The moral quagmire of redistribution

Robert Donoghue
13 min readMar 2, 2021

A conversation between economist Russ Roberts and political philosopher David Schmidtz on the EconTalk Podcast revealed an important dilemma surrounding redistribution that those who identify as ‘progressive’ or ‘left-wing’ ought to carefully consider. But before we can get to that specific dilemma, some introductory comments on the social philosophy of ‘classical liberalism’ are in order. I use the word ‘liberal’ in its traditional European meaning to signify support limited government and the primacy of the individual.

Private property and the foreclosure problem

Liberalism, for a number of underlying moral reasons, is principally committed to upholding the institution of private property. That which I own belongs only to me, and no other person has the right to seize or use that property without my consent. This includes my body as a form of self-ownership, and other external resources that I have a rightful claim to possess. How one justly obtains ownership over non-bodily property is a complicated issue in liberal philosophy, but, it is generally accepted as a moral and necessary process by liberals so long as it conforms to certain requirements.

The institution of private property, however, introduces worrisome consequences that threaten social stability. Foremost among them is that, for a sizable portion of the population, their access to life-sustaining resources becomes obstructed by the ownership rights of others. The division of the populace into two classes of owners and non-owners means that the latter is unable to socially reproduce itself without the permission of the former to access privately held property.

This a-symmetric relationship between the propertied and propertyless classes is central to Marxist critiques of capitalist production, but this is a different topic for another day. I will, as others have, label the issue of jeopardized access to needed resources as the foreclosure problem. The reality that private property causes material and opportunity foreclosure to third parties, and the significant social consequences that arise from such foreclosure by private ownership, is, on my reading, too quickly dismissed by liberals. However, its resolution is, as we will see, not without ambiguity.

The Lockean Proviso

John Locke, the philosopher with the best claim to being the ‘founding father of liberalism’ developed a maxim for evaluating whether non-bodily property can be justly expropriated and privately held. This maxim, dubbed the Lockean Proviso by philosopher Robert Nozick, holds that, “whilst individuals have a right to homestead private property from nature by working on it, they can do so only ‘…at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”’ According to Locke, enclosing land for private ownership is acceptable if it does not foreclose similar opportunities for others because ample resources remain for their use.

Locke didn’t seem to believe that his proviso was all that restrictive. He claimed that the world’s abundance of property negated the possibility of a foreclosure problem arising with any given act of expropriation, essentially rendering the proviso a footnote that would matter in only extreme cases. In The Second Treatise of Government, Locke writes:

“Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.”

In fairness to Locke, the world he inhabited was dramatically less populated and his evaluation may have been correct at the time — although, it still ignores the diversity of land quality, as political economist Henry George would later emphasize. It is clear today, however, that in a world approaching nine billion inhabitants by 2050, the ample resources condition of the proviso is violated by the private enclosure of property. This distinction between the world as it existed in Locke’s time, and the way it exists now, is at the heart of the foreclosure problem.

Importantly, because the people in Locke’s day could ‘enclose land’ without burdensomely limiting other’s access to property, they had the opportunity to independently secure their needs without relying on the permission of a ‘property-owning class’. Put another way, people in Locke’s time generally did not have to engage in exchange with others in order to survive, but they could freely choose to do so if it was in their interest. As Karl Polanyi’s economic history shows, autarky was the dominant mode of economic integration, not exchange.

In contemporary society this is no longer feasible as there is a dearth of ample resources after all private ownership is accounted for. (Y) will be unable to find ‘unenclosed’ land and operate as an independent producer. Instead (Y)’s access to property is foreclosed by the ownership rights of the propertied class, and she must therefore engage in market exchange — most likely trade her labour power — with a capitalist in order to obtain money wages that will satiate her social reproduction needs.

We should note that Locke articulated other limitations on the acquisition of property, but it is the ‘leave as good and as much’ condition that has arguably been most prominent in subsequent commentaries. Furthermore, modern libertarian and liberal theorists have attempted to amend Locke’s proviso to justify continued private ownership of property when clearly their is none left for others to appropriate. Nozick famously argued in Anarchy, State, and Utopia that this proviso should instead be read as private ownership of property is morally permissible so long as it doesn’t make anyone worse off then they would have been had it not been privatized. Briefly stated, he then trots out the traditional classical liberal contention that private property is an engine of economic growth so the carving up of the world entirely into private hands, in the end, makes us all better off because we then live in a much wealthier world.

