Liberty, Property and the Libertarian Idea
In part one of The Libertarian Idea,1 Jan Narveson argues that a general right to liberty as a sole fundamental right will generate rights to private property. Narveson offers this argument as part of a larger argument in part one intended to show that libertarianism is a coherent notion. In this section, Narveson is not arguing for libertarianism. Rather he aims to show (some of) the implications of beginning with the libertarian idea that ‘the only relevant consideration in political matters is individual liberty’.2 In this chapter I examine the connection between a right to liberty and rights to private property, and argue that the libertarian as described by Narveson is mistaken in the connection that he draws between liberty and private property. Property, whether private or otherwise, is a system of restrictions and permissions that control access to and use of external goods. Property controls what people can do by controlling how they get to use the world to act; it is an institution that distributes liberty of access. Such control may be on the whole a morally good thing. It may be the case that private property is the institution that does the best job at protecting a wide range of liberties. It may even be correct that rational contractors would agree to a system of private property, at least suitably constrained; such a system helps to make available an attractive range of options for many people, possibly better than do any other institutions for controlling access to external goods. These are all contingent facts, just as it is also a contingent fact that our private property system systemically limits freedom for certain social groups. I deny only that there is any intimate connection between a general right to liberty and private property such that recognition of a right to liberty requires recognition of private property. The libertarian argument that Narveson outlines mistakes a way of distributing liberty for a requirement of liberty.