Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Rose: Part 2

Gene and Daniel are kicking some philosophical dust up today. Gene starts out by making a simple post lampooning the convenience of homesteading theory (a la Locke) for the gentry at the time. I won't attack Gene's primary point. Not because I don't think it's worth my time, but rather because I think he's generally right, despite the combative tone of his post. Gene has a habit of making belligerent-sounding posts making niche points that are technically if not inconsequentially correct. Sometimes he seems like an atheist that habitually busts through the church doors every Sunday to level the assertion that Jesus in fact lived slightly after the timeline passed down through dogma. He sure seems eager to pick fights with group-x, even when his arguments add up to little in any meaningful sense.

In any case, Daniel backs him up, channelling Proudhon (of "property is theft" fame) no less. His larger point is not that Proudhon is correct in his anti-property musings, but instead that such tautologies are extreme if not misleading. He throws the "tax is theft" mantra into this group and then proceeds to claim that the ideas of property and taxation both necessitate force and coercion and yet neither are sufficiently constitutive of "theft", because it's a word we've reserved for other things.

I'd like to clarify a couple of points here with respect to these ideas. The first is the Wittgensteinian point that a word's meaning is roughly its function. A great deal of political and philosophical ink has been spilled because of our inability to incorporate this idea into our arguments. Properly understood, almost no libertarian makes arguments against coercion - at least not coercion as broadly defined (force, violence, etc.). The libertarian usage of "coercion" arises, I believe, oddly enough, from the colloquial usage of "coercion"...which instead means something closer to "wrongful use of force." As I discussed in my previous post, we rarely consider justified force "coercive." Therefore, shot through the prism of the libertarian understanding of justice, it's not an insurmountable task to try to understand what words like "coercion" and "aggression" mean when a libertarian uses them - force that violates their understanding of justice. So, to the extent that bloggers in recent weeks have been trying to make it look as if libertarians simply oppose force, broadly defined, they may score rhetorical points with the uninitiated. But they're certainly not making a good (honest) argument against what libertarians have been saying.

The second point is the distinction between the relative usage "taxation is theft" and "property is theft." Proudhon's comment and it's poignancy is not unrelated to my first point. The meaning of words derive from their function. And so logical tautologies are a dangerous place to tread when the meaning of one or more of the words is not agreed upon. The concept of property defines the contours of theft. Proudhon's larger point, as far as I understand it, is to say that if our particular concept of property is wrong (whether in part or in entirety) then our current understanding of "rightful" use of resources could/would actually be more akin to the general concept of theft. If, for instance, we conceive that "private" property (Proudhon's distinction) is illegitimate, then land rents would be understood as theft. So the distinction between the thoughts of Proudhon and many of his liberal peers is not that they believe theft to be different things per se, but rather that theft is predicated on our understanding of property - and, as such, our understanding of justice itself would differ. This is where the incongruities between the two phrases (or at least their usage) begin to become apparent (even if Daniel doesn't see it).

When Daniel excoriates those who say "taxation is theft", he, unlike Proudhon, does not hold a principally different account of property rights. He probably believes generally in self-ownership, homesteading, private property, etc. Whether or not Proudhon is wrong has nothing to do with the severity of his claim, or whether force is necessary to back it up. Daniel would believe it's wrong because "theft" is taking control or ownership of that which is already (rightfully) owned or controlled by defined by his understanding of property rights.

So, let me propose a little thought experiment. Let's say that Daniel "owns" a spare house. He rents it to a family. Every month they pay him $1,000 in rent. This past month someone sneaked in and took one month's rent from a drawer Daniel keeps for collecting it. Was it theft?

The Proudhonian will probably say no - because absentee ownership is not ownership at all, and therefore the supposed owner (Daniel in this case) has no right to force them to pay to live in the house. Thus, that money rightfully still belongs to the family - not Daniel. Here, the concept of theft, even for Proudhon, is predicated on who had rightful ownership of the good, not who takes it or for what reasons.

