Recent Skepticism About Property Rights

Tibor R. Machan

In a wide ranging review essay of Amartya Sen’s recent ambitious book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard, 2009), Moshe Halbertal, a philosopher from the Hebrew University, unleashes some arguments against the right to private property that are supposed to be even stronger than those Sen himself offers. Sen himself regards this right as a strong one but not decisive, so some considerations can be morally powerful enough to overturn it. To block even a moderately friendly view of the right to private property, Professor Halbertal writes:

“Let us assume that … at stake for distribution is a rare medicine that Clara, the brilliant and productive child, somehow managed to invent. She is willing to provide the medicine to Anne, who is very sick, but only for an outrageous compensation. If she does not get her coveted [medicine], then Anne will die; and nobody–this is the libertarian claim–can take the medicine away from her, since she has ownership rights as a producer. In such a story, it seems clear that sticking solely to the libertarian approach to ownership rights, regardless of the outcome, is wrong. Even if we assert that there are such rights, surely, they should not be absolute….” [The New Republic, 12/2/09, p. 42]

This is certainly not the first time that the right to private property has been challenged along such lines. The needs of others have always seemed morally superior to some, versus the rights of those who can fulfill those needs without drastic loss to themselves. And in certain dire circumstances even libertarians will grant that a one-time theft should be morally acceptable provided efforts are made later to compensate for it. What the libertarian–or most of them, since they are a diverse lot themselves–insists upon is that a legal system make no systemic allowance for such takings. Though it is understandable that the takings would occur on rare–emergency–occasions, what is completely wrong is to build into a legal system this acceptability. (In some parts of France, which is largely a socialist country, extreme need serves as a legal justification for such takings!)

The case Halbertal offers has some problems to start with, though relatively minor. No one denies, libertarian or otherwise, that somebody “can take the medicine away.” It is not whether they can but whether they are morally (and should be legally) justified to do so. Criminals, after all, perpetrate such takings all the time, when they murder, rape, kidnap, and steal. Rights violations are possible but not justified, according to libertarianism.

More important is the way Halbertal misunderstands what libertarian political philosophers aim to do when they lay out a proper legal system. They aren’t discussing ethics or morality but politics or law. They are investigating what system of principles should govern a human community, what constitutional provisions should be included in a just system. That here and there an exception is possible to those principles is never disputed–such thinkers as Locke, Rand, Den Uyl and Rasmussen and I, routinely discuss emergencies and note that what’s at issue are general principles, not specific cases that may have elements that remove it from the norm.

It is interesting that just this element of the classical liberal, libertarian political approach is thoroughly investigated by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl in their brilliant book, Norms of Liberty, A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics (Penn State University Press, 2005). Sadly, in the typical fashion of contemporary academics, Professor Halbertal settles for star gazing and pays no heed to Norms of Liberty, a work the theme of which would have informed him about how a classical liberal, libertarian would deal with matters such as he focuses upon.

The gist of the approach is that while difficult cases admittedly exist, instead of attempting to lay out some grand (ideal) moral theory that handles every conceivable situation (a strict moral geometry), they offer a system of metanorms–their term–by which a just society should be governed. These metanorms are principles of government or basic laws that everyone ought to choose so as to make possible a just social life for both oneself and everyone else–every other human being, in other words–based on our knowledge of human nature and what community life requires.

But getting back to Halbertal’s case, what would the classical liberal, non-Utopian approach to political philosophy advise about it? It might, for example, propose that Clara should not have her invention taken from her even in an emergency because although Anne desperately needs it, making it possible to violate Clara’s property right with impunity (and thus setting a precedent) will undermine the system of justice that keeps a free society intact. Or it could propose that an exception be made, via judicial discretion or some other device of the law, without allowing it to undermine normal legal procedures. And then there is the rarely considered option, as we see in both Sen’s and Halbertal’s discussions, of managing the problem without recourse to the law, mostly by relying on voluntary actions such as raising the funds and pressuring Clara by such means as a serious, organized boycott (with the leadership of, say, Sen and Halbertal).

It is interesting that both Sen and Halbertal are avid about their rejection of perfectionist politics yet do not appear to have much sympathy for solving dilemmas without insisting on a perfect resolution, one that guarantees that a perfect enforceable solution will be reached. This is a clear case of the perfect being the enemy of the good! Yes, Clara may have to be tolerated in her greed and lack of generosity but that is because the system in which one is free to be greedy and ungenerous is superior to one that aims to impose, by means of government–thus risking tyranny and undermining morality–the only right solution.

So it would appear that a system of law in which the right to private property is fully protected is better than one in which exceptions are permitted, thus leaving it open to government not by law but by men (who would ultimately be responsible to weight all the alternatives based on their intuitions, something Halbertal appears to grant at one point in his review essay).