Sunday, April 25, 2010

Propertarianism and Anarcho-Statism

I've been doing a bit of reading (and listening) regarding some of the more leftist-anarchist views of liberty and their criticism of property-based concepts of liberty; differing ideas coined as "thick" and "thin" libertarianism. There are some great ideas and objections that these left-leaning libertarians bring to the table. On the other hand, some of these concepts seem concerning and even self-defeating on some levels. In any case, it's important to consider philosophical challenges, especially when they're rooted in first principles (a luxury in argumentation that most libertarians are rarely afforded). So I'd like to lay some of my initial reactions on the table (though I am new to some of these objections) in order to find a bit of footing and maybe explore some of these ideas in more detail at a later date.

Let me first start off by acknowledging that any normative principles claimed by either side here are subjective by definition. This may seem like an obvious point, but in reading some of these pieces I came to the realization that leftist-anarchists are slamming property-based concepts on the basis of their normative justifications while failing to acknowledge the normative nature of their own principle-conclusions; subscribing to a sort of "Natural Law" based in their sense of "non-aggression" as opposed to the "propertarian" sense of "non-aggression" being coupled with property rights. This is not to say that their conclusions are incorrect (indeed they comprise at least part of the "propertarian" conclusion), but I just want to point out that there seemed to be a tendency to judge the "self-evident" nature of their principles as being somewhat above the normative notion of property-based liberty.

The first objection I'd like to pose is to the thought of property rights as a proxy for statism. This particular Proudhonian thought has been nagging at me ever since I began reading it in leftist-anarchist commentary. The thought goes as follows; Property owners claim absolute sovereignty over their property. And as such, have an explicit claim to make their own rules in regards to others who are on their property or using their property. This, in a real sense, is a de-facto state, as a business owner can now have a legitimate claim in giving orders to his workers, etc. This does not violate any property-based sense of liberty; therefore, a property-based sense of liberty can (and does) easily give way to authoritarianism or, in some sense, violates the idea of non-aggression.

I won't claim to speak for all (propertarian) libertarians here, but I think the premise is a little off. When it comes down to principle, I think a good amount of libertarians would tell you that any sense of "authority" given to the property-owner is consensual. In other words, I don't think a property-owner who "calls the shots" is making any type of authoritarian claim on another person. He is, without explicitly invoking it, threatening the withdrawal of consent for the second party's imposition onto his own property.

Let's say that I invite you over to my house for dinner. You sit on my couch and proceed to light a cigarette. I, not particularly liking the smell of cigarettes, ask you to do so outside. It seems to me that the anti-propertarian anarchist would ask me what kind of claim I have to such dictatorial rights to tell this man what to do. But, as the understanding property-rights theorist would rightfully claim, I wouldn't be making a claim on your right to smoke at all. What is being acknowledged, instead, is an implied understanding that you are not the owner of the property, and I am well within my rights to ask you to leave at any time. The same would apply if I had lent you a pair of shoes and asked you not to muddy them. I wouldn't be making a claim as to what you can or cannot do with your feet. I would be simply acknowledging the implicitly conditional nature of our arrangement. You do not own my shoes. Therefore, if you wish to use my property, you do so on certain conditions. And if you do not agree, then I retain my right to remove you from my property.

This is inherently different than the statist claim to authority (although the difference is apparently somewhat subtle). Anarcho-socialists claim that the state claims total-land ownership and therefore assumes authoritarian powers, and that the only propertarian objection to this power is that the state's property claim is illegitimate. But I reject this on many grounds.

I don't believe that most libertarians believe that the state is trying to make any real claim to land ownership (although we often criticize them for acting AS IF they do). If they were making such explicit claims, then I'm sure libertarians would also fight them on these grounds as well. The imposition of a "property tax" alone would seem to refute an explicit claim to state-ownership though. Instead, I believe they are making an explicit claim to power through contract (the Constitution). Now, on these grounds, I believe many propertarian anarchists (particularly anarcho-capitalists and voluntaryists) would argue that THIS claim is unfounded - as none of us were alive to sign such a contract.

In any case, the point of their objection is understood. If the state did somehow stake a legitimate claim to property that somehow usurped all of our individual property rights then, leftist-anarchists claim, we'd have no problems with their actions at all. I have to both agree and disagree here. If they did have a legitimate property claim (and they don't), one would expect the same level of exposition the non-smoker had on the smoker. It would not be an absolute authoritarian claim. Rather, the claim would simply be a looming threat to remove the person or persons from your property if they do not wish to follow your wishes.

This relationship of property to influence or power is undeniable, and it has many philosophical consequences. The leftist-anarchist may ask to what extent one would have power to remove someone from their property. And in truth, there is an un-ended debate in this arena among "propertarians." Some even go as far as to say you would have a right to injure or kill anyone who would trespass on your property. But few would support that notion as a right, and even less would act upon it. But it does remain a dilemma.

Many other dilemmas have been pointed out, particularly those surrounding the concept of self-ownership. Leftist-anarchists claim that seeing a sense of property in one's self lends credence to the idea that one could willfully sell one's self into slavery (and indeed many libertarians DO believe there is nothing ethically wrong with this). Another claim is to when, if at all, an individual comes into owning his own body. Indeed, in some sense, it is the parent(s) who physically creates the child from a part of themselves. Would a propertarian society lead to the literal ownership of children by their parents? If so, what keeps them from relinquishing ownership to the child at age eight-teen? And, in an even broader concept, what of the possibility of a single entity (system of matter) that contains more than one unique entity? There are many more questions that arise in this vein.

