Libertarianism, Equality, and Utilitarianism

By JOHN STOCKTON

             In the world of philosophy, where the life of the mind holds court, the man of action is often thought secondary, of a mindless sort.  Yet, of all those often ascribed esoteric areas of philosophy, political thought is frequently considered the most useful and needed in the world today.  Properly understood, political philosophy is a departure from and derivation of ethics, to a sphere much larger and indeed of much greater consequence.  Its importance is thus a necessary antidote to the type of thinking characterized by a lack of action. It may be that such an enterprise is hopeless, that humanity is doomed to injustice and suffering, where the wicked inevitably prosper and the good languish, but even here there is hope; hope that something better lies just around the bend, fleeting for the moment but never gone entirely, always possible, and in its potentiality, inspiring beyond belief.  Such is the goal of philosophy and of political thought.  That it should be carried out with the utmost seriousness and furthermore, an air of vigilance towards our reasoning, not unbecoming the philosopher kings of Plato’s Republic, is essential. 

            The purpose of this paper is to critically assess libertarianism, addressing what central questions the theory aims to answer and the answers given, in light of an important political value; equality.  To begin, I shall give some note to the nature of political philosophy (and its significant questions) before discussing the basic features of libertarianism and the rationale given for it.  I shall then assess the merits of this rationale and subsequently, its relevant criticisms. Pointing towards a need for some greater conception of equal opportunity and social welfare, I will then argue for a conception of happiness which accounts for both, incorporating the basic merits of libertarianism with a more genial utilitarianism.  In conclusion, I shall discuss what these considerations ultimately show about libertarianism, equality and utility.

            It seems necessary to begin with some preliminary remarks regarding what questions a political philosophy is attempting to answer, so that we may be all the more prepared to assess libertarianism, with all of its merits and demerits.  In general, there appear to be two questions of primary importance to political philosophy; why and what.  The “why” has to do with why a government is necessary or good in the first place.  One may indeed wonder what the point of a government even is.  Is it to avoid some rugged state of nature? To increase utility among humanity? Or, perhaps more pessimistically, to control and coerce the weak?  The “what” is concerned with which government is to be chosen, given such a thing is indeed desirable.  This often takes the form of comparison, where one asks whether or not a democratic form of government is better than a communist one, or if an absolute monarchy is better than anarchy.  Such questions revolve around what values are considered relevant and desirable, some common examples being life, property, liberty, justice, equality and the pursuit of happiness. 

           The central questions libertarianism aims to answer then are twofold.  Firstly, why is a government (in any form) desirable?  Secondly, given a government is desirable, what form ought it to take?  In answering these questions, libertarianism is primarily concerned with two issues; property ownership and the minimal state.  I shall address each, noting first how they fit into what the libertarian view is, and secondly why they are advocated as the relevant basis for the libertarian ideal. 

              Self-ownership is important as the primary sense of property ownership; that a person is his or her own property, an end in his or her self.  The second sense of property ownership involves the ownership of external objects (property in the normal sense of the word) such as land, food, shelter and so on.  As it is often regarded, one has certain negative rights entailed by the ownership of property, which consist in what may be termed “control rights” (to use the entity and to claim others may not), “rights to compensation” (to be recompensed if the entity is used without consent), “enforcement rights” (to prevent a rights violation), “rights to transfer” (to sell, rent, loan or give the entity) and the right to not lose these rights without consent (Vallentyne 2010).  Each individual equally and naturally possesses these rights, both to the ownership of his or her self and to the ownership of external objects.  As the basis of libertarian liberty, property ownership thus allows every person to live freely, with one condition.  Since each individual equally possesses these rights, no individual may act in such a way as to violate those of others.  What this “maximum empirical negative liberty” means, in effect, is that one may live his or her life as he or she sees fit as long as he or she does not infringe upon another’s property (Vallentyne 2010).  This, of course, makes such acts as murder, enslavement and theft (among other similar ones) all violations of natural rights.  Seen as a theory of social justice, libertarianism thus interprets negative rights as the basis for what is just, making their protection by the state, in effect, the fruition of justice. 

