There is a critical and recurring tension between contributors to this magazine. It’s between those who trend toward a progressive/liberal view on the welfare state versus those much more on the libertarian side. It may be the strongest and most pervasive division our community faces. We are all humanists, but I believe there’s a very good chance those on each side of the progressive/libertarian divide view their counterparts as a little less pure and perfect in their humanistic expression.
Both sides are concerned with social justice and vary primarily in where their concentration (intellectual and emotional) is focused. Progressives stress the fact that, in a world of abundant if limited resources, it is shocking to any sense of reasonable justice that some persons squander hugely disproportionate large shares of what is available while others suffer in miserable destitution. Progressives reasonably believe society should be structured so as to at least moderately ameliorate such inequality.
Libertarians, on the other hand, reasonably believe that such concepts as freedom (see Tibor Machan, “The Myth of Surplus Wealth,” FI, February/March 2011) and self-ownership entitle each person to seek whatever level of wealth he or she may attain (absent wrongful interference with others) and that the mere fact of having had success does not entitle the less successful to forcefully expropriate from others’ success.
I think it’s obvious both viewpoints are tough to dismiss. To any typical person’s sense of justice and morality, each is prima facie valid. Yet they also seem to exist in irresolvable conflict. This apparent irresolution is no doubt at the heart of that “thread of tension” to which I referred, and much of my thesis here will be to argue this tension has persisted precisely because, instead of intelligently resolving the conflict, each side has chosen to concentrate on one of the two dictating views, while largely disregarding the other.
I believe a much better path would be to accept the obvious legitimacy that exists in both viewpoints and seek a logical synthesis. I do not think the task is difficult. I think, moreover, a first key lies in a criticism I’ll presently direct toward the above-referenced op-ed piece.
Machan celebrates the human freedom “to pursue prosperity in any form he or she desires—material wealth, intellectual resources, land, items produced by humans or nature” (emphasis added). Though I have tended toward the libertarian side myself, I believe this excerpt reveals (and is symptomatic of) a deep and critical flaw in typical libertarian thinking. The flaw consists, simply, in conflating what a human produces with what a human does not produce.
Specifically, humans produce art, literature, useful inventions, machinery, improvements on land, and the like. Humans do not produce Earth itself, or the in-situ materials that may be extracted from it, or the capacity of the air and water to absorb our effluents. All these resources exist absent the intellectual or labor contribution of any human to produce them, yet the typical libertarian stance is to treat them as one and the same with what a human has produced. It’s a critical error, and I’ll explain why.
As one compelling basis supporting the general libertarian viewpoint, I am hugely swayed by the notion of self-ownership. I own myself entirely, and any claim or intimation otherwise smacks patently of immoral slavery. Furthermore, because I own myself, it follows that I have the moral right to fully claim (without limitation, compromise, or forced sharing with others) the entire product of my own creativity, intelligence, and sweat. In other words, it’s immoral for others (through government or otherwise) to forcefully take such products from me for the sake of giving to less-fortunate others.
But natural resources do not fit this argument. Indeed, they are entirely, completely, totally, and abysmally absent from it. I made no natural resource. There is not one whose existence (perhaps its form but not its existence) was enhanced via my creativity, intellect, and sweat—or by anyone else’s. They exist on their own and are equally the “inheritance” of all persons. To put it another way, there is no inherent basis via which any human can claim a greater intrinsic right than any other to such resources as are naturally available.
Another difference ignored by typical libertarian thinking is the fact that exclusive possession of my own produce does nothing to detract from what others may possess. After all, if I keep my entire produce to myself, others remain just as well off as if I’d done nothing. This is not the case with natural resources. To any extent that I claim use or possession of those, others are diminished in their ability to use them. To put this another way, personal produce is additive (I can create and add to mine, others can create and add to theirs, and we may each justly claim the entirety of our own additions). By contrast, natural resources are exclusionary and subtractive (what I take reduces what is left for others).
