This post is part of a series of blog posts reviewing select essays published in the new Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism. In this particular post, we will review Fabian Wendt’s dangerous essay on “Libertarian property rights and the Lockean sufficiency proviso.” (Wendt, a philosopher at Chapman University, is the author of Compromise, Peace, and Public Justification: Political Morality beyond Justice; see book cover below.) In his essay, Dr Wendt revisits Nozick’s “Lockean proviso“, distinguishes between “right-libertarian” and “left-libertarian” theories of justice, and then proposes a third way: moderate libertarianism.
Let’s begin with Locke’s property-rights proviso, which imposes an outer limit on the rights of acquisition and ownership of private property in the state of nature, i.e. in a world without formal property rights. According to the great political theorist John Locke (in sec. 27 of his Second Treatise), a person in a state of nature automatically acquires a moral (or natural) property right in a virgin parcel of land (i.e. a parcel that has not yet been acquired someone else) as soon as he claims that land and “mixes” his labor with it, i.e. by making improvements on the land, such as farming the parcel, building a house on it, etc. But at the same time, Locke imposes a limit on this right. One must leave enough parcels of land for others, or in Locke’s own words: “there [must be] enough, and as good, left in common for others.”
So, what should we make of Locke’s little proviso today? Right-libertarians either ignore it, play it down, or openly reject it as a non-sequitur, since we no longer live in a state of nature and since the idea of “mixing” one’s labor with land is vague or open-ended. Left-libertarians, by contrast, embrace the proviso with gusto to justify redistribution or the equal allocation of a minimum set of material resources to all persons. Wendt’s attempt to strike a balance between these two extremes–his theory of moderate libertarianism–is no doubt well-meaning and well-intentioned, but in truth, his theory is really a disguised form of left-libertarianism. Why? Because once we accept Locke’s little proviso, there is no principled way of imposing limits on the use of public coercion in order to provide everyone with “sufficient resources,” to quote Wendt himself. (That is why we called his essay “dangerous” at the outset of this post.) Worse yet, how much resources are sufficient? Wendt cannot say. The notion of “sufficient resources” is itself vague and open-ended.