Monday, July 4, 2011

Callahan Finds His Inner Singer, Part II

Over at Crash Landing, and coincidentally enough while I was on vacation, Gene Callahan deconstructed one of my previous posts concerning his piece about obligations.

Before I respond, let me first be a little candid. I have no academic background in political theory or philosophy more generally. My knowledge extends only as far as my personal interest and passion takes me - and that will not begin to touch the lot of knowledge that Dr. Callahan has at his disposal. So, even though I disagree with him fairly often, I want to note that I have nothing but respect for him, as he affords his readers a privilege that too few of the dissenters of the liberty movement do; arguing from first principles.

All of that being said, although we'll ultimately still disagree to a large degree, I'd like to clarify a couple of the points that Callahan finds contentious.
Ryan begins by accusing me of misunderstanding the scope of libertarianism: "Libertarianism, in the strictly political sense, is concerned with justice and the (property) rights that govern it."

Ryan here is stating the very problem I was noting as though it were something I had overlooked! The problem with libertarianism, I was suggesting, is precisely that it thinks justice is only about property rights. They are a part of justice, but just a part.
For me, I think this most clearly elucidates the ideological division in question. And I think, from an argumentative point, he's right to press on this as I do believe that this is actually the crux of the conversation that should be had. If you believe in positive liberty then, of course, such positive obligations are a matter of "justice". Of course, by the same token, if that sense of positive rights, say, extends to the ownership of other individuals for example (chattel slavery) then detaining and returning runaway slaves is also a matter of "justice." My guess is that Dr. Callahan would not defend it as such. In my view, the very real "injustice" of that situation does and must spring from the right of self-ownership exclusively. The relevant exclusivity of the matter may become more apparent after addressing his next point.

"While I'll offer that, in order to claim ANY rights outside of property rights you must dismantle property rights altogether..."

Well, what can one say to this other than, "You're political ideology has made you somewhat mad"? (Ryan, I don't doubt you're as sane as most -- and saner than me! -- when it comes to not seeing purple elephants, holding down a job, etc. This is a very specific madness.) If we say someone has a legal obligation to help someone in mortal danger when the person is right in front of them, there is no one better positioned to help, and there is no risk to the rescuer, then... That's it? That person no longer owns their home or their car?
Not to be snarky here, but my honest answer is, "No, absolutely not." Or at least not in the sense that he may claim a "right" to it any longer - and this is precisely the problem. At least from my conceptual viewpoint, saying that you have a "right" to something is saying that you have a de-coupled, autonomous, exclusive, and authoritative power over something; control and ownership that is absolute, as such, specifically because it emanates from self-ownership and more generally the concept of homesteading (which I won't go at lengths to defend here for brevity). If I say that I have a right to a home or a car then I am, in a classic liberal fashion, likely referring to negative rights - saying that I have a right for no one else to cede authority over such property away from me. When and if that "right" to the car or house is conditional, and particularly when that conditional nature falls outside of the boundaries of consent (on behalf of myself or others whose negative rights I may have violated) then there is a very real sense in which it's not a right at all - but rather a privilege. To put it more simply, if I have acquired the right to object X and, because of some condition that I may have no control over, you are allowed to "justly" confiscate object X, then what real "right" did I ever have to it? If we're going to dilute the conception of "rights" down to conditional default-level possession of some sort, then it would seem we should drop the pretense of "rights" altogether - as that seems to be what would delineate a right from a privilege in the first place.
Again, we have madness posing as thought. ALL rights anywhere ever have had stipulations and conditions on them, as they always must.
This is true if you view rights in one of two ways (which libertarians, apparently, do not):

1. Rights are defined by positive law.
2. Rights refer to something other that property rights or the "negative rights" framework that follows from property rights.

Barring those important (and reciprocally idiosyncratic) stipulations, rights are not conditional.
The right to free speech famously does not extend to the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But to Ryan, that condition "throws that right out the window": not being able to start a stampede that might kill people is exactly the same as the total censorship that existed in the USSR.
Here I must remind Dr. Callahan that if he's going to pigeon-hole me and others for our supposedly idiosyncratic views of justice then he could probably extend a similar courtesy by not assuming away certain rights based on what has or has not been incorporated into positive law. That such legislation exists certainly does not settle, at least in the context of this conversation, whether such a right does or does not exist and more explicitly whether such legislation should exist. To invoke a previously used example, and in the vein of this particular point, the right of self-ownership famously did not extend (for a time) to certain human beings in this country. Even federal legislation, such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, would seem to indicate that no such right (as an absolute) existed at all. But I would be surprised to hear Dr. Callahan argue that such a right, nevertheless, did not or does not exist.

But, more explicitly, as far as absolute rights are concerned (ie: to the extent that they aren't privileges) then yes - you have every "right" to yell "fire". Whether you have a right to yell it in a movie theater is a different question altogether. I think the way the question is being framed is actually indicative of the problem I'm trying to point out. The premise actually tries to bind a right (free speech) with a non-right (using someone else's property). You have a right to speak freely anywhere at anytime (after all, we still agree that we own our physical bodies, do we not?). You don't, however, have a right to use the property of others. I think this causes a lot of confusion - and admittedly I think it's particularly confusing among libertarians.

