Libertarianism without inequality, by Michael Otsuka

Oxford University Press, 2003, 158 pages, hb, 0 19 924395 6, £25. Order this book

According to the dust jacket, “Michael Otsuka sets out to vindicate left-libertarianism, a political philosophy which combines stringent rights of control over one’s own mind, body, and life with egalitarian rights of ownership of the world.” In so doing, he creates a political philosophy more true to the ideal of self-ownership than libertarian philosophers such as Robert Nozick, and more true to the idea of society as a voluntary association than liberal egalitarian philosophers such as John Rawls. Otsuka reconsiders self-ownership and the “Lockean proviso” on which much of Nozick’s argument against the redistribution of property rests. He presents his work as a revision of Locke, but one that is true to the voluntary spirit of Locke’s treatise.

Otsuka defines “robust self-ownership” as “in addition to having the libertarian right itself, one also has rights over enough worldly resources to ensure that one will not be forced by necessity to come to the assistance of others in a manner involving the sacrifice of one’s life, limb, or labour”. Nozick does not consider robust self-ownership and seems willing to sacrifice it to preserve nominal self-ownership and unrestricted rights of property ownership. He, therefore, ends up with a world in which people are much less free than Otsuka’s society.
Locke, like many other philosophers, begins with the recognition that all people have equal claim to the land and resources of the world, and argues that individuals can appropriate portions of it as long as they leave “enough and as good” for everyone else. If one interprets this to mean that others are no worse off than they would be in a primitive state of nature, the proviso allows great inequalities to result from the appropriation of land. But Otsuka defines an “egalitarian proviso” to mean that one can only appropriate resources if they leave others with the ability to acquire an equally advantageous share. Such a rule might allow inequalities, but none that follow from control of resources outside of one’s own mind and body.

By basing his theory of government on the principles of robust libertarian self-ownership and the egalitarian Lockean proviso, Otsuka seeks to create a society in which all people give their actual consent to the political society in which they live, not the weak tacit consent offered by Locke nor the hypothetical consent offered by Rawls. Otsuka goes on to apply his theory to issues such as the right to punish and intergenerational equity. However, the distributive implications of these two principles will be of most interest to readers of the Citizen’s Income Newsletter.

Otsuka does not discuss what practical policy would be needed to ensure that these two principles are upheld in a modern society, and he does not discuss basic income at all. He sticks instead to the hypothetical model of an agrarian society in which these principles can be attained by granting plots of land. However, a very good case for basic income could be made using these two principles. The egalitarian proviso justifies a large amount of redistribution from the wealthy to the poor, and the principle of robust libertarian self-ownership implies that redistribution should come in the form of an unconditional grant large enough to cover one’s basic needs. What policy could do this other than basic income?
Karl Widerquist