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The Kantian Case for Classical Liberalism

Fernando R. Tesn and Bas van der Vossen1

Many political philosophers have mounted a defense of liberal-egalitarian institutions based,

directly or indirectly, on the ideas of Immanuel Kant. Some of these focus on particular themes from
Kants philosophy, such as a commitment to reciprocity, human dignity, and the separateness of
persons.2 More recently, however, some authors have argued that liberal-egalitarian implications
follow more directly from Kants political thought. To them, the state needs to take a strongly
redistributive role in order to honor Kants commitment to freedom, independence, and Right. Arthur
Ripstein, for example, writes that Kants political philosophy does not preclude many of the activities
that modern liberal states have taken to improve opportunities for people who are disadvantaged. 3
And Anna Stilz suggests, stronger still, that Kants philosophy supports equalizing distributive shares
between compatriots.4
In this essay we offer an alternative vision of Kantian political philosophy. In our view, Kant
offers persuasive arguments against a strong redistributive state. His ideas of freedom, independence,
and Right support a limited role of the state: to determine and guarantee the rights of all, to publicly
provide a minimal safety-net for those who lack the resources to take care of themselves, but nothing
more. Consequently, Kants views are located within the classical-liberal moderate tradition that

The order of names reflects alphabetical primacy; each author has contributed 50% to the essay.
See, e.g., Allen Rosen, Kants Theory of Justice, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 173-208, Onora ONeill,
Constructions of Reason; Explorations of Kants Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) p. 23132.
Arthur Ripstein, Force and Freedom Kants Legal and Political Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009),
p. 267
Anna Stilz, Liberal Loyalty: Freedom, Obligation, and the State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 98

regards the state as providing indispensable but limited functions. While Kantian political philosophy is
not quite libertarian in nature,5 it is no apology for social democracy either.
Of course, there are several ways to defend the classical-liberal state. Consequentialist
arguments underscore the ability of free markets to create prosperity and the tendency of
governments to fail. Deontic arguments emphasize Lockean natural rights or the importance of
economic freedoms for the pursuit of personal projects. In this article we do not address these
arguments. We confine ourselves to a Kantian defense of the classical-liberal state. Our argument is
deontic in a specific Kantian way: only the classical-liberal state is consistent with the concept of Right.
Our argument is in four steps. We begin by providing a brief overview of Kants political
thought, and the role that the elements of freedom and independence play in it. We then show how
these elements triangulate the classical liberal state. The third section strengthens this argument by
demonstrating the specific Kantian strictures concerning the states role with respect to property.
Sections four and five rebut two recent arguments that attempt to show that the very Kantian notions
to which we appeal require a more strongly redistributive state. Section six concludes.

(1) The Demands of a Rightful Condition

We base our argument on Kants political philosophy as outlined in the Doctrine of Right. Its central
theme is that rational persons aim to secure what Kant calls a rightful condition. Kants entire political

Contrary to what has sometimes been suggested. For example, Wolfgang Kersting writes that, despite his commitment to
moral equality, Kants thought lacks all economic implications and social commitments; it cannot be used to justify the
welfare state and to legitimize the welfare state programmes of redistribution. W. Kersting, Kant's Concept of the State,
in Essays on Kant's Political Philosophy, Howard Williams (ed.), (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 143-165, p. 153. See also
B. Sharon Byrd and Joachim Hruschka, Kants Doctrine of Right: A Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2010), pp. 41-42 and note 99.

philosophy is an attempt to derive an account of the legitimacy and limits of government from the
rational idea of right. In this section we outline the idea of a rightful condition and its implications for
Kantian political thought.
Kant, as is well known, thought that the existence of a state is morally mandatory. Unlike
Hobbes and Locke, Kant sees the justification of the state as based not in prudential considerations
(the benefits of avoiding state of nature problems), but as rationally given. Because rational agents are
necessarily committed to establishing the civil condition, they are committed to establishing a state
which alone can secure that condition.6 Only the state can provide the kind of guarantee of peoples
rights and freedoms that a rightful condition demands.
The central functions of the state are implied by the idea of a rightful condition. Kant argues
that justice cannot be fully served if it is based on the private will of individual persons, each asserting
what they view as their rights. What is needed, instead, is an impersonal and impartial umpire. Justice
requires impersonal backing.
We can see this by considering a case in which two people are having a bona fide conflict over
their respective rights and freedoms. Since neither has any natural authority over the other, Kant
argues, justice can only be done by coming to some resolution that does not reduce to one persons
insistence that he is right after all. The state, and the state alone, can provide this solution because of
its public nature. Since state officials enjoy their authority not in virtue of their private capacities, but
the roles they occupy within the institution of the state, their authority is not reducible to any private

On this, see Jeffrie G. Murphy, Kant: The Philosophy of Right (London: MacMillan, 1970): 113-127.

partys point of view. Only a resolution that is impersonal in this way can be at the same time binding
on, and respectful of, rational people engaged in a bona fide conflict.7
Kant summarizes this argument as follows:
It is not experience from which we learn of human beings maxim of violence and of their
malevolent tendency to attack one another before external legislation endowed with power
appears. It is therefore not some fact that makes coercion through public law necessary. On the
contrary, however well-disposed and law-abiding, it still lies a priori in the rational idea of such
a condition (one that is not rightful) that before a public lawful condition is established
individual human beings, peoples, and states can never be secure against violence with one
another, since each has its own right to do what seems right and good to it and not to be
dependent upon anothers opinion about this. (6:312)
The state is morally mandatory, then, because a rightful condition is morally mandatory and the state
is the only way to establish it.
The civil condition, then, offers a guarantee for peoples rights that is unavailable in the state of
nature. This guarantee, it is important to realize, does not refer merely to the increased likelihood that
peoples rights and freedoms will be respected. Even if the state of nature turned out to be safe, it
would still fall short of being fully rightful. Instead, the rightful condition is one in which peoples rights
and freedoms are backed by an impartial and impersonal (public) authority. Only the civil condition,
that is, can achieve justice fully because it alone can render peoples rights and freedom publically
determinate, secure, and subject to adjudication.

Property plays a special role here. For while reason will tell us unequivocally who has rights over which human body (it
could not be otherwise than that you have rights over your body, and I have rights over mine), it does not tell us who has
rights over what external objects. This is one reason why Kant labels rights in the state of nature provisional. See 6:257,
6:312-13. Another is that Kant seems to regard property rights as importantly indeterminate. For discussion, see below.

