Democratic Distributive Justice

By Ross Zucker | Go to book overview

2
The Underlying Logic of Liberal
Property Theory

Theories of property are concerned with the question, what entitles a person or other unit to property-objects? And to what does property, that is, the right, entitle him or her? The right of property could conceivably come in different forms: a right to highly unequal amounts of value (income and wealth), a right to relatively equal amounts of value, or a right to strictly equal amounts. It could, further, be a composite: a right to an equalized portion of one part of total social income and a right to unequal amounts of the rest of total income. Which form is rightful?

One can begin by examining liberal theories, the dominant approach to property in the West, and searching for their patterns of response to these questions. Liberal theories of property include the theories of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, Austin, Hegel, Pound, Felix Cohen, the New Economic Analysis of Law, Keynes, Nozick, and Rawls, among others. Scholarly opinion divides on whether liberal theory tends to support a right to highly unequal amounts of property.1 Some scholars hold that significant representatives of liberal theory do not support it. In my view, most of the important liberal theories may be considered inegalitarian in the sense that they posit a right to highly unequal amounts of income and wealth or subsume such a right under a broad concept of exclusive individual dominion. There are commentators who acknowledge this but nevertheless maintain that liberal theories are still

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1
For the argument that Rawlsian liberalism entails sharp economic inequalities, see Barry 1973, p. 46; Shapiro 1986, p. 230; Rae 1975; Macpherson 1985, p. 12. For views stressing economic egalitarianism in one or more liberal theorists, see Cobban 1964, p. 131, passim; Schaar 1980, pp. 167, 171; Shapiro 1986, pp. 40, 70–73, 87–89; Dahl 1985, pp. 77–78; Quinn 1991, pp. 263–281.

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