This is not all. In the exclusion that’s inherent in natural-resource possession, there is an implied and obvious requirement for enforcement. Suppose, for example, that in a primitive state I’ve found a particularly choice cave and claimed it as my residence. This “claim” means nothing if others remain free to use (or perhaps even take over) “my” cave as freely as they wish. At the least, I must be prepared to defend my claim via use of clubs and fists, if need be.
But that’s in a primitive society. In any reasonably modern society, I’ll in fact invoke the powers of society to first “recognize” my claim and then to enforce the exclusionary privilege it implies. Pointedly, this is the very society that, in typical libertarian thinking, I’d deny the right to inveigh a tax on me for the privilege it is not just granting me but in fact is actively enforcing on my behalf (indeed, even holding in reserve for the purpose, potential use of its monopoly claim on the use of deadly force).
Again, contrasting with personal produce, because it flows from the person, it is simultaneously something each person should be allowed to claim as his or her own untrammeled right (at least in any reasonable morality that deserves to be called such). But natural resources are different. Their exclusionary enjoyment is the product of governmental power as exercised to forcefully exclude others from attempting simultaneous use (for example, if there are squatters on my land, I may call the sheriff to eject them). The first is a natural right and the second a negotiated bargain with the balance of society.
To me, it’s a marvel that libertarians have generally failed to comprehend this distinction. More seriously, it’s a failure with very sad consequences, for it makes them a target of ridicule. It is no surprise, indeed, that progressives find repugnant a view that seemingly justifies robber barons amid paupers—where in fact the barons are not merely enjoying personal produce in their favor (if in fact such is the case) but also a grossly disproportionate share of non-produced natural resources, and without proper compensation to the rest of society for the privilege. These are resources, indeed, where the paupers have no effective choice but to work in and support the very society that enforces the baron’s disproportionately privileged use, and their own simultaneous dispossession. It should shock the conscience, and it does.
To resolve the conflict, really, is simple. Libertarians mus
t wise up and grant the distinction. They must grant, in other words, that if I want to be privileged to enjoy for my own exclusive benefit a section of beautiful beachfront land (while society uses deadly force to prevent others from interfering), I have a duty to compensate society for what it’s granting me. If I want to use a river or the airways to carry away my effluent, I again have a duty. Of course also, if I want to use roadways society itself has built, I’d better pay for the privilege. If I want to benefit from the national defense, I’d better pay too—and on and on.
What kind of revenue levels could we expect societal institutions to enjoy if all other taxations were eliminated and all revenues were instead collected solely on the bases I am suggesting (bases for which, in short, there’d be no proper rationale for moral objection)? I, of course, do not know. However, it’s my sense they might easily enjoy revenues much greater than at present.
As one illustration, I presently pay approximately $10,000 per year in taxes on my family’s residential property. On the basis I’m suggesting, I’d think it easy to justify many times that (and, with elimination of taxation on my personal produce, such payments would be practical). I think the same basis could justify increasing the gasoline tax by at least two dollars per gallon (for the burden my exhaust imposes on the atmosphere)—and we’re just getting started. Many other readily justified revenues could be added, all of which would result in collections that are not just larger but (and more important) burdens that are much more progressive as compared to present schemes.
Indeed, this basis even justifies a form of redistribution. If I’ve excluded less fortunate others from using some sections of prime real-estate, is there anything unreasonable if a portion of my payment (that is, the payment I make to society for the privilege it has granted me) goes directly to persons excluded? I think not. In a large-scheme sense of justice, each member of our race has equal and reasonable claim to all our planet’s natural (as opposed to personal) resources. So if, for purposes of practical organization, some are privileged to exclude sections of natural resource from equal sharing with others, there is no inherent injustice in directly compensating those others.