The promise of the civil condition is that all can act together in ways that mutually respect their
respective rights, freedoms, and moral status. This is itself part of the very idea of rightful action, which
Kant expresses with the Universal Principle of Right:
Any action is right if it can coexist with everyones freedom in accordance with a universal law,
or if on its maxim the freedom of each can coexist with everyones freedom under a universal
This leads to what Kant calls the only innate right of humanity, from which all other rights that
persons have, or might end up having, derive:
Freedom (independence from being constrained by anothers choice), insofar as it can coexist
with the freedom of every other under a universal law, is the only original right belonging to
every man by virtue of his humanity. (6:237)
Kant is arguing that, in a fully rightful condition, each of us can enjoy our freedom together with
everyone else. The result of this is the sum of the conditions under which the choice of one can be
united with the choice of another in accordance with a universal law of freedom. (6:230)
The Kantian idea of a rightful condition is concerned only with outward actions, what Kant calls
external freedom.9 What is necessary for a rightful condition is only that peoples conduct respect
protected spheres of permitted action of others. Thus Kant writes that [t]he concept of right, insofar
as it is related to an obligation corresponding to it (i.e., the moral concept of right), has to do, first, only
with the external and indeed practical relation of one person to another, insofar as their actions, as

Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, Mary Gregor (ed.), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 6:230.
Following custom, throughout we refer to Kants writings using the Prussian Academy of Sciences numbering. This
numbering appears at the margin of the McGregor edition that we use in this essay.
The concept of right, therefore, contrasts with the concept of virtuous action, which requires internal freedom, that is,
that the agent act out of duty.

deeds, can have (direct or indirect) influence on each other. (6:230) This signals an important
distinction between Kants ethics and his political philosophy. For while the former clearly makes
demands of peoples wills (that they act out of duty, for example), in the latter no account at all is
taken of the matter of choice, that is, of the end each has in mind with the object he wants (6:230). If I
sell you my house, the motive for which I do this is irrelevant. Selling my house is within my rights, an
external action protected in the civil condition. Kantian political philosophy, then, is concerned only
with the form of actions.
The role of the state is to provide an authoritative determination of the demands of peoples
rights and freedoms so as to provide its subjects with a fair and impartial specification of how to treat
each other rightfully. Once in place, all persons are guaranteed in this sense that they can act rightfully:
all have the ability to act together in ways that mutually respect each others morally inviolable status.
As a result, in the civil condition everyone enjoys a protected sphere of freedom and any act
that violates this freedom is wrongful. Such actions are wrong because they do not respect the
independence of others: when Amanda violates Berts sphere of protected freedom, she attempts to
make her will, not his, determine what actions are to be undertaken within that sphere. This is for
Amanda to impose her will on Bert, and is thereby inconsistent with treating him as a moral equal. This
is why Kant identifies freedom as independence from the will of others.
Kantian freedom, therefore, poses an imposing barrier against acts of coercion. However, not
all acts of coercion are going to be prohibited on this view. Kant makes an exception for coercive acts
that are necessary for guaranteeing the demands of right itself. This supports at least three cases (we
label them provisos) in which coercive acts can be justified. Consider these in turn.

(A) The hindrance to a hindrance-proviso: The first and most obvious kind of coercion that is
permitted concerns those persons who violate the external freedom of others. In Kants words, such
coercion is permissible because it is the denial of a denial of right: a hindrance to a hindrance to
freedom. For Kant, the undoing of violations of right must be licensed by right itself to think
otherwise would be to commit a kind of practical contradiction.10 It is worth noting that while this
proviso provides mainly a rationale for state coercion, it also justifies individual coercion in a strictly
limited class of cases, e.g. self-defense. The two provisos that follow, in contrast, explain permissible
state coercion.
(B) The state-proviso: The same rationale that enables coercion to punish or prevent
wrongdoers also enables the use of coercion necessary for the functioning of the state. Since the state
is required by right, right must allow the state to function. It follows that states have the rightful power
to tax their subjects to obtain the means required for bringing about a rightful condition.
(C) The poverty-proviso: The first two provisos are necessary to guarantee the ability for all to
act in accordance with the principles of right. However, these two provisos are not sufficient for this
guarantee. Given that Kant thought that property rights were an inevitable element of a rightful
condition, a third proviso is required as well. The existence of property rights make it possible that
some people might, through no fault of their own, lack property altogether.11 Consider Meredith, a
propertyless person (born an orphan perhaps), reaching the age of consent. If the two provisos above
exhausted Kants principles of right, Meredith is not guaranteed the ability to act in accordance with


[C]oercion that is opposed to this [i.e. a wrong] (as a hindering of a hindrance to freedom) is consistent with freedom in
accordance with universal laws, that is, it is right. Hence there is connected with right by the principle of contradiction an
authorization to coerce someone who infringes upon it. (6:231)
In Force and Freedom, Arthur Ripstein gives a similar, albeit slightly different reading of Kant on this matter. We discuss
Ripsteins view, and its problems, in detail below.

right. For given that the property rights of others provide them with the freedom to decide what to do
with what is rightfully theirs, no particular individual can be compelled to let Meredith access and
sustain herself on their land. She, therefore, might become trapped by the rights of others. In that
case, Meredith would face a set of duties that she could not satisfy. For Kant, the rightful condition is a
dictate of reason, but Merediths situation, again, involves a kind of practical contradiction: reason
cannot will a condition in which rational creatures cannot but violate reasons own requirements. This
is why Kant says that the means necessary for ones preservation are intrinsic to one's innate right to
freedom. (23:286 Reflexion)
The state, as the embodiment of a rightful condition, can therefore tax people to publicly
provide a level of provision for those who would otherwise end up in Merediths situation. Hence, Kant
writes in a famous passage:
The general will of the people has united itself into a society which is to maintain itself
perpetually; and for this end it has submitted itself to the internal authority of the state in order
to maintain those members of society who are unable to maintain themselves. For reasons of
state the government is therefore authorized to constrain the wealthy to provide the means of
sustenance to those who are unable to provide for even their most necessary natural needs.
This rationale for the poverty-proviso is overlooked by those who read Kant as accepting redistribution
only when instrumentally necessary for the stability of the state. Their reading relies mainly on Kants


Kants German terms, here translated as the wealthy, is die Vermgenden, and unable to maintain themselves is
die es selbst nicht vermgen. These terms also signify the possession of an ability or capacity. The idea here is that
persons who own property have an ability, that is crucial from the point of view of right, that propertyless persons lack: the
ability to act justly. A similar sentiment can be found in Kants discussion of: civil independence, of owing his existence and
preservation to his own rights and powers not the choice of another among the people. (6:314)

claim in the passage above that redistribution is justified for civil society to maintain itself
perpetually.13 But this is to miss the fundamental purpose of the poverty-proviso. What needs to be
maintained perpetually, for Kant, is not the state as such but the rightful condition it embodies. This
is a condition in which everyone can act justly, even when born in absolute squalor, or fallen upon hard
times through no fault of their own. The poverty-proviso ensures this possibility over time.14

