Two Problems with Left-Libertarianism

Neal Locke invited me to post here. I have had the chance to read other posts here and I understand why. After reading Brink Lindsey’s article it appears that my own political dispositions, which have always seemed a tad hermetic, have a more stable environment within this sort of discourse. The following is a re-post from a few conclusions and questions at which I arrived this election season. I hope to be an active participant here as I begin dialogue with all of you.


There are consistent libertarian objections to both Democrat and Republican philosophies of governance. The primary objection is the notion in principle that autonomous individuals have universal self-ownership of property and rights. It is the idea that if I earn the right to possess something, I am the sole owner of that property. This also includes social behaviors such as gambling, marriage, smoking pot, religion, education, etc.

It is not to be confused with the typical understanding of conservatism which masks self-ownership of property (contra socialism) with often severe constraints on social behavior such as marriage, recreational drug use, sexual behavior, etc. Republicanism fails to provide libertarian principles in terms of social behavior, while Democratism, albeit its more limiting role in social behaviors, follows more socialist principles in terms of how wealth is distributed according to how ownership is defined. There, the state and not the individual owner, has the responsibility to distribute wealth acquired by the masses.

I have come to the conclusion that my own political disposition comes closest to equal-opportunity left-libertarianism which maintains a limited role in social behaviors and customs, while it balances limited state interference in the distribution of property and wealth and social responsibility to uphold the common good through equal opportunity to acquire resources for all. What problematizes all forms of libertarianism, however, is how natural resources that are not the property of any agent are fairly distributed.

Equal-opportunity left-libertarianism argues “that one leave enough for others to have an opportunity for well-being that is at least as good as the opportunity for well-being that one obtained in using or appropriating natural resources”. Thus it makes the most sense since it is a disposition that specifically targets those who are resource poor in order to give them a fair opportunity to compete for resources. Not to be confused with a socialist distribution of wealth, however, the question is how can we govern ourselves and maintain the balance between equal opportunity and equal competition to acquire resources among those whose lot in life is not something chosen. That is to say, some are born into environments that are resource rich and others are born into environments that are not as rich or resource poor. How can libertarianism, even left-libertarianism, ensure equal opportunity in the midst of such clear inequities that autonomous choice has nothing to do with? This is where I shall list a couple of key problems.

  1. In order for equal-opportunity left-libertarianism to work, it requires altruistic voluntary behavior from everyone involved. If one is unwilling to donate an un-equal share of natural resources and property to those who cannot possibly attain even a close share of property, there will always be inequity where the greedy suck up resources, and the resource poor are left with no property of their own.
  2. A general position of pacifism is needed from all participants in the system. The key is to support constant cooperation of all members of the society where benefits are maximized to everyone. This means that the resource rich are willing to share and resource poor are willing to do the same in order to achieve equilibrium. While the resource rich can balance the field of competition through altruism, the resource poor can donate a certain amount of “sweat-equity” to maintain that property and begin to earn their own share equally.

Therefore, bargains and negotiations need to follow game theory in which cooperation requires self-imposed limits on wealth in order to maximize wealth for everyone. The goal is for all to compete fairly for wealth through cooperation in order to earn fair shares of wealth as autonomous agents rather than enable inequity through government handouts and distributions of wealth. But is this possible without external agents of enforcement (e.g. the state)?

This is an ideal world that I think is quite counter-factual to human behavior in general where resources are rich and some people will, by their lot in life, aggrandize wealth to sustain their own well being at the expense of others. This is why a progressive tax system, not typically supported in principle by any form of libertarianism, is necessary in order to equilibrate competition on some scale. The question is what happens to that funding. Does it go back into the distribution of natural resources so that those with less competitive advantage can now earn their share of property? Or is that wealth put in programs that enable people not to compete fairly through cooperation and thus enable them to acquire an unfair share of wealth?

This is where I argue that the former option is better and welfare is, by its nature a bad thing. A flat tax should stimulate people to take pride in constructing environments where all persons cooperate with each other to maximize benefits and distribution of good and property. What needs to be enforced, however, is a limit on the self-aggrandizement of wealth when people who were once resource poor now suck up as much as they can perpetuating inequity and mitigating the opportunity of others to succeed.

So how can a society enforce equilibrium through cooperation without the state assuming ownership of the property? This is another way of saying that we cannot assume that autonomous agents will give a damn about their moral obligation to their neighbor even though a recognition of moral obligations to others is precisely what is needed for equal-opportunity left-libertarianism to work. That’s where the real debate should be and neither Obama, nor McCain directly asks that question or provides an answer for it.

However, Obama’s idea of equal opportunity maintained through progressive taxes in principle arguably comes closer to it in the end. The current financial situation should be proof enough that we cannot blindly trust the wealthy to donate resources in order to equilibrate the opportunity for the resource poor to compete. Even if this is in dispute, and it should be for obvious reasons, all can agree that the G.W. Bush presidency has been the greatest affront to autonomous liberty, rights, and reason that we should hope never to see again in the history of this nation.

