Left-libertarian theory of rights
Millett Fisher, Arabella Marie Amy
Fisher, Arabella Marie Amy Millett
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The human rights that are defended in libertarian literature tend to be limited in scope, which entails that the duties that people can be compelled to fulfil are similarly minimal. For this reason a commitment to libertarianism tends to be seen as incompatible with support for subsistence rights, enforceable positive duties, and redistributive taxation, since each one of these issues may require the infringement of libertarian property rights. In this thesis I aim to challenge these assumptions about libertarianism and to show that if a more plausible reading of libertarianism is adopted – what has come to be known as left-libertarianism – then this will generate a more substantial range of rights and correlative duties which are not only compatible with redistributive taxation, but in fact entail it. I show that libertarianism, despite its contention that human rights are exclusively negative, does not rule out subsistence rights provided that these are understood as negative rights, for example: a right not to be deprived of the means of subsistence, or deprived of a clean living environment. Negative rights can be violated not only by individuals or by institutions, but also by individuals supporting institutions. In order to respect the negative rights of others it is necessary to refrain from supporting or contributing to institutions that violate these rights. Moreover, failure to respect these rights brings about a positive duty of rectification, demonstrating the potential for positive libertarian duties even in the absence of positive rights. Since the manner in which rights can be violated is extensive, so is the scope of those individuals that owe rectification. The fundamental libertarian rights of self-ownership, which I characterise as three property rights – over the body, over the faculties (including talents, abilities and labour) and over what one can produce through exercising those faculties in conjunction with the body – demonstrate how we can come to have property rights over external objects, but self-ownership does not confer permanent private property rights over unlimited external worldly resources. In fact, a robust right of self-ownership is incompatible with the radically inegalitarian appropriation with which libertarianism is ordinarily associated. Given the equal rights of selfownership of every individual, it is far more plausible to conceive of the world as held in some egalitarian manner, rather than as unowned and available for appropriation in such a way that would disadvantage latecomers. I propose an egalitarian understanding of world ownership which comprises common ownership of land, and joint ownership of other external worldly resources such as oil and minerals. Taking the injustice of radically inegalitarian appropriation in conjunction with a duty to rectify past injustices, there follows a libertarian argument for redistribution, but crucially this redistributive taxation is collected not on income but on natural resource use. On a left-libertarian theory of rights, then, there is no right to appropriate unlimited resources, but there is a right to redistribution in the event of past injustices, including the misappropriation of worldly resources.