Last night, I hit upon a very concise explanation of how my beliefs so often lead me into conflict with libertarians. For one thing, I reject their misappropriation of terms like “liberty” and “freedom” and “rights” to mean very specific things unheralded in any more general philosophical tradition. If I created the Patriot Party or the Human Party, would that mean that any of my political rivals should be assumed to be unpatriotic or against humanity? Of course not. It would only mean that they were opposed to my particular definition or interpretation of those ideas, which is a very different thing. I am opposed to the libertarians’ definitions and interpretation of certain ideas, even though I’m a strong supporter of those same ideas as more commonly understood.

That’s not the real crux of the conflict, though. The real sticking point is that I believe in people’s right to reap rewards for things that they do. Correspondingly, I believe in people’s responsibility to bear costs for things that they do. This idea is entirely compatible with classic liberal concepts like a social contract, progressive taxation (if one is mathematically competent enough to realize that proportionality need not be linear), and government regulation of markets. In fact, since a right is meaningless if it cannot practically be exercised, the right to reap rewards requires some of these other things to give it meaning.

What is not compatible with my belief is an absolutist definition of property rights. An absolute right to retain unearned wealth – whether it be from inheritance, passive investment, or monopolistic coercion – prevents that same wealth from becoming reward for people who have actually earned it. The existence of self-perpetuating centers of wealth undermines the meritocratic ideal that I espouse. In short, I believe property rights are secondary, legitimate only to the extent that they support the primary right to a reward and subject to mandatory modification where the two conflict. It’s easy enough to imagine a system where the right to a reward is preserved without any property rights whatsoever, though I happen to believe that strong (but not absolute) property rights are the preferred means to that end.

Unfortunately, thanks to people like Friedman and Hayek and Mises, many people have gotten the idea stuck in their mind that capitalism is all about property and not about rewards (or competition for those rewards). They’re putting the cart so far before the horse that the horse never even attains its destination. My conflict with such people largely stems from the fact that I care more about the horse than the cart, and they have become obstacles to that horse’s progress. If their misconceptions about property rights interfere with my right to be rewarded for my actions, I will never hesitate to point out the flaws in their beliefs. Whether they realize it or not they are supporters of aristocracy in opposition to meritocratic capitalism.