Libertarianism and Modern Philosophers, Lecture 2 with David Gordon - Mises Academy


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Libertarianism and Modern Philosophers, Lecture 2 with David Gordon - Mises Academy

  1. 1. Libertarianism and the Philosophers: Lecture 2 G.A. Cohen’s Challenge to Libertarianism
  2. 2. Who Was Cohen? ●G.A. (Jerry) Cohen was a leader of the analytic Marxists. He always remained sympathetic to Marxism, but he thought that the theory of history couldn’t be demonstrated to be true. The proletariat will probably not, as Marx, thought, become the majority. (Sombart made this point.) ●If this is right, the coming of socialism isn’t inevitable. This raises the problem for him, why favor socialism?
  3. 3. The Attractions of Self- Ownership ●Cohen’s arguments for socialism were ethical: he thought that inequality was morally bad. ●He faced a problem. He also thought that self-ownership is very plausible, but self-ownership seems to lead to libertarianism. ●He can’t be both a libertarian and a socialist; what can he do?
  4. 4. Cohen’s Strategy ●Cohen has two ways of responding to this problem. ●The first is to accept self-ownership but to argue this doesn’t lead to libertarianism. ●The second is to say that, in spite of the plausibility of self-ownership, this principle should be rejected.
  5. 5. Why Self-Ownership? ●Cohen mentions this example, which has also been used by Ayn Rand. Most people have two usable eyes, but some people do not have any. The latter group would benefit from eye transplants. People who had two eyes could still see, though less well than before. The blind would be much better off. Should we favor such transplants?
  6. 6. More on Self-Ownership ●Obviously not. Even if some people would be better off as the result of the eye transplants, each person has the right to decide what to do with his or her own eyes, or body in general. ●Self-ownership seems difficult to reject. Note, by the way, that nothing turns on the term “self-ownership”, which some people don’t like. It’s the concept that’s important.
  7. 7. Self-Ownership and Libertarianism ●If you accept self-ownership, the way to libertarianism seems clear. Don’t people who own themselves have the right to appropriate property? ●If they so, there is no room for socialism or the welfare state to get started. You have a right to your property that blocks action to achieve egalitarian goals.
  8. 8. The Argument Continued ●The structure of the argument is just like the argument against the eye transplants. Even if eye transplants would make people better off overall, persons’ rights to their own bodies blocks this move. In Nozick’s language, rights are side constraints. ●In a similar way, aren’t plans to redistribute wealth blocked by property rights? How can a socialist escape?
  9. 9. Cohen’s First Way Out ●Cohen needs to block the step from self- ownership to acquisition of property by individuals. ●He does in a way you might not expect. He claims that the libertarian view rests on an unexamined assumption. ●The assumption is that land starts out unowned. If there is no unowned land to start with, we can’t get individual acquisition.
  10. 10. Cohen’s Alternative ●What is the alternative to starting with land and resources as not owned by anyone? ●Cohen suggests that either everyone in the society owns all the land collectively or that individuals have a right to an equal division of all the resources in the territory.
  11. 11. A Possible Misunderstanding ●Cohen is not suggesting that groups, rather than individuals, homestead property. That would be compatible with standard libertarian theory. ●Rather, what Cohen means is that we start out with persons having these rights.
  12. 12. What Is Cohen’s Point? ●You might wonder, what defense does Cohen give for either of these views? But this question misses what he is trying to do. He isn’t arguing that either of these two proposals is correct. ●Rather, he is trying to show that, because these alternatives exist, the move from self-ownership to
  13. 13. Are the Alternatives Plausible? ●You might think that Cohen’s first alternative is totally unworkable. If everyone owns property collectively, doesn’t this mean that any individual could veto any use of land by someone else? No one would be able to do anything. Rothbard raised this objection to this system, although he didn’t have
  14. 14. Cohen’s Answer ●Cohen did not have in mind a system in which anyone could always veto everything. He thought that in this system, people would agree on a distribution of resources to individuals. ●Cohen suggests that the distribution agreed to would probably be an equal one. If more productive people wanted inequality, the less productive could refuse to agree. The more productive would have to accept equal
  15. 15. Palmer’s Objection ●Tom Palmer objected that Cohen isn’t right. The more productive could also threaten to hold out. The resulting distribution would depend on the bargaining ability of the participants. ●Palmer is right about this, and Cohen can’t claim that self-ownership + collective property rights directly leads to socialism. But Cohen could still say that if you begin with collective rights, you need not end up with something that looks like the libertarian solution.
  16. 16. So What? ●How can libertarians respond to Cohen’s point? We can admit that the claim that land and resources start unowned is not a consequence of self-ownership. Cohen is right. ●But does this matter? Why should we think that people have inherent property rights of the kind Cohen suggests? Here we have to make a judgment about plausibility.
  17. 17. Cohen’s Attack on Libertarian Ownership ●Cohen’s doesn’t directly argue that collective ownership is desirable. Instead, he attacks the libertarian approach. He says that the libertarian system allows morally bad outcomes. ●Unfortunately, he selects Nozick’s account as the only one to examine. Nozick’s system has a feature that gives Cohen an opening. Rothbard’s approach doesn’t have this controversial feature.
  18. 18. The Standard Libertarian Picture ●Libertarian theories start from self- ownership and, as Cohen suggests, the premise that land and resources start unowned. ●Individuals can then acquire property by doing something to areas of land (home-steading) There are different views of what exactly you have to do.
  19. 19. The Lockean Proviso ●Nozick adds a feature to the standard picture. He follows John Locke here. He says if you appropriate land, your doing so can't leave anyone else worse off. ●What this entails is hard to say. One reason Nozick puts this in is that he doesn’t think there is a satisfactory principle of first appropriation. The Proviso in part makes up for this.
  20. 20. Cohen’s Opening ●Nozick’s use of the Proviso gives Cohen an opening for attack. He reduces the libertarian account of property acquisition to the Proviso. The only limit on appropriation is that what you do can’t make anyone else worse off.
  21. 21. Cohen’s Objection ●Suppose that someone is farming land but hasn’t said “I appropriate this land”. Then, Cohen says, it would be all right on Nozick’s theory for someone else to appropriate the land, so long as the farmer didn’t suffer a loss of income. Imagine, e.g., that a developer can use the land for some lucrative purpose. He can compel a transfer. This is like
  22. 22. What Cohen Missed ●The libertarian answer to Cohen is that the farmer would already be the owner of the land. His activities would be sufficient to count as appropriation. You can’t appropriate someone else’s land just by compensating him. ●Cohen’s reduction of the libertarian account to the Proviso leads him to
  23. 23. A Problem for Cohen ●Even if Cohen is right that self-ownership doesn’t lead by itself to libertarianism, he still faces a big problem. He is an egalitarian socialist, and it’s very difficult to reconcile self-ownership with socialism. ●Suppose we start with individuals who have equal shares of all resources. Can’t this situation lead to inequalities, as Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain example shows?
  24. 24. Cohen’s Solution ●Cohen can deal with this by rejecting self- ownership. It isn’t up to people to do whatever they want with their own bodies and property. ●But doesn’t Cohen himself say that self- ownership seems correct? What about the eye transplant case? ●He answers that this shows only a right to the integrity of your body, not full self-ownership. The state can’t take away parts of your body to give to others, but it doesn’t follow, e.g., that you have a right to control your own