(This is based on a couple of conversations I had with Julian Sanchez, and they’re more his thoughts than mine.  I’m just trying to clarify my own thinking by writing about it).

Many libertarians base their political philosophy on the principle of self-ownership.  The principle of self ownership, according to most libertarians, leads to a Nozickian minimal state in which the government’s role is constrained to the protection of rights to liberty and property, the enforcement of contracts, and judicial dispute resolution.

The ultimate goal for these libertarians is to transform our society into a Nozickian “libertopia”.  This sort of view is easily applied to particular public policy questions.  Would policy x move us closer to libertopia?  Would the overall effect of policy x be to reduce or increase state coercion?  The answer to these questions, rather than the complex economic analysis often involved in weighing public policy options, determines which policy libertarianism recommends.

But libertarians don’t (or shouldn’t) just care about the abstract goal of inching toward libertopia.  They also (should) care about what overall effect a policy has on real world human freedom.  The problem is that focusing exclusively on reaching libertopia can sometimes lead one to support policies that are actually harmful to the cause of promoting freedom.  A good example of this is libertarian opposition to the section of the civil rights act that prohibits some privately owned businesses (such as restaurants) from racially segregating their patrons (see Julian Sanchez’s Newsweek piece on this in the wake of the Rand Paul controversy).

A challenge for libertarians is to come up with some basis for favoring one policy over another when applying libertopia doesn’t work (also, for what kinds of public policy issues is libertopian analysis not a good option?).  More on this soon.

A lot of libertarians endorse the non-aggression principle, which states that the initiation of physical aggression is illegitimate.  Seems like a good principle if you value freedom: we should all be free to do what we want as long as we don’t violate other people’s freedom to do what they want.  This kind of thinking leads to Nozick’s popular (among libertarians) view that “taxation is theft”.

I bring this up because I have been thinking lately about a conversation I had about a year ago with Isaac Morehouse of the Institute for Humane Studies during an IHS seminar.  We were debating the legitimacy of the welfare state (I was arguing that the welfare state is legitimate).  Isaac made an argument that, to the best of my recollection, went like this: if you endorse the legitimacy of the welfare state, then this entails that you think that it’s morally legitimate for an agent of the government to go up to a rich person whose personal stash of wealth is subject to redistribution and demand that he pay his (disproportionately large as a percentage of his income) share of taxes.  If he refuses, then the government agent may call in the coercive mechanisms of the state to physically force him to pay, even if that means imprisoning him and then breaking into his home and taking the money he owes out of the treasure box under his bed (or his bank account, or whatever).

How could any self-respecting liberty lover support such a practice?  At the time of our conversation, I didn’t have a response to this non-aggression argument, but now I think that I do.  In my next post, I’ll explain why I think the argument fails and why libertarians should abandon the “taxation is theft” objection to redistributive policies.