(2) The Limits of Government

Once established, the rightful condition provides two crucially important guarantees. First, it secures
for all the ability to comply with the demands of right, come what may. In it, the demands of morality
are determinate and stable. The rightful condition prevents people from becoming subject to
conflicting and continually changing demands. In the Rechtstaat, the demands we press on each other
become determinate. This guarantee focuses on subjects in their capacity as duty-bearers. Second, and
as the flip side of this, the rightful condition secures for all persons the enduring freedom to act within
their respective protected spheres. In a sense we explain below, true freedom requires enduring
control over what is ours. This guarantee focuses on subjects in their capacity as right-bearers. This
dual vision constitutes the central promise of Kantian political philosophy.
This vision triangulates, we argue, a classical liberal state. That is, it requires a more than a
strictly libertarian, but less than a liberal-egalitarian state.15 Kantian political thought requires a more


See Kersting Kant's Concept of the State; and Mark LeBar, Kant on Welfare, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 29 (1999):
Allen Wood similarly misses this point when he claims that that the poverty-proviso is justified merely to continue the
physical existence of people. See Allen Wood, Kantian Ethics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 196.
Leslie Mulholland seems to waver between an interpretation of Kants that allows extensive redistribution of wealth and
another one more in agreement with our view. For the former, see Leslie Mulholland, Kants System of Right, (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 317. For the latter see p. 395.

than libertarian state because, in order for right to be guaranteed to all, a state not only needs to exist,
but it must guarantee to persons the ability to comply with justice without their having to rely on the
wills of others. This will be true even if the availability of private charity offered the poor a perfectly
reliable provision of material resources. For in this case such provision would remain contingent on the
altruism of the donors, not guaranteed.16
The Kantian approach excludes a liberal-egalitarian state for reason that such a state is in
tension with the ideal of a rightful condition. In the next section we will indicate two further ways in
which this is the case. Here we wish to draw attention to the reason that the Kantian view demands
that state coercion remains limited to the extent that it is needed to fulfill the provisos outlined above.
This rules out strongly redistributive states since the rationale of the poverty-proviso is to guarantee
only that people can live and sustain themselves without having to rely on the permission of others.
This licenses coercion to publicly provide for what Kant called peoples most necessary natural
needs, but no more.
A more redistributive state will employ coercion beyond what is mandated by the proviso. Such
coercion necessarily involves some imposing their chosen (redistributive) ends on others. This is ruled
out on the Kantian view precisely because it necessarily upsets the guarantee that the civil condition
was supposed to provide: the protection of peoples freedom to decide within their rightfully
protected sphere. The fact (when it is a fact) that these ends might be desirable or even morally
admirable does nothing to change this.


David Schmidtz objects to this type of argument in Guarantees. For him, in the face of reliable private provision, the
fact that such public guarantees have economic costs provide good reason against having them. We accept the basic point,
but merely point out that from a Kantian perspective this is beside the point: the poverty-proviso is necessary because the
state, as the embodiment of the rightful condition, must guarantee each the ability to live without having to secure
permission of others.


The force of this position lies in the fact that a more redistributive state compromises the
rightful condition on both dimensions of the dual Kantian vision described above. The liberalegalitarian state weakens the determinacy of lawful demands because it removes people from a
condition in which they are confronted with a set of moral requirements that they are always in a
position to satisfy simultaneously. The more distributive goals are built into the purpose of the state,
the more often cases will occur in which people will be faced with the conflicting demands of
respecting what does (did) rightfully belong to others and meeting these goals. The liberal-egalitarian
state also impinges on peoples protected freedom to act. For any acts of coercion that are not
themselves demanded by the need to maintain the rightful condition will remove peoples ability to be
sure that they can rely on a protected sphere of freedom. When the state taxes one for the attainment
of a redistributive goal, ones secured sphere of freedom is compromised. The very fabric of the liberalegalitarian state, therefore, conflicts with the Kantian vision of a rightful condition.
Justice does not simply establish what states should minimally do, a set of mandatory
guarantees beyond which the state may undertake additional discretionary actions that it deems
beneficial. Justice also establishes a constraint on what states can do.17 Kant himself was explicit about
this, writing that the only constitution that accords with right must take:
the original (rational) form, the only form which makes freedom the principle and indeed the
condition for any exercise of coercion, as is required by a rightful constitution of a state in the
strict sense of the word This is the only constitution of a state that lasts, the constitution in


Kant writes: A state (civitas) is a union of a multitude of human beings under laws of right. Insofar as these are a priori
necessary as laws, that is, insofar as they follow of themselves from concepts of external right as such (are not statutory),
its form is the form of the state as such, that is, of the state in idea, as it ought to be in accordance with pure principles of
right. This idea serves as a norm (norma) for every actual union into a commonwealth (hence serves as a norm for its
internal constitution) (6:313). See also Kersting, Kant's Concept of the State, pp. 147-150.


which law itself rules and depends on no particular person. It is the final end of all public right,
the only condition in which each can be assigned conclusively what is his (6:340-1).
On the Kantian view a just constitution contains no permissive clauses, but only mandatory ones. That
is, whatever the state is permitted to do, it must do. So whereas it is perfectly permissible, indeed
admirable, for individuals to go beyond the demands of the Kantian poverty-proviso and engage in
charitable giving, these actions are not available to the state. Its job is not to ensure desirable
outcomes, but the rightful condition.
The image of the Kantian state that arises, then, is one very similar to the classical liberal ideal:
a state that provides strong protections for peoples freedom, property rights, coupled with a minimal
safety-net for those who through no fault of their own fall below the level of basic decency or
subsistence. The argument leaves no room for the state to pursue any other goals, such as improving
peoples opportunities, helping them achieve happiness, and so forth. To do so would be for some to
enlist others to these ends, thereby imposing their wills (that these goals be achieved) on them despite
the fact that they were supposed to be protected in their freedom to act as they wish. This is beyond
what a state can rightfully do. This is why Kant stresses that the concept of right does not signify the
relation of ones choice to the mere wish (hence also the mere need) of the other as in actions of
beneficence or callousness, but only a relation to the others choice. (6:230)
Taking seriously the freedom and independence of people requires accepting strict limits to
scope of government, for just as individual action can impinge on our freedom, so too can government


policy. The government cannot legitimately invade our freedom, whether the invasion is large or

(3) The State and Property

On the Kantian view we are developing, the purpose of the state is to ensure the existence of a rightful
condition. We have argued above that the nature of a rightful condition requires determinacy and
stability on the part of both right-holders and duty-bearers, and that this is in tension with
redistributive policies. In this section, we wish to present two further ways in which redistributive
policies are in tension with the purpose of the state. Redistributive policies, that is, threaten the very
legitimacy of the state.
The problem here stems from the fact that redistributive policies put the state in a position
equivalent to a property owner. But this position is incompatible with the states essential role as the
guarantor of property, and therefore with its required role as an impartial umpire. But this role is
fundamental to the states legitimacy. To see this, consider the position that the state occupies when it
redistributes property. On the Kantian view, the essence of rights is that they put their holders in a
position to decide freely what is to happen. The rightful owner of property, then, is the one who is
entitled to decide the allocation of the goods that she controls. For you to have a property right over O
(indeed, to have a right simpliciter) is for you to enjoy the right-protected freedom that others not
substitute their choices for yours with respect to O.19 If X has a right over O, then no ones will but Xs
will may determine what happens to O. The implication holds in both directions. Thus, if X is entitled to