The key lies in refusing to conflate those two utterly different economic goods (personal produce versus natural resources). How interesting it is that, when we competently distinguish those two—when, in short, we recognize the common inherent ownership of one but not of the other (another way of saying that society may justly make claims over what no one produced, but not otherwise)—how interesting that we then acquire a morally just basis to fund large-scale public projects, including potentially even a practice that involves paying stipends directly to those who claim fewer natural resources.
The hugely significant fact is, if societal structures were built with these distinctions as their foundation, it would go a very long way (likely much further and in a more economically efficient manner as compared to today’s structures) toward ameliorating the inequalities that so tug at the consciences of those leaning in the progressive direction.
Speaking of which, having excoriated libertarians for their own mistaken conflation, it’s time to even the attack. To review, libertarians sloppily extend a principle of patent truth (I own myself and thus my own produce too) to a point of untruth (I have the right to untrammeled use of natural resources). It’s a dumb mistake, but (and sadly) the conflation badge is not one that side wears alone. As it happens, progressives are guilty of overextending conflation on their side, too.
Here is how that unfolds. Witnessing the gross inequality that exists in the world, progressives suitably recoil in abhorrence and declare that a just society must do something to ameliorate it. So far, so good. Progressives, though, stray when concluding that the need to correct one injustice justifies creating another (in particular, expropriating the personal produce of persons). B, simply, does not follow from A, and here (in particular) is why.
What is it that really galls the sense of justice? Is it that one person has such talent, energy, and ambition as to build a huge nest-egg of wealth via personal production (think Oprah Winfrey)? At most, that inequality might inflame one’s sense of justice against the cosmos or providence but not against society. No. What really inflames are precisely those situations where wealth enjoyment is skewed for reasons having nothing to do with personal production and instead everything to do with particular persons having attained positions where society grants them hugely disproportionate (and largely uncompensated) privileges in exploiting natural resources.
Failing to comprehend that distinction, progressives erroneously conflate the two inequalities (one for which you can only scream against “God” and the other for which you can in fact scream against societal structures), which leads inevitably to their conclusion that inequality in general demands a dull-knife solution. In short, they erroneously conclude that it justifies a societal policy that implicitly denies self-ownership and thus also implies a kind of community ownership over persons. This dull vision further results in failure to realize that much more effective amelioration could be achieved not by creating an added social injustice but by instead correcting the very injustice that—were they more discriminating in their view—they’d realize is at the heart of what really inflames them.
To be very clear on this last point, I believe what really inflames progressives is when particularly privileged persons commandeer hugely disproportionate shares of natural resources without fair and adequate compensation to the rest of society. I believe, furthermore, the true solution lies in extracting just compensation.
To conclude this piece I want to say, “Man, we all gotta wise up.” We’ve got to look at things precisely, and in a very discriminating way. All of us seek justice, but we must do it broadly and universally, and we must stringently avoid tunnel vision. In particular, we must avoid becoming so focused on one element of justice that we end up conflating elements of its concern with elements that do not belong, a mistake that inevitably leads to the commission of a second injustice while seeking to remedy the first. Indeed, because of such failures to discriminate, in today’s society we have the worst of both worlds. Universally, governments fail in their policies to honor an assumption honoring equitable rights to natural resources then simultaneously fail in their policies to honor self-ownership, too.
By clearly comprehending the distinctions outlined here, humanists on both sides should find common ground. We should, indeed, find ourselves wholly united, with zero division on such issues. It is because, simply, careful analysis erases conflict between the senses of justice on each side. It allows a perfect, unified synthesis. Let’s get there, please.
If reluctance remains, I propose we put it in the terms of a crass, nuts-and-bolts exchange. Libertarians: Will you dump your claim of untrammeled right to natural resources, if in exchange progressives honor without compromise your claim of self-ownership? Progressives: Will you do the opposite? Will you, in short, totally honor the concept of self-ownership (including all this concession implies), if in exchange libertarians concede that natural resources are never truly and intrinsically owned by any person—that, at most, persons are granted a privilege to exclusivity by the balance of society, and it’s a privilege that should always be c
Can we make a deal?