Entering debates with libertarians has become somewhat tiring, as I seem to have to start every debate by explaining why they approach issues from an inherently biased perspective, using loaded terms and framing the debate in what I regard as a completely incoherent manner.
Many of these problems amount to false dichotomies: governments versus markets; positive versus negative liberty; distinctions between actions done under credible threat of coercion and those done ‘voluntarily’. Generally, the problem is that libertarians ignore certain institutions that they deem natural or desirable, and build their dichotomies under the implicit assumption that anything they perceive to be an ‘intervention’ is the opposing side of the argument.
While there may be some merit in retaining these dichotomies for formalistic discussion and analysis, they do not work well as a functionalistic approximation of what ordinary individuals experience day to day – which, after all, is what libertarianism is predicated upon.
For example, take positive versus negative liberty, where positive liberty is defined as having the resources to fulfil your desires, and negative liberty is defined as being restrained from doing this by another moral agent. For libertarians, the second is often the most – or only – important consideration here.
The distinction between positive and negative liberty is, functionally speaking, false. Why? Consider two people: a rich man who wants to buy a plane, but can’t because taxes have just been increased, and a penniless man who wants to buy an apple, but can’t afford it. For libertarians, the rich is the one who is constrained by the law and ‘coercion’. But reconsider the poor man – what is stopping him from getting an apple from a shop without any money? If he goes into the shop and tries to take the apple, he will, ultimately, be arrested. He is constrained by the law, the same as the rich man.
It could be said that property and contracts work in a similar way to taxes and laws. Property uses the law to constrain people’s access to certain resources; tax does the same. Contracts use the law to make people perform certain actions and restrain them from others; the law does the same. Of course, libertarians would respond that restraints according to property are the result of voluntary transactions, and that contracts are also entered voluntarily, so the various constraints and obligations are more justified.
Firstly, even assuming no injustice, property distribution results from a large amount of individual and collective decisions. While it might be said that those involved in the decisions have consented to the new distribution, it doesn’t follow that those who had no say in them – most notably the unborn – have consented. Most still face legal constraints on their access to resources that they had no part in creating, and many suffer as a consequence.
Secondly, if the alternative to entering a contract is starvation, the contract cannot truly be said to be ‘voluntarily’. Even if we assume full employment, it will never be favourable to an employer – due to competition for efficiency – not to maintain some discipline at their workplace. The fact is that – as it logically impossible for everyone to be a capitalist – a large amount of the population rely on working under hierarchical conditions to survive.
I should note that I’m not implying taxes and laws are exactly the same as contracts and property, only that their enforcement is functionally similar. Introspectively, it would be pretty unreasonable to argue that people’s lives don’t involve having their access to certain resources restrained, and also being forced to perform certain actions that they’d probably rather not, generally in exchange for various benefits. It would also be unreasonable to say that these constraints and compulsions only originate from taxes and (regulatory) laws, rather than private contracts and property.