Reciprocally, so long as Daniel believes that this system of ownership (that let's him rent property) is the "valid" one, I expect that he will believe the person who has taken this money to be a thief. This is because Daniel believes, according to his views on property, that he has rightful ownership of the money. The truly interesting part, however, is that if the "robber" was revealed to be the tax-man, we may find Daniel acquiescing and bemoaning the use of the term "thief." In this case, unlike Proudhon, his dispute regarding what constitutes theft doesn't seem to be dependent on his conception of property anymore. Daniel's dispute, in this particular instance, hinges literally on the person who is taking action, without regard to property or rights more broadly.

This is largely what libertarians find peculiar and frustrating about the more general liberal project in the Western World. It's one thing to conceive of a system of property rights and then make the Lockean concession that some rights ought be diffused or trodden over for the purpose of political integrity. It's another thing to think that taking someone's property against their will is theft....except, literally, when it is a member of the government doing it. And, I might add, without deference to any particular kind of government or the nature of it's taking. Presumably government could take everything we own, literally, and it might not qualify as theft at long as it had popular and/or legal support.

In that way, maybe we could call this a populist or legal positivist view of theft. This is what gives much of Rothbard's writing rhetorical heft. He not only sees through these inconsistencies, but fancies their unravelling the predominant purpose of the libertarian philosophy:

"While opposing any and all private or group aggression against the rights of person and property, the libertarian sees that throughout history and into the present day, there has been one central, dominant, and overriding aggressor upon all of these rights: the State. In contrast to all other thinkers, left, right, or in-between, the libertarian refuses to give the State the moral sanction to commit actions that almost everyone agrees would be immoral, illegal, and criminal if committed by any person or group in society. The libertarian, in short, insists on applying the general moral law to everyone, and makes no special exemptions for any person or group. But if we look at the State naked, as it were, we see that it is universally allowed, and even encouraged, to commit all the acts which even nonlibertarians concede are reprehensible crimes. The State habitually commits mass murder, which it calls "war," or sometimes "suppression of subversion"; the State engages in enslavement into its military forces, which it calls "conscription"; and it lives and has its being in the practice of forcible theft, which it calls "taxation." The libertarian insists that whether or not such practices are supported by the majority of the population is not germane to their nature: that, regardless of popular sanction, War is Mass Murder, Conscription is Slavery, and Taxation is Robbery. The libertarian, in short, is almost completely the child in the fable, pointing out insistently that the emperor has no clothes."

Say what you will about Proudhon. He may have conceived of an alternate incarnation of theft, but only through the conception of an appropriately different incarnation of property and rights themselves. The contours of injustice, for him, were properly defined by the violation of those rights - not by ambiguous populist exemptions to those principles. It's not so much that I believe I have quite a different concept of property when compared to Daniel. But rather, I believe that Daniel holds inexplicably contradictory views on the application of certain terminology given what I already know him to agree with me on.

To quote Wittgenstein:

"I don’t try to make you believe something you don’t believe, but to make you do something you won’t do."

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Rose By Any Other Name...

Gene has an interesting post over on his blog that I find myself heartily in agreement with while refusing to cede to what I consider to be the "flavor" of his particular argument. He starts out, fairly enough, pointing out that the broader liberal tradition is rooted in a positive (non-neutral) moral framework. I think most honest liberals would surely admit this much. I know, at least for radical libertarians, that the ethical/deontological arguments are the strongest forms of the libertarian political claim(s). He writes:

"The liberal illusion is this: that liberalism is morally neutral amongst the diverse moral viewpoints held by citizens, and only seeks to create a "meta-framework" in which they can get along peacefully."

As stated above, I think this point is actually fine as far as it goes. And to anyone who believes that libertarianism, liberalism, or even conservatism is devoid of a moral or ethical stance, they need to think about their claim a little more. But he loses me, in the very next sentence, on his usage of "coercion":

"In fact, liberalism, like every other approach to politics, is grounded in and promotes a particular moral view of society, and uses coercion to establish that view."

Gene has danced circles around libertarian arguments by brandishing the bladed qualifier of "idiosyncratic" when terms like "violence", "force", and "aggression" are brought to the table. After all, in the most broadly understood context, libertarians are opposed to none of these things. And if you have second thoughts about that, try to invade the home a self-described "libertarian" of the survivalist movement. You'll quickly find he's not opposed to force.