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About Drew Tatusko

Andrew Tatusko is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (1999, 2000) from which he earned an M.Div. and Th.M. There he focused on philosophical theology, philosophy of education, and postmodern theory. From there he was a senior instructional designer at Seton Hall University where he worked on initiatives to integrate technology into teaching and learning. Currently he is the program activity director for a Title III grant to integrate technology into teaching, learning, retention and advising at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He currently lives in Duncansville, PA with wife Brenna, sons Alexander and Evan, Stella (Rhodesian Ridgeback mix) and Sophie (Rhodesian Ridgeback) and two cats Digit and Kit Kat. Drew has published articles on postmodern theory, theology, and education. He is working on his dissertation in an effort to complete the Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership, Management and Policy at Seton Hall University. The focus of the dissertation in on the influence of theological tradition on policy development in religiously-affiliated higher education since the 1970’s. He also played drums with a band called Green Marie which put out its first CD before Drew left in the summer of 2006. Drew is now taking a break from playing music to work on healing from Lyme disease which he contracted from a tick while planting trees in the backyard in July 2007. He also needs to finish that dreaded dissertation project at some point while still eligible. Drew went to Colonel Zadok Magruder High School in Rockville, MD and went to Westiminster College in New Wilimington PA with B.A. in Religious Studies.

4 thoughts on “Two Problems with Left-Libertarianism

  1. Hi Dtatusko, and welcome!

    Let me see if I can paraphrase your post.

    Libertarianism is basically the right way the world should be run, but there’s a problem with equal opportunity. Libertarianism can only claim to be a moral system if equal opportunity exists, but there are some theoretical reasons to expect that a libertarian system could become skewed to the detriment of equal opportunity, and when you look out in the real world you see these things happening in fact. The big problem in your view is how do we ensure a level playing field without statist solutions?

    Is that right? Did I miss any subtleties?

    I’m curious how you see the problem of distributing natural resources that are not yet anyone’s property? Is it a one time thing like when humanity colonizes the Moon we will have to decide who is the first owner of each piece of land, or do you see it as a continual process like each generation must be given access to their fair share of natural resources?

  2. I see no problem with a community that wishes to operate on such agreed upon principles as free association, solidarity, fraternity and equality. Those that are of a different mind could find a community which better reflected their sentiment or stay, if the conflict was only minimal to them. Also, a community could possibly make some rules regarding the sharing of resources voluntary, as long as enough people shared that everyone had enough. It would be up to a community to decide how much inequality they would tolerate.

  3. ALTHOUGH I agree that Bush abridged many of our rights and liberties, your comment that the Bush era was the greatest affront to our autonomous liberty is invalid and displays a lack of understanding of our nation’s history. Are you aware of the destruction of liberty that occurred during FDR’s administration, (in addition to Jackson and Wilson’s presidencies), economically governmentally, with capitalism, states’ rights, the power over one’s destiny being weakened irreparably. And not to mention the JAPANESE AMERICAN INTERNMENT CAMPS! I’m by no means justifying Bush, but avoid making absolute and indefensible arguments.

  4. This summary of “property” is also vague, bcseuae it does not define “appropriate” and “legitimate” for example. Defining “property” in terms of “appropriation” is circular. You might as well say that a law is a law bcseuae it is lawful.There are scarce resources in nature (unowned) and an individual may come along and recognize these resources as such. After physically utilizing one or more of these scarce resources, the good(s) become(s) his or her property through this process of appropriation. I’m not sure I see where you find ambiguity in the term appropriation’, or why you find the definition of property to be circular. I should mention that I’ve left production, as a means of creating property, unclear in pretty much every previous post and for that I apologize.Classically liberal property rights are not natural, i.e. they do not exist in the state of nature. Natural territoriality protects neither the fruits of labor nor gifts, and nominal “property” has never been limited to fruits of labor and gives anyway.In nature, a cheetah eats a gazelle, bcseuae the cheetah is faster, regardless of any nominal “right” of the gazelle. Hyenas eat the same gazelle, after the cheetah has labored to kill it, bcseuae they are better organized than cheetahs, regardless of any other “right”.I feel like we’re once again speaking past each other on this point. Cheetahs, hyenas and gazelles are not men, and they each have their own natures to follow. However, what separates human beings from all three, as I’m sure you’re fully aware, is that free will and rational thought are the foundations of our own nature. As the rational animal’ we don’t run simply on instinct, unlike our cheetah buddy who will kill the gazelle bcseuae hunger and opportunity demand it, or the hyenas who may scare the cheetah off. It’s through our free wills and rational minds that we own our bodies, and as the exclusive owners of our bodies and as such the labor we produce with them it logically follows that we own the natural resources with which we mix our labor in order to achieve desired ends. Animals, lacking free will and rational minds, don’t own’ themselves, any supposed labor’, and as such any property’. They make a poor stand in for human beings when proposing a hypothetical for human phenomena.Whether or not I share your sense of “rightful ownership”, I cannot deny that you initiate force or the threat of force when you declare it. Denying this force is antithetical to classical liberalism. A liberal does not deny what little forcible propriety he advocates.I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying here, would you elaborate this point?

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