HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy


Left-libertarian theories of justice hold that agents are self-owners and that natural resources are owned in some egalitarian manner. Unlike egalitarianism, left-libertarianism endorses full self-ownership, and thus places strict limits on what others may do to one's person without one's permission. Unlike right-libertarianism, it holds that natural resources may be privately appropriated only with the permission of, or with payments to, the members of society. Like right-libertarianism, left-libertarianism holds that the basic rights of individuals are ownership rights. Left-libertarianism is promising because it underwrites both some demands of material equality and some limits on the permissible means of promoting this equality. However, the main goal of this study is to formulate an objection to the very coherence of left-libertarianism. The set of reasons that support egalitarian ownership of natural resources stand in a deep tension with the set of reasons that would prompt one to endorse a right to self-ownership. In light of their underlying commitments, a defender of either of the views that left-libertarianism combines would actually have to reject the other. The only ways around this incoherence are to choose either an approach that renders left-libertarianism incomplete in a way that can only be fixed by endorsing more commitments than most left-libertarians would want to, or an approach that leaves left-libertarianism a philosophically shallow theory. The core of the problem lies in the attempt to combine two ideas that resist such combination, and thus raises doubts about the very possibility of a credible left-libertarianism. This paper, however, should not be understood in support of right-libertarianism: rather, it should be understood as capturing a general resistance to libertarian thought.


Risse, Mathias. "Can There Be 'Libertarianism Without Inequality'? Some Worries about the Coherence of Left-Libertarianism." KSG Faculty Research Working Papers Series RWP03-044, November 2003.