The Impossibility of Pure Libertarianism

THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY 111.8 (2014): 420-436

Abstract: In its simplest and most abstract form, libertarianism is a theory of political and economic organization which states that once a set of basic rights has been defined and allocated (“self-ownership” in particular), any distribution of resources, goods, and welfare that arises from this initial allocation of rights is just provided no individual rights have been violated. The converse claim is also part of the libertarian doctrine: in order to achieve a just allocation of resources, goods, and welfare, we only need to determine a special set of rules that define for each individual what they may or may not do and the outcomes they can bring about. In a libertarian society (made up of libertarian citizens who adhere to these rules), rights settle most and—depending on the libertarian theory in question—perhaps even all of the relevant issues. We take this to be true for all libertarian traditions, left and right. Any differences between libertarians pertain only to the nature and domain of rights and not to the fact that a rights structure is primary for determining the just society or that the social order is derived solely from a rights structure. The purpose of this paper is straightforward. We pursue the fundamental question as to whether or not a rights structure that represents libertarianism in its purest form is actually possible. In a nutshell: given a set of basic libertarian conditions to be imposed on a rights structure, is such a structure possible?