We should note one further exception. Arthur Ripstein has recently argued for a fourth proviso: state provision of roads
and other public spaces. See Ripstein, Force and Freedom ch. 8. We are sympathetic to his view, but leave the matter aside
here as our main concern is with the redistributive implications of Kants thought.
Of course, within the limits allowed by the principles of right. Thus, I own this knife but I may not use it to hurt you.


decide what happens to O, then X has a right over O. The entitlement in question reflects Xs morally
privileged position with regard to O, identifying Xs will as the unique rightful source of determining
what ends O is to serve. This is simply to have a property right over O. Any case in which X has the
entitlement to determine what happens to O is therefore a case in which X has a right over O.
It follows from this that if a person, body, or institution has this kind of control over objects, it
has, for Kant, ownership over that object. If the state has the ability to make allocative decisions with
respect to objects, goods, resources, or capital, then the state enjoys (the equivalent of) a property
right over them. That is, the redistributive state has property rights in just the sense that is relevant to
Kants principles of right. We can see this more clearly from the standpoint of the states subjects. If
the state is entitled to make allocative decisions with respect to an object O possessed by a subject,
then the state decides what ends O is supposed to serve, and not the will of individual subject. The
subject may have de facto possession of O, but she does not have rightful control over it. Her holdings
change hands when the state, and not she, determines that it should. Therefore, she is not in a
position of rightful ownership with respect to O. For if she were, then others could not justly substitute
their choice for hers about what happens to O. It follows that not the subject but the state has a
property right over O.
This state ownership of property is highly problematic on the Kantian view, for it threatens to
undo the distinctively public nature of the state and, because its public nature is a prerequisite for
the civil condition, it threatens to undo that as well. There are two arguments for this conclusion. The
first is that property ownership is something done out of a distinctively private capacity, done by
individuals, not institutions. The specific moral nature of the state, however, depends on its public


nature. And the state is public to the extent that it is not reducible to people in their private capacities.
For this reason, it is not the states place to own property.20
The second reason why the state cannot own property is more important: if it did, any dispute
between the state itself and private citizens concerning that property cannot be submitted to an
impartial judge.21 But a condition in which disputes cannot be submitted to an impartial judge is the
state of nature, not a rightful condition. State ownership, therefore, threatens to undo the rightful
Kant himself thought this second point crucial. He writes:
The supreme commander can therefore have no domains, that is, no estates for his private use
(for maintaining his court). For if he did, it would be then be up to his own discretion how far
they should be extended, so that the state would run the risk of seeing all ownership of land in
the hands of the government and all subjects as serfs (glebae adscripti), possessors only of
what is the property of another, and therefore deprived of all freedom (servi). (6:324)
Once the state gains control of the resources required for redistribution it becomes a de facto owner of
property itself. As a result, it loses its impartiality, thereby rendering the subjects of the state (who
should be citizens) mere serfs.22


Kant writes: In accordance with concepts of right, the supreme proprietor [i.e. the sovereign] cannot have any land at all
as his private property (for otherwise he would make himself a private person). All land belongs only to the people (and
indeed to the people taken distributively, not collectively) (6:324) See also Byrd and Hruschka, Kants Doctrine of Right: A
Commentary, p. 42
Mulholland overlooks these passages when he writes that for Kant the state must be regarded as the original public
owner of all its territory and everyones right to land must be conditional on the judgment of the political authority as long
as the constitution of the state accords with the rightful attributes. Mulholland, Kants System of Rights, p. 371.
It is telling here that Kant defines a serf as the possessor of only what is the property of another. Note that Kants
reference in the passages above to the private property of the sovereign does not affect this argument. For Kant, any state
holdings not mandated by the principles of public right will count as private. After all, given that the reasons for the
sovereigns control over these resources are not public in nature, they can only serve the sovereigns private choice. Nor


The only exceptions to this argument, again, concern state control of resources required to
maintain a rightful condition. The state can legitimately control property only insofar as this is allowed
by the provisos discussed above. Thus, the state can have possession of buildings to house government
institutions, the resources necessary for it to perform its essential functions, and the resources
necessary to ensure that people can meet their essential needs without having to rely on others. But
this is only so because these holdings are constitutive parts of the public condition.23
Indeed, Kant worried even about state ownership of property that is licensed by public right.
This is visible in Kants discussion of the redistributive role that the state occupies even to satisfy the
poverty-proviso. He specified that the poverty-proviso in fact did not allow the state itself to
redistribute wealth, but only the right to impose taxes to support organizations providing for the
poor, foundling homes, and church organizations, usually called charitable or pious institutions.
(6:326) By extension, we might speculate that the state can own the buildings required to house its
necessary institutions in only a limited sense as well. These can be in state possession, but the sale or
letting of such buildings their allocation is best taken out of the states hands.
These arguments and the argument from the previous section form the heart of Kants
distinctive contribution to the case for classical liberalism. The more extensive scope of the
does Kants calling the state the supreme proprietor signify that it, somehow, owns all property. This phrase is not meant
to overhaul or undercut the individual property rights Kant spends so much time defining and defending. For Kant the state
is the supreme proprietor in the sense that state sovereignty is superimposed on individual property rights. Kant uses this
idea to establish two points. First, the state has the right to tax people in order to uphold the rightful condition. Second, the
state has the right to assign to each what is his. The point Kant is making here is limited. Property rights are subject to the
sovereigns jurisdictional authority and can be no barrier against the rightful functions of the state.
Thus, a fully developed Kantian theory of land regulation should distinguish between regulations needed to sustain the
rightful condition, for example, those defining and adjudicating property rights or establishing servitudes and easements so
people can freely move in the territory, from regulations that serve private purposes, such as zoning laws to preserve
property values of certain owners, and even from regulations that are supposed to provide certain public goods such as
aesthetic improvement. The states regulatory power, superimposed to private property rights, must always be in the
service of the rightful condition.


redistributive state is not just prudentially unwise, potentially intrusive, or economically harmful (if and
when it is those things). It is inconsistent with its role as the guarantee and embodiment of the rightful
condition. Unless the authority of the state is and remains strictly to determine, secure, and arbitrate
peoples rights when necessary, consistent with satisfaction of the poverty-proviso that is, unless the
state is and remains a classically liberal state it cannot remain the impartial arbitrator that the civil
condition requires. (6:324)