These are very valid points. And I won't sugar-coat my answer here; I don't have any concrete intuitive refutations for these objections. And that tells me I need to broaden my ethical construct so that I can. But what these objections don't do is shake my faith in the libertarian sense of property rights. I'll explain:

It seems the main thrust of the leftist-anarchist view is that a sense of absolute private property, especially in the application of self-ownership, leads to a slippery slope of justification for slavery. Thus, it seems they'd rather couch rights in the sense of non-aggression as opposed to property. But I'm not sure these two concepts are as mutually exclusive as they claim; and, in fact, maybe they're not really even different things.

The claim is made that liberty is a manifestation of property; and thus an inequitable sense of liberty arises from an inequitable reality of property distribution. But other libertarians (including myself) believe in somewhat of a reciprocal notion; the flip side of the liberty-coin if you will. We believe that property is a manifestation of liberty. In fact, there is not even a sense of property until man has used his free will to act upon matter to shape or use it to some end. It is a free man who makes something his property in this way. This may provide some insight into a refutation for these leftist-anarchist objections in some sense.

Using this model for the relationship of property to liberty, maybe slavery (meaning the actual ownership of another person) isn't explicitly possible, ethically speaking, after all. It seems to me, in some sense, that the transfer of property titles is an explicit relinquishing of physical control over something. But it's not apparent that actual control over one's body can even truly be relinquished (without death, some other total loss of consciousness, or consent to make one of these two things a reality).

In some ways, we already recognize the partial reality of this phenomenon in regards to death; all property claims are generally relinquished to those next in line or back to the community in some sense. And even as for that person's body, we don't dig up people hundreds of years later to examine their bones and burden ourselves with some concept that this person still owns their body. Yet once alive, we certainly don't generally accept the claim that someone other than them could hold title over them. A similar case could even be made regarding the objection of a child as property. In some sense, although the mother is willfully feeding and providing nutrients and materials to help the child grow, at some point there is a recognition that the child is a self-contained being with some direct, nearly unrelinquishable control over his own body, if not consciously.

It seems to me, intuitively, that the sense in which the ownership of self cannot be transferred to others is evident in the concept of contracts. Here, we have a consensual agreement to offer something in exchange for something else (typically). Why bother with an institutional framework to acknowledge such agreements if we could simply literally sell ownership of our selves for some explicit purpose? I think it's because maybe there is no real sense in which we can relinquish control of ourselves. As such, contracts are not absolute in that sense. We don't abandon control or claim over our concept of self to "work" for someone else. Instead, we have a contract with someone who wishes to employ our work; one in which either party is free to leave at any time. It's not inherent that some relinquishment of self would not be possible through contractual means (indentured servitude). But it doesn't follow that we have to ethically accept the idea that one wouldn't still have some ultimate claim over self, even if we talk about one's body in terms of property.

Let's be clear here. I'm not concrete on these refutations, they are just my natural reactions to the objections. But I'm convinced that someone can (and probably has) refuted such objections to property-based libertarianism.

There is something that I'm generally more clear on, and I think it's an important point to make. Natural Law theorists have had quite a time trying to refute Hume's Guillotine when arguing with leftists all across the spectrum. And rightfully so. When it comes down to it, you simply can't derive an "ought" from an "is." But it's important here to note that, by their very own standard of criticism, such people will eventually have to fall on their own sword. Whether through some egalitarian sense of virtue, justice, or equity, leftists have to come to the table knowing that their preferences are just as subjective as the ones they criticize so vigorously. And likewise, there are objections to and consequences for their denial of property in some sense.

Remember the libertarian claim that property is manifest in liberty? If we have no absolute sense of property as a right, and thus a person or group of people is said to have just claim over something, what of the person who labored to acquire the item? Is he not, in some sense, retroactively robbed of his liberty; when he spent his time and effort to produce something - and you make some future claim over this labor that has already been expended? Is this really that different from slavery? Is it not even more morally contemptible in some sense?

As stated, the concept of property and wealth itself is a direct result of exerting one's time and labor into something. They speak of the employer as a proxy for dictator (and concocting a good vs. evil story is a powerful story-telling tool) but what is to be said of the businessman who toiled his whole life away, exchanging his labor with other free people, in order to build up enough capital to acquire a factory? What is to be said to him when you tell him that the product of his own sweat and tears is not rightfully his, simply because what he has been able to afford to himself is "inequitable" with that of what can be afforded by those whom he has contracted employment for?

If we lived in a world where all demands can be satiated, and in which no man had to labor; where the earth simply blessed us with materials ready for our direct consumption - then I might be more sympathetic to the views of some idea of social consensus regarding distribution. But as man must pour his labor into the world around him, it seems inherently unethical to not recognize at least some sense of property rights. Any undermining insight seems suspect and arbitrary.

If there is no direct concept of property (as a product of labor) then who are the gate-keepers? Who decides who has control over what resources? Do we extend control in a completely equitable fashion, evenly amongst us all? Or do we invoke some moralistic sense of social justice, and do so according to need? If we do the latter, what is to be said of equality? If we do the former, what is to be said of subjective marginal value? Is it not true that people have different needs and wants that will not be satiated by equal distribution of resources? Will people be able to trade such control? If so, how would that operate different than a market? If someone wishes to labor for X resource because they hold it in high subjective value, will we laud the sellers of X as dictators for employing their labor? Will all of these issues be decided by some council? How is this different than an authoritarian state (the few over the individual)? Will the issues be decided collectively (democratically)? How is this different than an authoritarian state (the many over the individual)? If we have no sense of ownership in even ourselves, then are we really going to be led to believe that individuals who have no claim over their own bodies somehow have a claim to the bodies of others and what they do with their time and labor and the product thereof?

