Libertarianism for Doubters

Libertarianism in its classical form is a radical doctrine. At its core is a belief in strong, virtually absolute property rights for individuals and the absence of enforceable duties to help others, based on some doctrine of self-ownership. Libertarianism also has radical implications. It would entail that large amounts of the activities of the modern state are unjust, in particular any type of social redistribution. Indeed, libertarianism arguably requires us to be anarchists of some kind, and abandon states altogether. (I’m dealing with one strand of libertarianism here, deontological “right”-libertarianism.)

The radicalism of the libertarian project should give you pause if you’re a libertarian. It is a minority position both in the academy, and across the history of political thought. Many thoughtful, clever intellectuals have offered serious objections to libertarianism from both moral and economic perspectives. Furthermore, there have been no real-life implementations of libertarianism, so any belief in libertarianism must rely on lots of empirical stipulations and unreliable guesswork about the real-life nature of such societies. Moreover, from many competing moral views a libertarian society would not merely be a mistake, but a moral disaster, insofar as a such a society would not fulfil crucial duties of justice, e.g., of social redistribution.

So here’s the central question: what type of political society should you advocate if you’re a libertarian who enjoys significant, heavy doubts about whether libertarianism is true? (To be clear, I’m in the opposite position—I consider myself a liberal who enjoys doubts that libertarianism might be true.) An intuitive answer is that you should hedge your bets as a libertarian. Irrelevant of any possible reasons internal to libertarianism to advocate a social welfare net (some have been offered in the literature), you have reasons to favour a minimal safety net supported by forcible taxation because you might be catastrophically wrong in your belief that libertarianism is right.

The same line of argument applies mutatis mutandis to virtually all utopian, radical political theories. All, I suspect, have serious reasons to morally safe-guard their own implementation—that is, to make practical accommodations for the possibility that their theory is wrong. If you’re a socialist, for example, who wishes to radically abandon all kinds of property rights, it should give you pause that most competing views allow for at least a moderate version of such rights, and who see their abandonment as an injustice. But I’ll limit my discussion here to libertarianism specifically.

The Central Argument

Let’s build up the argument a bit more slowly. The libertarian believes, we can stipulate, that social redistribution, insofar as forcibly financed through taxation, is morally wrong as it violates individual property rights. I’m not here considering an argument where doubts lead the libertarian to give up that commitment altogether. Nor is the position we’re imagining one where belief in libertarianism becomes unjustified or irrational in the face of competing evidence. All I’m presuming is that our doubting libertarian thinks it a plausible possibility that some competing, non-libertarian theory of justice is true.

In particular, let’s imagine that this competing theory is similar in structure to libertarianism, with the main difference that it accepts that individuals have positive (“welfare”) rights—e.g., to have their needs fulfilled. On this alternative theory, a society in which some people’s central needs go unfulfilled is a greatly unjust society. Let’s add the empirical background premise that everyone’s needs can only be fulfilled under a welfare state and not under a decentralised charity scheme (as some libertarians have claimed). If so, then abandoning the welfare state would be unjust, as it violates people’s positive rights.

Now to moral hedging. By stipulation the welfare state violates individual property rights. But it strikes me as a plausible idea that, even if this type of welfare state is unjust in this sense, it is merely moderately unjust. The welfare state, unless its levels of taxation reach very high levels, or unless it uses particularly invasive forms of achieving its aims, is still compatible with individuals leading autonomous lives vastly free from government intervention. (At least in theory—this isn’t necessarily true of actual welfare states.)

So the choice the libertarian is facing is between committing a relatively certain but moderate injustice, and plausibly (but not certainly) committing a very great injustice. For cases like these, we can assume that a more general moral (meta-moral?) principle applies, one that tells us that we should avoid the possibility of committing great injustices. I’ll call this the Safety Principle.

In schematic form, the argument has four crucial steps,

1. Forcibly financing (a moderate version of) the welfare state is a moderate injustice, if libertarianism is right.

2. Abolishing the welfare state altogether would be a great injustice, if a plausible competing theory is right.

3. Even if you believe in libertarianism, you have significant reasons to doubt that it’s true, and that a competing moral theory of this form is at least plausible.

4. Safety Principle. If setting up our society in some way would be a great injustice according to some theory you think might plausibly be right, then you should avoid setting it up in such a way, even if this would entail accepting moderate injustice according to your favourite theory of justice.