(4) Freedom as Independence and Freedom as Non-Domination

Recent authors, including Arthur Ripstein and Anna Stilz, have defended state redistribution by relying
on Kantian arguments. In this section and the next, we address their arguments. The first of these
relies on Kants description of freedom as independence. For Kant, it is said, the freedom that the state
must secure for citizens is freedom-as-non-domination, a notion developed most prominently by Philip
Pettit.24 If this is correct, then Kant may be committed to redistribution under the principle of external
freedom. After all, securing that no one be dominated may require significant redistribution of
Anna Stilz, for example, argues that on a Kantian view the most important justification for
forming a democratic state is to abolish such relationships of domination, and that this gives us a
special reason to safeguard compatriots against those inequalities that substantially jeopardize their
equal status. Kants view therefore naturally contains the imperative to equalize holdings, says Stilz. A

Both Ripstein and Stilz refer to Pettits work on non-domination as informing their understanding of Kantian external
freedom. See Ripstein, Force and Freedom, pp. 4-6, 13-19, and p. 43, n. 18; Stilz, p. 51, n 36. For Pettits idea of nondomination, see Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, (New York: Oxford University Press,
1999), chs. 2-3; Philip Pettit, A Theory of Freedom, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 136-51. We are unsure
whether Ripstein or Stilz would fully endorse Pettits views as similar to Kants. Our purpose in this section is to trace the
argument that Kantian freedom, understood along these lines, might warrant a redistributive role for the state.


persons subjection to these forms of dependence and domination is not a direct function of her
absolute level goods. [W]e care about wealth only insofar as it affects independence. This is because
persons do not have a right to well-being or happiness; instead they have a right to a sphere of civil
freedom. Freedom requires material equality because only [i]n that situation [a person] would enjoy
equal standing, and despite her lower level of overall well-being, her rights would in no way be
jeopardized.25 Arthur Ripstein, while explicitly disavowing that Kant would aim at strict equality, also
suggests that the Kantian idea of independence can justify extensive welfare state provisions. The
Kantian state, he writes, ought to publicly provide goods in order to avoid circumstances that
regularly lead citizens to fall into conditions of dependency.26
However, Pettits notion of non-domination does not accurately track the Kantian idea of
external freedom or independence. More specifically, the independence protected by peoples
external freedom is independence with respect to their sphere of protected rights, not independence
from others tout court. To see this, let us look a little closer at the textual evidence that can be brought
to bear on this question. The first is Kants statement of the innate right of humanity:
Freedom (independence from being constrained by anothers choice), insofar as it can coexist
with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law, is the only original right
belonging to every man by virtue of his humanity. (6:237)
The second is Kants statement that the freedom in which he is interested is external, concerned only
with outward actions:
The concept of right, insofar as it is related to an obligation corresponding to it (i.e., the moral
concept of right), has to do, first, only with the external and indeed practical relation of one

All quotations in this paragraph are from Stilz, Liberal Loyalty, pp. 99-101
Ripstein, Force and Freedom, p. 285


person to another, insofar as their actions, as deeds, can have (direct or indirect) influence on
each other. (6:230)
Stilz and Ripstein read the parenthetical clause in Kants statement of the innate right of humanity as
identifying the essence of external freedom: independence from the choices of others. This is highly
reminiscent of freedom as non-domination in various ways. First, like Kantian external freedom, nondomination is importantly relational. Person B dominates person A if B has the ability to interfere on
arbitrary grounds with certain choices A is in a position to make, where Bs interference counts as
arbitrary if Bs decision does not track As interests and beliefs or is not constrained to do so.27 Second,
non-domination is external in just the way Kantian freedom requires: it refers to the absence of the
capacity of others to interfere with ones choices.28 Third, non-domination captures the sense in which
Kantian freedom consists in the absence of dependence on the wills of others: Bs capacity of
interference makes As choices in a very real sense dependent on Bs decisions. And finally, nondomination requires more than the mere absence of actual interference by others. One is still
importantly unfree if another has the opportunity to interfere with ones decision.29 Kant, of course,
did not accept either that freedom would be sufficiently protected if it were enjoyed as a mere matter
of contingency: it must be guaranteed.
Nevertheless, there are important differences between the two ideas. Non-domination is at the
same time too broad and too narrow to correctly identify Kantian external freedom. Non-domination is
too broad because it captures situations that are not condemned by external freedom. Independence


The former is what Pettit calls the substantive component of arbitrariness. The latter is the procedural component of
arbitrariness, that the act is subject just to the arbitrium, the discretion of the agent who interferes. Pettit, Republicanism,
p. 55.
Pettit, Republicanism, p. 52
Ibid., p. 69: non-domination involves a sort of immunity or security against interference on an arbitrary basis.


is an essential element of Kantian external freedom, but it is not equivalent to it. Being externally free
is not being completely independent of others. Second, non-domination is too narrow because
violations of Kantian freedom need not involve domination. Let us take these in turn.
First, Kantian freedom is not independence tout court. It is the freedom that the state is
supposed to protect. As we indicated, the protection of this freedom consists in the guarantee that
each enjoys a right to the objects or actions he legitimately possesses. The freedom to be protected in
the civil condition is something we can enjoy, concerning mine and thine, as a protected sphere of
choice relative to our rights (a sphere we are guaranteed to enjoy by the poverty-proviso). Only when
an object or an action is thus protected are we entitled to independence from the will of others. There
are many situations when we will not be independent of the choices of others but where those choices
will not invade our freedom. We are not entitled to live our lives solely on our terms, as if we were
islands isolated from society. And we are not entitled, therefore to enlist the state to prevent the
choices of others from affecting our lives either.
This interpretation of independence as a relative notion is supported by Kants text. Kant at no
point treats independence tout court as a goal of the state or the public condition. He rarely mentions
the idea of independence as such, and in the only extended discussion (of civil independence) Kant
explicitly denies that the state ought to ensure or promote the independence of all. There, Kant
distinguishes between active citizens (who are independent), and passive citizens (who are not).
He writes that in general, anyone whose preservation in existence (his being fed and protected)
depends not on his management of his own business but on arrangements made by another (except
the state). All these people lack civil personality (6:314), and concludes that such persons cannot