I'm sure there are refutations for much of this as well. But you can see that neglecting the concept of property as an absolute has some strange consequences of its own. That's why it's so important to acknowledge that all of the concepts inclusive to these divergent views are normative in nature. Acknowledging this, I can't be left to inductively conclude that property rights, in fact, do exist, and that there are no flaws left to be resolved in the ideology. But what I can conclude, deductively, for the time being is that all other concepts for our interaction with each other and the world around us seem less applicable.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Letting Off Some Steam...

My uncle left the following little ditty on his FaceBook page last night. I saw it this morning:

An Open Letter to Teabaggers

Where were all the tea-baggers when the surplus turned into a deficit. It seems now its not fiscally responsible to spend the money. Why is it states rights when its a federal tax? Did you know it was a Republican president that created a National income tax? look it up! Why aren't some people from the Bush administration put on trial for invading a country they knew didn't have WMD's The price of oil went from $23 a barrel in 2001 to $91 a barrel in 2008. so who profited from his invasion of Iraq ? lets see. at 68 dollars more a barrel that's an extra 732 billion dollars for Saudi Arabia who's nationality comprised three-fourths of the 9-11 terrorists . . it means 665 billion dollars for Russia, 284 billion dollars for Iran. And 180 billion dollars for Venzuala . That is only for one year!! That's a lot of money going to those who hate the life that a lot of you vehemently defend as your rights. That is what GWB and his buddies did to you and our nation

in 2008 Exxon posted a profit of 45 billion dollars when in 2001 the same company had only 5 billion in profit. If the price of oil remotely related to the cost of the raw materials how did they turn that much of a profit? That seems to me a lot of icee's

Did you realize that there are no democrats on Mount Rushmore ? And the two Republicans ( Roosevelt and Lincoln ) were very progressive!

Let's review The Republican presidents.

Herbert Hoover- US news and world reports named him the 9th worst president in history.

Eisenhower- created the interstate highway system, NASA, and a lot of the national park systems. doesn't sound like a tea-bagger to me.

Nixon- Do I have to go there? Tied with Hoover in worst ten. Only Nixon and Hoover are on the top ten worst after 1900.

Reagan- Contributed to the overall growth in both the drug trade. The growing radial Islam in Afghanistan Iraq and Iran look up Iran -Contra. He claimed to know nothing about what happened.

Bush 1 - Had a chance to take out Saddam Hussein for legitimate reasons. Yet he walked away from it. He also knew everything about the iran -contra scandal.

Bush 2 - for all you tea-baggers read the Patriot act. see what rights you had taken from you. See how much money he spent to back a lie. How many lives were lost. If it was about human rights. What did he do about Sudan?

Do not think I am attacking Any person. But I honestly believe that if Obama was White there wouldn't be as much digging in on him trying to save this country after Bush pretty much sank it.


OK - I'm not a Republican apologist. I don't even consider myself a part of the tea-party movement. There are a LOT of criticisms that can be thrown at either group. But I just don't understand why some people's idea of political discourse centers around being able to call your opponent a hypocrite. In either case, hearing this rant just hit me in all the wrong ways.

On Oil:

"The price of oil went from $23 a barrel in 2001 to $91 a barrel in 2008. so who profited from his invasion of Iraq ?"

Holy non sequitur, Batman! Is the insinuation here that oil prices rose by over 300% (not adjusted for inflation I'm sure) in that time span specifically because we invaded Iraq? If you just look at the entire swath of Bush's presidency, the oil-price increase is indeed dramatic. But the jump from correlation to causation starts to make a lot less sense when you look at more than two spot-prices in an eight-year period.

The price of oil in 2003 (when we went into Iraq) was about thirty dollars a barrel. By 2007 the price was....a little over fifty dollars a barrel. So by four years into a war that was supposedly the primary cause for the 2001-2008 price-jump, oil prices hadn't even doubled at that point. A 90% increase isn't anything to scoff at either, but consider the following; from the beginning of 2007 until the middle of 2008 oil prices jumped from about 55 dollars a barrel to about 130 dollars a barrel, over four times what it was when we invaded Iraq and more than double what it was a year previous to the summer of 2008. What caused that enormous jump all of a sudden, five years after we entered the war? Did we pull out of Iraq and invade it again? In comparison, the price of oil was around 40 dollars a barrel when Bush left office and during the first year of Obama's presidency that price has doubled (during a recession no less). What country did Obama invade to spike oil prices again? Is Obama helping his oil buddies now? Maybe Obama's oil buddies and Bush's oil buddies hang out at the same resorts.

What I'm trying to say is that I'm not exactly sure how it follows that the invasion of Iraq was the sole source of our oil-price woes. Is it possible that other factors were more affecting. How about a growing Housing Bubble accelerating capital investment? How about a world economy looking at the rise of Indian living standards over the last twenty years? How about China's industry roaring into the 2000's? How about speculation for increased future demands because of these factors? How is it that you attribute less to these events than to invading a country whom we get about 3-4% of our crude oil from?