           It is typically admitted among libertarians that some form of authority is required in order to protect the rights of individuals, which may take the form of a central government or a private agency.  Either way, it is often thought desirable in so far as such an organization maintains the negative rights of persons (such as compensation, enforcement and the like) all the while not interfering in their personal lives (beyond enforcing their basic obligations to others imposed by the negative rights possessed by all).  We may consider such a minimal state in opposition to what may be termed “the welfare state”, a government in which the liberty of individuals is commonly abridged for the public good, or else the betterment of some group within the population thought in need (as in liberal egalitarianism).  Libertarianism, on the contrary, does not directly advocate any such welfare.  To attain it by means of government intrusion (i.e. taxation) would require a violation of rights, considered unjust. Property ownership and the minimal state thus play a central role in the libertarian ideal.  I will now discuss why these two issues form the basis of libertarianism. In doing so I will address why a government is necessary in the first place and how this explanation serves as a rationale for the theory.

            According to John Locke, without the existence of a government or central authority, humans exist in a “state of nature”. What this essentially means is that without some central governing body, which can judge and regulate human action, each individual is free to live how they wish and to pursue their own ends. Governments arise from this natural state by the consent of individuals who accept the need for a minimal state in return for the protection of their basic rights (understood by Locke to be life, liberty and property). Granted one accepts the plausibility of this “state of nature” thesis, in addition to persons possessing basic natural rights to life, liberty and property (as rational animals in this state), a government seems to be the prudent conclusion, should persons be self-interested to the extent that they desire their rights to be protected. That this government furthermore should at most be minimal, existing to protect these rights but never violating the freedom of individuals to pursue their own ends (except when the means to such ends conflicts with the rights of others) seems a further implication. Hence, a government is not only warranted, but in particular, necessary to as to protect the basic natural rights we all possess as human beings.  Such a government, however, must be strongly limited so as to prevent violating what basic rights it is meant to protect. We are thus lifted from the cruel and savage state of nature into a more amenable society where, presumably, liberty may reign and the ever abundant blood of humankind may cease to be spilled in the name of survival and competition.

            Before critically assessing libertarianism, it is necessary to make some note on the differing variations of the theory, most importantly, the distinction between right and left-libertarianism. With regard to property ownership, and in particular, the ownership and acquisition of natural resources, libertarians often divide on the issue as to how persons are to use natural resources.  One (radical) version of right-libertarianism asserts that there are no constraints upon one’s acquisition or use of resources.  However, given this allows for grossly unfair access to basic necessities, it is often qualified with the claim that some be left for others and none goes to waste or that no one is made worse off by their use.  Left-libertarianism, on the contrary, maintains that “natural resources initially belong to everyone in some egalitarian manner” (Vallentyne 2010).  Since this creates the problem of deciding when one is and is not permitted to use such resources (must everyone give their consent?), this view is often qualified with the proviso that one only take their fair share or that which allows for equal opportunity among all.  Both of these variations on libertarianism will be further discussed as part of my evaluation of the theory, which I will now proceed to begin.

              As a political philosophy, libertarianism has several powerful merits.  To begin with, the notion of self-ownership is a very plausible one.  That we, as rational agents, are our own persons, self-legislating and in control of our own fate, holds it would seem immense appeal not only to those philosophically minded few, but to free men and women everywhere.  That we may possess property external to ourselves, such as food and shelter, and in the direction of greater comfort and leisure, books and automobiles and so on is moreover quite an acceptable claim to most.  In fact, the very notion of property is so basic to the fabric of human life that civilized life seems quite strange, if not incomprehensible, without it.  Moreover, the state of nature thesis seems a reasonable one.  That such a “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” life may be avoided in creating a central authority is indispensable to political thought.  Lastly, the minimal state (resulting from this) is attractive as it implies greater freedom, both from indirect intrusions such as taxation as well as more direct ones like arrest and prosecution for private matters like drug possession.  It should perhaps be noted that libertarianism is not necessarily dependent upon some variation of social contract theory for its justification. Indeed, one may imagine a sort of utilitarian basis as well, where a libertarian government is seen as producing the most utility. In this vein, one may see the “natural rights” found therein as instead legal rights, not granted to us by our very nature but rather decided upon because of their consequential importance. These possibilities will be further discussed later.

              Despite the above merits, libertarianism is not without its criticisms. Although I have not the space to deal with them all, I shall address a few which suffice to show the failure of libertarianism when devoid of additional considerations, following which I shall discuss what these additional considerations might consist in.  One common objection is that in advocating self-ownership and purely negative rights, libertarians are in effect arguing for a political philosophy which discounts entirely one’s obligation to help others.  If you only ever have a claim to not be harmed, robbed, killed and so forth, then where does one’s responsibility to aid others enter the picture?  One response is that simply because libertarianism does not advocate helping others does not mean it considers such a thing bad, only that individuals should not be forced by the state to do so. Furthermore, such enforcement may make impossible a truly virtuous life.  Here we may draw the distinction between moral conduct and supererogation, the former being (in general) what is required by one’s moral theory, the latter what is above and beyond such requirements, though nevertheless right or good.  Libertarianism then, may consider such aid supererogation, or else not the duty of the government to enforce, should the individual fail to give it.  In either case, the objection appears to falter in that it must assume a strong connection between law and morality, and thus a need to enforce where individuals fail to be moral, or else that the distinction between morality and supererogation is a false one (a dubious premise). 