partake in the public decision-making about how the republic is to be governed. Only those who can
offer their goods in the marketplace, or are employed by the state, can (as active citizens).
Crucially, whatever else one might think of that peculiar passage, Kant at no point suggests that
the condition of passive citizenship is in itself wrongful. Instead, he refuses to treat dependent persons
as active citizens because he thinks that they cannot make political choices. Passive citizens should not
have the vote, not because their condition is incompatible with Kants idea of external freedom, but
because they are not capable of freely deciding for themselves. For Kant, those who directly depend on
others for their income cannot be trusted to choose for themselves; their votes can be controlled too
easily by those on whom they depend economically. For this reason, passive citizens are owed, not
coercive rectification of their condition or positive assistance by the state, but only that whatever sort
of positive laws the citizens might vote for, these laws must still not be contrary to the natural laws of
freedom and of the equality of everyone in the people corresponding to this freedom, namely that
anyone can work his way up from this passive condition to an active one. (6:315, our emphasis)
The lesson from this passage is this. In life we suffer many setbacks and disabilities. We may
experience material needs, we are at times vulnerable and impotent, and often at the mercy of
someone elses choices. These misfortunes are surely a matter of moral concern: they may inhibit our
ability to choose as autonomous creatures and generate in others moral duties of charity. However,
they do not, by themselves, qualify as violations of our external freedom. For it is only when others
violate our rights, and thereby violate our independence in the sense relevant here, or when we fall
below the threshold of the poverty-proviso, that Kantian freedom is imperiled. Where this is not the
case, we should resort to our own reserves of strength and ingenuity (work our way up) and
sometimes, alas, hope that others will assist us.

The difference between freedom-as-non-domination and Kantian external freedom can be

illustrated by the following example, offered by Pettit. 30 Consider a wealthy employer who is legally
permitted to hire and fire his employees at will. He can interfere with the choices of his employees by
removing their current stream of income. The employer does not have to take the interests of his
employees into account when deciding to keep them or fire them. The employees have no legal
recourse against that decision, nor do they have the bargaining power to force the employer to take
their interests into account. Thus, the employer has the arbitrary (in the sense of discretionary) ability
to fire them.
Pettit may be correct that this employer dominates his employees. However, as long as the
firing procedure does not violate the coercion-principle, and as long as the employees remain above
the threshold established by the poverty-proviso, the firing would not qualify as a violation of their
external freedom. The employer would violate their external freedom only if the labor contracts
specified protections against layoffs. By contrast, the employees inability to live their lives securely on
their own terms does not qualify, in itself, as a violation of their Kantian freedom, even if their limited
options involves serious costs to them and their families.
The second way in which freedom-as-domination and Kantian external freedom differ is that
non-domination, but not Kantian independence, makes essential reference to peoples interests.
Whether or not one is dominated, for Pettit, turns on whether the interests of the dominated are
guaranteed to be served. Person A is dominated, recall, only if B has the ability to interfere with A on
arbitrary grounds, where this means that Bs decision (not) to interfere does not have to track As
interests. In contrast, For Kant the promotion of peoples interests or the satisfaction of their desires


Republicanism, p. 57.


are irrelevant to violations of external freedom. Person A enjoys freedom with respect to a certain
object O if A has the right to be the one who makes choices regarding O. Whether or not Bs choices
have to serve As interests with respect to O is irrelevant. Nor is it relevant whether As choices in fact
serve As own interests. What is in As interests is a strictly empirical, contingent matter. External
freedom requires only that B not choose for A what is to happen to O. This is the sense in which
external freedom is formal.
Consider the following example. On December 5 2006, the Board of Health of New York City
banned artificial trans fats at restaurants. The Board is legally constrained to serve the interests of New
Yorkers, this specific regulation (let us concede) serves their interests in steering them toward a
healthier diet, and the Board regulation and powers can be contested through robust democratic
procedures. So while the Board has the ability to interfere with the choices of New Yorkers, it cannot
do so in a way that is either procedurally or substantively arbitrary. Whatever one may think of the
regulation, domination is not among its problems.
By contrast, the regulation violates Kantian external freedom because it is impermissible
paternalistic. As is well known, Kant (correctly in our view) condemns paternalistic laws. His argument
is simply that others cannot compel me to seek happiness in the way he deems best, because doing so
violates my protected freedom to seek happiness my way, as long as I do not violate the rights of
others. 31 Anti-paternalism, then, is an implication of external freedom. Paternalistic laws are wrong
because one party (in this case, the Health Board) interferes with the right-protected choices of
individual New Yorkers. This is so even if the rules of the Health Board in fact better serve, or are

See Immanuel Kant, On the Proverb: That May be True in Theory, But Is of No Practical Use, in Perpetual Peace and

Other Essays, Ted Humphrey (trans.), (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1983), 290


constitutionally constrained to better serve, the interests of New Yorkers. As long as the restaurateur
refrains from coercion or fraud, he has the right to decide what he wants to serve them. And, as long
as New Yorkers refrain from coercion or fraud, they have the right to decide whether or not to eat
what the restaurateur serves them. The New York trans fat ban, therefore, is a violation of Kantian
external freedom, even though it is not a case of domination.
Kantian external freedom, then, ensures our independence from being constrained by the
choices of others relative to our sphere of rightful freedom. It is within that sphere that others must
refrain from imposing their choices on us. We do not have a free-standing right to independence, nor
do we have a right that others refrain from reducing our set of options by their own right-protected
choices. Non-domination is useful for understanding Kantian freedom because it illustrates what
makes the interference with our rights wrongful. Violations of our rights are actions by others that
purport to determine what happens with respect to actions that only we have the right to determine.
Rights violators thus impose their will on what is rightfully ours. However, the two ideas are not
identical: the notion of independence to which Kants idea of external freedom appeals is not a freestanding notion; it presupposes the account of rights delineated by Kants two principles and provisos.

(5) The Indeterminacy and Formality of Right

The second argument to consider holds that Kants political philosophy allows for extensive state
redistribution because of the formal character of the Kantian approach. Instead of grounding the
authority and functions of the state in welfarist or outcome-based considerations, the Kantian view
grounds it in the rational necessity of the civil condition. The former are contingent, ever-changing
facets of human life. And basing a state on it cannot, therefore, fulfill the Kantian vision of a rightful

condition discussed above. That can only be done if the functions and shape of the state remain stable
and determinate over time. Kant tries to capture this point by insisting that Right be formal.
Seizing on this point, Stilz and Ripstein argue that the formal nature of right has far-reaching
consequences. Because the Kantian concept of Right is formal, they argue, its requirements are
importantly open-ended, and this open-endedness allows for extensive redistribution by the state. For
Stilz, the key is the open-ended nature of property rights. For Ripstein, it is the open-ended nature of
the poverty-proviso. Let us take these in turn.
Stilz argues that, although Kant clearly thought that people must have property rights, he left
the extent of these rights open. This means that Kantian freedom is consistent with a wide variety of
property regimes, including strongly egalitarian ones:
[W]hile the principle of equal freedom provides us some information about what just property
distributions should look like, the principles content is underspecified, and therefore cannot be
directly applied. The equal freedom principle suggests that whatever system of property we
implement, it ought to be consistent with everyones possession of a zone of freedom that is
guaranteed against others coercive interference. Nevertheless, many possible systems of
property collective allocation, market socialism, unfettered private ownership are
potentially consistent with that sense of equal freedom.32
Under systems of collective allocation and market socialism the state directly allocates
property. To that extent, these systems violate Kants prohibition of state ownership discussed above.
However, even if we set this aside, both rgimes still violate Kantian strictures. First, let us consider