5. Thus, even if you’re a libertarian, you should not oppose forcibly financing (a moderate version of) a welfare state.

The example is perhaps not the most convincing chosen; there might be other, more mundane examples. Think, for example, about the debates between right- and left-libertarianism, or even different types of right-libertarianism. Most forms of libertarianism contain some kind of proviso on the original acquisition in the state of nature. There are considerable uncertainties about the correct formulation about this proviso. So if you acquire something in the state of nature but you enjoy significant doubts whether this acquisition was rightful, then it might be wise to hedge your bets: to either not acquire the thing you aimed for, or to compensate others who you think might have a claim against your acquisition.

Various Objections

Here are some objections, some of them quite powerful—perhaps even fatal—and some possible replies.

Against the Moderate Injustice of Taxation

One obvious response by the libertarian is to doubt that social redistribution via the welfare state is only a moderate injustice. My general response here is that libertarians overstate the morally problematic aspect of taxation.

Note first that, insofar as you’re a minimal-state libertarian, you already accept that taxation is morally permissible in principle. That is, you must accept that the state can permissibly take a certain amount of people’s income. This doesn’t mean that just any degree of taxation is permissible; but if (say) a 25% tax rate is permissible, then it is hard to see why (say) a 35% tax rate would be a screaming injustice.

Second, I think that all libertarian comparisons of taxation to “forced labour” or theft are morally dubious. Taxation works very differently from these other phenomena. Both forced labour and theft curtail your option set—the set of life choices you can make—in quite specific ways. Forced labour, furthermore, subjects you to the will of someone else. Taxation does reduce your option set—you can now only buy the smaller, not the bigger boat—but still leaves it largely up to you how to lead your life.

Imagine two scenarios. One, in a hundred years our moral sensibilities are so far advanced that we see libertarianism is right. We look back at the taxation regimes of the 20th century and see that they were morally mistaken. Two, we come out of a hundred years without political institutions caring for the poor and sick, and see that we were morally mistaken in not providing for them. Which of these two scenarios should cause us greater moral consternation? I think it should clearly be the second scenario, even if you’re currently a libertarian who believes that the first scenario is empirically more likely. But admittedly, I’m appealing to somewhat brute intuitions here.

Against Degrees of Justice

Second, you might reject the idea of degrees of justice which underlies the argument. This might rest on the idea that a social arrangement is either unjust (insofar as it violates rights) or that it is just (insofar as it doesn’t), but that there are no degrees of justice.

This observation is certainly right of individual interactions in a libertarian theory. My treatment of you is either morally wrong (insofar as I violate your rights) or morally right (insofar as I don’t); and insofar as we’re operating in a deontological morality, the idea that some acts are “more wrong” than others makes no philosophical sense.

But observe, first, that not all rights violations are morally on par even if they’re all wrong. Me twisting your finger is wrong, and me killing you is wrong, and in that sense libertarianism is uncompromising. However, if we could choose between two types of society, one in which finger-twisting is prevented reliably but murder isn’t, and another society with the opposite, no clear-minded libertarian should hesitate to choose the latter (insofar, of course, it can be brought about in a non-rights-violating way).

It is this sense of justice which is at stake in the argument—a concept of justice where we evaluate entire societies or political institutions, and not individual interactions. The question is not whether you should violate someone’s rights, but which of two types of political institutions you should support. Even libertarianism should have some way to evaluate different political institutions in terms of degrees of justice in this sense.

Against the Safety Principle

Let’s move on to the Safety Principle. The Safety Principle is stronger and more controversial than some other principles in the vicinity, for example,

If setting up our society in some way would be a great injustice according to some theory you think might plausibly be right, and if there is some alternative way to set up your society which is equally just according to your favourite theory of justice, then you should avoid setting it up in such a way.

This is a principle which still has a surprising amount of bite. (Think what it might entail if you enjoy doubts that animals or embryos have moral status comparable to human adults.) However, this alternative principle is very limited. It tells us little about the type of cases which start to be politically interesting, which are precisely cases of disagreements between theories.

One point in favour of the original Safety Principle is that it is plausibly analogous to other principles for dealing with uncertainty outside normative uncertainty. Assume that you have a choice between

(1) hurting an innocent person’s leg with a 70% probability, or

(2) killing an innocent person with a 30% probability.

So this is precisely a choice between a relatively certain but moderate injustice, and a possible, uncertain but grave injustice. I take it that in a case like this you ought to play it morally safe by choosing (1). Admittedly, this is a case where your uncertainty concerns the empirical, not the moral, facts. There might well be a fundamental asymmetry between principles governing these two types of uncertainty.

