Sunday, January 4, 2009

You Will Know Us from the Trail of Dead Philosophies

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People can philosophize until they’re blue in the face, like Guardians of the Universe, but as I suggested in my two entries on January 1, I think property rights matter more than philosophy and politics.

It may not be possible to build a strict property rights regime without the complex scaffolding of philosophy and politics, but that scaffolding is mainly of interest only to elites and intellectuals.  What the bulk of humanity desperately needs, for navigating their daily lives, improving their lot, and getting a handle on reality without taking graduate courses in political science, is the knowledge that they can use objects, make contracts, invest money, and build futures without fear of arbitrary forces from above seizing control of them and their livelihoods, regardless of the noble-sounding rationales deployed to excuse the acts of pillage.

Thus, though I may have sounded very defensive of the definitional borders of libertarianism in my “Month of Feminism” entries — and sounded saddened in last week’s Barry Goldwater centenary entry about the possible failure of conservative-libertarian fusionism — I should say this clearly: I WILL LEAVE ANY PHILOSOPHY IN THE DUST, DEAD AT THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, WITHOUT PITY IF IT IS NO LONGER ADVANCING THE CAUSE OF PROPERTY RIGHTS.

Should libertarians ever lose interest in property rights and laissez-faire capitalism (though they’ll likely be the last people on the planet to do so, if it ever comes to that), they will not by any means be the first philosophical movement to start out fighting against government and/or promoting markets and end up losing interest in those causes, gradually and without even realizing what was being lost.

We needn’t restrict that story of recurring failure to the recent spending spree by the now-ousted Republican establishment.

•We could include the gradual growth of the early-modern state itself, superseding local authority and village life, gradually drawing to itself older national and cultural allegiances that had not always translated into loyalty to government.

•One could perhaps include monarchism in the story of decline into statism, given that it was not always an absolutist affair but became one (though this is perhaps stretching things a bit).

•Certainly, though, liberalism, which succeeded the era of monarchs and aristocrats, started out quite libertarian (Adam Smith, the Constitution, nineteenth-century capitalism, utilitarianism, etc.) and became enamored of the state as a reformist tool about a hundred years ago, since then piling up ever more reasons to tax, regulate, and criticize markets, until the average citizen of Western democracies can no longer imagine a time when government was only about 8% of the economy — without assuming, Soviet-style, that government’s small role back then must explain why life was so hard.

(•And speaking of the Soviets, of course, the early socialists envisioned a withering away of the state but rarely speak credibly of such a thing now.)

•Given the wild-eyed and often violent enthusiasm of today’s most visible “anarchists” for anti-trade legislation and tariffs (for surely that is the only logical outcome to be expected from their constant “antiglobalization” protests and anti-corporate “culture-jamming” performances), I think it’s safe to say anarchism, which displayed a confused indifference to markets vs. socialism from its earliest days, has become (as a movement if not as a coherent philosophy) little more than a strange adjunct to the state and hindrance to free trade among free individuals.

•It took about a hundred years longer for American-style conservatism (as opposed to just-plain European or Latin American nostalgia for aristocracy and monarchism) to submit to the governmental yoke than it took liberalism, but after Bush II — and the often shocking pro-government cheerleading of pundits like David Brooks and William Kristol — I think it’s safe to say conservatism’s vague mix of religion, militarism, patriotism, law-and-order, and oh yeah maybe occasionally individual liberty has led to it becoming one more flavor of statism at long last.  A 2008 presidential candidate with a clear, consistent, anti-statist message, especially if he won, might conceivably have achieved an eleventh-hour victory for pro-freedom conservatism, but, oh, well.

•It would be very difficult to turn libertarianism into a government-friendly philosophy — though some people like sophistical Obama advisor Cass Sunstein might like to try — but I think libertarianism runs the milder risk, which I’ve mentioned often before, of simply becoming distracted from its most valuable (and most philosophically-coherent) mission, property protection, due to fascination with numerous (usually divisive and therefore dangerously intriguing) side issues: immigration, Constitutional nuances, attitudinally-left culture issues, attitudinally-right lamentations for the Old Republic, antiwar (and sometimes pro-war) stances, religious or anti-religious stances, and various psychological suggestions a la Rand (or pro-sex feminists).