           A second and stronger objection regarding self-ownership has to do with the strictness or strength of one’s right to life and property.  A simple consequentialist thought experiment suffices to show neither can be absolute, but must admit of degree, if sustained at all.  For example, if one had the option of saving millions of lives by murdering one person, the choice seems clear.  Let us further assume this one person is an evil one and will be responsible (if left alive) for the deaths of those millions.  In this case, our moral intuition seems to clearly indicate that we ought to kill this person, regardless of what “right to life” he has.  It thus appears that libertarians must admit, at the very least, that self-ownership has its limits. 

           A third objection to libertarianism addresses the use of natural resources.  I have previously mentioned the division within the philosophy regarding this issue, namely that of left and right-libertarianism.  As the objection goes, right-libertarianism fails to adequately allow for the freedom of others by conceding the possibility of one individual or group of individuals owning all the relevant resources, thus preventing others from access to them, which in turn restricts those excluded from what are potentially basic forms of sustenance. At its extreme, this view allows for the starvation of others who do not own the means to food.  Yet, isn’t this clearly contrary to moral intuition, which seems to dictate that such a monopoly would be grossly unethical, and hence (ought to be) illegal?  Left-libertarians (and certain qualified versions of right-libertarianism) are able to answer this objection by adding a proviso allowing individuals to only acquire and use a limited amount of natural resources, thus saving some for others.  This proviso, however, seems to look mightily like an appeal to the importance of equality and perhaps, additionally, an extension of the libertarian notion of justice, albeit cleverly disguised in a language of negative rights and liberty.  Conversely, it may be seen as a result of two Lockean provisos regarding property acquisition, that one only take so much that it does not go to waste and that as much and as good is left for others. In terms of left-libertarianism, this can be phrased in terms of the co-ownership of all by all. Yet, even here one might wonder to what extent a desire for some standard of equality is simply being veiled behind talk of this or that qualification of acquisition and ownership.

            The last objection to be discussed is that of identifying libertarianism with anarchy (or something close to it).  Here the basic idea is that a libertarian government is not much of a government at all.  Furthermore, it fails to account for numerous good or important services which a government is capable of giving.  One may reply that although such services as public health care or interstate highways are good, the means of acquiring the necessities for them (i.e. taxes) are unjust (by forcing or threatening to force one to turn over their property or currency).  In this way, they may claim that such “public goods” are not the responsibility of the state because they require some breach of rights.  Yet, as we have already seen, self-ownership has its limits (when considerations of the greater good arise), so why not think that ownership of external property does as well?  If this is the case, it seems to follow that taxation for public goods is not necessarily unjust (and hence neither are other similar infringements upon the rights of persons).  Assuming then, that individual negative rights are not absolute, and that certain public goods are indeed desirable (of which there are numerous examples to imagine, such as fire departments and homeless shelters), we may conclude that the minimal state, though possessing merit, is not the optimal one.  Moreover, its exclusion of consideration for what may be generally termed the common good seems sufficient to show its invalidity.  Something else is needed.

               So far, I have considered two primary questions every political philosophy ought to answer; why is a government (in any form) desirable, and given it is desirable, what form ought it to take?  In answering these questions, libertarianism appeals to two principles, property ownership and the minimal state, making for a system of government which protects the rights (of ownership of self and other things) possessed by all without further breaching the liberty of the populace.  This is justified by a social contract made by individuals who wish to avoid the state of nature and have their rights protected.  Although the theory has its merits in emphasizing individual freedom and the rights to life and property, it ultimately fails in its lack of consideration for the common good as a political value.  Should such a value be incorporated into the libertarian vision, however, a formidable political philosophy would be born.  This is no small feat and requires an assessment of another central political value: equality. 

