Against Libertarian Criticisms of Redistribution

Pt 1: Nonaggression tells us nothing about the morality of redistribution

According to the non-aggression principle one should never interfere with the person or legitimate property of another without their permission, unless they have initiated aggression against one first. The non-aggression principle is sometimes taken to be a master argument for libertarian views against the redistribution of money or property- e.g., left wing proposals to redistribute money from the rich to the poor. I won’t argue either for or against the principle of nonaggression, as there are far more pressing ethical issues. Instead I’ll be contending that the non-aggression principle tells us nothing, at least directly, about the topic of redistribution.

In the definition of the non-aggression principle I insisted that the non-aggression principle applies to legitimate property. I’m not trying to smuggle anything especially controversial in here, by insisting on the term legitimate I’m simply insisting that you actually have to rightfully own the thing in question, it’s not enough to simply proclaim that one owns it. A moment’s reflection will show that this stipulation is necessary, if one owned everything one proclaimed one owned then many things would have multiple inconsistent ownership claims.

Consider the case of Bob. Bob passionately claims that he owns the Atlantic ocean, he actually seems to believe this, and insists that no one should cross the Atlantic without his permission. When asked to justify this, he responds by saying that crossing his ocean without his permission is aggression, and everyone should accept an ethical norm against aggression. When confronted with this argument, there is no need to say anything for or against the non-aggression principle, one simply has to say that the Atlantic Ocean is not actually Bob’s, therefore no aggression against Bob has occurred.

This is where the champion of the non-aggression principle as a basis for libertarianism hits a problem. the supporter of redistributive taxation typically does not accept that the goods and monies to be redistributed are, in fact, the legitimate property of those they are being taken from. They hold, on the basis of a differing theory of distributive justice than that held by the libertarian, that they are the rightful property of someone else.

The libertarian will respond by insisting that, yes, the prior owner is the legitimate owner of the goods or monies in question, but notice that the argument has now strayed beyond the issue of non-aggression into a debate about who owns what. Our point is simple then, non-aggression tells us nothing about redistribution unless we assume that redistribution is a process of removing something from its rightful owner and giving it to someone else but this is part of what is under dispute in debates about distributive justice. The debate is really about who is the rightful owner of what, and unless one can win this debate, one might as well be Bob insisting that he owns the Atlantic. Just as there is no aggression against Bob implicit in sailing across the Atlantic ocean and ‘breaching’ his sovereignty over that ocean, so perhaps there is no aggression in ‘taking’ money off Beezos to pay for redistribution, if the recipients of that redistribution are already the rightful owners of that money.

Put simply, taking your stuff is not aggression unless it actually does rightfully belong to you, and the whole project of the advocate for redistribution is to try and prove that, in some cases, it doesn’t.

In fact if the supporter of redistribution is correct about who rightfully owns what, then in the non-aggression principle would imply that action resisting redistribution is impermissible, as it would be a form of aggression.

Now of course the libertarian has responses to the advocate for redistribution. They can critique the arguments in favour of redistribution and propound their own theories of who owns what that do not allow much of a role for redistribution, for example, as Nozick does in Anarchy State and Utopia. However such arguments are not primarily appeals to non-aggression, rather they are total theories of who owns what. Nonaggression simply doesn’t cut at the difference between the libertarian and the redistributivist.

Pt II: History and Property Rights

In the previous part I outlined why I don’t think non-aggression is sufficient grounds to prove that redistribution is bad. I said that what the libertarian really needs is a theory of entitlement to property that provides a defence against redistribution. Of course many libertarians have aimed to produce such a theory.

Here are two desiderata for a theory of property rights that can act as the basis of a case against redistribution:

D1. It must justify the existing distribution of property.

D2. It must do so without appealing to the state or any collective body for legitimisation.

Let’s unpack desideratum one (D1) a little. It is not enough to establish that people have property rights or that property rights are important to fulfil D1. One can imagine proving that there are lots of property rights, but that they do not correspond to the existing socially recognized distribution. Such a conception of property rights would not be a defence against redistribution, instead it would require redistribution. Instead the opponent of redistribution must simultaneously prove that property rights exist, and that they are similar to the existing set of socially and legally recognized property rights.

Desideratum two (D2) is equally important. A proof that property rights exist because the state makes it so would presumably leave the state in a position to change the distribution of these property rights, thus it would be no defence against redistribution.

The most common libertarian approaches which aim to meet these constraints are historical theories of distributive justice. These theories typically hold that you are entitled to something if you justly acquired it from nature, or if you acquired it consensually from someone who did acquire it justly from nature, or if you consensually acquired it from someone who acquired it consensually from someone who justly acquired it from nature, and so on.

I’m sceptical of the claim that any historical theory of distributive justice will ever meet both desiderata because existing regimes of property rights have been arrived at through morally contorted historical processes that libertarians do not accept the validity of. There is no just chain of transmission for the computer I am typing this on. It was built using raw materials from land that was many times stolen and re-stolen. The company that made it was funded using government subsidies that libertarians object to. Every good was made using numerous other goods, and all of those goods made with many other goods in turn, and you don’t have to go back far in the history of anything to find numerous interferences with what libertarians would regard as just.

These problems ripple through the whole. If I purchase something from you that you don’t really own, I don’t really own it either, and if I then sell that thing in turn, I don’t really own the money I gain from selling it and so on. Call this the problem of spreading contamination.

