The Indeterminacy of Propertarianism

Todd Seavey continues to argue that libertarianism just is the view that the only legitimate function of the state (if it has any legitimate function) is to protect property rights, and that sticking to this view saves us from confusing culture war politics. But the definition of legitimate property rights is confusing culture war politics. There is nothing especially clear-headed, “thin,” or even libertarian about emphasizing the inviolability of property rights.

The contemporary welfare-liberal argument is that redistributive fiscal policy does not violate property rights as long as policy was determined according to certain principles of legitimate democratic procedure. The contemporary environmentalist argument is that reasonable land-use restrictions do not violate property rights because there can be no legitimate right to destroy species or degrade the quality of the environment for future generations. Most people don’t think laws against selling your tissue or organs violate property rights because they don’t think you can “own” these things in the way you can own a digital camera. Many drug warriors deny that drug laws violate property rights because they deny individuals can have a legitimate right to own certain personally and socially destructive substances. And many labor advocates believe that asymmetries in bargaining power violate the property rights of workers by denying them the fair value of their labor.

So if an environmentalist, welfare-statist, paternalist, drug warrior, labor advocate can agree in principle that the sole legitimate function of the state is to protect property rights, where does that leave us?  I think it leaves us in a position to see that a philosophy emphasizing the inviolability of property rights has no distinctively libertarian content in the absence of a “thicker” account of the justification and content of these rights. If I was as ambiguity-averse as Todd seems to be, I might argue that the slogan “Let’s stick to property rights!” simply invites us to wade into a impossibly confusing thicket of arguments about what does and does not count as a legitimate property right. These issues are complex. But either you wade in or you forfeit the argument to more intrepid souls.

Todd is right that feminism does not logically imply a concern for liberty in his favorite sense of the term.  But then neither does an exclusive concern for the protection of property rights. There are more or less libertarian feminisms and there are more or less libertarian accounts of legitimate property rights. I believe a certain kind of regime of property rights is indispensable to the protection and value of individual liberty. And so are the norms of equality promoted by certain kinds of feminism.