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."

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