Natural rights and the State’s moral authority to redistribute

Even if Nozick is correct that allowing all the Earth’s resources to be under private ownership leads to a wealthier society, the foreclosure problem continues to persist and poses a significant economic-politico issue. In the event that private property rights do indeed foreclose people’s access to life-sustaining property, how will this social tension be navigated? Historically, and almost always nowadays, this question takes the following form: is it permissible for a sovereign authority — such as the State — to expropriate property from owners and redistribute it to non-owners? This query has been a central feature of debates in political theory, especially in classic clashes between liberalism and other political traditions like communitarianism, socialism, and republicanism.

To be sure, liberalism has always been skeptical of a power that transcends the individual — i.e a collective power — expropriating privately held property. That is, liberals don’t want to confer authority upon a government to seize (X)’s property with the intent of redistributing it to (Y) — no matter how desperately (Y) is in need of those materials. This deep rooted mistrust of government intervention within liberalism, especially in the Lockean tradition, is the result of a ‘natural rights’ moral underpinning defined by the pre-eminence of negative rights, negative liberty, and deontological imperatives.

Without going into two much detail, Locke and others, have argued that humans qua human, come into the world with a metaphysical attachment called ‘rights’. For Locke, reason will show that the laws of nature confer upon all persons a pre-social (or ‘non-conventional’) claim to life, liberty, and property. Moreover, as Wesley Hohfeld’s famous analysis demonstrates, a ‘right’ signifies a morally enforceable correlative duty others have in relation to the rights-holder. In other words, if I have a right to freedom of assembly, others have a duty to not stop me from assembling with fellow protesters. If I have a right to a public education, the State has a correlative duty to provide me with some form of freely available education program.

Notice that these two examples highlight an important distinction in the types of rights that one may have. The first example, the freedom of assembly, represents a negative right, because it states what others must refrain from doing. Nobody is to interfere in your act of assembly. The second example, the right to a public education, conveys a positive right, because it states what others must do. This right requires that, through some mechanism of organization, the collective at large will provide you with an education.

The natural rights framework associated with Locke and classical liberalism (and libertarianism) ascribes natural rights that are exclusively negative in nature. The right to life entails that no one can harm you, the right to liberty entails that no one can interfere in your ability to exercise basic liberties, and the right to property entails that no one can transgress against your holdings. In fact, some libertarians have even claimed that, by thinking of your body as something which you own as a form of self-ownership, you can reduce all natural rights to the singular right to private property.

If we return to our question above — is it every permissible for a sovereign authority — such as the State — to expropriate property from (X) and redistribute it to (Y)? — we can see now why the liberal is disposed to argue, no, the State does not have the authority to redistribute. Redistribution from (X) to (Y) would violate (X)’s natural right to property and thereby render her unfree.

Now, in the liberal tradition, different camps demonstrate varying levels of firmness in their commitment to rejecting redistribution. Hard libertarians, such as Nozick or Murray Rothbard, will argue that property rights are inviolable so any transgression against (X)’s property can never be morally justified, no matter how good the consequences. This position, whilst seemingly outrageous, is underpinned by a tightly reasoned set of moral arguments that uphold conformance to the moral law as the ultimate normative duty. Other liberals, especially those of the ‘classical liberal’ school — figures such as Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek — will argue that some redistribution may be acceptable (as a necessary evil). ‘Modern’ or ‘social’ liberals like John Rawls will go even further and argue for the moral goodness of redistribution.

Dilemmas and ambiguities of redistribution

Roberts and Schmidtz frame the debate over redistribution as one characterized by the constant tension over what the collective can expect from individuals and what individuals can expect from the collective. Within that context, they explore an argument for redistribution that is often advanced by social liberals, socialists, and communitarians — an argument I will call the individual-social interaction dilemma.

If we look closely at (X)’s ownership of property P, we will quickly discover that both his own bodily and non-bodily property are both historically effected by the community in which (X) resides. His knowledge comes from the education that he received from others, the technological possibilities available to him come from the work of inventors that came before, his ability to exchange in a market comes from the availability of other producers, his freedom was ensured by the sacrifice of soldiers who gave their lives in prior wars, and so on.

The relationship between (X) and his community, or more precisely, all of the ways (X) has benefitted from the labour of others calls into question if he is entitled to sole ownership of the property he presently claims to own. For instance, if he was able to build a successful business because of the education he was provided with by others, doesn’t that make it hard to argue that all of his future success is entirely his own? There is, and always will be, an interaction between the individual and the collective, and it is hard to separate out exactly how much an individual’s success is truly attributable to his independent actions, and how much is a product of contributions made by the community-at-large. During the podcast epidose Schmidtz presents this conundrum in the following manner:

“One perspective would be that on the one hand, that pitcher who is excelling now who did something to make something of himself, make something of his talent. So, like you say, the labor is really there. And even some folks on the left… will say: the point wasn’t whether the pitcher or Wilt Chamberlain worked extremely hard or took extreme risks. The point is there was a certain amount of work that went into it, and work that, after all, Wilt did, not that somebody else did. And so that is the thing that establishes Wilt’s presumptive claim… So, that’s one perspective.