In that way, I think Gene does bring something important to the table. His argument isn't so much in opposition to principle as it is rhetoric. Libertarians don't (necessarily) oppose force. They believe in a system of justice based on the ethic(s) of self-ownership. So, properly understood, libertarians are against supposed breaches of the right of self-ownership in one or more of its forms. It is not neutral (morally). It does not escape Hume's Guillotine. That does not invalidate the principles therein or the broader idea. But it's an important rhetorical contention.

But I will say this about the "idiosyncratic" qualifier being lobbed at libertarians who use "aggression" or "coercion"; while I think that certain specific uses, topically, are not mainstream (taxes constituting aggression for instance), I do think they are mainstream in their principle application.

For instance, let's look at the word "coercion." The technical usage, as provided by my handy-dandy dictionary, looks something like "the use of force to obtain compliance." If we're using it in that sense, I have no objection to Gene's claim (unless he's claiming that libertarians actually claim to object to "coercion" in that particular sense...which is clearly not true). However I think the more common (read: less idiosyncratic) usage of the term is a little more subtle. Like the term "aggression", we seem to use "coercive" (more often than not) in the context of initiatory (wrongful) force.

Now, we can argue about what constitutes "wrongful" in that sense, but I don't think it's a stretch to see that this is the most common usage - even between people who differ on what constitutes its qualifiers. So, for instance, we wouldn't take pause to a claim of a high-ranking member of a crime syndicate "coercing" a business owner into joining a protection racket of some kind. However, we might give you a funny look if you claimed that the man subduing an attempted murderer is "coercing" the would-be assassin. And, once again, the same applies to terms like "aggression." So I don't think that the the libertarian usage of the terms are really idiosyncratic in principle application - only in particularly cemented political usages.

So my claim here is that the context of such words' usage is determined by some kind of principle(s). If we come to the conclusion that what separates the "good force" / "bad force" dichotomy is simply a clash between broader consequentialist-considerations people and self-ownership/rights people then maybe I'd let the "idiosyncratic" claim pass as libertarians are surely outnumbered in that regard. But it's clear, in a plethora of other contexts, that this deontoligically charged self-ownership view is a prominent part of almost all post-Enlightenment political outlooks. Simply put, there are plenty of people far away from libertarianism who think that if someone breaks into their house and steals a beer out of their fridge that it's wrong (read: "aggression") for reasons that have nothing to do with whether the world was a better place for it or not. No, these people believe they own that beer. And it's that taking of something that is rightfully owned that tinges the forceful taking with the colorful label of "aggression" or "coercion." If the man "forcefully" taking the beer rightfully owned it in the first place, there would be no talk of "coercion".

In this way, the broader libertarian project is focused on bringing disparate parts of the classically liberal tradition back to their philosophical roots; to show them that the foundational arguments against "theft" or "aggression" have little to do with who is doing the taking or why they are doing it. We're attempting to show them how, in terms of every other context they use it in, "aggression" is a violation of the principle(s) of self-ownership. In that light, I think the broader claim of neutrality is relative to the liberal framework we generally already agree on in the Western world. So no, me claiming that I shouldn't be allowed to take the belongings of a peaceful person is not a moral-free (value-free) claim. I haven't figured out a way to get an ought from an is. However, I can certainly (even if wrongly) make the claim that, based on the principals that would lead you to believe that taking someone's belongings is wrong, that taxation itself, for instance, is also wrong. And I would believe, at least if we agree on the basic principle involved, that it is on the person who sees conflicted applications as befitting to show how these two views of the same principle can philosophically coincide. Otherwise, or so I claim, we can achieve the less impressive task of at least deriving an ought from an ought.

If you believe that the "rightful" or "wrongful" nature of force appeals to and is constituted by the principle(s) of self-ownership then your claim of "rightful" force as it applies to taxation is in conflict with other applications you already accept and understand. So maybe the scope of the most common usage of "theft", "aggression", or "coercion" is smaller than that of the average libertarian. But I certainly won't commit to saying it's different in any way (principally) or "idiosyncratic" for that matter.

