By Eugene Rabinovich.
Once, in the not-so-distant past, I was a libertarian, firmly convinced that voluntary exchange between free and rational people could do no wrong. In my mind, there was no way that such exchange could lead to injustice. And, above all, I believed in the sacredness of property rights. But I began to wonder: should property rights be protected at the expense of all other human interests, especially in life and death circumstances? In other words, are there situations where someone can be morally obligated to give up her property to someone else, and therefore circumstances in which state-authorized resource redistribution is necessary?
The questions first arose while I was studying examples that Robert Nozick, the godfather of philosophical libertarianism, used to illustrate his own philosophy. Let’s assume that there are only two people in the world. In the first scenario, one of the two people is a woman who lives on an island. She has a small house and garden, but she hardly touches the rest of the island. One day, the other person lands on the island, shipwrecked, and begs to make use of a small part of the uncultivated resources for his own survival. Since it’s a matter of life and death, I’d say it’s an easy choice: the island dweller, regardless of her personal wishes, has a moral obligation to grant the sailor his wish.
On the other hand, consider a world where one of the two people has a lethal form of cancer, and the other is a pharmacologist. The pharmacologist has just synthesized a cure for that cancer from readily available chemicals. The ailing person comes to the pharmacologist asking for the cure but cannot pay the pharmacologist’s price. Does the pharmacologist have similar moral obligations as the island dweller did the previous example? In both cases, the outcome for the disadvantaged party is the same, and in both cases the cost to the advantaged party is very small. The only relevant difference is that the drug did not exist without the intellectual efforts of the pharmacologist, whereas the island and its resources did. But should the fact that the pharmacologist invented it by her own labor have relevance to whether or not a person dies? I see absolutely no reason why property rights should be inviolable to the extent that someone dies as a result of their exercise.
Nozick says otherwise. In his opinion, the island dweller should share her island, but since the pharmacologist has added value to things that by themselves previously had little value, she owns the rights to the drug. That implies, in particular, that the pharmacologist is not wrong in charging whatever she wants for the drug. The idea is that, by laboring over resources, one adds value to them that didn’t exist before, by virtue of which one is entitled to indefeasible rights to those resources. As far as drawing the line between what you own and what you don’t, I think this is a very clear and philosophically significant distinction. I even understand why Nozick so adamantly argued that an indefeasible right to property is important. Indeed, I don’t think it’s very controversial that people should have reasonable protection of their property. If there were no notion of property rights, people would fight endlessly over resources and have little motivation to make useful goods from what resources they manage to keep. Nozick worries, I think, that if we make the right to property defeasible and violate it when it serves some more fundamental right, then in fact it disappears entirely. So, he draws a line, and a clear one at that.
The problem is that even a libertarian would say that property is just one facet of the broader domain of personal liberty. Not only does one have a right to property, but one also has a right to personal security, a right to free speech, a right to freedom of religion, and so forth. And all of these rights are justified by appeal to the more fundamental right of personal liberty. So, going back to the examples, it’s easy to wonder why the pharmacologist’s right to property takes precedence over the interests of the person dying of cancer, especially because in the similar case of the shipwrecked sailor, Nozick’s conclusion is the opposite one. Indeed, letting the person die of cancer seems to be the worst decision from the standpoint of total liberty: instead of having two people almost entirely free to go about their daily lives, we have just one person with that freedom. And shouldn’t more liberty be better? If the government’s job is to protect liberty, a libertarian should, to be consistent, authorize government intervention to ensure that the outcome with more liberty is attained.
Of course, the real world is very much more complicated than these toy examples. There isn’t just one person in the world with cancer and it’s hard to imagine anybody spending the energy to discover a cure if they knew that they’d have to give it away to anybody that wanted it. The important point, though, is that there is no philosophical reason for libertarians to categorically object to the violation of property rights. Instead, property rights should be protected only insofar as their protection furthers more fundamental values, like liberty. Even the toy example accurately reflects some parts of the real-world situation: diseases like malaria and a few others caused by parasitic worms are very cheaply treatable, and there exist very effective charities that help distribute the drugs in developing countries with a very low overhead cost. To deny these resources to those who have malaria or an infestation of parasitic worms would be very analogous to the example of the pharmacologist who denies others her drug. Just as in that example, a small sacrifice on the part of an advantaged party can produce a huge benefit for a suffering soul. In fact, we don’t even have to give a precise definition of liberty to see that resource redistribution is perfectly consistent and even necessary for its fulfillment.
The bottom line is that property rights are not themselves fundamental, but instead serve the more fundamental right of liberty—at least in the libertarian scheme. Thus, we should protect property rights inasmuch as their protection also protects the right of liberty. In particular, there can be circumstances when redistribution on the part of the government is acceptable. The question becomes one of extent: how much redistribution is consistent with the principles of personal liberty? This would obviously require an understanding of the qualities that make liberty so valuable and a precise definition of the term that captures those qualities. Of course, there’s also the question of whether or not liberty really is supreme. In any case, the redistribution of wealth will be an inevitable part of whatever theory we adopt. It may be difficult to accept, but it seems an inescapable conclusion of ethics that those in positions of privilege must make sacrifices for others. And no matter what you believe, as long as you believe that there are things that should and shouldn’t be done, ignoring the suffering of others is not an option.