Freedom and property

I had four goals in mind when I assigned Waldron’s paper on homelessness and freedom.

  1. I wanted to talk about something more concrete. The theories we have been reading have all been extremely abstract. We needed to come down to earth.
  2. I wanted to make vivid a point about rights: they limit liberty. I know, Hobbes had said this. But I wanted to repeat it. And, again, a concrete example brings the point home.
  3. I wanted to talk about Nozick’s claim that a non-libertarian state would involve a intolerable limits on liberty. Just what makes a limit on liberty intolerable?
  4. I wanted to show that discussions of natural rights can come to a deadlock. This provides a motivation for the next theory we will read.

I thought we clearly met all the goals except the third. So I will start there.

What is an intolerable limit on liberty?

I think Nozick was right to say that forbidding people from spending their money to watch a basketball game would be an intolerable infringement on liberty.

What I wanted to point out is that a system of property rights can also be an intolerable infringement on liberty. I think Waldron effectively showed that the life of the homeless is intolerable precisely because they lack the liberty to perform life’s necessary functions in any place.

In short, the property rights upheld in a libertarian state can impose what look like intolerable infringements on liberty too.

I’m also finally acknowledging a point that Max had made when we were talking about Locke. I said that Locke’s theory of property was devoted to showing that private property rights are compatible with everyone’s having enough, that is, a share of the earth’s resources sufficient to live reasonably well. Max didn’t think that was so. I think Waldron’s article shows that he is right.

What about rights?

Austin and Benji both observed that rights are a different matter. Even if the homeless suffer from intolerable limits on their liberty, if everyone else genuinely has a right to exclude them from their homes, then no one is doing anything wrong by doing so. The situation of the homeless may be very bad, but it does not follow that anyone is doing anything wrong.

That is correct. So long as we are working within the framework of natural rights theories, showing that the plight of the homeless is wrong means showing that the homeless have a right to a place of their own.

But how do you show that? Conversely, how do you show that property owners are permitted to acquire property at the expense of limiting the liberty of the homeless?

Moving forward

If you are moved by Waldron’s description of the homeless, you seem to have three options:

  1. Show that the homeless have been improperly deprived of their natural rights by theft or something like that.
  2. Show that the homeless have natural rights to things owned by property owners, much as Locke and others had asserted the poor have rights of necessity.
  3. Adopt utilitarianism and abandon rights.

None of these are entirely satisfactory. Some people are homeless because they are the victims of theft or fraud. But many are not. And it is not clear how to determine exactly what natural rights people have or how they should be weighed against one another.

Utilitarianism does have a way of giving greater weight to the needs of the homeless over the irritation of those whose cannot pay to watch Wilt Chamberlain: property rights reduce the happiness of the homeless far more than taxes reduce the happiness of sports fans. But utilitarianism comes with the cost of giving too little weight to the individual when compared with society. Theories that emphasize individual rights, by contrast, typically give individuals greater protection against society.

Our next author, John Rawls, has a theory that promises to address these and other problems in a satisfyingly rigorous way. We will have to see if he can make good on that promise.