Mainstream philosophical libertarians posit an ethical theory that contains the following features:
(1) A variant of Mill’s harm principle—such as the non-aggression principle (NAP)—which says that all actions are morally justified except those that cause active harm to the negative rights of other non-consenting individuals. It is justifiable, however, to engage in aggression to correct for a previous violation of someone’s negative rights.
(2) Property rights are important because of moral desert. Many people, like Taylor Swift, Serena Williams, and Jeff Bezos, earned their wealth by creating value for other people—whether through great music, entertaining sports play, or convenient online shopping. Thus, it is morally dubious that, for example, the state has the right to take away a significant chunk of this rightfully earned wealth and redistribute it, even if said redistribution is desirable in utilitarian terms. This includes inheritance, because it represents a choice made by someone who deserves the wealth.
Most modern right libertarians represent a less extreme version of these two viewpoints—they surely believe that we should care for the poorest people in society through some redistribution and we need a minimal state, perhaps even more than a monarchist state, to correct for market failures.
But I’m not convinced that most wealthy individuals morally deserve their wealth—not because they themselves did anything wrong, but because it often comes from previous violations of property rights. Lots of wealthy families profited out of conditions created by things like colonialism and slavery. The descendents of these families were born into relative social privilege, often, that enabled their current success (to the extent that many of them are successful). They aren’t culpable for colonialism and slavery, or for the wrong actions of their ancestors, to be sure. But the libertarian standard values inheritance—and the people today who would have otherwise inherited this wealth are now often the most unprivileged and disenfranchised.
Thus, it occurs to me that the non-aggression principle would allow for the radical redistribution of private property as it would be correcting a previous violation of the non-aggression principle—it would be morally equivalent to enforcing current property rights, at least in a rough and imperfect way. But this imperfect conclusion, from a libertarian perspective, seems more moral than not engaging in redistribution.
I’m not a libertarian and I do not endorse radical redistribution of property, but it seems that libertarians should get their story straight when discussing issues such as taxes and moral desert. I’m sure there are compelling objections to this that I haven’t thought of—but food for thought.