To connect a few dots from earlier entries: say what you will about property rights as a candidate for a “metaethic” (of sorts, anyway, though it’s merely the output of a background rule utilitarianism), you have to admit it at least makes legal rules concrete enough to enforce with relative clarity and ease.
If you want the average person to know when he’s transgressing and when he’s within his rights — a basic goal of law since the Code of Hammurabi nearly 4,000 years ago — things that you can see (or make contracts about) are likely to generate a lot less bickering (with all the lost time and energy that entails) than, say, abstractions like “serving the common good” or “contributing to the wholesomeness of the town.” (Assuming plenty of physical evidence was on hand with which to draw the correct conclusions, I’d much rather be a defendant in court accused of stealing a car than accused of “disrupting the social fabric.” Who knows what might happen in the latter case.)
People who long for something like the amorphous, abstract rubrics — whether rightwing or leftwing, academic or populist — are likely people who spend a lot more time talking than doing, roughly speaking (be they media folk like myself or Bible-thumping preachers). They are not properly unnerved by the idea of having to abandon productive activities to go join a scrum, parliament, grad school bull session, Islamic council, or protest that could come to unpredictable, faddish, or mob-mentality conclusions. Society cannot live on politics alone (nor can an economy survive on government alone — which means that even people with a leftwing agenda ought to approach the private sector humbly, a bit guiltily, with hat in hand, rather than thinking they’ve “created” something — such as jobs — by legislating money around or badgering others into action through protest; someone has to make the things your talking causes to be redistributed).
Even libertarians (who tend to be intellectuals if only because there are so few ordinary people who adhere to libertarianism) should be wary of letting the “fun” of democratic talk lull them into thinking less-concrete, more democratic-consensus-based laws are sustainable. We’ve seen how quickly the U.S. — lacking a solid, explicit property base for its laws but steeped in constitutionalism and democracy — went from laissez-faire to European-style welfare state. Murray Rothbard saw this as the best real-world argument for anarchism: We tried “limiting government” already and failed.
Property rights: no other system offers the same clarity, incentives for production and progress, feedback loops of constant improvement, peace, decentralized flexibility, and transcultural “neutrality” (in the simple headcount sense of treating all revealed preferences as relevant). To rightists who say, with Irving Kristol, that capitalism lives on the accumulated moral capital of religious tradition, it is time to start saying, no, capitalism was merely built in the historical scaffolding of religious tradition, which would have had little to show for itself (scaffolding being a rather empty thing) had not something as beneficial and real as commerce been created within it. Similarly confident and moralistic messages must be delivered to adherents of democracy, liberalism, and leftism — and to the subsidized corporations who fancy themselves the realists.
And just as the average citizen, to defend himself, needs to be able to spot rights violations with tripwire ease, so too the intellectuals must eventually spread the truth of property rights so far and wide that the average roomful of intelligent people will recognize in an instant when someone’s contradicted the property norm — the way elite circles now can immediately spot someone who makes a racist comment or says something implying he doesn’t recycle.
If intellectuals engaged in politics are selling some message other than property rights, they implicitly suggest that property rights are secondary, negotiable — but we know how poorly those rights fare and how quickly they are deformed in such an intellectual environment. So just don’t steal.