Liberty versus “Relational Egalitarianism”
Richard Arneson has been a major figure in political philosophy for the last few decades, and in this week’s article, I’d like to look at some points he raises in his article “Liberal Egalitarian Critiques,” his contribution to The Routledge Companion to Libertarianism, pp. 564–78. In the article, Arneson distinguishes between “hard” libertarianism, which accepts self-ownership and Lockean acquisition of resources, viewing these as rights that are taken as “side constraints” that cannot be violated; and “soft libertarianism,” which accepts these rights but doesn’t take them to be absolute.
Arneson directs most of his attention to the “soft” variety of libertarianism, evidently viewing “hard” libertarianism as absurd. He writes from an “egalitarian liberal” perspective, which holds that libertarians do not give sufficient weight to equality. Egalitarian liberals ground this claim on distributional or relational considerations. According to the distributional position, “there is a fair distributive pattern to which the quality of people’s lives or resource holdings should conform. If Tom or Sally by bad fortune of genetic inheritance or similar bad luck falls through the cracks of market competition, justice puts special priority on improving their condition” (p. 569). The relational egalitarian view is rather different, holding that “what matters for justice is that people relate as equals, as befits their equal dignity as rational agents, able to avoid relations in which some have unreciprocal power over others, de facto authority to command, and hierarchical standing or rank” (p. 570). I think Arneson’s own position inclines more toward the relational view, though he is favorable to the distributional view as well.
His strategy directed at “soft” libertarians is to say, in effect, “you think that you can make a few concessions and retain the bulk of your libertarian position intact, but you will soon discover that you cannot do so. Once you admit the importance of equality, you will find yourself pressured to go further by the logic of your case and give up libertarianism altogether.” I won’t try to assess the strength of the liberal egalitarian case against “soft” libertarianism; Arneson doesn’t contend that “hard” libertari
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