Oh, by the way, if you're going to slam Exxon Mobile's benefiting from the war, how about the fact that they were the first company to get a shot at a lucrative contract with the Iraqi October of 2009!? Who was in office at that point again?

Regardless of how you feel about oil company profits (which weren't exclusive to Exxon Mobile), you're going to have to demonstrate how the US invasion of Iraq was the primary motivation for the flux in oil prices (particularly the largest jump in 2008) before we can have the discussion you're trying to have.

On a side note...

"in 2008 Exxon posted a profit of 45 billion dollars when in 2001 the same company had only 5 billion in profit. If the price of oil remotely related to the cost of the raw materials how did they turn that much of a profit? That seems to me a lot of icee's"

The price of ANYTHING isn't determined simply by materials. It's true that, as a company, you try to keep the cost of raw materials down to increase your profit margin. But think about what that means. What is the margin of profit? it's the difference between the price of the good or service and the cost to provide it. The only thing that is a given regarding these two valuse is that the price of the good must be larger than the cost for it to be a productive trade. Other than that, there's no direct correlation between cost and price. Price is a product of supply, demand, and subjective value.

A computer company can buy parts and labor to build PCs for $350 a pop and sell them for $400 as long supply, demand, and subjective value meet in that way. However, a famous artist can spend $100 on some clay, mold a statue, and sell it for hundreds of thousands of dollars. How does that correlate with the cost of raw materials? You can claim that it's "one of a kind" and so there is a very low supply, increasing the price. On the other hand, I can glue some toothpicks together (artistically of course) and not be able to sell it for 5 cents. That could be one of a kind too. So it's never as simple as looking at the costs of an endeavor as to determine its price. If oil companies could have charged 130 dollars a barrel in 2001, they would have. Most companies try to make as much money as they possibly can. However, they couldn't. So, why? You have to find a reason, economically, why speculative and real demand for oil jumped so much in 2007-2008 (enough to push prices so high). And pointing at a war that took place in 2003 probably isn't going to cut it.

On Bad Presidents:

Let me first say that I've never particularly admired any of the US presidents I've studied. Even the one's I've sympathized with the most have had some horrible flaws (Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, etc.) Nonetheless, I thought some of what you laid out was worth a comment or two:

Herbert Hoover

"US news and world reports named him the 9th worst president in history."

Well if US News and World Reports said it, then it's definitely true! I'm no fan of Hoover, namely because he started the ball rolling on a lot of the interventionism that FDR picked up and ran with (public-works projects anyone?). Even so, I'd much rather have had him than FDR, who I think did more than any other president to disregard and displace the Constitution.


"created the interstate highway system, NASA, and a lot of the national park systems. doesn't sound like a tea-bagger to me."

And George Bush Jr. signed off on Medicare Part-D. Republican does not equal "teabagger"...contrary to popular belief. I'm sure some "teabaggers" may be fond of such presidents, but you certainly don't have to like crappy Republicans to protest taxation.


"Do I have to go there? Tied with Hoover in worst ten. Only Nixon and Hoover are on the top ten worst after 1900."

Again, I'm not sure any "teabaggers" are pointing to Nixon as someone who exemplifies their principles. But I guess if we can give him any credit, we'll probably be able to say that he will have pulled us out of more foreign wars than Obama will.


"Contributed to the overall growth in both the drug trade. The growing radial Islam in Afghanistan Iraq and Iran look up Iran -Contra. He claimed to know nothing about what happened."

This one might actually have more teeth than your other claims. Most tea-party people tend to like Reagan for his economic policies. On the other hand, you're criticizing him for foreign policy and domestic drug policy. If there's anything that "teabaggers" in general are divided on, it's those two things (check out the latest GOP straw polls).

Bush 1

"Had a chance to take out Saddam Hussein for legitimate reasons. Yet he walked away from it. He also knew everything about the iran -contra scandal."

Again, most tea-party people are united on fiscal policy. There's a strong divide on foreign policy. However, it's worth noting that one of the primary reasons we didn't invade Iraq the first time around was that we were implored not to do so at the behest of the UN...the same organization that the left criticized Bush for ignoring after a certain point on the second time around. Sorry, you can't have your cake and eat it too.

Bush 2

"for all you tea-baggers read the Patriot act. see what rights you had taken from you. See how much money he spent to back a lie. How many lives were lost. If it was about human rights. What did he do about Sudan?"

This one I'll give you some credit on. But again, and this is a point that people seem to be missing, the tea-party is a movement about fiscal (and possibly monetary) policy. If you're going to jump into a crowd of tea-party people and start slamming the Patriot Act, you're going to get an awful lot of people that agree with you. It would be like slamming Democrats for supporting Marijuana prohibition, when they're not actually united in that front. If you went around talking about how Democrats are for OR against drugs, you'd look pretty silly. If you were just talking about the Republicans, then you'd have much more of a point on the Patriot Act. And I'd agree with you in full.

On Obama and Race:

"Do not think I am attacking Any person. But I honestly believe that if Obama was White there wouldn't be as much digging in on him trying to save this country after Bush pretty much sank it."

Pre-cursor: Is it really good to capitalize "White" when you're accusing other people of being racist? Anyhow...

Call me crazy, but I'm one of those people who think the race card is really being over-played. Do I think there are people who don't like Obama simply because he's black? Of course I do. Do I think that motivates the majority of dissent? No. I was a little younger, but I remember a lot of Republicans disliking Bill Clinton almost just as much. Was that about race too? I'm far more inclined to believe that maybe there's a general bias to support "your party" regardless of the policies of the person in question than I am to believe that political bias is mostly racial.

