Liberty Matters

Jan Narveson’s Reply to Eric Mack

Libertarians need to address, very seriously, the questions raised between Eric Mack and Peter Vallentyne regarding, broadly speaking, the treatment of those on the "bottom" (that is, the bottom of the honest-dollar scale, but not the robbers and wastrels.)
Locke's opening pitch in the famous chapter on property takes it that nature belongs to mankind in common. Mack's original essay in effect says that Locke virtually undoes that position. In a sense that's true, but it's also true that he is in a position of having to undo it. He evidently thinks that there is something very robust about the claim, even if it's only a strong prima facie claim.
Now, Locke also says, in introducing the thought, that "God gave the earth to mankind in common." This introduces theological notions into the foundational discourse on these matters, and there is decisive, definitive reason for refusing to countenance such notions here -- a fact that Locke isn't sufficiently aware of (hence the, it seems to me, totally inexcusable book by Jeremy Waldron holding that all of Locke's views depend on his religion, and apparently implying that he was even somehow on the right track in this respect.[1] But Waldron is completely wrong about that. In the present context, the point that can easily be made is: How does Locke know that God gave the earth to all of us equally, as he says, rather than, say, just the Aryans or the Inuits, or whatever, or that he gave it highly unequally to his buddies? In context, it's obvious that Locke "knows" this because he believes, antecedently, that the earth does belong to us all in common, and therefore of course that's who God would, in all conscience, have given it to. The circularity is obvious.
But what that means is that some independent argument has to be given for it. And such argument is, to put it mildly, seriously lacking, even though my impression is that somewhere just short of 100 percent of contemporary social philosophers seem to agree with Locke on the substantive point.
But I don't, and I don't see how libertarians in general can. The reason they can't is simple: If indeed all we have, at bottom, is the right to liberty, then that right must be essentially negative. Now, a negative right over the earth has the problem that all rights are rights against other people. And a right against those others to a "share" of “the earth” is one that cannot be backed by strictly negative rights. If the earth is available for exploitation by free men, then there is no way to infer that everyone is entitled to some, either in the way of an equal share or anything else. If our only duty is to refrain from aggression, then some may starve because others, quite nonaggressively, neglect them.
I don't see how "left libertarianism" can be founded in liberty, and in Peter Vallentyne's account, it's not. On his account, it seems to me, liberty is a surd. But that’s not a point of contention between Eric Mack and myself, so I won’t pursue it here.
The question that remains is: Do we have any business asserting such positive claims if we are libertarians? If we are it would have to be this: that somehow, in the process of appropriating bits of the earth, those who end up with nothing in pure free-enterprise environments, due to whatever -- say, lack of talent or brainpower, or whatever -- have somehow been deprived of something by the rest, the ingenious and industrious. If that were so, we of course could infer our duty to help them out.
But it’s at least not obviously so. The person born with no brain, or whatever, isn’t going to make it regardless of his property rights. The Lockean idea, not to mention the Rawlsian idea, simply can’t be based on that. Let’s agree that the libertarian insists that we not put people below the relevant baseline. (In response to both Mack and Vallentyne, this baseline is simply where people would be in a state of nature even if it’s Lockean rather than Hobbesian.) The answer, unfortunately, is that quite a few of them would be dead. Locke is perfectly right to point out that nature of itself supplies us with nothing. Some technology is essential, however minimum. (I include, say, the rudimentary, innate technology by which newborns seek their mothers’ breasts. It does not, however, include the know-how necessary to increase product when Mom’s breasts, alas, don’t work properly or she is too low on sustenance to keep the supply coming.)
Nevertheless, there are three points that seem to me between them necessary and sufficient.
First, in any even moderately decent times (and if that’s lacking, see point three), there are lots of caring people around who will be ready and willing to contribute to appropriate helping agencies. We who worry about the down-and-out do not have a problem. We have, of course, a horrendous problem with governments whose policies shore up the unemployment rate, but we do not have a problem that people will starve to death in a libertarian world -- at least, not so long as most of them are pretty much like almost everybody that you and I know. The frequent aspersions on private charity by the friends of the welfare state -- exhortations that we shouldn’t throw the very poor on the “tender mercies of arbitrary charity” etc. -- are not just derogatory but completely baseless. It is characteristic of leftists, and a good many knuckle-headed rightists, to say such things, but anyone who knows any appreciable number of real people knows that the cynics simply don’t know what they’re talking about. (Of course, those who will be charitable if they can may sometimes be unable to be so. See point three below.)
Secondly, let’s also agree that modern technological environments make it highly likely that a lot of people who are perfectly competent will nevertheless end up unemployed now and then, and it may be that the skills some of them honed with years of study and practice and that are now redundant may also make it very difficult for those people to switch to other occupations that would get them back on track economically. However, I don’t see that these problems of themselves generate the kind of across-the-board, open-ended case for “equal rights to natural resources,” with whatever Vallentyne can somehow extract from that in the way of hard cash. What’s needed is a return to prudence: saving for the future during good years, etc.
And thirdly, any idea of “guaranteeing” equality, and in particular guaranteeing it in such a way that every individual is kept above some floor level, enough to keep him alive and functioning, has the problem that moral principles can’t of themselves actually guarantee anything whatever. If there absolutely isn’t enough to go around, then what? It is, again, impossible to see how the libertarian can say anything other than that in such circumstances the smart, the quick, and the lucky will make it and those with the opposite properties will not. But as I’ve said above, there is absolutely no reason to think that the world we live in either is now or will in the foreseeable future be a world of such niggardliness. All that’s true here is that advocates of positive rights for all have to run out of gas on sheer supply problems at some point, so far as pure theory is concerned. The earth will get zapped by a comet, or boil, or freeze, and there may not be a thing we can do to prevent mass starvation or some such. Pure theory is for debaters only: Again, in the real world the efforts of so many ingenious and humane people -- think, e.g., of Norman Borlaug -- have simply solved any real supply problem, and they will continue to do so as long as the earth bears much resemblance to what it has been for the past many millennia. The claim that Borlaug is merely “equal,” in libertarian terms, to the most down-and-out incompetent among us when it comes to claims on “shares” of developed resources is so utterly absurd as to make the egalitarian case a nonstarter.
The upshot is that libertarians do not need to follow Locke in his inconsistent insistence on positive rights for the starving. (It is inconsistent: Mack points out that “Locke holds that although uncharitableness is a sin, it is not subject to punishment by the magistrate...” -- and that, after all, is the only point at issue.) Some people’s rights, of themselves, will not keep them alive; but warmhearted, sympathetic, and industrious people will do so. That’s all we need -- as well as all we are theoretically entitled to.
[1] Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).