Saturday, October 20, 2007

Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right Libertarianism

In comments on my anti-libertarianism blog offering from last year, Peter notes:

You have an extremely good point on past wrongs making libertarianism unfair, however, only communism would make the past wrongs irralevant, and 2 wrongs dont make a right. Even social democracies have no way of fixing past injustices, and largely uphold propertly rights. the only difference is significant taxation which does not fix past injustices.
Peter's not the only person to have trotted out the 'two wrongs' argument in response to my concerns about distributional injustice and libertarianism, so I thought I'd take a moment to explain what's wrong with it.

But first a couple of other corrections:

1. Not even communism 'fixes' past injustices. It simply isn't possible to get a contemporary distribution of wealth that is historically just. For a start, to achieve this, you would need to compensate not only those who are dead but also those who were never born.
2. While social democracies have no means of completely rectifying past injustices, they can, through funding education and the like, produce something very approximately resembling equality of opportunity. This isn't historical justice, but it still strikes me as somewhat more fair than the 'tough titties' approach to history that most libertarians seem to advocate.

Anyhow, back to my main point. The trouble with arguing "two wrongs don't make a right" as Peter has done is that it is simply very hard to make a case for absolute property rights if you can't show that current distributions of property are justly acquired. And, if property rights aren't absolute, then it isn't necessarily wrong to compel people to surrender some of their property via taxes.

In other words, it's wrong to start talking about 'two wrongs' when you can't show that the second of them is actually wrong at all.

Nice try though.

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