Again, all of this is actually kind of tangential to this particular post by Gene. So I don't want to give the impression that I disagree with his broader points on "moralizing." But I still find the particular argument/usage I'm pointing out to be contentious. I think it's worth exploring. Where's Wittgenstein when we need him?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cut Them a Check

On an otherwise boring lunch break, listening to one of my favorite radio programs, I heard a conversation about drug legalization unravel. The general consensus of the hosts and the callers seemed to be towards some kind of legalization or decriminalization. About the only skepticism towards this arose when a supposed DEA agent called in. His claim centered around the current slate of drug-trafficking criminals; particularly those partaking in violent clashes in Mexico. He argued something to the effect that if we took the (black) drug market away from them they'd start engaging in more violent criminal activities (robbery, hostage-taking, etc.) to get their money. Of course, I didn't have the chance to directly engage the caller to see how sound or authentic his hesitations were. But, inspired by good-will-arguing from the likes of Bryan Caplan, my immediate thought was...

"Well, then just cut them a check."

The economic arguments against prohibition are prominent if not well-known. There is a high demand for a certain prohibitive substance. It's prohibition reduces supply to near-zero (legally). High demand and low supply creates an incredibly lucrative black-market for said good. Criminal syndicates form (naturally) to settle disputes and supply protection. Criminal organizations that arose during alcohol prohibition would be an excellent example.

When those substances are legalized, it opens the distribution system to the whole market. Entrepreneurs bolster mass production. Supply rises. Criminals can't effectively compete. Syndicates see black market revenues plummet. This is largely the story of the end of alcohol prohibition in the United States.

So, the agent's argument would demand that these criminals would just resort to other forms of crime. To this I say both yes and no. I would like to point out that the crime syndicates involved with the bootlegging of liquor were incredibly crushed by the legalization of alcohol. And to the extent that they still exist at all, you'll quickly notice that they are receiving most of their revenues by offering a market in other prohibitive goods (drugs, gambling, etc.). But let's put that point aside for the time being.

One thing we have to remember is the ever-true economic point that decisions are made on the margin. Getting involved in drug-running (depending on where in that ladder you happen to be) has a particular cost and reward associated with it. Even if we hold the average financial benefits to be roughly the same (regardless of the nature of the particular racket you're engaged in), the cost is certainly not. I would venture to guess that there are a great many more people, by several factors, that would be willing to engage in the voluntary trade of illicit substances for a certain payoff than people willing to engage in murder or kidnapping for that same payoff. And, again, that's assuming the same general payoff. I'm also willing to venture, again using some basic economic reasoning, that if violent crime like that was as lucrative (given the costs associated with it) that such syndicates would already be doing so with much more frequency.

But, for the sake of this particular point I have in mind, let's just assume that violent crime is much more lucrative (beneficial) than the current trade. So now we're confronted with a group who will engage in precipitously violent acts to get the money they're seeking if we take away the drug market. So let's take a look at a couple of broader points.

Firstly, what are the costs associated with a preemptive war on drugs. We have literally millions of incarcerations of otherwise peaceful people (some claim up to three quarters of all incarcerations are drug-related). Now, even if we were to completely ignore these absolutely egregious violations of human-rights regarding these arrests and detainments, think about all the money that's going towards not only enforcing drug-laws and catching such "criminals", but also to housing, clothing, and feeding all those we brutally incarcerate. Imagine what kind of upper-hand our policing agencies would have against whatever remains of violent criminals if they had all this funding and man-power freed up. Why isn't this factored in?

And, finally, my thought of last resorts goes something like this: Given the tremendous costs I've laid out above, both in terms of the rights of peaceful people and the dollars and cents that ultimately fund this massive anti-drug program, I can't imagine any way in which we wouldn't be better off by just writing such would-be-violent-criminals a check. Don't get me wrong, I think I'd be among the last people to defend aggression on anyone's behalf. But if that total lump-sum payment pales in comparison to the hundreds of billions of dollars that has been funnelled into the war against drugs, and if millions of families will be made whole by the non-incarceration of peaceful consumers of currently prohibited substances, then how or why would a person so worried about violent crime in the wake of legalization not support just subsidizing those people instead.

For the sake of all of us, once again, I say, just cut them a check.