             The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries hold numerous examples of  the waving of banners entitled “the common good” and “equality”, from the French Revolution, which had a slogan that read “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity), to the rise of Utilitarianism in England, which had as its own slogan “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Just exactly what the “greatest good” meant, however, differed from thinker to thinker (John Stuart Mill notably disagreeing with his predecessor Jeremy Bentham). Similarly, equality in general is not so clear a concept until two questions are answered: equality for whom, and equality of what (Gosepath 2011).  According to libertarianism, as formulated above, equality is at best a secondary notion. The goal or purpose of a libertarian government is not to promote it, but rather to protect the basic rights of its constituents, which consist in the ownership of property (including oneself). In this fundamental respect, each citizen is equal, but only in so far as having these basic rights and their protection.  Beyond such rights, equality of goods like well-being or education is not the government’s concern.

            One may reply that disparity in such things, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that Warren Buffet has more money than me is not prima facie wrong. In fact, it seems fine given he has spent his life earning and accruing it. Indeed, it is a question of considerable importance as to just what exactly the value of equality consists in.  Is it a good thing that every child receives an equal education? Perhaps, but would it be just as good that each child was forced to “earn” an equal grade? Probably not.  In place of this sort of “equality for equality’s sake”, I would like to suggest another account.

            Equality is good, but only extrinsically, and in two fundamental respects: as an aspect of opportunity and of well-being. The above mentioned common good does not necessarily imply that each person live an equally good life and neither does equal opportunity imply that each individual end up equal. I will now argue for a utilitarian conception of equality which in turn implies a common good in line with Locke’s own proviso on property ownership, that one take only so much that it does not waste and that he or she leave as good and as much for others.

            Perhaps the most famous utilitarian, John Stuart Mill, viewed pleasure as intrinsically good and pain as bad.  As such, the goal of morality and political society is to promote pleasure and where possible avoid pain.  Mill’s account of pleasure is not necessarily hedonistic, however. Instead, it focuses on developing human individuality.  This in turn implies a sort of threshold for all, without which no such development can occur.  What this essentially means is that Mill advocates a basic standard of living for each and every person, as opposed to simply some aggregate of pleasure (like Bentham); that each may live a “good enough” life as centers of individual potential human progress.  Secondly, Mill’s account includes a distinction between higher and lower pleasures, where the former are better and preferable (as well as tending to exercise the “higher” faculties in humans).  Some pleasures of comparable quality then may be substituted for one another leaving the agent free to choose that which she prefers. 

            Mill’s conception of the good life and human happiness thus consists in some mixture of higher and lower pleasures. As he puts it, “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” (my italics not his) serves as the basis of his ethical and political theory (Mill 1991, 15).  If each can have some standard of well-being, they then but require the liberty to pursue their life and the pleasures it may hold.  This “liberty”, however, is actually more like a set of basic liberties. If “a good human life is one that exercises one's higher capacities” and a person's higher capacities include “her deliberative capacities, in particular, capacities to form, revise, assess, select, and implement her own plan of life”, then freedom of speech, religion and occupation all play a central role, as each serves to make known various choices and abilities one has (Brink 2008). 

            The relation here between liberty and well-being has led many to believe that Mill’s thought is incoherent; that such values ultimately contradict each another. An example of this would be one where a man is enslaved in order to benefit (increase the happiness of) a hundred others, the idea being that his liberty is being violated for the well-being of others.  This sort of objection is not unanswerable, however. What needs to be decided is how in particular cases one can choose between these two obviously important political values.  It is an age old problem as to how they may be integrated and I can by no means completely solve it here.  However, I can say that although individual liberty and well-being are not necessarily connected (i.e. having one does not imply having the other), they often go hand in hand and so are correlated.  Moreover, having the former often brings about the latter.  Because of this, Mill is justified in advocating individual liberty as a means to an end (greater happiness).  Additionally, it appears that the pleasure (or happiness) is greater (and often higher) when it comes as a result of one’s own free action, as opposed to say government paternalism. Indeed, intuitively there is something to earning your own way and overcoming hardship which in turn places a higher value on one’s goal than otherwise.  As to the response that there are (or may be) cases where pleasure can be increased at the expense of liberty, Mill might respond that such cases are themselves incredibly rare, misguided because they assume states with slavery actually have a higher utility, or else non-existent entirely, and regardless stray from the initial point, which is to make the best system of action and of political integration that is possible. 