Libertarians often seem to act like you simply concede all your rights once you are on someone else's property. This is a particularly common contention for non-libertarians and I think libertarians are often simply incorrect regarding this proposition. Take for instance a dinner at your house to which you have invited several neighbors to attend. At the door you tell them that there will be no talking, whatsoever, once in the house. Do the guests still have the right to speak? Many libertarians would say that they don't. I disagree. What is actually taking place, from a rights perspective, is that the owner of said property is laying out conditions for which he will revoke user-privileges regarding his property; this is the sole extent of his power over the guests.

In this context, movie-goers at a theater have no "right" to be in the theater at all. However they have a very real right to speak (in any and every context). The owner of the theater, however, retains the right to remove them if they speak (in any and every context) if they make such a stipulation. In that way, I have no problem with the private prohibition of speech upon one's own property - no one's rights have been violated at all. Contrast this with a third party who tries exert authority over the property rights of business owners or patrons and we have a different matter altogether. Of course, the practical answer to the worry of the ever impending threat of theater-stampede is to simply patron the theaters which have stricter private policies concerning such instigating behavior - but Dr. Callahan, being familiar with libertarian ideas, is quite aware of this.

I'd like to also note that that one need not be completely oblivious to the spectrum of difference in consequence to note that principles don't simply evaporate in the face of such consequence. Matter has a gravitational property whether in the context of a feather falling to earth or a plane filled with passengers. Preventing people from yelling "fire" in a theater is clearly not the same as censorship in the Soviet Union. However, claiming it's different in principle is another story altogether.
"then extrapolate the drowning child analogy into its intended application through the polity."

Intended by whom? By the strawman builder, that's whom.
If the drowning child analogy is not meant to apply a particular ethical or political view to political theory more generally (or reality as it may be) then what is the point of invoking it in a political context? Are we not talking about justifications for and exceptions to rights? Are we, perhaps then, only exclusively actually talking only about drowning people with no particular political implications? I would guess not. I'm building no "strawman" here.
"It seems like such a principle would call us to give as long as one needs. But the world isn't a pond with a single drowning child. The world is a pond with hundreds of millions of "drowning children" and we are billions of passersby. As I type this, thousands upon thousands of people are dying from starvation and disease. I could be using this time, marginally, to save them. Am I guilty of injustice? Should I be punished? Should I be locked away in a cage?

"And this is where things stop making sense..."

Well, all-or-nothing thinking makes it very hard to make sense of much of the real world, I grant you. For instance, it can make you believe nutty things like having a very limited obligation to help very specific people in very specific circumstances is exactly the same as having an unlimited obligation to help all people in all circumstances.
I'm not contending that they are the same - in the same way that I'm not contending that stopping someone from yelling "fire" in a crowded theater is the same as censorship in the Soviet Union; and in the same way that I'm not contending that a feather falling to the ground is the same as a plane falling to the ground. I'm asking you to deconstruct gravity. I'm asking you how principles, as such, are circumvented, delineated, navigated and ultimately contradicted without being broken altogether. Poking an unsuspecting woman with a pencil doesn't make you a rapist. But the same principle that leads you to determine that rape is wrong also leads you to believe that poking her with the pencil is wrong. Pointing out the difference in severity of the two situations or merely trying to wave the matter away with the ambiguities of "prudence" doesn't make the principle of the matter disappear. And that is largely my point.

I think it's perfectly consistent to have a world with positive rights or negative rights, but not both. The concepts conflict in almost the most diametrically opposing sense. A claim as a right in one sense NECESSARILY detracts from a right in the other sense; so that in at least one of the two senses, it cannot truly be a "right" at all. That is the primary contention - that, logically, you cannot have a party with a positive "right" to X and another party with a negative "right" to X. The extent to which one party has a right in one fashion is exactly the extent to which the adjacent party does not have a right in the other fashion. And without that exclusivity of authority (ownership) then, again, it is no "right" at all - merely a privilege.


  1. If one makes the terrible mistake of taking rights as absolute, then of course any infringement on them "destroys" them. But in the real world they are not, and infringements leave the un-infringed parts of rights intact.

  2. "Of course, the practical answer to the worry of the ever impending threat of theater-stampede is to simply patron the theaters which have stricter private policies concerning such instigating behavior - but Dr. Callahan, being familiar with libertarian ideas, is quite aware of this."

    I'm quite aware that this is your imaginary answer. The practical answer is to have laws against it. Even if you own the theater.

  3. "If one makes the terrible mistake of taking rights as absolute, then of course any infringement on them "destroys" them. But in the real world they are not, and infringements leave the un-infringed parts of rights intact."

    I'd venture to say, then, if this is the type of framework that you suppose, that my real issue is with you calling what are seemingly privileges "rights" on the first place. When someone says that they have a right in regards to ownership to themselves, I take the language to infer something more than, "I own myself...if that's OK with you." If rights infer nothing more than conditional privilege, then, for the sake of further conversation, people who believe rights are not absolute should abandon their rhetorical usage of the word altogether.

    "I'm quite aware that this is your imaginary answer. The practical answer is to have laws against it. Even if you own the theater."

    Given that you've cited that answer, quite literally, I think you're going to want to use an adjective other than "imaginary" - is my answer quite literally exists independently of whether it's right or "practical"; even if that's a rhetorically convenient way to simply wave it away.

    If the "practical" answer to avoid immoral or stupid behavior is to simply cede previously predicated rights away to external authorities (who are also susceptible to those very same flaws), then I'll have to ask you to unpack your idiosyncratic understanding of the word. It seems to me that you could wave away some pretty terrible actions on behalf of "practicality." I wonder if your views on what is "practical" or "prudent" is worthy of the same core criticism you make regarding words like "aggression" or "coercion".