inequality there will be. We should note that as regards any Lockean intention of justifying the specific kinds of inequalities prevailing in his day, the huge problem is simply that the British landed gentry got their land by conquest and not by Locke-approved means. Justifying that on libertarian grounds is, prima facie, impossible. It’s a wholly different problem than the “problem” of justifying Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. The latter’s holdings are (unless there are things going on that I don’t know about) due to beneficial interaction with millions and millions of people who freely spend their legitimately earned money on things they like or can use to advantage. Insofar as that was the case with persons of whatever class in 17th-century England, the moral situation is precisely the same.

Surely the problem of today is government “control” of economic relations. That was a factor in Locke’s time too, but not, I would think, nearly as great a one.