Stilz, Liberal Loyalty, p. 40. Stilz defines neither collective allocation nor market socialism. Below we offer what we
think is the most charitable reading of these notions. In our understanding of market socialism we follow David Miller,
Market, State, and Community: Theoretical Foundations of Market Socialism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 10.
See also the discussion in G.A. Cohen, Why Not Socialism? (Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press, 2009) pp. 53-79.


collective allocation. Removing all contingencies about property from sight, two important elements
remain. On the one hand, a property right is a right over property, or external things. Property rights
bring parts of the external world under the control of their owners. On the other hand, a property right
is a right over these things. As we have seen, this means that the will of no one but the owner can
rightfully determine what is to happen to that thing. It follows from this that if the goods you hold can
be redistributed by others, then you do not have control over them. A system of collective allocation,
then, is a system under which no one has genuine property rights. It is a system in which persons only
possess things, but do not possess them rightfully in the sense of exclusively controlling what ends
those objects are to serve. These persons, again, are mere serfs (glebae adscripti), possessors only of
what is the property of another, and therefore deprived of all freedom (servi). (6:324)
Stilz alternatively mentions market socialism, where individuals own private property but the
state allocates productive property, as consistent with Kants external freedom. However, it is hard to
see how this could be so. Consider the two main kinds of productive property: land and capital. We
know that the Kantian view requires the private ownership of land. Without it, no person can be
guaranteed to even exist somewhere without having to rely on the permission of others this was the
very rationale behind the poverty proviso. And capital, of course, does not just fall out of the sky, like
unowned manna from heaven, but must be produced by individuals using resources over which they
have rights. Capital, that is, comes into the world with rights attached.33 A market socialist regime can
only be just, on Kantian grounds, if it respects the rights people have over land and capital. And so the
only kind of market socialist regime that Kant would allow would be one that was voluntarily brought


The phrase, of course, is from Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, (New York: Basic Books, 1974), p. 160. We
mention Nozicks point not because it is self-evident. One might deny that individuals truly own anything and that all
property is simply allotted by the community through the state. The point, rather, is that for a Kantian this has to be true.


about by those persons who initially had the private rights over the resources that are now to be
collectively managed, not one instituted by the state. We can reject Stilzs conclusions, then, that
collective processes of allocating goods or any non-voluntary market socialist regime could be
consistent with the Kantian vision.
More generally, we disagree with Stilzs interpretation of the Kantian notion of formality. In our
interpretation, property rights are formal in at least two ways. First, they are formal in the sense that
public right secures to you no specific thing, but the things that are yours. This is formal in the sense
that what is yours functions as a variable, referring to this or that specific object. Who ends up
owning what necessarily depends on the contingencies of life (what did you buy? what did you
produce? what were you given?). Second, property rights are formal in that reason may not provide
their specific contours. Do my rights over Blackacre entail that you may not erect a tall structure on
Whiteacre blocking out the sunlight from my land? Do they entail that you may not make loud noises
at midnight? The formal principles of right may provide some guidance to questions such as these, but
they cannot settle them altogether. They are to be settled by public authorities in accordance with
universal law.
What formality does not mean is that property rights have no content at all. Yet this seems to
be precisely Stilzs claim when she writes that [i]n order to be free as independent, I must have a right
to some sphere of property.34 This is a misinterpretation of the Kantian view. There is a crucial
difference between (a) holding (correctly) that the state has an essential role in determining the
precise nature of the property rights that each has, and (b) holding (incorrectly) that the state has an
essential role in determining what property each has. It is one thing, in other words, to adjudicate and


Stilz, Liberal Loyalty, p. 40 (emphasis added)


determine the property rights of all. It is quite another to take away ones property (however
interpreted or determined) and give it to others.
Let us turn now to Arthur Ripsteins use of the formality-argument. To Ripstein, the formality of
the poverty-proviso renders it indeterminate and this licenses the state to redistribute wealth
extensively. Ripstein defines poverty as the lack of moral independence. It is a condition in which one
does not have the rights-protected external freedom that is necessary to act in accordance with the
demands of right.35 As mentioned above, we think this is correct. However, while we take at face value
Kants claim that the poverty-proviso authorizes the government to provide the means of sustenance
to those who are unable to provide for even their most necessary natural needs (6:326), Ripstein
understands things differently. Stressing that [t]he Kantian argument is formal and procedural rather
than substantive he argues that it does not specify the level of social provision, whether it covers
merely biological needs or considerably more.36 The level of aid, that is, must vary in accordance to
various contingent circumstances.
Ripstein reads this to mean that the poverty-proviso requires actual institutions to give effect
to it to set appropriate levels and mechanisms of aid and introduce forms of regulation where
necessary.37 The idea of right can give us some guidance about what to do, but [d]emocratic politics
has an ineliminable place in determining such matters.38 Thus, if illness and medical expenses
regularly lead citizens to fall into conditions of dependency, a state can act proactively to provide
publicly funded health care.39 The same argument justifies other forms of typical welfare-state


Ripstein, Force and Freedom, pp. 272ff.

Ibid., p. 284
Ibid., p. 284
Ibid., p. 285
Ibid., p. 285


legislation, leading Ripstein to assert that Kants narrow conception of the legitimate uses of state
power does not preclude many of the activities that modern liberal states have taken to improve
opportunities for people who are disadvantaged.40 Indeed, the extent of public regulations and
provisions, says Ripstein, is mainly a matter of what is economically or politically feasible.41
In a sense, Ripstein is correct that the poverty-proviso leaves open the precise nature of the
policies required of states as such. This is because what is necessary for all to enjoy rights-protected
freedom is partially dependent on contingent circumstances in which they find themselves (e.g. the
nominal price of goods). Reason alone cannot tell us what conditions we are currently facing. However,
this does not mean that reason is silent about what the proviso requires given a certain set of
circumstances. Indeed, it readily provides an answer to this question: it requires what is necessary to
satisfy the proviso, and nothing more. From the point of view of right, poverty is problematic because
it makes the achievement of justice a contingent matter: persons who through no fault of their own
lack the resources they need to live and act can only comply with the principles of right if they manage
to secure the consent of others. However, solving that problem requires only what Kant says it
requires: a guarantee that even persons who cannot provide for themselves are secured in their most
necessary natural needs.42 Given that the proviso licenses the use of coercion, and coercion is


