Scanlon argues that none of three lines of thought “show that respect for the value of individual liberty should lead one to support the political program of low taxes and limited government that libertarians are supposed to favor.” I’ll briefly consider Scanlon’s criticisms of each line of thought—about efficiency, the value of control over one’s life, and property rights—in turn. Scanlon’s first argument is clear: promoting market efficiency isn’t the same thing as promoting liberty, so even if libertarian policies promote greater efficiency, there’s nothing peculiarly libertarian about that. Suppose efficiency sometimes undermines the value of liberty. In that case, promoting liberty may require accepting some inefficiency. Whether this is true depends on the notions of liberty and efficiency we have in mind. Scanlon at this point begins talking about individuals’ “degree of control over their lives” as if this is his operative conception of liberty, so I’ll assume it is and accept it for the sake of argument.
Scanlon then observes that the constant flow of capital from less to more productive uses entails the constant movement of labor from less to more productive employment. “Workers who are constantly subject to such disruption have less control over their lives than they would in a more stable society,” he argues. But would they really? Scanlon tries to set up a clear conflict between efficiency and control, but the conflict is not really so clear. It seems to me that greater efficiency and greater control generally go together.
What’s so great about efficiency? Wealth and employment. Societies with allocatively efficient markets produce more wealth than societies with less efficient markets. Other things being equal, the wealthier people are, the more control they have over their lives. Other things being equal, people with jobs have more control over their lives than people who don’t, and efficient markets don’t leave productive people idle. It’s not necessary to think in terms of “preference satisfaction” to appreciate the great utility of wealth, and thus of efficiency, to meaningful control over one’s life. Wealth makes it easier to develop one’s capacities, to set out meaningful aims, and to successfully achieve them. Moreover, market efficiency drives innovation, which puts new possibilities for life on the table. Other things being equal, expanding the menu of options for work and leisure offers people greater control over their lives.
Now, if it turns out that whole strata of the working classes suffer all the volatility and enjoy little of the wealth of efficient markets, then we’ve got a pretty good liberty-based justification for unemployment insurance, subsidized job training, and progressive redistribution. It’s hard to say for sure, but I doubt any of these measures significantly decrease efficiency; they might even enhance it. Perhaps ironically, Scanlon’s idea of liberty as control over one’s life may be more compatible with the aim of efficiency than certain libertarian ideas of liberty, which would forbid efficiency-enhancing redistribution. Of course, it’s possible that we may have to trade a touch of efficiency so that everyone enjoys the benefits of greater wealth. But I strongly doubt that making labor markets more stable but less efficient is a way to give people more control over their lives. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I am confident that if we’re going to consider comprehensive schemes of political economy in order to “determine what system is to be preferred,” we need to know enough about the way real systems function to formulate an intelligent preference.
All things considered, we may well favor limits on the government’s power to tax and regulate the terms of economic life.
Scanlon goes on to say that “the choice between different systems is not something that individuals express a preference about through their market behavior.” I think this is false. When migrants cross borders to find work, they are expressing a preference over different systems with their market behavior. I would argue that the legal permission to cross borders for economic, political, or any other peaceful reason is a feature of any system that takes liberty seriously. I would add that the freedom for everyone everywhere to move about the globe is to be passionately promoted precisely because people need liberty to flourish in society with others, and the ability to cross borders relatively unmolested makes “the choice between different systems” a real thing and not just a bit of armchair speculation by privileged people about what we think everyone else ought to want for themselves.
I agree with the thrust of Scanlon’s criticism of his second imagined libertarian line of thought about the importance of individuals having control over their lives. For similar reasons, I support publicly financed education and a “strong safety net,” along with prototypical libertarians Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek, not to mention scores of other notable thinkers often labeled “libertarian.” So it struck me as odd that Scanlon would think to say that “Perhaps a revised libertarianism might incorporate these policies, along with other measures to give meaningful liberty to all” while pointing to a group blog of fine libertarian philosophers thinking along these lines. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty is pretty boring, it’s true. But Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom is a quick read. According to University of Pennsylvania philosopher Samuel Freeman, if you’re in favor of the state maintaining a safety net, putting kids through school, and providing public goods, you’re a classical liberal, not a libertarian. I prefer classical liberal, so that’s fine. But Freeman’s fine eye for distinctions doesn’t stop anybody from calling me or Milton Friedman libertarian, especially when they want to say that we oppose programs we favor. I don’t know what to do about this.
Turning to Scanlon’s third argument, focused on property rights, I agree that “there are no property rights independent of some institution defining them” as long as he allows that the defining institution might be convention and not always, say, a modern nation-state. I also agree that the really big questions are “[h]ow property rights must be defined in order to be justifiable to all who are required to accept them” and “[w]hich of the various justifiable systems of property rights we should most prefer under current conditions.” Moreover, I agree that considerations of efficiency and control over one’s life are not the only considerations relevant to justifying a system of property rights. What I cannot quite see is the relevance of this line of reasoning to the libertarian political program of “limited government and low taxes.”
I agree that the justification of a system of property, or of a more comprehensive system of political and economic institutions, requires that we take into account a plurality of sometimes competing considerations. But having taken all these considerations into account, our balance of reasons may well favor a system featuring robust economic rights that entail principled limits on a democratic government’s power to tax and to regulate the terms of economic life.1