Left Libertarianism: A Review Essay

43 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2003


The publication in 2000 of Peter Vallentyne and Hillel Steiner's elegant two-volume collection of essays on Left-Libertarianism formally marks the emergence over the past two decades of a theory of distributive justice that seeks to harness the premises of the libertarian right to the political agenda of the egalitarian left. Its proponents have sided with the libertarian right in favor of a strong right of self-ownership, which - like those on the right - they have taken to imply (contra the left) that individuals have a right to the differential value of their talents. But they have sided with the egalitarian left in holding that individuals have no right to a disproportionate share of the external resources of the world - a view (borrowing further from the right) that they have housed in Locke's famous proviso that each may appropriate only so much of the world's resources as leaves others with "enough, and as good" a share. This marriage of self-ownership of one's talents with an egalitarian sharing rule for the external resources necessary to exploit them has led many left libertarians to quite egalitarian policy prescriptions - in many cases indistinguishable from what has issued from left/liberal egalitarian quarters.

This review essay assesses the two halves of the left libertarian project: a commitment to self-ownership, coupled with a strong reading of the Lockean proviso. It argues that "self-ownership" cannot do the work that left libertarians have assigned to it, any more than it could do the cognate work for the right. As a result, left libertarians, like their counterparts on the right, are pulling some very thick conclusions out of some very thin premises, a process that leaves them the latitude to find in the principle of "self-ownership" pretty much whatever they are looking for. It argues as well that the robust interpretation of the Lockean proviso that left libertarians have deployed to distance themselves from the right assumes a view of fairness that threatens to collapse left libertarianism into more conventional strains of egalitarianism on the left.

Note: This is a slightly different version than the one that will publish in Philosophy and Public Affairs.

Suggested Citation

Fried, Barbara H., Left Libertarianism: A Review Essay. Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 32, No. 1, Winter 2004, Princeton University Press, Copyright. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=441000 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.441000

Barbara H. Fried (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Crown Quadrangle
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-723-2499 (Phone)
650-725-0253 (Fax)

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