            Given this conception of happiness then, in which both liberty and well-being are key components, we may ask why equality is important beyond equal basic rights. I think the best answer resides in Mill’s idea of a threshold.  Essentially this means each and every person should at the very least be guaranteed a basic level of equality with regard to several things. Although one’s right to life and property are important, they are not all that is important.  Individual well-being as well as freedom and opportunity to pursue a good life are integral. Moreover, things like health care (which may be seen as an extension of one’s right to life), education, food, shelter and some basic level of income are crucial to one’s ability to live a good life (in their own eyes as well as ours). If we, as libertarianism does, stop at one’s right to life and property, we will be left with a government which fails to guarantee these other goods. However, if they can be guaranteed, then a certain threshold for all is possible. That each person should at the very least have such a threshold in their own life, and thus be equal in this respect is an extension of the libertarian understanding of equality to include other goods beyond basic rights, but not an unreasonable one. It may not be the government’s job, so to speak, to paternalistically dictate how each person should live their life, or what a good life even is, but it seems at the very least that it should make possible such a life for every person. 

            As I have argued, this requires an equality of more than basic libertarian rights.  Interestingly, this is not contradictory with what may have been Locke’s own view on the matter. Considering his above mentioned provisos regarding property acquisition (that it not go to waste and that as good and as much be left for others), it would appear that even Locke valued some sense of equality beyond basic rights. Returning to our two questions regarding the concept of equality then we have some answers. In accordance with the general utilitarianism underlying the above account (which treats each and every person equally with respect to happiness), we may answer the question of equality for whom by simply saying for all. Importantly, I am not advocating that each person be forced to have equal education or health care, only that every person has the same basic standard of each, where some may exceed it.  With regard to equality of what, we can now refer to Mill’s own conception of a threshold, which includes one’s basic rights but also “less basic” things like education and well-being.

           Although libertarianism falls short in its noteworthy lacking of “a common good” (beyond protecting one’s basic rights), a Millean account of happiness can supplement it by advocating an equal threshold for all. What is more, doing so does not necessarily conflict with liberty or property ownership as central libertarian values. Given property ownership as a value is not absolute (as argued above) and liberty is not inconsistent with individual well-being for all, we have as a result an account of government which takes as it core property ownership, equality of rights and liberty, a basic level of well-being for all, and equal access to things like health care and education.

            Equality is often taken as a fundamental political value, similar in worth to liberty and well-being. Yet, what many fail to realize is the overlapping and interconnecting nature of all three. As I have argued, libertarianism is persuasive in its emphasis on liberty, but falls short on account of a common good (or public well-being). This defect, however, can be fixed by an appeal to equality. Although it is not good for its own sake, equality is extrinsically valuable, as a means to some threshold of well-being and freedom for all (a point which some may exceed, but which none ever fall short of). I will now discuss two afore mentioned ways in which equality can serve this purpose.

           The first is equal opportunity. In his famous book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues for an egalitarian conception of justice which incorporates a desire we all possess to have both the most extensive set of basic rights and liberties possible with the belief that more is needed to ensure a higher standard of benefit for the least advantaged (roughly, Rawls’ two principles of justice). The basic idea is that even in a reasonably just democratic society such as our own, many live below an acceptable standard, and this inhibits their own opportunity for improvement, debasing the so-called meritocracy that is capitalism. By increasing this standard (what Mill and I have henceforth termed a “threshold”), we can in turn increase the opportunity of persons, and finally cash the check which is the “unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” we have long promised ourselves (King Jr. 2010). Equality of opportunity is important because it ensures that every individual is free to pursue a good life, and that no one is treated such that they are forced to live at some sub-standard level.

            The second way in which equality is important is in terms of equal well-being. The above discussed “threshold” is here central. Essentially, this means that every person is guaranteed a standard of welfare that allows them the aforementioned opportunity and freedom to live as they see fit, the basic idea being that one should not be impeded from living their life simply because of “external circumstances” like race, gender or social class. Given these are aspects which they do not choose but are born into, they are blameless for them. Justice then is that by which equal opportunity and well-being for all is ensured.  This in turn determines our Millean threshold, which in addition to the right to ownership and the protection of liberty, amounts to a heavily modified libertarianism. Seen in the context of this libertarianism, equality plays a central role.

            Reflecting upon all this, I began my paper with a critical analysis of the political theory libertarianism and through a series of small steps moved it in the direction of its very opposite, egalitarianism.  I have argued that despite its several powerful merits, libertarianism is ultimately deficient in that it lacks some conception of a common good. Through Mill’s conception of happiness as the development of human individuality via a guaranteed equal threshold of opportunity and well-being for all, I have argued that equality plays a central role in supplementing this notable deficiency. Lastly, I noted that even one such as Rawls may find merit in the incorporation of egalitarian principles of justice into this political philosophy.  It may be that as a result, I have made an enormous mess of thinkers and thought far more sophisticated than myself. Although certainly possible, I hope I have avoided this sad fate or at the very least, have made a mess both interesting and compelling, however wrong it is.

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