I’ll stick to property — especially in this month’s blog entries — because I see property as the only sure and objective thread amidst all this other, near-subjective hot air and confusion.  And people can attach to me what labels they please — or not.

P.S. Some of this, luckily, we can hammer out over drinks this Wednesday at our Debate at Lolita Bar about intellectual property rights.  Please join us.  It’s a start.  Or an ending.


Dirtyrottenvarmint said...

While I agree wholeheartedly that both protection of property rights and minimizing government are desirable goals, they are not necessarily complementary.

Protection implies force. If you see a means of protecting property rights without in some sense relying on force (hopefully held in abeyance rather than used outright), please explain. Doesn’t this beg the question – is the use of force a natural monopoly? Or to put it more discretely (the answer to that question is obviously no), is the _efficient_ use of force a natural monopoly? This is the definition of a sovereign government – monopoly on the use of force. (This does not mean private citizens cannot also defend themselves, merely that as individuals they have no hope of defeating the government by force – that is, breaking the law which protects property rights.)

If force is necessary to protect property rights, and the most efficient means of doing so is a monopolistic protection association (i.e., a government) then those of us who desire the protection of property rights should also be in favor of a strong government.

Note that this does not mean we must favor an activist government. A government could be strong enough to provide ultimate protection of property rights, and yet choose not to exercise that strength except when absolutely necessary.

In the modern world we often believe such “government self-restraint” to be impossible, because we have been trained to believe that the only legitimate government is one comprised of a multitude of individual actors, all working towards their own self-interest and greed. Self-interest and greed are wonderful motivators in a non-monopolistic, market system. They may not work quite so well if the actors in question have monopoly power and can, for example, collude to provide monetary subsidies to their political supporters, funding such subsidies with tax increases on their non-supporters that are backed by the threat of overwhelming force in the event of non-payment.

The chief problem with Ron Paul / Lew Rockwell libertarianism is the misguided belief that force is necessarily evil – that enlightened human civilization is even possible without sometimes being defended by brutal force. This belief is even more naive than that of the collectivists discussed in Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, who at least understand that _some_ people are immoral leeches on the production of others, even if they naively believe that they can form a collectivist government that does better. This brand of libertarian is almost indistinguishable from the anarchist, who seems to believe, having never watched the Discovery Channel apparently, that the state of nature is peaceful, safe, free, exciting, and abounds with unlimited consensual intercourse with the most beautiful examples of the sex of your choice.

Historical evidence suggests that the most likely circumstance for government to be both strong enough to protect property rights, but otherwise relatively inactive, is the hereditary monarchy. While there have been a multitude of bad kings throughout history, the greatest chance to combine supreme strength of force with enlightened forbearance seems to be to educate the supreme ruler from birth to adhere to a strict moral code. This is almost always accomplished through a deep grounding in religious faith.

Of course, nobody’s perfect. King Arthur was a myth, and Camelot died with him. Right?

pulp said...

FWIW, I wholeheartedly agree with your basis statement, Todd. It’s the basis of my own sense of political beliefs– without property rights, there are no other rights.

Todd Seavey said...

A bit more on the monopoly-on-force point is in my 1/6/09 entry:

theCL said...

“Protection implies force … Doesn’t this beg the question – is the use of force a natural monopoly?

If force is necessary to protect property rights, and the most efficient means of doing so is a monopolistic protection association (i.e., a government) then those of us who desire the protection of property rights should also be in favor of a strong government.”

I disagree.

Property rights stem from the fact that you own yourself. Without boring you with the details, this means not only do we own ourselves, but we own our “stuff” too.

Being that you own yourself, you have the right to protect yourself, your family, stuff, etc. by any means necessary, provided you don’t infringe the rights of someone else.

Let’s say a guy breaks into your house, and worse, he’s armed … he has no right to be there threatening you, or attempting to take your stuff in the first place … you are then clearly within your rights to pull out your shotgun and do whatever is necessary to protect your property. Just as a bear in the woods would do the same (with teeth and claws of course, but we don’t have those).

