Introduction

This chapter focuses on libertarian stances on economic justice and property rights as these stances are articulated by Nozick and Hayek. Since most of the highbrow advocacy for extensive State power is for power that is to be directed toward the achievement of some vision of distributive justice, an important part of Nozick’s and Hayek’s defense of a minimal, or at least semi-minimal, State is their critiques of such visions of distributive justice and their contrasting arguments on behalf of robust private property rights. This focus on the rejection of coercive implementation of doctrines of distributive justice and on advocacy of private property and free market economic regime should not, of course, obscure libertarianism’s comparable opposition to the extension of state action to the coercive suppression of displeasing, sinful, or self­harming conduct. Hayek well expresses the libertarian stance on these matters when he says,

[T]he pleasure or pain that may be caused by the knowledge of other people’s actions should never be regarded as a legitimate cause for coercion…. [T]he mere dislike of what is being done by others, or even the knowledge that others harm themselves by what they do, provides no legitimate ground for coercion. (1960: 145)

Libertarian opposition to coercive measures on behalf of distributive justice may be based on the empirical contention that such measures are not necessary for the emergence of the desired distribution of income or even that such measures are likely to have undesired distributional results. It is often contended that the long- run operation of free market economies raises the income of the lower income members of society at least as much as the actual coercive measures that states pursue in the name of assisting the lower income members of society. Similarly, it is maintained that free market economies offer people more upward mobility and incentives to realize that mobility than highly regulated economies. I believe that these empirical claims are largely correct. However, substantiating these contentious factual claims goes beyond the philo sophical scope of this book.

A more purely philosophical opposition to state coercive action aimed at promoting some favored distribution of income challenges the conceptual core of the case for such action, viz., that economic justice consists in the realization of some formulaic distribution of income among the members of society. Different advocates of this core claim have their own more specific views about what the correct distributive principle is, for example, the equality of income or the highest level of income for the lowest income group or the greatest correlation of individual income to personal desert. Particular opponents of distributional justice will often be especially interested in criticizing what they take to be the most seductive distributive principle. Nozick selects for special attention the Rawlsian view that economic justice consists in the promotion of the highest level of income for the lowest income individuals, while Hayek pays special attention to the view that individual income should correspond to personal moral desert. Nevertheless, the central philosophical objection offered by political libertarianism to the idea that economic justice demands coercive state intervention is that economic justice does not consist in the realization of any purported best division of income.