Liberty, property and redistribution

That’s probably enough G.A. Cohen for one week, but to conclude this series of posts here’s an interesting section from the Guardian’s obituary of Cohen (the whole of which is worth reading to get a good impression of both the man and his thought). This articulates my own intuitions regarding the relationship between liberty and equality:

Always open-minded, Cohen found himself “shaken from his dogmatic socialist slumber” by reading Nozick’s argument for the incompatibility of liberty and equality. But, whereas egalitarians tend to attack Nozick’s premises and claim that equality is more important than liberty, Cohen, in Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995), brilliantly turned the argument on its head. To the libertarian insistence that John Locke’s laudable principle of self-ownership rules out redistributive taxation and thus the welfare state, Cohen responded that it is precisely devotion to self-ownership principles that underlies the key Marxist theory of alienation*, as well as the left’s historical opposition to slavery and oppression. The right, however, are guilty of conceptual confusion. What they presuppose is that the existing distribution of property is somehow part of the natural order of things, like weather or death, and that freedom is distributed on top of that.

[* For a striking illustration of this, compare this comment from an American libertarian about people’s “fundamental right to the fruit of their own labor” with the old Clause IV’s call “to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry”.]

But surely, urged Cohen, private property is itself already a distribution of liberty, which it necessarily restricts. The owner of something is free to use it – others are not. The left had allowed themselves to be wrong-footed in conceding that only under a socialist system would liberty have to be sacrificed, when in fact any distribution of property, being simultaneously a distribution of liberty, requires a trade-off between these different types of “access to advantage”.

What still needs to be decided, though, is which the best distribution is – socialist, capitalist, whatever. And a good case can be made for saying that unequal distribution destroys, rather than enhances, freedom, and that liberty actually requires equality, and therefore redistribution.

Which is probably a good place to leave Cohen as I start reading the second of my post-election politics book acquisitions, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, which seeks to put empirical flesh on the bones of that last sentence.

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4 thoughts on “Liberty, property and redistribution”

  1. “private property is itself already a distribution of liberty, which it necessarily restricts. The owner of something is free to use it – others are not.”

    Somehow I don’t see this as a problem but a solution. If you spend a lot of time fixing up your house, is it really an infringement of your neighbor’s liberty that he cannot walk in the door and make a finger painting on your wall? If you cannot know that he is prohibited from doing this, you will likely not improve your property much. This happened a lot on Soviet Russia. Nobody improved their property, for if they did, it would be taken by the state.

    Cohen also seems to speak of instances where there has been acquiring of property by force and fraud interchangeably with where there has not and inequality is the result of unequal effort or talent in the development of property. That is unhelpful. It almost suggests that because slavery once existed, my neighbor ought to have the liberty to finger paint on my wall.

  2. Rick: I don’t think Cohen is saying that’s a problem, just that every social and economic order involves trade-offs between people’s rights. And no-one’s suggesting a system in which people are free to go into other people’s houses and deface them.

    To take a concrete example: the “right to roam”. This involved the government passing legislation giving people the right to enter upon privately-owned countryside for recreational purposes.

    Now this could be read (as country landowners argued) as a straightforward act of socialist coercion against private property rights. But Cohen would say (and I’d agree) that the previous situation – in which thousands of square miles of open countryside were made inaccessible – itself involved coercion, both present and past.

    Present, because the freedom of landowners to keep their country estates to themselves involved forcibly excluding other people from them. Past, because those country estates had in the first place largely been acquired through previous acts of coercion: dissolution of the monasteries, clearances, enclosures of common land and so on.

    Now, letting someone walk over remote areas of my country estate is not really the same thing – in either degree or kind – to letting them walk into my house. There are arguments over the impact of the right to roam on the management of land and wildlife, and the legislation takes these into account. But this is still a matter of weighing competing, relative rights, rather than simply setting an absolute right of private ownership against all other claims.

  3. It is a common socialist trope — nay, a principle — that the origin of private property is largely if not exclusively in injustice of one form or other. On this view, most if not all property was acquired either by exploitation of the poor or by outright theft. To be fair, it is an equally common libertarian trope that all private property originates as the legitimate fruit of risk-taking, creativity, and plain old hard work.

    Neither of these tropes is likely to be 100% true. Some private property is indeed the fruit of hard work and creativity, and it is undeniable that some is the result of one form or other of thievery. If it is unjust to expropriate the property of a capitalist who earned that property fair and square, it is also unjust for a landed gentleman idly to live off the rents of an estate that Henry VIII stole from the monks.

    Unfortunately, the only choices we have, as a practical matter, are either to respect the rights of private property, however it may have been acquired; or to abolish private property altogether and attempt to achieve economic justice by some other means. There is no practical way to sort out which capital was justly acquired and which was unjustly acquired. If we are to have private property at all, we must proceed on the presumption that the property that exists rightfully belongs to its owners, and do what we can reasonably do politically to ensure that the use and transfer of properties is just.

    What we have instead (as, I suspect, in the case of the “right to roam”) is an inchoate “feeling” that most property ownership is probably unjust in origin, so that we don’t actually take peoples’ property away from them, but we feel morally justified in riding roughshod over their property rights in the name of (what we think is) the “common good.”

  4. There are also libertarians who will see that in a state of nature, a person could hold a certain amount of land using his own means. To hold land beyond that requires a state. If the state does this, it does this for its own benefit and not that of the individual in question. Allowing him to hold vast areas of land probably gives him an unusual share of police powers at his disposal, and at no expense to him. So there is no natural right to hold land in such great quantities.

    This kind of argument could probably justify some amount of freedom to roam on another’s property. (I would imagine the person could have a smaller area of property within his property where this was not the case.)

    But none of this would be argued on some sense that the holdings would have been gotten through nefarious means.

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