Case in point:

You've pointed out many times that Republicans ran massive deficits that were detrimental to our country during the Bush years. Yet when someone brings up current'd just say the opposition is hypocritical.

You've pointed out that the wars we've engaged in during the Bush years were unnecessary and rooted in false intentions at best. Yet when someone brings up Obama's extension of current commitments, and increasing troop presence'd just say the opposition is hypocritical.

You've pointed out that plenty of people who call themselves "conservative" have instituted lots of "socialist" programs over the years (Eisenhower - Highways, Romney - Health Care, etc.). Yet when someone brings up Obama initiating more programs and introducing stifling'd just say the opposition is hypocritical.

You've pointed out that Republicans of the Bush era seemed to be in full support of the Patriot Act even though it infringed upon civil liberties. Yet when someone brings up the fact that Obama resigned the damn'd just say the opposition is hypocritical.

Who exactly is being the hypocrite here? People on the left slammed Bush for eight years for related grievances (actually succeeding in persuading my political position to a large degree no less). Obama gets into office and essentially continues the Bush legacy on said issues. And instead of waylaying into Obama for being hypocritical, you lay that charge at the feet of people who now (for whatever reason) share some of the same concerns that people like you were claiming over the last decade? Are you kidding me!?

Let's say that every last bit of position-change on the part of Obama's opposition on these issues is completely hypocritical, just for the sake of argument. Would it make the arguments they're currently making any less valid? Or does calling them out on being liars and hypocrites somehow negate the logic in their reasoning? They may be suffering from some type of political bias, but given that you can't seem to make any counter-argument that isn't shot through the prism of some ad hominem tu quoque ....

Tu quoque (pronounced /tuːˈkwoʊkwiː/, from Latin for "You, too" or "You, also") is a Latin term that describes a kind of logical fallacy. A tu quoque argument attempts to discredit the opponent's position by asserting his failure to act consistently in accordance with that position; it attempts to show that a criticism or objection applies equally to the person making it. It is considered an ad hominem argument, since it focuses on the party itself, rather than its positions.'s pretty apparent you have your own bias at work.

Here's a crazy idea, how about we all have a discussion that's not rooted in ad hominem attacks, but rather in the efficacy of the claim being made? I know it sounds kind of crazy. But maybe, if we actually discuss ideas rather than trying to demonize each other, it will look a lot more like rational human beings trying to work out their differences...and a lot less like of a bunch of monkeys slinging their own shit at each other.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Marginal Revolution?

This morning I was treated to an interesting response from Tyler Cowen to Bryan Caplan regarding Caplan's discussion of liberty in the 19th century as compared to liberty in the 20th century. Cowen felt that there was a point his fellow blogger was overlooking:

"I have no interest in recapping and evaluating the whole thing but I'd like to make a simple but neglected point: negative liberty and positive liberty are not separable.

Here is one simple scenario. Let's say the government tells me I have to buy and place a five-foot ceramic grizzly bear statue on my front lawn. How bad an act of coercion is that? If I have an upper-middle class income, it's an inconvenience and an aesthetic blight but no great tragedy. If I have a Haitian per capita income, it is a very bad act of coercion and it will impinge on my life prospects severely. I either give up some food or they send me to jail.

In other words, even theories of negative liberty -- purely libertarian theories where only negative liberty seems to matter -- require standards for degrees of coercion."

Now, I'm not going to presume to speak for libertarians, radicals, et al who might have been offended by reading his claims. But I can't help but see an inherent disconnect in his reasoning in this particular case. Not only is the claim a non sequitur, but it ignores what is probably one of the most important advancements within his own realm of economics.

It's certainly true that "libertarians" cling to a sense of negative-liberty - a system of rights based on freedom from aggression and coercion; and they deny the corollary concept of positive-liberty - the right to be furnished with particular goods or services (food, shelter, medicine, etc.). These two concepts are largely seen to be mutually exclusive to some degree - the ideal of positive rights would posit a physical obligation for other people to labor on the behalf of other individuals to provide the goods and services those individuals claim a title to. This obviously conflicts with the conception of negative-liberty, at least as it is commonly viewed.

I generally share some sympathy for Cowen, who seems to have some "libertarian" ideas on occasion. But sometimes I wonder if he thinks he's too cool for the room in constantly sticking his fingers in the eyes of his libertarian brethren by making such cringe-worthy claims. The problem I have with his statements in this particular instance is two-fold:

The first issue is that I'm really not all that sure he's discussing the concept of positive-liberty at all. He's certainly discussing the concept of negative-liberty in his scenario; being forced to put a statue on your lawn. But it's not clear, ultimately, where positive-liberty applies. Is the insinuation that communities have a positive-right to bear statues? Maybe it's a poorly formed example. I don't want to be too critical here. But maybe the hypothetical situation would have been more exemplary of the negative-liberty/positive-liberty conflict (or lack thereof?) by discussing the proposition of forcing everyone to donate to some housing subsidy or something else in this vein.

That brings me to my second issue. It seems, instead, that he is actually (albeit unknowingly) imploring negative-liberty theorists to recognize marginal preference in situations they deem to be "unjust." Even if he formulated his hypothetical in a better way, it still doesn't follow that the apparent preferences of negative-liberty-advocates indicate an embrace of positive-liberty. It seems that what Cowen might actually be doing is pitting the general concept of negative-liberty against subjective value as an unintended proxy for the concept of positive-liberty.