Hallucinating for a moment that we actually have a government by “we the people,” it’s logical then, that you can extend this right (which belongs to you) to the government, in an effort to help you do what you have the inalienable right to do already – protect your stuff.

In our hallucination, it is your right to use force in protection of your stuff that the government exercises. They exercise this force only based on your (each individual) authority which has been extended to them. In other words, it’s not their (the governments) authority in the first place.

So being that this use of force is our authority, government does not hold a monopoly on it, nor can it acquire one. Hence, no need for a “strong government.”

But that’s in our hallucination … Today’s reality obviously paints a much different picture. And if the majority of “we the people” in America don’t stop drinking the kool-aid, as the state continues to restrict our liberties and take our guns … the state will soon indeed hold an absolute monopoly on the use of force.

It may be inevitable, but life without hope is no fun.

Dirtyrottenvarmint said...

theCL, you are absolutely right, but you have not refuted my statement at all. In fact, I think you have agreed with me completely, but you may be too brainwashed to understand that there are not two meaningful words in “democratic government”, just one.

This is not your fault, because the majority of people in the Westernized world believe this. If they didn’t, governments wouldn’t have to put on democratic clothing and dance for the masses.

I said (emphasis added) “those of us who desire the _protection_ of property rights should also be in favor of a strong government.”

I did not say force was the foundation of property rights. The definition of a right is, as you allude, that it is innate.

And you are free to explain this theory at length to your rapist.

You are also free to explain to the police that the government does not have a monopoly on force, that it exists at your sufferance as a member of the voting citizenry, and that therefore you can do whatever you want and they cannot exercise their hallucinatory monopoly on force to stop you.

You are correct that it is important for individuals to retain the means to protect themselves (such as firearms). But this is because this is what distinguishes trusted citizens from slaves. It is not because individual gun ownership is a realistic means of thwarting government force. If you think that the fact that you own a couple rifles and go to the range once a month means that the government does not have a monopoly on force, you have got a big surprise coming to you if you try carry your rifle onto a military base without permission.

OK, having hijacked this post of Todd’s with comments that grew way too long, I think it’s appropriate to point out to Todd that while we know he has a day job, given that he’s donating his own time and efforts to do things like make great PJTV (the only “talk” television I’ve watched the past 6 months has been Todd’s appearances), it would not be utterly gauche of him to put up a tip jar on his website.

Dirtyrottenvarmint said...

The point of the above of course, is that force _is_ the foundation of the _protection_ of rights, that the government _by definition_ has a monopoly on force, that any exercise of force by you is of necessity at the sufferance of the government, and that therefore the best situation for a freedom-loving individual is to be the subject of a government which cares only about enforcing your ability to protect your rights (which you can do legally rather than with guns – this is still “force”).

By the way while I was responding to theCL’s comment, all use of “you” and “your” is meant in the universal sense.

theCL said...


Yes, force is not the foundation of property rights, because as you said, rights are innate. So there’s nothing for me to explain to the rapist, because it’s clear he/she is violating my rights. This does not mean however, that my rights have disappeared. Same thing in reference to the cop/government.

As I said in my previous comment, the legitimate role of government currently is an “hallucination . Today’s reality obviously paints a much different picture.” But again, just because they currently hold a monopoly on power, it doesn’t also mean those who want them to protect our property rights must desire a strong government (even if that strength stems from the tyranny of masses).

In a legitimate system, it is my (each individuals) authority they exercise, not my sufferance. It’s this belief (that it’s at our sufferance), that got us where we are today.

A government need not be strong in order to protect our rights. It can protect our rights properly, for example, with the limited authority given by our Constitution. And I should point out also, that there is no utopia, regardless of the size and scope of government, there will always be thieves, rapists, etc.

The next step is anarcho-capitalism, because strong government (just look around you) is the biggest enemy to private property. Yes, it’s a double-edged sword.

The term “trusted citizens,” to me, implies that we belong to something else (government). I think it’s more accurate to say it distinguishes “free men/women” from slaves. The moment you become “the subject of a government,” your rights have been completely surrendered. But with a limited (weak) government, you, the individual, surrender nothing.