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Liberty & Equality

Liberty Requires Equality

James P. Sterba thinks libertarianism implies a right to welfare.

What is a just society? In seeking a defensible conception of justice, it behooves us to start with the assumptions of the libertarian perspective, the view that appears to endorse the least enforcement of morality. I propose to show that this libertarian view, contrary to what its defenders usually maintain, requires a right to welfare; and that further, this right to welfare (which is also endorsed by a welfare liberal perspective), leads to the substantial equality advocated by socialists.

The Ideal of Negative Liberty

Let us begin by interpreting the ideal of liberty as a negative ideal in the manner favored by libertarians. So understood, liberty is the absence of interference by other people from doing what one wants or is just able to do. Libertarians go on to characterize their political ideal as requiring that each person should have the greatest amount of liberty morally commensurate with the greatest amount of liberty for everyone else. Interpreting their ideal in this way, libertarians claim to derive a number of more specific requirements, in particular, a right to life; a right to freedom of speech, press, and assembly; and a right to property.

Here it is important to note that the libertarian’s right to life is not a right to receive from others the goods and resources necessary for preserving one’s life; it is simply a right not to have one’s life interfered with or ended unjustly. Of course, libertarians allow that it would be nice of the rich to share their surplus resources with the poor. Nevertheless, they deny that government has a duty to provide for such needs. Some good things, such as providing welfare to the poor, are requirements of charity rather than justice, libertarians claim. Accordingly, failure to make such provisions is neither blameworthy nor punishable. As a consequence, such acts of charity should not be coercively required. For this reason, libertarians are opposed to coercively supported welfare programs.

Conflicting Liberties

Modern luxury: “Welcome to my yacht!”

Now, in order to see why libertarians are mistaken about what their ideal requires, consider a conflict situation between the rich and the poor. In this conflict situation, the rich, of course, have more than enough resources to satisfy their basic needs. In contrast, imagine that the poor lack the resources to meet their basic needs even though they have tried all the means available to them that libertarians regard as legitimate for acquiring such resources. Under circumstances like these, libertarians maintain that the rich should have the liberty to use their resources to satisfy their luxury needs if they so wish. Libertarians recognize that this liberty might well be enjoyed with the consequence that the satisfaction of the basic needs of the poor will not be met; they just think that liberty always has priority over other political ideals. And since they assume that the liberty of the poor is not at stake in such conflict situations, it is easy for them to conclude that the rich should not be required to sacrifice their liberty so that the basic needs of the poor may be met.

In fact, however, the liberty of the poor is at stake in such conflict situations. What is at stake is the liberty of the poor not to be interfered with in taking from the surplus possessions of the rich what is necessary to satisfy their basic needs.

Now when the conflict between the rich and the poor is viewed as a conflict of liberties, we can either say that the rich should have the liberty not to be interfered with in using their surplus resources for luxury purposes, or we can say that the poor should have the liberty not to be interfered with in taking from the rich what they require to meet their basic needs. If we choose one liberty, we must reject the other. What needs to be determined, therefore, is which liberty is morally enforceable: the liberty of the rich or the liberty of the poor.

I submit that the liberty of the poor, which is the liberty not to be interfered with in taking from the surplus resources of others what is required to meet one’s basic needs, is morally enforceable over the liberty of the rich, which is the liberty not to be interfered with in using one’s surplus resources for luxury purposes.

To see that this is the case, we need only appeal to the principle of non-question-beggingness – that is, the principle that your reasoning shouldn’t assume the truth of what it is meant to prove – and apply it to conflicting liberties. So we will need to idealize a bit. First, consider a ranking of your liberties, from your most important liberty to your least important liberty. Now consider a ranking of the liberties of others from their most important liberties to their least important liberties.

Now some of the liberties in these rankings will come into conflict with other liberties. Let’s set aside those cases where your high-ranking liberties come into conflict with the high-ranking liberties of others – these cases are like lifeboat cases and any view is going to have some difficulty determining who should be saved when only a limited number can be. Far more numerous are cases where your high-ranking liberties come into conflict with the low-ranking liberties of others, or their high-ranking liberties come into conflict with your low-ranking liberties. To say which liberties should be respected overall in these conflict situations, we need to appeal to the principle of non-question-beggingness to determine their priorities. And if we think that more significant liberties matter more than less significant ones, but don’t otherwise assume which liberties are the more important (which is what we are trying to prove), this means that high-ranking liberties must be accepted to trump lower-ranking liberties. Let us now focus on just such conflict cases between the rich and the poor.

So what we need to do here is appeal to the priorities that are determined by the principle of non-question-beggingness and have high-ranking liberties enforcibly trump low ranking liberties in these conflict situations. In this way, the high-ranking liberties of the poor in having their basic needs met will enforceably trump the low-ranking liberties of the rich in being able to use their surplus for luxury purposes. This, I claim, will ground a right to welfare .

A Universal Right to Welfare

Now for libertarians, fundamental rights are universal rights, that is, rights possessed by all people, not just by those who live in certain places or at certain times. Of course, when libertarians argue for this universalistic view of rights, they usually do not recognize that the right to liberty they champion leads to a right to welfare. In any case, all I am doing here is exploring the unintended, but, I think, clear consequence, of the libertarian view. So let me briefly show how the libertarian-grounded right to welfare that I have just established leads to substantial equality.

To meet the basic needs of the poor throughout the world, Peter Singer has proposed a graduated tax on the incomes of the top 10% of US families, netting $404 billion annually, with an equal sum coming from the incomes of families in other industrialized countries. Singer is confident that this tax would go a long way toward meeting basic human needs worldwide.

