A Note On Libertarian Anti-Paternalism

Whenever libertarians talk about the evils of liberty-restricting paternalism, I can’t help but recall that the endorsement of paternalism is the only plausible way their theory of laissez-faire property is supposed to get off the ground in the first place.

As Nozick notes, the appropriation of property is inherently liberty-destroying:

It will be implausible to view improving an object as giving full ownership to it, if the stock of unowned objects that might be improved is limited. For an object’s coming under one persons’s ownership changes the situation of all others. Whereas previous they were at liberty (in Hohfeld’s sense) to use the object, they now no longer are.

Nozick’s way around this unsavory realization is the endorsement of paternalism, though he doesn’t call it that:

A process normally giving rise to a permanent bequeathable property right in a previously unowned thing will not do so if the position of others no longer at liberty to use the thing is thereby worsened [Lockean proviso].

I believe that the free operation of a market system will not actually run afoul of the Lockean proviso. If this is correct, the proviso will not play a very important role in the activities of protective agencies and will not provide a significant opportunity for future state action.

This bit of Anarchy, State, Utopia is a bit rambling (mainly because its filled with non-appropriation examples of things that don’t worsen the position of others). But the upshot of it is very clear. Nozick argues that, even though appropriation is liberty-destroying, it is permissible insofar as it leaves everyone better off in welfare terms (or at least no worse off) than the non-appropriation baseline. This is, as he notes, an empirical claim about the operation of free market capitalism, which means he is essentially saying liberty-destroying property appropriation is justified because the system it generates vastly improves the lives of everyone, even those immediately deprived by the appropriation.

Under this reasoning, when a person unilaterally declares themselves the owner of some piece of the world, anyone objecting to the liberty constraints this declaration imposes upon them will be told: “it’s for your own good.” Sure, your liberty is greatly circumscribed by property (step outside your dwelling and basically everything you see is off limits to you), but are you not better off? Don’t you have a TV and ample food?

Given that any sort of plausible account of why the liberty restriction of property can be justified relies upon paternalism, subsequent libertarian posturing against paternalism always strikes me as amusing. The amusement is compounded by the fact that often the paternalism they decry is far less paternalistic than the paternalism of property.

Under the paternalism of property, you have no choice. The propertarians declare that the system is for your own good, and if you disagree, too bad. You can’t go on ignoring property systems. If you do, violence will visit you shortly.

Under the paternalism of modern-day nudges, you do have a choice though. Laws that put cigarettes behind counters out of sight do not forbid you from buying them. Laws that limit the cup size of sodas does not prevent you from drinking as much soda as you want. Laws that put gruesome labels on cigarettes also do not prevent you from buying them. Conceivable laws that would forbid putting sugary impulse buys near registers also would not prevent you from buying the things usually featured on those shelves. In all these kinds of cases, choice is entirely preserved. The paternalism only changes the decisional environment in which the choices are made. This is done “for your own good” in the same sense as keeping you off appropriated property is done “for your own good,” but again different because property paternalism is choice-destroying while nudging paternalism is choice-preserving.

If you find nudging paternalism problematic, even though it is choice-preserving, then it should follow a fortiori that you find the hard paternalism of property even more problematic. But of course libertarians don’t seem to see it that way. This is because their core value is property, not liberty.