Now the counterpoint to that is a person who will say: Yeah, but in a way you are failing to understand the way in which the community’s involvement goes all the way down. So, it isn’t just you that worked. It’s your parents that worked and your grandparents that worked and actually your parents’ employers, your parents’ teachers, your parents’ grocers, cabdrivers. So, all of society worked to put you in the situation that you are in. Okay, so that’s one perspective; that leaves us with a real understanding why people would disagree about this, why it would seem quite intuitive. Both sides of that debate would seem quite intuitive.”

The first, individualistic perspective is essentially the position maintained by hard libertarians: one’s just earned property is their own and only they have a rightful claim to it — regardless of whether others aided their success. Wilt Chamberlain (Nozick’s example in ASU) is entitled to his income in full. It is the product of his labour and others have a moral duty not to expropriate it.

The second, collectivistic perspective envisages claims to private property as a more complicated affair because of how present day holdings are fundamentally interconnected with historical processes. The intricately interwoven relationship between one’s own effort and the efforts of the community, and how that mixture relates to the success of any one individual, introduces a ambiguity surrounding that person’s ability to claim anything as entirely their own. This position finds much sympathy with political philosophies that we might associate with the ‘political left’.

Foreclosure versus the denial of the individual

Let us now connect our earlier comments with the individualistic and collectivistic perspectives on the individual/social interaction dilemma. The central problem with the individualistic position —i.e. that Chamberlain has total and complete claim to his earnings — is that, when fully institutionalized in society, it leads to the foreclosure problem. The collectivistic response to the individual/social interaction dilemma also runs into a problem that must be taken seriously: namely, it creates a tension between the status of the individual and the claims of society. In short, how far can the demands of society go against any particular individual?

Schmidtz goes on to draw out this ambiguity:

“When somebody says: Okay, I got it; I wouldn’t be where I am today without my teachers and cab drivers and parents and all kinds of other people; but I don’t like this deal ; I’m going go home now; I’m going to leave the country, perhaps, if you don’t mind. Who gets to say: Sorry, you aren’t enough of a self-owner that you don’t have a right to say no? Maybe we want your kidney, maybe we want your blood, maybe we just want your labor, maybe we want to restrict what you can do by laboring for yourself and your family. And at some point we say: Well, let’s be reasonable and let’s go along with this to some extent.

But still, there’s a fundamental matter of principle, a question that needs an answer at the end of the day, which is: Do I have the right to say No? Do I have the right to walk? Do I own myself? So, the fact that you can think of other people who helped me, or you just imagine — how do you know that I’m not an orphan? Maybe in your imagination all kinds of people helped me. Tell me at what point other people helping me made me your property. Because if there was no point at which I became your property, then excuse me, but I’m going to go home, and I’m going to take all of my toys with me. If you want some of my toys, if you want me to share my toys, treat me like an adult, treat me like a self-owner, and make me an offer.”

This ambiguity referred to as ‘the denial of the individual’ by Schmidtz is something that progressive-minded people must give due consideration. If the community-at-large has some claim to the property of individuals, because their life trajectory — including the accumulation of assets — is historically mediated by the actions of those around them, there ought to be some clarity regarding how far the collective’s claim against the individual runs.

Indeed, it would be best if there was a rigorously defined principle or series of constraints that the left could proffer as an unambiguous answer. There are, to be fair, some candidates out there, like the neo-republican principle of non-domination or Rawls’ difference principle, but how widely known are these concepts and how frequently are they articulated in public discourse?

Those concerned about the denial of the individual have every right to ask for clearly defined boundaries. Can the collective demand blood donations of individuals? If not, what can the collective actually demand? To return to the positive/negative rights distinction, any instantiation of a positive right entails a claim by the collective against the individual. To say that people have a (positive) right to healthcare, for example, means that some actor must provide it to everyone. Of course, that actor is usually the State but how does the State obtain the capacity to do so? In part through appropriating the resources held by individuals. So this raises the question of what set of positive rights can we ascribe to citizens without it effectively denying the individual in the process?

In sum, it seems that the foreclosure problem renders the liberal/libertarian position of profound skepticism towards redistribution seriously problematic. However, the alternative position, that the collective has some claim to an individual’s property, is also without complication. The subtle management of the individual/societal interaction dilemma is an issue dripping in ambiguity. How do we preserve the reality of the individual without submitting to the liberal position of tolerating the foreclosure problem? This is a political needle in need of threading.