On Libertarianism


Ethics


04/28/04


One of the most attractive features of libertarianism is that it is basically a very simple ideology. Maybe even simpler than Marxism, since you don\'t have to learn foreign words like "proletariat". Essentially, it is a theory about the permissible use of non-consensual force. It holds that agents fully own themselves and have moral powers to acquire property rights in external things under certain conditions. These property rights set the following limits of force against a person: such force is permissible only when it is necessary to prevent that person from violating someone\'s rights or to impose rectification for such violation. The use of force against an innocent person is thus not permissible to benefit that person (i.e. paternalism), to benefit others, or even to prevent third parties from violating the rights of others. These limits on the use of force thus radically limit the legitimate powers of government.


Libertarianism holds that agents are, at least initially, full self-owners. Agents are full self-owners in just the same way that they can fully own inanimate objects. The property rights in question are moral rights, and may not be legally recognized. Thus, a country that legally allows involuntary slavery fails to recognize the (moral) self-ownership of the slaves. It\'s also important to note that ownership can vary in strength depending on how strong the corresponding bundle of rights is. Libertarianism in the strict sense is committed to full self-ownership, which is a maximally strong bundle of ownership rights.


Let us now consider some important objections to full self-ownership. One objection is that it permits voluntary enslavement. For agents have, it claims, not only the right to control the use of their person, but also the right to transfer that right to others. Many deny that the rights over oneself are so transferable, typically on the ground that such transfers undermine one\'s autonomy and thus reject full self-ownership, although they endorse a partial form. Those who defend the right of self-enslavement typically defend it on the grounds that the right to exercise one\'s autonomy is more fundamental than the protection or promotion of one\'s autonomy.


A second objection to full self-ownership is that it denies that individuals have an enforceable obligation to perform actions that help the needy, except through voluntary commitment. Some hold that one\'s rights of self-control are limited by an enforceable obligation to provide aid to others when the aid is necessary for their basic survival, and thus reject full self-ownership. Those who reject the enforceable obligation to help the needy typically do so on the grounds that it induces a form of partial slavery.


Another objection to full self-ownership is that it (like rights in general) can lead to inefficient outcomes. Where there are public goods (such as police protection), each person may be better off if some of each person\'s rights are infringed (for example, if each person is required to provide service each week on a police patrol). Given the problems generated by prisoners\' dilemmas and other kinds of market failure, in large societies it will typically be impossible to obtain everyone\'s consent to perform such services. Many, however, would argue that it is nonetheless permissible to force them into providing services (in violation of full self-ownership) as long as everyone benefits appropriately.


As Hospers has stated, libertarianism holds that many of the powers of the modern welfare state are morally illegitimate. Agents of the state violate the rights of citizens when they punish, or threaten to punish, a person for riding a motorcycle without a helmet, for taking drugs, for refusing to serve in the military, for engaging in consensual sexual relations in private, or for gambling. Furthermore, agents of the state violate the rights of citizen when they force, or threaten to force, individuals to transfer their legitimately held wealth to the state in order to provide for pensions, to help the needy, or to pay for public goods.


Libertarianism is not only critical of the modern welfare state, but of states in general. Given that so much of modern life seems to require a state, libertarianism\'s anarchist stance is a powerful objection against it. In reply, libertarians argue that many of the effects of states are quite negative, many of the positive results can