Let's say that you have an innocent man that is punched by one person and has his leg cut off by another person. It's not only possible but probable that even the most devout negative-liberty proponent will understand that the cutting off of the leg was likely less preferable than being punched in the face. Noticing such a preference does NOT negate the concept of such an ideal, but rather reveals the marginal subjective value of a bruise on your face over the loss of a limb. In the same way, making a subjective judgement about the preference of having the wealthy buy bear statues as opposed to the poor, having the father of every family lose a finger as opposed to the women and children, or having one person die as opposed to a million people does NOT deny that freedoms have been abridged. It just reveals that when we have a choice between two scenarios where freedoms ARE being abridged that we may have an aggregated preference for the lesser of those abridgements at the margin.

Cowen continues:

"...purely libertarian theories where only negative liberty seems to matter -- require standards for degrees of coercion. Those standards will very often depend on how much wealth the victims of the coercion have and they will depend on a more general concept of positive liberty."

If the general concepts of liberty (positive OR negative) fail to evade the suppositions of philosophers like Hume, then Cowen's statements here died on their way to the "guillotine." If he is implying that negative-liberty implies positive-liberty explicitly because current justice systems are more sympathetic to victims of crime based on their income, then you're attempting to make a normative statement based on a positive one. And thinking it through even further, the existence of such a preference in courts would have been the result of the initially normative line of thought that compensation should be offset by the characteristics of the victim as opposed to the characteristics of the crime itself. You're not just trying to presume an "ought" on the basis of an "is", but rather an "ought" on the basis of an "ought!"

On the other hand, if his conjecture is that negative-liberty theorists will arrive at the same conclusions, then I think he's going to have a rough road ahead in justifying such a statement. I think there are certainly some libertarians who might have such sympathies. But I believe a large number of self-proclaimed libertarians don't try to make a morally subjective distinction between victims based on their wealth, color, creed, or any number of other factors one might propose. The commonly libertarian concept of justice is rooted in restitution as opposed to punishment. That is to say; an issue arises when a person has been deprived of liberty or property.

The libertarian generally doesn't care who the victim is or what attributes he may hold. What generally matters is that the victim, whomever he may be, is compensated for what he was been deprived of and is made whole again. So, a lot of libertarians would find it silly to charge two different people who have stolen one-hundred dollars from someone else differently just because their respective victims had a disparity in their income. Both victims were deprived of one-hundred dollars and thus, to be made whole, both should be compensated for that amount.

Notice that this is not to say that someone who embraces negative-liberty couldn't have a subjective preference for such a crime happening to someone with a larger discretionary income rather than a smaller one. The subtle realization here is that ultimately all preferences are subjective (yes...even the concepts of property and negative liberty). They do not posit themselves by means of some external independent force or phenomenon (much to the chagrin of natural law theorists, et al). And yes, this is problematic for any implied ethical concept, regardless of its nature.

The irony, of course, is that Cowen is making a normative ethical claim that some positive value of some nominal amount of dollars is more for the poor man than it is for the rich man. But all he is doing is projecting his own preference into the proposed solution. He skirts the obvious dilemma by positing two extremes for which a vast majority of people would share his preference (I would!). But his normative claims start crumbling when other hypotheticals are presented. For instance, if you had two people that got kicked in the face, one a dying cancer patient, and the other a paraplegic, who should be compensated more? Is someone like Cowen going to side-step and try to claim that the two conditions are identical in value? Do you think that some people would have more sympathy for the AIDS patient (believing it to be worse) while others would similarly have more sympathy for the cancer patient?

If we lived in a society where the aggregate sympathy was in the direction of the wealthy (say, if we culturally over-glorified productive capacity more than we do now), would it follow that the wealthier person should be compensated more, comparatively? Would it follow that this was an extension of positive rights; that we believed that wealthy people had more of a "right" to money than the poor. Or would it simply mean that we had a subjective preference that, in the case that a crime should occur, the victim would be poor? I tend to believe the latter.

For this reason, I'm a bit hesitant to interject a scale of degrees of violation beyond acknowledging my own subjective beliefs. Even though I largely embrace the concept of negative-liberty, i would never make the claim that stealing a car from someone is worse than stealing a toaster. We see the market-value of a toaster and conclude that the stealing of the car is less preferable (and most times it would be). However, what if the toaster was given to you by a deceased relative, and you value that toaster dearly...enough to where you'd let go of that car, at the margin, to prevent that toaster from being taken. This is where a fair, corollary criticism of the concept of restitution as justice could be made.

In a courtroom, it's a little hard to convince a jury that the value of that toaster is more than that of a car, even if it is such in a very real way for you personally. Instead, they are far more likely to be swayed not only by their own subjective value of the item, but on the market-price for other toasters. After all, prices are just the aggregate of peoples' subjective values - at least this is what the marginal revolution should have taught us.