At this point most libertarians I’ve spoken to have responded with something along the lines of the following:

‘look, it’s the best we’ve got — sure actually existing society is riddled with theft and misappropriation, and this can be found in the history of practically any consumer goods, land or capital that is owned by anyone, we have to go with what we’ve got because the alternative is even more theft and misappropriation.’

The problem here is that by definition it’s not actually theft unless you own it, and on the historical theory of distributive justice you don’t own it because it wasn’t acquired justly. You might say “so you’re alleging that taking anything from anyone isn’t theft- that’s absurd.” My reply is that I’m saying no such thing, what I am saying is that, taking the historical theory of distributive justice seriously, this is what it entails. This is not an argument that you can take anything you like from anyone; it’s an argument that we need a better theory than the historical theory of distributive justice to explain why you can’t.

Appendix A: The contention that objecting to capitalism is objecting to private arrangements purely between private individuals

Sometimes Libertarians argue that capitalism is just a series of private arrangements between consent adults, so there is no grounds to dissent to it. The thing is, most actual exchanges under capitalism involve claims to capital goods and land that society might well contest the ownership of.

Let’s suppose I found a television by the side of the road, dumped there by some thieves, and was about to sell it. Whereupon you discovered me, and explained that, actually, you have a better claim to the television, and so the transaction can’t go ahead.

If I then reply “but this is a contract between consenting adults!” this would be wholly irrelevant because our agreement involves infringing the rights of others. The libertarian begs the question by assuming that the consensual transactions don’t involve trading in things which someone else (say, the state) has a better claim to. This is not to say that the state actually does have a better claim- to work this out we will have to consider difficult questions of moral philosophy and economics, but merely to say that the mere fact that a transaction is voluntary between two consenting adults does not in itself establish its legitimacy.

Indeed the “voluntary” arrangement might even infringe the rights of a party to the transaction. Suppose that you are the buyer, prepared to buy back your own television at considerable expense. In some sense you are a voluntary participant to that transaction, in another sense you aren’t really a voluntary participant at all- you have a right to get the TV back either for free, or at only the cost of a finder’s fee, presumably less than the present value of the television.

Appendix B: The tyrannical king as a benchmark

Suppose that a merchant went before a king and said “My lord, your taxes doth oppress me fiercely.” To which the king replied “Begone vagabond! It is only by my clemency that I do not charge you far more! For this whole land is mine. Truly what you pay is not taxes, but a fee I impose on people who dwell on my property. What you think of as “your” land is really mine, and the land taxes you pay are but rent! It is nothing less than the natural laws of liberty which permit me to tax you.”

From a deontic libertarian point of view, the only option here is to challenge the king’s claims to own everything. I want to suggest that for many purposes we can use the king as a benchmark for assessing the plausibility of Libertarian defences of the status quo.

For example, if the merchant sayeth to the king- “But my lord- thou hast stolen all that thou possess, or inherited it from those who have!” and the king responds- “Certainly it is so- but further theft at this point to ‘rectify’ the situation would just perpetuate the cycle of stealing- best leave things as they are!” This argument would be transparently absurd, yet I’ve heard libertarians make exactly this argument for why we should not engage in mass redistribution to correct past wrongs, (and things libertarians regard as wrongs, such as government subsidies).

Appendix C: There are no golden strings, just institutions

Although this doesn’t strictly prove anything, I think it’s useful to take a breath and clear our mind when we think about property. A lot of people imagine property as somehow metaphysically tied to a specific owner by intangible golden threads, and it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves that this is not so.

Never forget that ultimately there are just objects. Tables, chairs, parts of land, and people, which are a special kind of object. What is property then? Property is a kind of social arrangement giving certain people certain bundles of permissions regarding certain objects, and denying those permissions to everyone else. In the final analysis then, like all permissions and refusals, property is a collection of threats of social sanction, including violence.

It seems deeply unlikely to me that we will ever be free of property understood in this way, or that this is even desirable. Even a communist state wouldn’t want people trespassing in the nuclear power reactor without the right expertise- and what is the right to collectively exclude all people who lack special permission from a site but a kind of collective property?

Essential though it may be, re-framing property as the threat of sanction and violence, and not some metaphysical linkage, brings it into a new perspective. From this standpoint there is nothing especially ‘non coercive’ about, say, anarcho-capitalism, unless you take it as given that the claims it makes about who is entitled to what are ethically just.

3 thoughts on “Against Libertarian Criticisms of Redistribution

  1. Interesting article but there are 2 potential flaws:

    1. Your position is totally open ended to the point of absurdity. It is like an inverse of your tyrannical king appendix. If all current property rights invalid then there are no property rights, including the right of the government to redistribute. From a moral standpoint they have no more right to tell me to give some of my goods to someone else than I do to keep them. All you have done is create a void where all property is invalid.

    2. Ignoring my point 1, there is no reason to use your reasoning to support redistribution, especially ongoing redistribution. We should be working towards justice & restitution, giving back to people what is rightfully theirs. If you think this is not possible then you are in the same place as the libertarian who thinks that “this is the best we got”.


    1. You’re right that this doesn’t really leave room for an alternative ethics oriented around property rights *as a basic concept*, but it still allows for alternative ethics that might assign property rights for instrumental purposes.

      For example, we could think in utilitarian terms- property rights should be assigned, if at all, on the basis of utility maximisation. Or we could think in terms of something like Sen’s capabilities approach.


      1. But is that any more valid than what we have now?
        It might be better in utilitarian sense but is it more valid?


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