A dilemma for libertarianism

Many libertarians make a moral argument that liberty requires the freedom to exercise strong property rights. From this, they argue that no more than a minimal state with sharply limited powers of taxation can be justified. A larger state would supposedly interfere with private property rights and thereby reduce liberty. In response, this article shows how natural rights to property do not entail any particular vision of the state. It demonstrates that the principles of natural property rights support monarchy just as well as they support a capitalist aristocracy. Nothing in the theory of natural property rights rules out government ownership of property or government ownership of the right to tax. Therefore, the natural rights argument does not necessarily imply libertarian limits on the state, but rather the acceptance of whatever state powers and property rights have been in place for a sufficient amount of time. For example, historical property rights in Britain do not imply that private titleholders possess rights that have been subject to interference from the state, as libertarians claim. Instead, they imply that the Queen and her ministers in parliament have a strong claim to at least partial ownership of the whole island of Britain and the property within it. If this argument holds, it poses a serious dilemma for libertarians, forcing them to choose between their account of liberty as the exercise of property rights and their belief that only a minimal state is justifiable. Key Words: libertarianism • ownership • property rights • taxation • distribution • redistribution.
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DOI 10.1177/1470594X08098871
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