Home > libertarianism, Political Philosophy > A Brief Summary of Michael Otsuka’s “Self-Ownership and Equality, A Lockean Reconciliation”

A Brief Summary of Michael Otsuka’s “Self-Ownership and Equality, A Lockean Reconciliation”

October 19th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Michael Otsuka’s position, as outlined in “Self-Ownership and Equality,” puts him fairly strongly on the left.  This is because he advocates an egalitarian position which he hopes to put forward as not incompatible with self-ownership, as Cohen would like to argue. He puts forward the thesis that equality of access to welfare between individuals of differing capacities to derive welfare from their resources can theoretically be achieved through an egalitarian distribution of initially unowned worldly resources, as a matter of contingent fact. In that regard, Otsuka is not a hard-left end-all egalitarian, but is by far the left-est of the authors in Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics (Peter Vallentyne) I’ve read so far; namely, Robert Nozick (who is undoubtedly similar in his “Lockean” libertarian approach, and who Otsuka borrows from a little bit but obviously contradicts on some important points), Hillel Steiner, and Phillip Van Parijs. The course of his article is as follows, briefly.

He first sets out to define what libertarian self-ownership means. To do so, he asserts that a libertarian’s claim to a full right of self-ownership must face the following dilemma: such a full and uninfringed right either is, or is not, compatible with some nonconsensual incursions upon one’s body that result in serious harm. If it is not compatible, Otsuka argues, the libertarian is committed to a “moral fanaticism” that holds, for example, that one may not turn a trolley in order to kill one person and save five. More importantly, it is a “moral fanaticism” that rules out serious harms to innocents, foreseen or not, as necessary consequences of minimizing harm rather than intended as a means of minimizing harm (i.e. it also rules out cases conforming to the doctrine of double effect). The other case of the dilemma (if it is compatible) places the libertarian in the position of having to explain why certain incursions and not others are compatible with such a right of self-ownership.

Otsuka claims that he avoids this dilemma because his position “is not committed to a full right of self-ownership.” He defines a ‘libertarian right of self-ownership’ as one that encompasses two rights: a stringent right of control that bars others from forcing one to sacrifice life, limb, or labor through incursions upon one’s mind and body or threats thereof; and a stringent right to all the income one gains one one’s own or through unregulated and untaxed voluntary exchanges with other individuals.

In the next section, Otsuka criticizes Nozick’s claim that taxation is equivalent to forced labor on the grounds that it is in fact a complaint against taxation being a violation of property rights. Otsuka then says that such a critique is weakened if the premise that one’s right of ownership over worldly resources he uses to generate income is as full as his right of ownership over himself. This leads to questions of world-ownership, which Otsuka addresses in the next section by putting forward an egalitarian version of Nozick’s Lockean proviso: “You may require previously unowned worldly resources if and only if you leave enough so that everyone else can acquire an equally good share of unowned worldly resources.” While he leaves the meaning of “equally good” an open question, he simply intends to argue that libertarian self-ownership and equality are reconcilable when equality is measured by equality of access to welfare.

Otsuka answers Cohen’s argument that the egalitarian proviso is incompatible with a libertarian right of self-ownership by asserting that libertarian self-ownership says nothing about the acquisition and distribution of worldly resources. As a means of reconciling self-ownership and equality in a “non-Pyrrhic” fashion, he defines one’s libertarian right of self-ownership as ‘robust’ if and only if one has rights over enough worldly resources so that others can not force one to come to their assistance in some form (sacrifice of life, limb, or labor) through withholding access to their resources. Leaving aside institutional or political unfeasibility, Otsuka claims that it is possible, through some distribution of worldly resources, for the badly off in society to support themselves through voluntary exchanges that do not involved forced assistance of this kind. Because of this, the badly off can justify their equality of welfare on the grounds that they have a right to a share of worldly resources that enable them to secure an equal level of welfare to everyone else.

Next, Otsuka addresses the intergenerational problems of egalitarianism, as well as issues of voluntary transfers. His egalitarian proviso spells out that equality of opportunity is intergenerational. The egalitarian proviso, interpreted as allowing a single generation to appropriate and destroy all, or as allowing that generation to bequeath all holdings to the few, generates what he terms an arbitrary and indefensible bias against proceeding generations. He concludes that it is reasonable to deny the existence of complete rights to consume, destroy, or bequeath worldly resources one has acquired in an unowned state. Further, he argues that bequeaths should be treated no differently from one’s natural talents (that one with a bequeath should be allowed to acquire fewer unowned resources.) Here, Otsuka, quite critically, concedes that nonmarket transfers and sharing of worldly resources (through gifting, marriages, etc.) is incompatible with the egalitarian proviso. Beneficial sharing and giving disrupts patterns of equality, so any form of this giving can only occur when no one derives any net benefit from such actions.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

© 2009-2017 Christopher Khawand All Rights Reserved