With this post, we review the last of eleven select essays published in the new Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism: Hillel Steiner’s erudite essay on “Free markets and exploitation.” (Dr Steiner, a political philosopher and Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Manchester, is the author of An essay on rights; see book cover below.) Steiner raises an important theoretical question: what makes an economic transaction or relationship an exploitative one? After posing some hypothetical scenarios, Steiner concludes that exploitation occurs when a person’s rights are violated or when his endowments are reduced in some way. Unfortunately, this formulation is empty and vague. A person’s endowment includes all the entitlements, claims, liberties, powers, or immunities that he is entitled to, but where does this circularity take us?
The ultimate problem with Steiner’s analysis of exploitation is his moral commitment to redistribution. Just as traditional libertarians are dogmatic about the supposed evils of coercion (and thus have trouble explaining when restrictions on liberty are justified), Steiner is likewise dogmatic about the supposed evils of economic inequality. In the name of redressing economic inequality and righting past “undressed violations of property rights,” Steiner would deny an individual’s liberty to leave bequests to his heirs, and he would impose enormous restrictions not only on property rights in land, but also on the ownership of all natural resources. But from a policy or “applied” perspective, Steiner’s ideas are even more far-fetched and outlandish than Javier Hidalgo’s defense of open borders. At least a policy of “open borders” is imaginable, since federations like the USA and European Union already have open borders among their member states. We can’t even begin to imagine what a world without voluntary bequests would look like.