Liberty Matters

Peter Vallentyne’s Response to Jan Narveson


Jan asks whether left-libertarianism (i.e., with some kind of egalitarian proviso) can be “founded in [negative] liberty.” It can be so founded in the weak sense that (1) it is a form of Lockeanism that recognizes self-ownership and a unilateral moral power to appropriate natural resources, and (2) property rights ground negative liberties. It can also be founded in liberty in a stronger sense of being compatible with maximum equal negative liberty. I believe, however, that there is more than one set of rights that are so compatible (e.g., both radical right-libertarianism and radical left-libertarianism are so compatible). All the hard work is in justifying one set of rights rather than another.[1]

Jan writes, “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.” This seems quite false to me. We agree that agents initially have maximal equal liberty-rights, against all others, to use (unappropriated) natural resources. The point of disagreement concerns the conditions under which someone may unilaterally acquire private property in some natural resources, thereby causing others to lose their liberty rights to use those resources. Jan holds that (1) agents have very strong moral powers to acquire such private property (e.g., it’s enough to stake a claim or mix one’s labor, with no proviso), and (2) agents have a very weak moral immunity to losing their initial liberty-rights to use the natural resources. My left-libertarian view is quite similar, but it holds that the moral powers to acquire private property in natural resources are weaker (e.g., subject to making a payment for the competitive value of private property rights acquired in excess of a fair [e.g., equal] share), and the moral immunities to loss of the liberty-right to use natural resources are stronger. This is not, I claim, a matter of Jan recognizing stronger negative rights than I do. It is a matter of his holding that the initial negative rights to use natural resources are more easily lost than I hold them to be.

Concerning Jan’s three final points: (1) I fully agree that we are addressing only the enforceable duties of agents, and that agents frequently help others even when they don’t have an enforceable duty to so and even when they have no duty at all to do so. (2) I fully agree that inequality of various sorts is unavoidable and that, even when it is avoidable, justice does not require equality of outcome (e.g., equal wellbeing, or equal wealth). Individuals are, for example, accountable for managing their resources wisely and are owed no duty of justice to undo losses incurred when they fail to do. (3) The issue is simply that of whether the proviso on appropriation requires a payment to others for any excess share appropriated. If it does, then that is a matter of property rights. The others have an enforceable right to acquire the payments owed to them.

To make this last point maximally clear, 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 that 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.


[1] For discussion of this issue, see Shelly Kagan, “The Argument from Liberty,” in In Harm’s Way: Essays in honor of Joel Feinberg, edited by Jules Coleman and Allen Buchanan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 16-41; Jan Narveson and James P. Sterba, Are Liberty and Equality Compatible? (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.); and Peter Vallentyne, “Equal Negative Liberty and Welfare Rights,” International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25 (2011): 237-41 (as well as the pieces by Narveson, Sterba, and Gibbard in that issue).