Discussion: Must We Choose between Chandran Kukathas'S "Two Constructions of Libertarianism"?

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Introduction

Chandran Kukathas argues that we have a problem in how to understand Libertarianism, and that this problem requires us to choose between two views, each of which has uncomfortable implications. He begins by noting that "Libertarians believe that all individuals are entitled to live as they choose, free from interference by other persons or by the state.... libertarians think that what is most important is to defend the freedom of individuals to live without being victims of aggression by others--against their persons, or against the property they have rightly acquired." The liberty they defend is, of course, "only that liberty that is consistent with a respect for the liberty and property of others." Right, of course: the general right to liberty entails precisely that. So as to governments, "its purpose is to protect individual liberty against invasion by others, whether at home or from abroad. Otherwise, it should leave people alone. What could be simpler?" Yet, he argues, things are not so simple: "there is more than one kind of society that could issue from such simple beginnings. Indeed, there are at least two very different societies which might be constructed out of such libertarian first principles." He tags these the "Federation of Liberty" and the "Union of Liberty."

The "Federation of Liberty"

The first of these "recognizes two central axioms: the right to self-ownership and the right to 'homestead.'" But people differ greatly, and "have different ideas about what is good and about what is right. The intuition libertarianism as a moral doctrine seeks to capture is the thought that when people differ in their ideas about what is good or right it is wrong to try to force people to accept one version or another, particularly if they are prepared simply to go their separate ways. Aggression--the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence--is never defensible. The use of force is permissible only in defense of one's person or property." So far, so good. But the question arises, what to do about the nonaccepters of Libertarianism. In what he takes to be the first version, the Federation of Liberty, "the answer is that the principle of libertarianism should be extended to cover not simply the treatment of those who believe in it but the treatment of all persons. That is to say, it would tolerate in its midst even those who do not accept the principles of libertarianism.... If they will not aggress against libertarians, then libertarians will not aggress against them."

So far, one would think, so good: that seems exactly what we are to do. But then, he says, there may well be "quite a few groups or communities which not only disregard but directly repudiate libertarian principles." They don't respect the private property of their members, say, or permit dissent from the group's central dogmas. "Indeed, the freedom of the individual to leave the community or group may not be accepted, so that many people are effectively held within the community against their will." And now the problem emerges. For "in the Federation of Liberty, those libertarians who do hold to libertarian principles will do nothing, for they cannot aggress against others except in self-defense. Or at least, that is how the principles of libertarianism are understood here. It simply is not permissible to initiate the use of force against others who are not threatening to use force against you or your property." So, "libertarians really can do very little about those who repudiate libertarianism and work to perpetuate ways of living that do not respect or value liberty." This is possible "because the practice of nonaggression is understood to require that people not intervene in the activities of others except in defense of their own rights and property."

But in one very important respect, this is misleading, or perhaps downright wrong, depending on what Kukathas meant. In libertarian theory, when anyone commits an injustice against anyone else, the victim may "defend himself" in any way that does not inflict further injustice on some third party. …