Another plausible objection is that the Safety Principle, if true, would have too many sceptical implications. For almost any practical choice, you might suspect, you believe that there is some plausible moral theory according to which that choice would be a great injustice. If this were true, this would greatly impair libertarianism, as few genuinely libertarian policies could be pursued. The argument would also entail that libertarianism is “held hostage” by its epistemic competitors.

I share this worry, though I think that the objection just shows that a more circumspect formulation of the Safety Principle is needed. The principle only makes sense if we have a sufficiently restrictive sense of when we regard a competing theory of justice as “plausible”, and a sufficiently restrictive sense of when such a theory deems something to be a “great injustice”. Filling these details in would require lots of analytic legwork, but I can’t see why this couldn’t be done in principle.

Against Intertheoretical Comparisons

Here’s perhaps the strongest objection, and one which has been discussed at length in the secondary literature on normative uncertainty. The idea is that, even if (1) and (2) turn out to be true, there is no sense in making intertheoretical comparisons between different moral theories. So the Safety Principle, when it compares moral values across different moral theories, makes a meaningless claim.

The very rough idea is that different moral theories evaluate the world in different moral currencies for which there is no exchange rate across theories. This problem is clearest if we think about the competition between moral theories with a radically different structure, such as utilitarianism and deontology. Deontology imposes side-constraints: it claims that some actions are morally wrong no matter what. It is not easy to adequately compare this type of moral theory with consequentialist views which allow us to put a number on any particular outcome without drawing any such harsh boundaries.

Let’s not get into the details of this literature. I share many of the severe doubts about intertheoretical comparison brought up in the literature. I suspect that attempts to construct a sense of “moral value” which is coherent across widely divergent moral theories is doomed. But while such grand attempts might well be chimerical, the Safety Principle rests on much more modest foundations. In particular:

1. The Safety Principle I’ve given does not rely on constructing a full-blown, cardinal scale which allows us to compare moral value across theories. In fact, it does not operate with any sense of “moral value” at all. All the Safety Principle needs are the two categories of “moderate” and “extreme” injustice, and that these are intelligible across different kinds of moral theories.

2. As I’ve constructed the case, we’re comparing two types of right-based theories, a libertarian theory which merely accepts negative rights, and a liberal theory which adds in positive rights to social redistribution. While these theories differ in their practical demands, they do not differ in their structure. This should make us optimistic that intertheoretical comparisons are at least roughly intelligible.

Here’s the idea. If you’re a libertarian, you have a conceptual sense of what it means to violate a right. Thus, even if you do not agree that there are positive (“welfare”) rights, you have a sense of what the injustice of violating a right would amount to. This is even clearer if we contrast different types of libertarianism. Two libertarians might disagree on the distribution of (negative) rights in a society, as they disagree on the correct principle of original appropriation and just transfer. But even while they disagree on the particular pattern of justifiable holdings, they have a perfectly fine idea of what it would mean, in terms of justice, if this rather than that pattern of holdings was the correct one.

3. In fact, the disagreement between two libertarians looks less like a disagreement between two different kinds of moral theory, but rather a disagreement between two people who share the same moral theory but who disagree on the parameters of that theory (e.g., the formulation of the precise conditions of when a transfer of property is valid). The question which here naturally arises is how we should individuate different moral theories. The impossibility of inter-theoretical comparisons strikes me as a highly implausible idea if we operate with a very fine-grained individuation of moral theories—though I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise with regard to this claim.

4. With all this being said, perhaps introducing positive rights into one’s moral theory changes it so much that intertheoretical comparisons become difficult if not impossible to make. But even then, right-libertarians should hedge their bets when it comes to the possibility that left-libertarian theories are true (i.e., theories which presume some kind of common world-ownership).


Let’s zoom out a bit. Putting the technicalities of the argument aside, the basic idea is that if you advocate some radical political theory—which is radical in the sense that its political implementation is untested, controversial, and potentially morally disastrous—then you should exercise caution of some kind. The argument I’ve given was an attempt to develop this central idea.

I suspect the greatest problems concern the Safety Principle I’ve invoked. It’s not clear how intuitively convincing the principle is, or what support it would enjoy. I’ve told no really convincing story why the principle would be true, and perhaps some competing principle will turn out to be true on closer inspection. (It’s an interesting methodological question how we would choose between such principles, as analogies with empirical uncertainty might be misleading.) There’s a weaker safety principle I highlighted, but this principle would also have much weaker practical implications.

But either way, it seems to me that we—libertarians as well as non-libertarians—should be concerned about the possibility of severe moral error. The possibility that implementing our favourite political theory could lead to great injustice should deeply trouble us. Perhaps it shouldn’t—but it seems we would need a well-developed argument why not.

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