Libertarianism is a redistributive project. That’s another way in which radical market anarchism is rightly seen as part of the socialist tradition.
Statists on both the left and the right favor the redistribution of wealth. Libertarians, by contrast, are often assumed to be dead-set against all varieties of redistribution. But it’s important to see that whether this is really the case or not depends on how we answer several questions:
- Agent: who effects the redistribution?
- Rationale: what justifies the redistribution?
- Means: how is the redistribution accomplished?
For statists, the agent of redistribution is the state. The rationales for redistribution are primarily consequentialist—it’s seen as designed to bring about some favored end-state—though it may also be used to punish the putatively undeserving and to reward the arguably virtuous. The means? The creation of monopolies, the enactment of regulations, the confiscation of property via eminent domain, or the transfer of resources acquired via taxation.
Thus, both kinds of statists shift wealth from those who produce it to politically favored elites. They may also, of course, shift resources to the economically vulnerable, but the prime beneficiaries of these programs are various groups of politically influential people.
Statist redistribution is unjust because it employs aggressive means and because it is undertaken by the state—an aggressive monopolist. It is indefensible to the extent that its viability depends on the coherence of consequentialism. And it is undesirable because it serves the interests of the power elite at the expense of the well being of ordinary people.
Many libertarians acknowledge the importance of voluntary, solidaristic redistribution, undertaken by people using their own resources for the purpose of aiding victims of accident or disaster or those experiencing economic insecurity and not coercively mandated by the state. It is, indeed, perfectly consistent with libertarian principles to maintain that, while it is not just to use force to effect solidaristic redistribution, engaging in it may nonetheless be an “imperfect” duty: something one has a responsibility to do, but which one doesn’t owe to any specific person, and which can reasonably be fulfilled in multiple ways—and which cannot therefore be claimed by anyone in particular as a right. The agent of such redistribution is the individual, using her own resources and operating independently or through a voluntary association. The rationale is the importance (however understood) of helping those who need assistance. The means—all voluntary—might include contributions to worthwhile projects, providing unemployment for those unable to secure work, various kinds of investments, and direct gifts to economically vulnerable people.
Transactional and Rectificational Redistribution
But this is hardly the only kind of redistribution libertarians can and should favor. Libertarians also have good reason to recognize the importance of two other kinds of redistribution: redistribution understood as the predictable and desirable outcome of the maintenance of a freed market, and redistribution as a matter of corrective justice.. We can call these kinds of redistribution transactional and rectificational.
Transactional redistribution is just a description of what happens in a genuinely freed market. Markets undermine privilege. Without the protection afforded by monopoly privileges (including patents and copyrights), subsidies, tariffs, restrictions on union organizing, protections for long-term ownership of uncultivated property, and so forth, members of the power elite, forced to participate along with everyone else in the process of voluntary cooperation that is the freed market, will tend to lose ill-gotten gains. They will retain wealth only if they actually serve the needs of other market participants. And they will be unable to use the legal system to protect their wealth from squatters (by enabling them to maintain uncultivated land indefinitely) or to limit vigorous bargaining by workers (both because workers will be freer to organize without statist restrictions and because the absence of such restrictions will give workers options other than paid employment that will improve their negotiating positions).
While unfettered competition obviously will not create mathematical equality, it will make it much harder for vast disparities of wealth to persist than at present. The state props up the power elite, using the threat of aggression to shift wealth to the politically favored. Removing the privileges of the power elite will lead, through the operation of the market, to the widespread dispersion of wealth members of the power elite are able to retain at present in virtue of the protection they receive from the political order.
The means of transactional redistribution is the market. The direct agents are ordinary market actors, while those responsible for the elimination of statist privileges that distort the market and prop up the wealth of the power elite are the indirect agents. The rationales for transactional redistribution include the value of freedom and the injustice of the privileges transactional redistribution corrects.
Eliminating privilege and creating a freed market will tend to foster the widespread sharing of wealth. But it will not on its own be sufficient to make up for the effects of systematic aggression by the members of the power elite and their allies. That’s why rectificational redistribution is also important.
Massive injustice lies at the root of much of the contemporary distribution of wealth. Land theft is the most obvious example. But other kinds of aggression—the internal passport system implemented in eighteenth-century England, for instance, or the engrossment of unowned land by state fiat—have also served to deprive ordinary people of resources and opportunities. The beneficiaries of this kind of aggression have varied to some extent, but they have consistently belonged to politically favored groups—they’ve been either members of the power elite or their associates.
People deserve compensation for the losses they have suffered at the hands of those who prefer the political to the economic means of acquiring wealth. It is obviously not possible to correct all historical injustices. But when those injustices have systematically benefited some identifiable groups at the expense of others, radical correction is possible and entirely warranted. That’s why Murray Rothbard argued that slaves should be entitled to the plantation land on which they worked: their putative “owners” had not used their own labor, or the labor of free people cooperating with them, to cultivate the land; rather, those who cultivated it for the members of the plantocracy did so at gunpoint. Thus, the land was reasonably regarded as unowned prior to the cultivating work of the slaves, who should have been treated as, in effect, homesteading it—and who obviously deserved compensation for the theft of their labor by their “owners.”
In the same way, independent farmers turned into serfs by violence deserved, Rothbard believed, to receive title to the land on which they worked, while the aristocratic proprietors of the latifundia on which they worked deserved precisely nothing in compensation for land to which they weren’t entitled in the first place. Military contractors, research universities, and other entities largely supported by the state’s theft of land and resources might well, he and Karl Hess suggested, be treated as unowned and capable of being homestead by their workers or others. And it would be easy to argue along similar lines that those prevented from homesteading unowned land by means of its legal engrossment should be allowed to claim it. And so forth.
The means of rectificational redistribution is the reallocation of unjustly acquired or retained property titles. The direct agents are the people who homestead property newly acknowledged to be unowned or who claim property unjustly taken from or denied to them or their predecessors in interest, while those who work to ensure the denial of recognition or protection to unjust titles are the indirect agents. The rationales for rectificational redistribution include both the injustices of the titles to the property rectificational redistribution reallocates and the claims to compensation of those deprived of title to their own property or unjustly prevented for claiming unowned property by the power elite. While it is not a source of independent justification for reallocating title, the greater dispersion of wealth this kind of redistribution effects can be welcomed by libertarians both in virtue of the benefits it confers on economically vulnerable people and because of its contribution to greater social stability.
Libertarianism as a Redistributive Project
Libertarian redistribution is just because it employs voluntary or rectificatory means and because it is undertaken by non-state actors. It does not require any sort of global consequentialist justification. And it serves to empower ordinary people and compensate them for injustice.
Statists might reflexively dismiss libertarian redistribution because it isn’t undertaken by the state. But, if they did, they would owe us an explanation: why should they be concerned primarily about means? Statists ordinarily argue for redistribution either as a means of reducing economic vulnerability or as a way of fostering economic equality, understood as valuable in its own right. But libertarian redistribution would certainly achieve the former goal and would likely promote the latter, too. So statists opposed to libertarian redistribution would seem to have fetishized statist means—and to care more about these means than about the purported ends of statist policies.