Libertarians for Redistribution

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?

Statist Redistribution

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.

Solidaristic Redistribution

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

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.

Rectificational Redistribution

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.

Libertarians rightly reject statist redistribution as a variety of slavery. But they have every reason to embrace solidaristic, transactional, and rectificational redistribution. A libertarian commitment to redistribution helps clearly to identify libertarianism as a species of genuine radicalism that challenges the status quo, undermines hierarchy, exclusion, and poverty, and fosters authentic empowerment.


Nathan Byrd said…
A good article, and I think it's easy to shy away from a term like 'redistribution' when clearly it's not needed as you've shown.

I'm wondering about this one part, though:

"And they will be unable to use the legal system to protect their wealth from squatters (by enabling them to maintain uncultivated land indefinitely) ..."

Considering the other Rothbard quotes about redistribution, just thought I'd add that he argues for the value of uncultivated land (which I take to mean homesteaded but undeveloped after a certain point).

Example, from:

"This claim rests on a fundamental assumption: [...] Since the site-owner performs no productive service he is, therefore, a parasite and an exploiter, [...]

"But this assumption is totally false. The owner of land does perform a very valuable productive service, a service completely separate from that of the man who builds on, and improves, the land. The site owner brings sites into use and allocates them to the most productive user. He can only earn the highest ground rents from his land by allocating the site to those users and uses that will satisfy the consumers in the best possible way. We have seen already that the site owner must decide whether or not to work a plot of land or keep it idle. He must also decide which use the land will best satisfy. In doing so, he also insures that each use is situated on its most productive location."

Related question. If a freed market would mean no legal restrictions on redistributing uncultivated land to those who want to use it, would this extend to any other type of property?
Gary Chartier said…
Sensible questions. My view:

1. I'm not trying to exegete or perfectly track Rothbard, but rather to point out the generally radical implications of his views. The quote about land was a bit of a cheat, because I simply asserted a point without arguing for it. I think there will be different standards in different legal systems in a stateless society regarding what counts as abandonment. In my legal system (!), there wouldn't be a radical occupancy-and-use standard—people could occupy land via agents, it seems to me. However, I'd be inclined to opt for a short abandonment time-line, so that if neither an owner nor her agents did anything vis-a-vis a piece of land for a relatively short period (say, two to four years), it would be homesteadable. That's the sort of thing I had in mind. (I should note that there would have to be ways of treating a nature preserve as cultivated.)

2. I think genuinely abandoned personal property would be homesteadable just like genuinely abandoned real property. Is that what you were asking about, or . . . ?
Matthieu Gues said…
Hi nfactor13. Very interesting quote and subject.

This quote does not argue for the value of uncultivated land. It argues that absentee ownership allows for reflection on the best possible use for a piece of land that's idle; also, that in the free market, one needs to serve consumers as best one can.

What Rothbard, I think, misses, is that the squatters are under the same pressure to serve the community. Therefore, title to uncultivated land is not clearly in favor of absentee owners or squatters.

Also, that his point can only be valid under anarchy; site-owners currently enjoy the near-universal support of the state; consequently, the pressure to make an efficient use of the land they remotely 'own' is near zero; whereas squatters have a bigger incentive to make themselves useful, so the state will be more reluctant to automatically evict them.
Nathan Byrd said…
I suppose my larger point is that I don't see the great evil of the current state being that it lets certain people not use large tracts of land (or other property) that others want to use, rather that it interferes with the peaceful, voluntary use of property by small and medium property owners. Absent those restraints, I don't see why large land owners would be forced to "use it or lose it," so to speak.

Not a Rothbard expert, but I don't think he's arguing that land owners have a right to their unused land because they're required to serve consumers. He's simply explaining to those who may not believe that their non-use is a service that it really might be after all. Just as one can explain why speculators contribute to the market by their actions, even though that is not a justification for their activity. That would paint Rothbard as a consequentialist, wouldn't it?

I presume Rothbard wouldn't mind that his proposals work best (or only) under anarchy. :-)
Gary Chartier said…
No, the claim that the state is particularly mischievous because it denies people the right to homestead land the owner doesn't occupy and use is Tucker's, not Rothbard's. Rothbard certainly opposed land theft and land engrossment, and he made clear that homesteading property per his principles meant homesteading the property itself, and not just the boundary. No doubt he'd be perfectly OK with the notion that, in the absence of just social institutions, his proposals wouldn't work as well as they would in the environment provided by those institutions.

Mises, BTW, wrote: "Nowhere and at no time has the large scale ownership of land come into being through the working of economic forces in the market. It is the result of military and political effort. Founded by violence, it has been upheld by violence and by that alone."
Matthieu Gues said…
I'm unsure what you're trying to say. Let's see if I can paraphase correctly:
The great evil is not that large tracts of land are kept out of use; rather that it interferes with the peaceful voluntary use by small/medium property owners. If there's no interference with this, then unused property can be as large as the universe itself. Size is not the problem; non-aggression is.

My question is: how do you define peaceful and voluntary use, in the present state? You say non-aggression is enough, but the mere mention of freedom from interference with peaceful activity pre-posits that those small/medium property owners are in their right when trespassing and homesteading what isn't, theoretically, their land.

I wouldn't call this peaceful and voluntary; I would call this revolutionary. Did I get this wrong ?
Gary Chartier said…
Matthieu, I'd want to distinguish between two positions, the Rothbardian and the Mutualist.

The Rothbardian position is that land can be claimed legitimately only by homesteading. If it is claimed instead via engrossment--so that the state simply announces that some vast tract of uncultivated land belongs to someone--or violence--so that freeholding peasants are turned into serfs by or with the acquiescence of the state, title is illegitimate. If the real owners of stolen property can be identified, they should receive title to their property. If there are no real owners, the property should be treated as unowned and capable of being homesteaded by anyone. The peasants who are already there are the most obvious candidates.

Mutualists would tend to agree with Rothbard on these points, but would go on to insist that the only way the owner of a piece of property can maintain title to it is by actual occupancy and use. Rothbard, by contrast, would allow an owner to occupy and use property via agents.

My sense of how things would work in a stateless society would be that there would be lots of different property regimes, both because there would be disagreements about what justice required and because justice is compatible with multiple kinds of property rules.
Xerographica said…
The free-rider problem necessitates coercion. Once people are coerced into paying taxes then everything else can be solved by simply allowing tax payers to directly decide which public goods their taxes help fund.

The tax allocation decisions of congress can also be thought of as a public the quantity of taxes that this public good received would reflect tax payer confidence in congress. This means that tax payers would effectively check the power of congress.

Pragmatarianism (as I've labeled this approach)...could certainly lead to anarcho-capitalism...assuming that all government organizations were redundant and tax payers recognized them as such.
Xerographica said…
Oh, didn't realize that I had posted on your blog.

Guess since you didn't respond to my comment the first time around...then chances aren't very good that you'll respond to my response to your comment.

Just thought it was an interesting coincidence that you're SDA. That's how I was raised...but then evolution got the better of me.

My grandfather recently passed away. I remember him telling me about the misplaced comma in..."Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."
Gary Chartier said…
Probably easiest to write to me on Facebook or at gchartie [at]
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