Ibid., p. 267
Ibid., p. 285. Allen Wood holds the same view. He writes that for Kant, any form of taxation or economic redistribution
approved in the legislation made by the people's representatives would be just. However, according to Wood, the proviso
is so radically indeterminate that [i]n the Kantian state, the legislative body might also rightfully choose to provide
no support for the poor. See Wood, Kantian Ethics, p. 198. In addition to the objection in the text below, Woods reading
flies in the face of Kant's text and overlooks that the poverty-proviso is a key element of Kant's vision of a rightful condition.
It is worth noting that Ripstein himself repeatedly emphasizes just this point. Here are some examples: The problem of
poverty, on Kants analysis, is exactly that: the poor are completely subject to the choice of those in more fortunate
circumstances. (Force and Freedom, p. 274, emphasis added) Or: An arrangement in which one persons entitlement to
use anything is entirely left to the discretion of others is inconsistent with rightful honor, so it could not give rise to
enforceable rights. Therefore, the only way that property rights can be made enforceable is if the system that makes them


permitted only insofar as it is mandated by right as such, it follows that the redistribution licensed by
the proviso cannot exceed this.43 Any additional redistribution will involve unwarranted coercion.
We can see this by considering Ripsteins example of the states provision of health care
services for all. That policy coercively provides health services both to those who might otherwise fall
into conditions of dependency and to those who would not. But coercive provision for those who can
afford health services is not covered by the poverty-proviso. They are not poor in the sense relevant
here. Thus, public provision of health services to them must be unjustified. To accept otherwise would
mean entirely overturn the coercion-principle, a centerpiece of the entire Kantian political project. The
correct solution to the problem of poverty (as a result of excessive health care bills or something else)
is, on the contrary, that the state must provide the necessary resources only to the poor.

(6) Conclusion
Kants political philosophy is tightly organized around the provisos we have identified. These together
represent what Kant saw as the rational requirements of a rightful condition. In such a condition, all
people live as full and equal citizens under a state, securely enjoy individual rights, including their
property rights, and are guaranteed the ability to act justly without having to rely on the permission of
others. What unifies these requirements is that they are all necessary and jointly sufficient for the
possibility of realizing the principles of right.

so contains a provision for protection against private dependence. (p. 278, emphasis added) Or: Kant is plainly making a
normative [claim]: a social world in which one person has the rightful power of life and death over another is inconsistent
with those persons sharing a united will (p. 278, emphasis added). Or: A free person could not authorize a situation in
which his or her entitlement to set and pursue purposes could be entirely subject to the choice of another. (p. 279,
emphasis added)
As Ripstein himself states, throughout Kants discussion of public right, the nature of the [states] power in question can
only be understood in terms of its basis. (Force and Freedom, p. 268)


The vision of a just society that emerges is one of a broadly classical liberal state coupled with
sufficientarian provisions for the poor. This is not, to be sure, a Nozickean minimal state. But it is a far
cry from the welfare state too. None of the elements of Kants political philosophy license significant
state redistribution of resources over and above the sufficientarian provision.44 Of course this in no
way implies that there may be further ethical requirements to help the less fortunate members of
society. However, the state has no business enforcing those ethical requirements.
Those who read Kant as a strict libertarian overlook the important role that property plays for
Kant in guaranteeing to persons the ability to act justly. However, those who interpret Kants political
philosophy as consistent with the extensive redistributive policies that characterize modern welfare
states fail to stay faithful to Kants fundamental commitment to freedom.45 By attempting to squeeze
the justification of various commendable goals into the straightjacket of Kants demanding doctrine of
right, they end up superimposing a different theory of justice on Kants thought. But Kants theory of
right is his theory of justice.
As a result, such interpretations lose sight of another fundamental threat to Kantian freedom
and independence: the imposition of choice by government on individuals. In our judgment, a Kantian
approach to political philosophy must consider such impositions as problematic (if not more) as the
deprivation of moral independence by private persons. As Kant puts it, in the rightful condition each


Indeed, Kant would likely not even have accepted a system of progressive taxation. Recall the passage where Kant
defends the poverty-proviso (see footnote 14 and associated text above). Although Kant there says that the wealthy can
be taxed, the German term here is die Vermgenden, signifying the ability to act rightfully. This does not refer to what is
now commonly known as the 1%, but to anyone who is not below the threshold of the poverty-proviso. In light of his firm
commitment to equality under the law, Kant would presumably insist on equal taxation for all who are able to pay.
To our minds, no one has done more to elucidate this deep commitment of Kants than Ripstein. It is precisely because
we agree with (or better: were convinced by) him on this that we criticize his and others readings of Kant on the
redistribution of wealth.


considers himself authorized to protect the rights of the commonwealth by laws deriving from the
general will, but not authorized to subject it to his own unconditioned, discretionary use.46
Kantian political philosophy, then, must take a dim view of the kind of redistributive policies
typically associated with the modern welfare state and supported by many contemporary philosophers
on Kantian grounds. Governments may sincerely pursue some of these policies to serve the common
good yet violate Kantian strictures. To name only a few examples, the Kantian provisos do not permit
governments to coercively subsidize the development of sustainable energy. They do not allow for
publicly provided forms of public transport. They do not allow for the coercive provision of healthcare
to people. Kantian political philosophy a fortiori prohibits governmental policies that serve the private
interests of groups, or the ends of those engaged in rent-seeking behavior. Thus, Kantian principles do
not allow for subsidies to domestic farmers. It does not allow for government-bailouts of private
companies in economic distress (no matter how great the economic effects of letting them fail might
be). It does not allow for protectionist trade barriers.
What unites all these cases is that they involve the governments coercively imposing the
choices of some on the right-protected freedom of others. The role that states so often play when they
undertake these kinds of policies is to entrench the position of vested interests in society. To Kant, this
is odious. In the Doctrine of Virtue he condemns the inequalities in wealth and standards of living that
result from this kind of state action: Having the resources to practice beneficence, which depends on
the goods of fortune, is for the most part a result of certain human beings being favored through the
injustice of the government, which introduces an inequality of wealth that makes the beneficence of
others necessary. (6:454) But while it is now common for liberal egalitarians to condemn the latter


On the Proverb, 291


kind of government action, under a Kantian view the benefic intention of the government will not cure
the invasion of protected freedom, and so there is no meaningful difference between well-intentioned
governmental coercion in excess of right, and governmental coercion in response to rent-seeking by
special interests. They all involve the state committing injustice by overstepping the limits of rightful
We have tried to identify where Kants commitments and arguments lead. On close analysis,
Kants arguments for the classical-liberal state seem plausible to us. Insofar as the reader is interested
in defending the extensive redistributive and regulative policies that characterize modern welfarestates, and wants to embrace the notions of autonomy, freedom, and right around which Kant entire
outlook is organized, he will have to identify where Kants arguments go wrong. Unless such a task can
be completed, our analysis here suggests that the policies typical of modern states may well be, in the
final analysis, inconsistent with the central commitments of Kantian political philosophy.