The Brief Refutation of Most (Right) Libertarians

If it is to fit with the actual political beliefs of most libertarians, (right) libertarianism as a political philosophy needs to do two things:

1.Show that property ownership isn’t simply an arbitrary legal or culturally recognized claim, but represents a real moral entitlement that must be respected.

2. Show that actual, existing claims to property ownership are, at least largely, legitimate property claims. (In other words, that most apparent property claims really do reflect property ownership.)

It’s obvious though that 1 & 2 are in tension. Because if stolen goods should be considered as property, and theft is legitimate, effectively anything goes, but by the libertarian’s own standards, almost everything is stolen. Consider, for example, the vast amounts of corporate property which, on a libertarian account, are basically stolen goods since they would be impossible without subsidies. Consider also the vast quantities of land which are stolen, especially and most obviously in colonized nations like Australia, North America etc.- but even in Europe there is probably not a stretch of land that has not been stolen at some point. Worse, the illegitimacy of this property ripples out through the economy. If own a widget maker which is, effectively, stolen goods, and I make widgets with it, those widgets are not mine and I don’t have the right to sell them, they are effectively stolen goods. If I do sell them the new owner is an owner in name only. Thus like an infection, illegitimacy spreads through the economy, and everything is effectively stolen goods.

Some Libertarians respond with the suggestion that before we could enter into a Libertarian Utopia, a phase of redistribution is necessary. Effectively they drop (2). Cut it all up, and give everyone an equal or other non-arbitrary amount they suggest. But while they may argue this from the armchair, in the daily conduct of political debate they always seem to accept and defend existing property claims as legitimate.

Libertarians must either A) Join the left in calls for the existing situation of property division to be abolished. B) Admit that their view simply amounts to the acceptance of the status quo, whatever that may be.


Since this apparently wasn’t clear enough in the initial post, suggestions that although things haven’t been ideal thus far, but henceforth we can go forward in a libertarian manner fail as a reply for a number of reasons, but the most obvious is that in order to proceed that we’d need to accept some division of the world and the things in it into property.  To see what I mean, imagine every person in the world decided they wanted it to function in a libertarian manner. They were all satisfied that each person should be complete master of their own property. But the problem arose what division of the world into property would they use? They could use the conventional division, that is they could say that if x belongs to you in this world you get to keep x in the new libertarian society, but this would be as arbitrary as any other precisely because of the argument I’ve outlined here.

Theories of right grounded in the concept of property cannot be purely ‘forward looking’ because concepts of property, of who owns what, are either arbitrary or can only be applied with reference to past affairs. In the hypothetical situation of transition libertarian who does not want to engage in redistribution really has two choices, they can keep trying to justify the present through the past, or they can throw their hands up and say “everyone gets to keep what the old statist framework thinks they are entitled to just because.” A theory promised a justification of property relations ends up simply declaring that you shall keep whatever the existent state of affairs said you should keep.

A related libertarian strategy of response has been to suggest that even though the present state of distribution is based on theft, it should be changed, because this would involve more theft, and thus violence. But this is based on a subtle confusion between two senses of theft- theft in a moral sense, and theft in the sense of taking something from someone- whether they happen to be entitled to it or not.  If you’ve previously stolen my diamond ring, and while you are not looking I take it back, that’s clearly not theft in any sort of moral sense, even though in a colloquial sense I may have “stolen” it back. Thus the argument that we cannot change the existing distribution even if it is based on theft because changing it would be theft, misses the fairly obvious point that this would only be theft or initiation of force or whatever one wants to call it in a libertarian sense were the goods I took from you actually yours.

Finding angels among the demons

About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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4 Responses to The Brief Refutation of Most (Right) Libertarians

  1. Starting assumption is wrong. It would be nice if theft had never happened in the past. If we can reasonable fix thefts of the past then we should. But if we cannot reasonably fix thefts of the past then we still need to move forward. If we justify continued theft and violence based on the idea that theft and violence have previously existed… of course you can justify perpetual theft and violence.

    Libertarians simply claim that we should fix previous theft & violence where we can, and then move to a system without theft & violence.

    Obviously, libertarians do not accept the statist quo system. Current rules include a massive amount of theft & violence. Libertarians want to change those rules so that human interaction is voluntary. You may disagree with voluntary human interaction if you like, but you can’t pretend that the idea doesn’t exist.

    • It’s only theft if it belongs to you. Paradoxically then, someone who held similar views to many libertarians on the nature of property rights might joke that the great advantage of our society is that since everything has already been, by your lights, stolen and it’s re-appropriation is morally neutral.

      The elegance in the libertarian moral theory lies in it’s sequential attempt at derivation of ownership of goods worked on from self ownership, then on to an ownership of goods gifted or exchanged in a variety of canonical forms. Since one has mixed one’s self with the goods one produces, goes one form of the argument, to take it from you without permission would be akin to slavery. When this story of inherited rights is shown to have no actual applications, the libertarian argument about why one shouldn’t take something which is popularly thought to belong to someone else dissolves.

  2. Most of the replies have focused on trying to argue that it would be “too difficult” to do a fair redistribution, and since we live in an imperfect world, we should just accept things as they are and move on.

    However this moves from a strict framework of rights, to a more “flexible” “pragmatic” framework of evaluation based on outcomes. That’s fine, but the libertarian who wants to do this must abandon indignation about rights both as a normative foundation and rhetorical strategy. All that is left is an argument over what system “works” best.

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