Link of the Day: Left-Libertarian Theory in Steiner

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Download pdf of ‘Left Libertarianism and the Ownership of Natural Resources’

Hillel Steiner in Public Reason: Journal of Political and Moral Philosophy, Volume 1, No 1. February 2009

This paper by Hillel Steiner explains a position which I think needs to be better known: equality can be promoted without a big state and a complex redistributive tax and benefit scheme. The theory is left because it is egalitarian, it is libertarian because if favours a minimum state. It is important to understand that libertarian arguments for a minimal state are not necessarily tied up with inequality, and that libertarianism in politics is not necessarily ‘right wing’ and only concerned with the rights of those who have a lot of property.

The argument in summary builds from a claim that property in natural resources should be equally distributed, which itself derives from a reading of John Locke’s Essay on Civil Government (also known as the Second Treatise on Government or Second Treatise on Civil Government), particularly Chapter V ‘Of Property’. The non-egalitarian reading of of Locke’s argument is that we have an absolute and natural right to our property, beginning from the (pre-)historical point at which we labour on land. In this view there is no limit to how property we can accumulate in land, natural resources of anything else. The egalitarian reading is that Locke only allows for unlimited accumulation of land and natural resources where there is an unlimited amount. Where we approach the limit, we have to divide equally. We are near the limit of the cultivation of land and the use of it to extract natural resources, in the sense of the amount of the Earth’s surface. Therefore Locke’s argument should lead us to distribute land and natural resources equally. This provides a basic form of property equality which avoids the need for complex big state schemes to redistribute income from the rich to the poor through income transfers or public services. Given property equality, there is more possibility for all individuals to be in a position to purchase those kinds of goods and services. Property equality is achieved by equally dividing ownership of land and natural resources; or taxing land and natural resources to finance a minimum income and unavoidable state activity.

Steiner additionally argues for taxing genetic inheritance, that is taxing parents for genetic outcomes in their children which give those children better life chances and make it easier for those children to be raised. This is offered as an alternative to a assistance for the disabled by taxing the non-disabled, which Steiner associates with John Rawls, I do not find this very convincing, but this kind of scheme to help those who might still suffer hardship in an equal distribution of property/natural resources seems typical of left libertarian thinking, as in Libertarianism without Inequality Michael Otsuka, which suggests supporting the disabled through the work of prisoners. I’m not really convinced of the argument in general, but I think it is worth of study and reflection, and certainly I’d like to keep some of the basic impulses behind it, in particular, a limited state combined with a social minimum.

The simplest point I wish to convey is that libertarian thought is not in itself anti-equality or conservative or right wing. The massive complex state machines used to regulate the economy and social risk, and administer tax and benefit schemes, surely create some economic social cost which bears on the poorest, and which spills over into the authoritarian attitude that state agencies always know best and cannot be challenged. Even from a very socialist point of view, it is surely appropriate to be concerned about economic and social resources going into a state bureaucracy which is inevitably hierarchical and seeing for power and privilege. Surely left-liberals, social democrats and socialists should be concerned with limiting state power and expenditure on administration to the smallest level possible.

Even if we look at more ‘right wing’ libertarians like Milton Friedman, we can see support for universal minimum income, which Friedman calls negative income tax. Another major idea of Friedman’s, school vouchers to give everyone a choice of schools funded by public money, is designed to help the poorest who do worst out of uniform no-choice public education. Other ideas of Friedman might be considered more left than right, like opposing military conscription, supporting legalisation of drugs, and supporting unlimited immigration. Friedman’s emphasis on strict control of inflation benefits the poorest the most, since they inevitably suffer the most when high inflation quickly destroys the value of low monthly incomes or small cash savings. One of today’s international left heroes, Lula, the President of Brazil has made that the cornerstone of pro-poor policies.

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