Urgh Libertarians. There's a shit-stirring article in the Guardian today by Andrew Lilico of right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange challenging the assumption that the state has any right to make pronouncements on whether individuals 'deserve' their wealth and income, and to use these views to redistribute according to desert.
Lilico does not seem to be challenging the coherence or utility of the notion of 'desert' in making moral judgements. If he were, I might be more sympathetic to his perspective. Lilico's objection appears to be to the state making moral judgements at all about the distribution of wealth in society.
I don't want to go into too much detail here, because I've already discussed these ideas in my blogpost about libertarianism. Lilico at least explicitly acknowledges that his argument rests upon prioritising the sanctity of private property above all other principles. Yet he seems not to anticipate the objection that this is a moral claim in itself. Lilico makes his argument as if all his premises are self-evident. But why should we insist that the protection of private property is more important than (say) advancing social equality?
The closest Lilico comes to defending this claim is his bizarre notion that property is natural, and does not depend on the state guaranteeing property rights. I fail to see how property can exist without property rights. To own something means that we can exclude others from it. If something is mine (as opposed to ours), it cannot be yours. But in the absence of the state, or some equivalent impartial body, there is nothing to stop you taking what is mine and claiming it to be your own.
In any case, even if it were true that even infants have a clear notion of property, this does not mean that property is good. And even if it were, the relatively plausible idea that property is good is not what Lilico needs to show for his argument. Rather, Lilico needs to demonstrate that property is some sort of supreme good, the protection fo which overrides other goods, like equality.