Yet although Singer’s proposal would doubtless do much to secure a right to welfare for existing people, unfortunately it does not speak very well to the needs of future generations. In the US, currently more than one million acres of arable land are lost from cultivation each year due to urbanization, multiplying transport networks, and industrial expansion. (This has slowed a bit with the economic downturn.) In addition, another two million acres of farmland are lost each year due to erosion, salinization, and water logging. The state of Iowa alone has lost one-half of its fertile topsoil from farming in the last century. According to one estimate, only 0.6 of an acre of arable land per person will be available in the US in 2050, whereas more than 1.2 acres per person are needed to provide a diverse diet (currently, 1.6 acres of arable land are available). Similar, or even more threatening, estimates of the loss of arable land have been made for other regions of the world. How then are we going to preserve farmland and other food-related natural resources so that future generations are not deprived of what they require to meet their basic needs?

And what about other resources as well? It has been estimated that presently a North American uses seventy-five times more resources than a resident of India. This means that in terms of resource consumption the North American continent’s population is the equivalent of 22.5 billion Indians. So unless we assume that basic resources such as arable land, iron, coal, and oil are in unlimited supply, this unequal consumption will have to be radically altered if the basic needs of future generations are to be met. I submit, therefore, that until we have a technological fix on hand, recognizing a universal right to welfare applicable both to existing and future people requires us to use up no more resources than are necessary for meeting our own basic needs, securing for ourselves a decent life but no more. For us to use up more resources than this, without a technological fix on hand, we would be guilty of depriving at least some future generations of the resources they would require to meet their own basic needs, thereby violating their libertarian-based right to welfare. Obviously, avoiding this would impose a significant sacrifice on existing generations, particularly those in the developed world, clearly a far greater sacrifice than Singer maintains is required for meeting the basic needs just of existing generations. Nevertheless, these demands do follow from a libertarian-based right to welfare. In effect, recognizing a right to welfare, applicable to all existing and future people leads to an equal utilization of resources over place and time.

A Peaceful Road to Justice

Clearly, the political and social changes required by my argument are both massive and wide-ranging. Just imagine a world where each person has just enough resources she needs to meet her basic needs, for a decent life, but no more, and think about the many changes that we would have to undergo to get from here to there. Now I propose that we attempt to achieve these changes by employing the argument just presented and implementing it both individually and collectively.

Individual implementation involves recognizing that whatever we individually possess above what is necessary to provide a decent life for ourselves and those we personally care about can legitimately be taken from us by others who are in need through no fault of their own. This should lead us to take steps to transfer our present and future surplus, as best we can, so that others can also have a decent life. Individual implementation also involves action by the needy to take from the surplus possessions of the rich what they require for a decent life, as well as action by individual ‘Robin Hoods’ assisting the transfer of resources from the wealthy to those in need.

Collective implementation involving appropriate institutions to guarantee that everyone has the resources for a decent life should be helped along by various forms of collective nonviolent action, such as protest marches, rallies, picketing, boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience, and sit-ins. Collective implementation should also be helped along by the nonviolent actions of organized groups of Robin Hoods acting on behalf of existing needy people or future generations. In this way, our lives, both individually and collectively, would be guided by a deep egalitarianism that alone can be rationally and morally justified.

An Ideal Transformation

Now just suppose that the entire adult population of the world came to accept my argument and began to act in accord with it. What would happen? In general, we should expect the following:

1) Those who are currently working in occupations that help to provide the basic needs minimum for others would continue to do so. However, the income these workers currently derive from their work, beyond what is required to secure the same basic needs minimum for themselves, would be allocated in two ways: (a) As taxes to democratically-controlled governmental agencies that are now committed simply to providing that same basic minimum to all as needed; (b) As investments and donations to organizations and corporations that are committed to producing and distributing that same minimum to all as needed.

2) Those currently working to produce and distribute luxury goods should look for ways to transition out of such employment. Such changes of employment will become necessary, in any case, as the demand for luxury goods decreases and an effective demand for goods that simply meet people’s basic needs increases. During the transition, workers still employed in luxury production would continue to allocate their income in just the same way as workers who are providing for a basic needs minimum.

3) Those who are currently just managing their own investments and pensions will need to act in comparable ways. They will need to redirect, if necessary, their investments and donations to support the provision of a basic needs minimum for all, pay their taxes to governmental agencies that are doing the same, and ensure that they are getting that same basic needs minimum themselves, but no more.

Given that all these individuals are, as we are supposing, committed to acting in accord with my liberty-to-equality argument, they should be able, in collaboration with those who are also similarly committed, yet not similarly productive, to make use of the now-transformed governmental agencies, markets, and other institutions to effectively realize their egalitarian goals with a minimum of coercion.

Of course, circumstances are never likely to be so ideal, with every adult committed to my argument. The point of this thought-experiment, however, is simply to show that if such a commitment to equality obtained, an effective realization of that ideal is fairly easy to imagine.

Hong Kong skyline
A warning about overurbanisation: Hong Kong skyline
Photo by David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 3.0


Let me end by simply summarizing my argument so far sketched. I have argued that even a libertarian conception of morality leads to a right to welfare. I further argued that extending this right to welfare, particularly to future generations, as I claim we must, leads to the egalitarian requirement that as far as possible we should use up no more resources than are necessary to meet our basic needs, securing for ourselves a decent life, but no more. I further showed how the egalitarian ethics I defended can be put into practice peacefully through a combination of individual and collective action.

© Prof James P. Sterba 2015

James P. Sterba is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He has published widely in ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of peace and justice, is past president of the American Philosophical Association, the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, and the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy. His most recent book is From Rationality to Equality (OUP, 2015).

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