Thomism Vs. Libertarianism

Murray Rothbard, the consummate anarcho-capitalist

Edward Feser is a contemporary proponent of Thomistic philosophy and theology who writes online here and here, primarily. I’ve grown increasingly to enjoy just about everything he writes (my disagreements with him are predictable, along Protestant/Catholic lines on various subjects). One interesting aspect of Feser’s work to me in particular is that before becoming a strong Thomist, he used to be a libertarian, and has written works in that movement. However, because of his shift, he has since abandoned that school of thought. In an article written last year, he replied to one libertarian, Walter Block, and two points in the article were especially persuasive to me. Because of them, I have lost a great deal of sympathy for the libertarian political vision. Here are the comments:

3. Another problem is that I now see that it is false to say that external resources start out with no one having any claim over them—not because we all somehow have an equal claim over them (as “left-libertarians” hold), but rather because (as traditional natural law theory holds) such resources have a divinely appointed end, namely the sustenance of human existence. Hence each human being has a right at least to access to the use of the earth’s resources. This does not entail that everyone must have an equal share of the earth’s resources, or even that everyone must have ownership of part of them; hence it does not entail a general redistribution of wealth. Indeed, traditional natural law theory entails very strong private property rights and holds that some degree of inequality is part of the natural order. At the same time, it also entails that property rights can never be so strong that it would be in principle unjust to redistribute even a small part of the surplus of the wealthy to aid those who are starving. Natural law theory condemns both socialism and libertarianism alike. …

5. It is similarly pointless to appeal, as is sometimes done, to a “non-aggression axiom” to ground either libertarianism in general or self-ownership in particular, for what counts as “aggression” depends on what rights we have. In particular, if you take X from me without my consent, what you’ve done is “aggression” only if I had a right to X in the first place. (A thief is not a victim of “aggression” if you forcibly take away from him the TV set he stole from you.) So, we need first to develop a theory of rights before we can determine either what aggression is or what self-ownership amounts to. To try to build a theory of rights on either a non-aggression principle or the thesis of self-ownership has things backwards. [262n3,5]

After summarizing a particular powerful thought experiment expressing the intuition that self-ownership implies more than many libertarians think it does, he add this:

These sorts of considerations have led the libertarian philosopher Eric Mack to propose that in order to respect people’s rights of selfownership in a substantive way, we need to endorse what he calls a selfownership proviso on the use of one’s property. His argument is complex and nuanced, and he illustrates the problem with many further examples that every libertarian rights theorist needs to study carefully; I do not claim to be doing justice to his views here. But the basic point is that the thesis of self-ownership cannot have serious moral force unless it guarantees that no one can use his property in a way that effectively nullifies the ability of others to bring to bear on external resources the world-interactive powers that they possess by virtue of being self-owners. Such a proviso is, in Mack’s view, perfectly consistent with the strong private property rights and firm rejection of egalitarian redistribution that are the hallmark of libertarianism of the type associated with Nozick and Rothbard. But it rules out the possibility of holding that a purely formal respect for self-ownership is all that libertarianism requires. [264-265]