Another Assault on Liberty
Tibor R. Machan
Back when Robert Nozick wrote his path breaking libertarian academic treatise, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a review essays highly critical of Nozick’s work. In an essay, “Libertarianism Without Foundations,” Nagel had a lot to say about how Nozick allegedly failed to provide adequate support for his libertarian position. But one point Nagel made quite apart from whether Nozick’s position had adequate foundations stood out for me. Here is the passage that stuck in my mind:
Most people are not generous when asked to give voluntarily, and it is unreasonable to ask that they should be. Admittedly there are cases in which a person should do something although it would not be right to force him to do it. But here I believe that the reverse is true. Sometimes it is proper to force people to do something even though it is not true that they should do it without being forced. It is acceptable to compel people to contribute to the support of the indigent by automatic taxation, but unreasonable to insist that in the absence of such a system they ought to contribute voluntarily.
Nowhere in his essay on Nozick, nor anywhere else, did Nagel every justify this very pessimistic view. But is it really very odd?
Notice that what this position endorses is outright involuntary servitude. As Nozick himself noted, “taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor” I think it is actually more on par with extortion. In any case, it puts certain people—the king, the government, Thomas Nagel himself perhaps—in a position to coerce others into providing those in need with resources, including their labor. The funds we are taxed, of course, come from what most of us earn through our labor!
This is a view that is endorsed by most political philosophers today and it has been endorsed by them for decades on end, certainly ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt came up with his list of “the second bill of rights,” each of which places us into servitude to other people. But even before Roosevelt signed on to this notion that everyone is in bondage to other people who are in need, there have been the likes of the French father of sociology, Auguste Comte, who endorsed the idea. Here is what Comte had to say:
Everything we have belongs then to Humanity… We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service.... All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.
Even before Comte’s wrote those lines, at the beginning of the 19th century, there was the doctrine that not only our resources but we ourselves belong to the state. The theory of monarchy holds this view about human beings—the king owned us, or at least we are bound to the king’s land as serfs. We as individuals own nothing at all, everything is owned by the government. And that exact position was recently reiterated by Nagel and his co-author, Liam Murphy, in the book The Myth of Ownership (Oxford, 2004). Clearly the idea is not a progressive, forward looking one but reactionary as all get out.
All of these thinkers stand in the way of genuine progress toward a world in which individual human beings have a fundamental, natural right to their own lives, liberty and property. This is the revolutionary idea that libertarians champion and it is one that needs constant reiteration, re-visitation, and re-justification, since nearly all the major political theorists, inside and outside the academic world, line up against it.
Nagel’s idea, pressed against Nozick, is, of course, an insult to human beings everywhere. It contends that of their own free will they would fail to be generous and they must be coerced to give of themselves to those who are helpless. Paradoxically, if it were true, Nagel’s idea would certainly consign all those in need of help to perpetual helplessness for when human beings acquire power—when they join the government—the last thing they are interested in is helping others! As Lord Acton noted, “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”—the last thing it issues in is generosity.