Monday, August 02, 2010

Sandel 6: Libertarianism is About Allodialism

My Theory Camp worked through Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent last week. This week we are reading his Justice.

Sandel's chapter on libertarianism is entitled "Do we own ourselves?" I have long thought that libertarians have a very restricted and peculiar idea of liberty. Sandel helps me see that what is really wrong is with their conception of the self. Libertarianism is a distinctively modern idea of the self because it is based on a distinctively modern idea of property.

Pre-modern property was based on shared ownership, rather than a sole right to do anything to your property. This is the difference between feudal property - the basic idea behind feudalism - and modern allodial property. Allodialism is the idea that if you own something, you own all the rights to it and can do anything you want to your property, including destroy it.

We can kind of accept the allodial idea when we are talking about replaceable objects. Allodialism gets to be iffy when we apply it to unique objects, like art or land. Allodialism shows itself to be a completely inadequate idea of what property is when we apply it to non-objects - slaves, babies, and ourselves. The core problem with libertarian ethics is that it makes people reduce their notion of their self to that of an object that they own, with no meaning or destiny of its own.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

There's also a related wider political problem that goes to the nature of the political community. Libertarians assume that the state is a necessary evil that exists only to secure our freedom (i.e., autonomy). This is comes out of a tacit philosophic anthropology that sees human nature as determined primarily by the will rather than by reason, which itself comes in a roundabout way out of the theological voluntarism that arose in some quarters of Scholastic thought. Because man is primarily a willing being, the fulfillment of human nature is just the pure act of willing regardless of what is willed, and so human fulfillment requires maximizing the free range of the will.

The better grounded view regards man as primarily determined by reason, and so human fulfillment does not come by choosing, but by the submission of the will to reason. The idea of freedom is a higher one: freedom is the flourishing of the fullness of human nature in accordance with reason. The discipline that sets down those ends towards which the will is directed is political philosophy. Those ends will limit and direct the permissible use of property.