In this second of his two-part series*, Sami Steinbock discusses the thoughts of Hayek, Nozick, Otsuka and Berlin on the question often posed to libertarians.
Looking at the question in its most basic form, one would say libertarians do not believe in equality of outcome, but do believe in equality of opportunity. As Hayek explains, in relation to the Rawlsian conception of equality, “there’s all the difference in the world between treating people equally and trying to make them equal”. It can be seen from this argument that, not only do some political philosophers not consider equality of outcome a useful conception of equality, but they go further, arguing that it is a hindrance to equality of opportunity.
Otsuka argues that the apparent conflict between libertarianism and equality is an illusion. He states that Nozick could only be convincing about unlimited property rights if no resources were used to produce the property, which is almost never true. Otsuka says we should only allow private property in accordance with an egalitarian proviso stating –
“You may acquire previously un-owned worldly resources if, and only if, you leave enough so that everyone else can acquire an equally advantageous share of un-owned worldly resources”.
To accept this, then, is to accept that self-ownership is perfectly compatible with an egalitarian distribution of resources. Otsuka’s trolley-car example shows why the right of self-ownership must not be full self-ownership, but something rather less than that, because it is inconsistent as full self-ownership and therefore must be restated weaker. Nozick, though, argues that taxation levied by the state on earnings from labour is on a par with forced labour: but taxation cannot literally be forced labour, whatever humans’ rights over the resources of the world are, and furthermore, however they choose to use them to earn their income, they are never as full as their right of self-ownership over themselves.
If, as necessarily re-defined, libertarians do not believe in equality – which, as established, must mean equality of opportunity, then there is direct argument with the views of the philosophical enunciated by thinkers such as Locke, Mill, Friedman and Hayek, among others. Libertarians believe that human beings are born with natural rights, which cannot be removed or arrogated by Government or Authority unless by means which are themselves unequal: and that these rights are vested in humans, and exercisable by all equally.
Libertarians believe that this gives humans absolute autonomy as to what they do with themselves, or with other consenting adults, provided they do not harm any others or coerce any others by doing so. Crucially, they believe these precepts apply to all equally, without reservation or privilege in special cases.
So the idea that libertarians do not believe in true equality, namely, equality of opportunity seems unfair. In his essay Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin explains why. Negative liberty is usually summarised as ‘freedom from…’ oppression, coercion by others, the unjust, arbitrary and capricious use of state power, among other things: all of which is achieved under the impartial rule of law, acting independently of government, to restrain the exercise of state power to that granted by a democratically-elected legislature and no more. The debate on whether Berlin was a libertarian or classical liberal, with the difference between the two mainly on how to regulate business and the economy, continues; socially though, Berlin is considered by many to be a libertarian believing in strong personal freedom. Nevertheless, it’s surely irrelevant to this debate whether Berlin was indeed a libertarian or classical liberal, because his views on negative liberty – preferring the idea to that of positive liberty – link closely, and represent libertarian beliefs, specifically Nozick’s no harm principle. Nozick defines the ‘baseline’ of his no harm principle as “what the welfare of others would have been if the resources had remained un-owned or even not in common use”. This for me is tightly linked to negative liberty, with negative liberty similarly being freedom from interference from others.
One of the prominent critics of this approach to libertarianism however is Taylor, who argues that negative liberty is not enough for real liberty. “Freedom from” (negative liberty) is no use, he argues, without “freedom to” (positive liberty). Cohen similarly disagrees with Nozick’s theory of no harm, arguing that Nozick’s baseline is “arbitrary, not compelling and demonstrably incorrect”. In crude terms, you might be economically free from any impediment to buying yourself a Rolls-Royce, but unless you have the wealth to do so you, don’t have the freedom to make the purchase. Recent writers however contend with this notion. Brennan in 2012 has specifically stated that this is in effect an argument for state-enforced distribution of wealth if the means to acquire a Rolls-Royce do not come solely from free and voluntary exchange of labour or services for monetary gain. It is positive freedom when used in the sense of autonomous freedom (rather than effective freedom) that Berlin argues against and Taylor argues for.
In the political freedom which Taylor argues for, whereby you look outwards in society at things that may be stopping you achieving what you want. On the other hand it is rather autonomous freedom Berlin prefers whereby you look inwardly and make your own choices.
In Anarchy, State & Utopia, Nozick argues forcefully against equality of outcome. This is especially the case when he argues that a distribution is just if it results from a previous distribution which is, in itself, justice in transfer, as in for example, differing rewards accruing to those with different natural abilities or motivations. His Wilt Chamberlain argument will be too well-known to most readers for me to need to repeat it here, but Nozick shows thereby that the egalitarian form of justice is unacceptable. How can you argue that rewards are unjust when they are the result of 2.5 million individual, entirely voluntary, transactions? Yet to “correct” this “inequality” and generate equality of outcome, you would have to re-treat people’s justly acquired distributions very arbitrarily. You would thereby be ignoring, or even worse overriding, their legitimate rights to their justly-acquired property in the process. Equality of outcome therefore seems utterly inimical to libertarians because of the restrictions it imposes: it cannot be called equality at all, whereas equality of opportunity does not have these restrictions.
I therefore have to conclude that it is equality of opportunity that libertarians believe in, and not equality of outcome, because they can persuasively argue against the latter being a type of equality at all. Equality of outcome directly conflicts with libertarian values because it requires coercion from government and, per Friedman, tends to leave people without either equality or opportunity. Equality of opportunity, on the other hand, does not conflict with these values and therefore is a belief central to the libertarian argument.
*See Part one here.