An unconvincing case against redistribution

According to the philosopher Michael Huemer (in his paper “Is Wealth Redistribution a Rights Violation?”), taxation for the purpose of redistribution violates moral property rights of individuals. I’m not totally sure I follow his argument, but as best I can make out it’s something like this:

1. Moral property rights are determined strictly by the content of natural law (pre-institutional norms), strictly by positive (i.e. human-made) law, or by a combination of natural and positive law, where the positive law must conform to limits established by natural law.
2. If moral property rights were strictly natural, their parameters would in certain cases be indeterminate and thus incapable of guiding action.
3. The parameters of moral property rights ought to be determinate.
4. Moral property rights are not determined strictly by the content of natural law. (from 2 and 3)
5. If moral property rights are determined strictly by the content of positive law, then if slavery is legal, one can have a moral right of property in another person.
6. One cannot have a moral right of property in another person.
7. Moral property rights are not determined strictly by the content of positive law. (from 5 and 6)
8. Moral property rights are determined by a combination of natural and positive law, where the positive law must conform to certain limits established by natural law. (from 1, 4 and 7)
9. Natural law includes pre-institutional “core” property rights to which positive law must conform in the absence of some special justification.
10. A violation of core property rights occurs if the right-holder is coerced into transferring legitimately acquired property to another.
11. Taxation for the purpose of redistribution typically involves coercively transferring legitimately acquired property to another.
12. Taxation for the purpose of redistribution violates core property rights. (from 10 and 11)
13. A regime of property rights established by positive law that includes taxation for the purpose of redistribution is morally defective in the absence of some special justification. (from 8, 9 and 12)

The argument starts to go off the rails, I think, in premise 9. I’m more than happy to agree that legal property rights are constrained by pre-institutional norms. But it’s not clear that these pre-institutional norms include pre-institutional property rights, and Huemer’s argument for this claim seems inadequate. The argument involves the following thought experiment:

Suppose you are exploring a remote wilderness region outside the jurisdiction of any government when you come upon a clearing containing a rude hut. The hut appears to have been built by a hermit, who is its only inhabitant. Since property rights depend entirely upon governmental laws, and none are in force here, you determine that the hermit does not own the hut. Over his vociferous protestations, you decide to spend the night in the hut, eat some of the food that the hermit has grown and gathered, and then paint the hut lime green. You don’t need to do any of these things; you just do them for fun. If there really are no property rights in this situation, you have just as much right to do these things as the hermit does.

Essentially the argument is:

14. If the hermit does not have a property right to the hut he build and inhabits and the food he has produced, he has no grounds for complaint if you stay in the hut, alter its appearance, and eat the food he’s produced.
15. The hermit does have grounds for complaint under these circumstances.
16. The hermit does have a property right to the hut he inhabits and the food he has produced. (from 14 and 15)
17. The hermit does not have a legal property right.
18. The hermit has a non-legal (natural or otherwise pre-institutional) property right. (from 16 and 17)

Premise 14 seems to be the weak link here. It’s not at all obvious that the hermit can only complain on the grounds that his property rights have been violated. He might object to my behaviour because my company is unwanted, for example — i.e. that I’m infringing his rights to privacy and freedom of association. My behaviour may also fail to show due respect for the solitary way of life he’s chosen. And although Huemer stipulates that my conduct in this particular instance causes no harm to the hermit, a generally applied moral permission to occupy the hut he uses and eat the food he produces (for no reason, as the thought experiment also stipulates) could reasonably be expected to cause harm. This gives the hermit good grounds to reject a principle permitting that behaviour; in contrast, I cannot reasonably reject a principle forbidding that behaviour. Such a principle would, I think, fall far short of what Huemer imagines pre-institutional property rights to be — and what he needs pre-institutional property rights to be in order to reach the conclusion that redistribution violates pre-institutional property rights.

I’ll leave it at that for now, but the problems with Huemer’s case against redistribution don’t stop there. Even if it must be granted that there are pre-institutional property rights, there are reasons to doubt that redistribution necessarily or even typically encroaches on such rights. These further problems will be the subject of my next post.

3 thoughts on “An unconvincing case against redistribution

  1. There are also distinctions between hermits and voluntary citizens of polities, particularly democratic ones. There are laws restricting our freedoms of action in all kinds of spheres, and it seems to me you could make a very similar argument to the property one on a whole lot of fronts–jaywalking, for instance. Surely in the absence of positive laws people have some sort of right to walk wherever they wish, and it would be wrong for me to go find a hermit in a wilderness and tell him he couldn’t cross some arbitrary stretch of ground except when I shone a green light at him.
    But in a polity inhabited by a bunch of people, with roads and dangerous fast-moving vehicles, we all pretty much agree that we need to restrict people’s movements in the interests of not getting tons of people killed. I shouldn’t stop wilderness hermit from taking a crap in the river, but it’s OK to stop the denizens of a large city from doing so, and so on and so forth. I shouldn’t stop wilderness hermit from shouting whatever he pleases to the uncaring wilderness, but in a society it’s good to have laws against libel. There are a host of cases where no moral purpose is served by curtailing wilderness hermit’s conduct, but the same curtailments done to people interacting in a society DO serve important moral and practical purposes. The general fact is that there seems to be some sort of legitimacy in groups agreeing to curtail the rights and freedoms of individual members in the broader interests of the group members overall. I don’t see how there’s anything unique about property that should make it immune to this. And redistribution saves many lives, just as surely as traffic laws.

    And while there may be some constraints, citizens of most polities do have the option of leaving to go somewhere with different rules or where law and order have broken down leaving no rules at all. And in many, they have the option of voting democratically for representatives who will pick different rules. We generally do consider it illegitimate to take away either the option of leaving or the opportunity for democratic input into the type of rules a society has.

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    • To be clear, Huemer does not (in this essay) conclude that states should not engage in redistribution (although as I understand it, that is his view). Here he allows that redistribution may be permissible if it’s necessary to avoid some moral disaster, even if it amounts to a rights violation (just as, for example, it may be permissible to steal a car in an emergency even though this violates the owner’s property right).

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  2. Pingback: An unconvincing case against redistribution, part 2 | Popcorn Machine

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