Why Do Libertarians Love Private Property?

Matt ZwolinskiMatt Zwolinski published a paper earlier this year, Property Rights, Coercion, and the Welfare State: The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income for All. It is hard not to applaud it, because I find it rare for libertarians to take the issue of property rights seriously. They usually assume that property rights are a given and never address how they are actually liberty destroying. What’s more, this is especially true in that property is passed from generation to generation, so poor people are in no way given equal liberty. It is indeed like being invited to play a game of Monopoly after all the properties have been bought.

Zwolinski argues that in order to justify private property, the society must see to it that everyone is still able to make a living. With the standard Lockean proviso, the idea was that property rights were fine so long as there was still a lot of free land so that anyone who wanted to make a living off it could. It’s all very interesting, because modern conservatives still seem to live in this world where literally no one could be unemployed because there was always land to farm. They haven’t noticed that there isn’t free land to farm and the rest of us are therefore dependent (in the most abased way) on the rich.

Matt BruenigSo the idea here is to yield the point and say that all people should be given a base income, because the way that we’ve structured our society greatly limits their options. Since people can’t just farm a fallow field, society owes everyone a living. I’ve been skeptical of Zwolinski’s work before. But this particular argument is so much more enlightened than most conservative thought. The reigning theory today is that the society owes the individual noting at all, but somehow owes some individuals lots because of the history that ended with the current division of property.

But Matt Bruenig countered Zwolinski’s article, Why Have Property at All? He noted that if all a given governing system has to do is make sure people are better off than they would be otherwise, then pretty much any system works. He noted that this was especially true with social democratic systems — we have plenty of data on that. So basically, although the “basic income for all” might make libertarianism less horrible, it doesn’t distinguish it. (It’s also interesting that libertarianism as most people picture it probably does not pass the Lockean proviso.)

Bruenig doesn’t go into this, but there is a practical issue. In a social democracy, we have a system of government that is strong enough to perpetuate itself. I’ve never heard a compelling argument that a libertarian system wouldn’t quickly and predictably turn into a feudal system. With nothing to stop people from accumulating as much power (including military power) as they want, what stops them from turning their little sections of the world into dictatorships? I get that Zwolinski, as an academic, understands that private property necessarily comes with certain responsibilities. But certainly Mitt Romney doesn’t. And who is it that is going to have the power in the coming libertarian utopia? Certainly not academics.

But Bruenig’s main point is that it is bizarre for a libertarian to understand that private property really does limit liberty, but then turn himself into a pretzel in order to salvage private property. Bruenig noted, “The strong move for libertarians here is to actually go back to the origination of the term ‘libertarian,’ which had to do with anarchist communists.” So why don’t they do that? Well, he provides the main answer: they are “propertarians who masquerade as lovers of liberty.” In as much as they think about it, libertarians always start with the idea of the sanctity of private property. And this is why liberty ends up being defined relative to the government even while all the liberty destroying acts of the private sector are ignored.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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