So, I'm not saying that there isn't a fair share of criticism to go around here. Believers in negative-liberty would find it well to check their own premises and conclusions when engaged in such discussions. But what I am saying is that while you can certainly lay claim that the concept of negative-liberty is a preference unto itself, you can't posit that such believers are BOUND to also believe in positive-liberty simply because they have a personally subjective preference for one perceived evil as opposed to another. I could have a preference that a man would have a bucket of sand stolen from him before a gallon of water would be. Reciprocally he could prefer the gallon of water be stolen, even if most of us would find more marginal utility in having a bucket of sand. In the same way, I could just as validly hold a preference that two poor people be murdered as opposed to one wealthy person. For that matter, so could society as a whole. But that wouldn't change the fact that our ethical claim regarding murder would stem from a concept of negative liberty. And it certainly wouldn't invite the concept that society is "owed" an additional victim whenever a murder of a poor person is committed.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What About a Party of One?

The further I get away from my own political party identification the more I tend to shy away from defending or attacking political parties. For all intents and purposes, political parties CAN be a good way to identify yourself ideologically, but with it comes the ever-present risk of tribalism - elevating your "team" above your ideology. But I have to admit, it's easy to slip back into the seamless mantra of the mass politico when you hear some of the cliched accusations bantered about on a daily basis. I heard one of those accusations for the millionth time this morning, and it just finally became something too hard to ignore.

What exactly is a "party of no?"

That phrase has been thrown against the wall by Democrats since Obama has been in office, and after reading Thomas Friedman's article in the New York Times today it's safe to say it's actually stuck quite well. Begging for definition here may seem pedantic on some level, but I'm actually being serious. What exactly qualifies a group as being a "party of no," and what makes it so terrible. From what I've gathered, it just means that you disagree with what someone is trying to do (legislatively)...and that is "bad." I'm curious as to how refusing to adopt an ultimate passivity to the actions of others is ALWAYS something negative. In truth, it's simply not. And in an ironic twist, this Democratic accusation of partisan politics on the part of Republicans is merely revealing their own partisanship; namely in elevating their ideology or brand above the discussion of ideology itself.

Maybe I should give them a small amount of slack here. In their mind, assuming their ideology is "correct," anyone who says "no" to them is inherently impeding progress. But they've jumped a step in their reasoning by righteously assuming that their ideology is sound or ethical. That's not to say it isn't, however. Politics is largely about opinion, after all. But talking about political "progress" in this way jumps the gun in assuming that we all agree with a certain ideology, and that a group of people are just trying to be jackasses (or evil) by getting in the way of seeing that ideology through to fruition. However, I'm not quite sure that the best way to approach political discourse is to presume the universal acceptance of your principles and bemoan all in your path, but rather to have a discussion about the conflicts between different ideologies.

Let's look at things a different way. When President Bush decided to invade Iraq, there were a large amount of people that thought that it was not only tactically flawed but ethically flawed. And for years, this growing cross-section of people tried to impede him any way that they could, in accordance with their own view of what is right and wrong. Could we say that this group (who were largely Democrats at the time) were just being a "party of no?" And if so, does that mean that they're wrong? Who else can we put that label on? Was the fragile Semitic resistance to the rise of the Third Reich in pre-World War II Germany a "party of no?" What about Soviet dissidents that were crushed under the boot of Stalin?

You can see how political discourse in this manner can get silly pretty quick. You can look at our political problems as being analogous to a burning house. And every political faction is coming to that burning house with a bucket of what they think is water. It makes sense for us to begrudge someone for trying to hold someone back from throwing a bucket of water on that fire. On the other hand, it makes a whole lot of sense to hold that person back if what they have in that bucket is gasoline. And that's what's going on here. Somehow we have come to accept that it's good to take toss something in the proverbial fire. But we should also be concerned with what's in the bucket, so to speak. If taking an action is going to make us worse off in the long run, then it is quite preferable to do nothing rather than to take that action.

You would think that some of this is just common sense, but I've found it simply isn't. I think that maybe we've started looking at "political progress" in the same way we look at love; as being less complex than it actually is. Somewhere along the line it became fashionable to deride personal philosophies that didn't adopt love as an all-inclusive value. But as Ayn Rand often pointed out, love in itself is a kind of value; in a way, it's an ordinal system of favor. To say you love everyone isn't saying anything at all. It's like saying you value everything. While it may be true, more or less, you certainly have a scale of preference. It's very unlikely that many people truly "love" everything equally (at least not without a fair amount of emotional dissonance). Try giving a thousand strangers the choice of having their mother or a complete stranger murdered and you'll quickly find out how real the "value" of love is...regardless of their proclaimed philosophy.

In the same way that talk of a universal, non-qualitative love became socially preferred maybe talk of a universal, non-qualitative political progression has become socially preferred as well. Maybe, in accordance with the oft-used aphorism, we've turned it into a conversation about the all-important journey instead of the "trivial" destination. And maybe that's where party-politics gets us.

So how do we untangle this mess? Well, to a large degree I'm starting to think we don't. Once you develop a personal identification with a political party, you might as well call it your favorite sports team. Even the most pragmatic defenders of the party-line seem to fall back into an endless cycle of remedial refutations fueled by confirmation bias. It's inevitable.

I think the dissolution of political parties in some fashion (or at least a change in perspective on how we view them) is the only thing that would pull us back to something a bit more honest. The only way to break that cycle is to stop party-related self identification all together; or at least distill it down to a party of one. And this is one of the things I admire most about the libertarian movement in general. And if you don't believe me, just look at the Libertarian Party.

No one was quicker to jump ship on a politically representative faction than libertarians were in regards to their own name-sake party. When the LP started to veer in a direction that wasn't in step with libertarian views, a substantial amount of libertarians withdrew their support. Why? Because libertarians are generally devout individualists. They identify with parties only as a means to the ends of establishing liberty. If a prospective party candidate moves out of favor with the principled view of libertarians, most of them are quick to abandon them...regardless of what letters may appear beside their name.

