From Libertarianism to Egalitarianism

Social Theory and Practice 18 (3):259-288 (1992)
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A standard natural rights argument for libertarianism is based on the labor theory of property: the idea that I own my self and my labor, and so if I "mix" my own labor with something previously unowned or to which I have a have a right, I come to own the thing with which I have mixed by labor. This initially intuitively attractive idea is at the basis of the theories of property and the role of government of John Locke and Robert Nozick. Locke saw and Nozick agreed that fairness to others requires a proviso: that I leave "enough and as good" for others. The same considerations apply to legitimate acquisition by voluntary exchange, gift, or bequeathal. This sort of argument has been critiqued for the purely hypothetical and counterfactual nature of its premises, for the coherence of the idea of self-ownership, for the notion that mixing what I own with what I do not gives me a right in what I do not rather than wasting what I own, and for the unacceptably cruel and heartless consequences of adopting it, among other reasons. However, I accept the premises and waive (though note) these objections, and formulate a new objection, showing that to give me a right in what I do not own, the labor theory of property requires a commitment to a right to what I need. I distinguish several senses of need and show that the sense of need the argument requires is "use need," the need I have to to use something to exercise my labor on it. This turns out to have a startling counter-intuitive result: the libertarian principle, so understood, turns out to be "to each according to his needs," which Marx identified as the principle of the highest phase of communism as he understood it. If communism is understood as in some sense egalitarian, this argument for libertarianism turns itself inside out into an argument for egalitarian communism. Libertarians therefore cannot use the Labor Theory of Property to defend the positions they typically wish to hold.

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Justin Schwartz
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (PhD)


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