But I don't get this feeling when I talk about other political groups. There is no effectual distinguishing regarding little "d" democrats and little "r" republicans. Why is this? In my estimate, it's because most people of those affiliations identify with the term more tribally than they do on principle. "Libertarians," on the other hand, are not necessarily "libertarians." And that distinction is key.

Just realizing that parties are nominal in the strictest sense, and that their founding principles (or their current ones) are the crux of political discussion, the face behind the mask as it were; this would be a good step forward for most Americans. Giving into the soft despotism of political correctness, the slavishness of the culturally fashionable, the rhetoric of the party-line; these are the self-enabling sirens of political kismet. And if we ever want to break free of that self-destructive dance, we need to be willing to break down the silly behavior that keeps us from having an honest discussion with one another.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Politics of Hope and Fear

I came across an a-political show on the radio today that happened to be talking about the tea-party movement. I always find political conversations among a-political people to be more direct and engaging. More often than not, the acutely political shows tend to get caught up in the minutia of it all, and the real arguments get lost. But when people who don't typically engage in politics start to discuss things of a political nature, I think it more easily opens up a genuine discussion about principles. So I always perk up a little bit when it happens.

One of the hosts said that he basically thought that the tea-party was deplorable because they operate on fear. He said that they are just trying to scare the elderly with talks of death panels and lies about the government taking control of certain parts of the medical sector. Now, if you know me, you know I'm not a huge fan of the tea-party movement as a whole. I think some of their general intentions are admirable, but it really is a hodge-podge of beliefs. Sure, most of them are against increased taxes and corporate bailouts, but a good number of them are racists and protectionists as well. It's a little hard to sympathize with political groups that are that inclusive. In any case, I felt that it was kind of hypocritical for someone of a liberal mindset to accuse their opponents of using fear. But as I thought about it some more, it made me realize that no one really acknowledges the fact that they use fear just as much as conservatives or libertarians do.

Conservatives, especially during the last presidency, were branded with the title of "fear-mongers." And I wouldn't explicitly argue against that point. It's certainly true that we were all made overly aware of the threat of terrorism. And because of that, we were ready to take actions that might have seemed silly in any other context (The Iraq and Afghan Wars, The Patriot Act, etc.). And liberals at the time were certainly right to crow about some of these items.

Today we have the government taking some unheard of legislative stances for the supposed good of the people. And yet again, a faction of the country is crowing about encroachment from the federal government and violations of liberty. But somehow it's the people who are protesting the usurpation of power and liberty that are fear-mongering this time around. Why is the reaction to such resistance viewed so differently now? I think it all goes back to terminology and effective rhetoric.

The mantra for liberals in the Obama era is "Hope" and "Change." But what seems to be lost on the proponents of such slogans is that these words are largely relative; at least in interpretation. People may see the action government has taken in tightening medical regulations and increasing taxes to subsidize private citizens as "hope." They believe that people won't be able to get the medical care they need without the government taking such action, even if those actions further violate individual liberty and sovereignty. But, in this way, a strong argument COULD be made (although it isn't) that liberals are using fear to persuade people in this debate about health care. "If we don't do X...people will die." How is this NOT using peoples' fear to persuade their political position? Is there really a difference between telling people that "people will die if we don't steal" and "people will die if we don't go to war?" And yet, we seem to believe only one of these propositions is driven by fear.

On the other hand, how is it that people protesting government action now are fear-mongering and the people who were protesting government largess and power before WEREN'T? Is culling fear of government having too much power via larger control of medicine any less legitimate, politically, than culling fear of government having too much power via larger control in regards to surveillance? Weren't the people who were concerned about government taking too much control then just as utilitarian in their use of "fear" as a motive in political discourse?

Take note that I'm making no positive political claims here as to which side is correct on any of the above issues (I could fill up quite a bit of time doing that if I wanted to). My over-all point is that "fear" and "hope" are two sides of the same coin. Hope is exclusive to fearful situations in some sense. You hope because there is something to be feared, which you believe you can overcome. Bush supporters could have just as easily claimed a stake in the hope-game; the pushing of government action that would ensure that no more innocent Americans would die from terrorism. In the same way, Obama's opponents could easily label him a fear-monger; scaring the country into acquiescing to the will of government by convincing them that people will die if they don't.

So why is the conversation about "hope" and "fear" so one-sided? The only thing I can really say with certainty is that liberals are certainly much more creative in their rhetoric...and even their refutations of conservative ideals are much more complex than the typical conservative rebuttal to liberal ideals. They seem to be much more adept in planting the seeds that grow into solid political mantras. And as someone who talks politics a LOT, I can tell you that over-used mantras and cliches are like intellectual dead weight. But I can also tell you that it's very effective and persuasive...particularly around those who are not as reasoned or politically adept as they are.

What does all this mean? Well, like almost every point I feel that's worth making, it all breaks down to encouraging people to check their premises at the door. I used to be one of those people that believed in "hope" (although we never called it that at the time). And I used to think that all those people who were berating me and my political brethren were essentially "fear-mongers" (although we didn't use this term either). But they turned out to be right. Fear is sometimes legitimate. Hope is sometimes legitimate. One is really not so different than the other. So before you go lambasting people with cute little labels, it might be worth just listening to them for a moment. You might just learn something about yourself and change your mind. I did.