Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The burden of the past

"The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. The course of reflection in which we are immersed here on the elementary principles of society has presented this question to my mind; and that no such obligation can be transmitted I think very capable of proof. I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, "that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;" that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. If the society has formed no rules for the appropriation of its lands in severalty, it will be taken by the first occupants. These will generally be the wife and children of the decedent. If they have formed rules of appropriation, those rules may give it to the wife and children, or to some one of them, or to the legatee of the deceased. So they may give it to his creditor. But the child, the legatee or creditor takes it, not by any natural right, but by a law of the society of which they are members, and to which they are subject. Then no man can by natural right oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the paiment of debts contracted by him." - Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789

I've written on the importance of time for political philosophy and economics many times before. Two recent posts brought it to mind again.

1. Don Boudreaux shares this excellent article by Bart Hinkle on voluntary and involuntary obligations. This is the comment I left about it on Don's blog (my argument should be familiar to people who follow my thoughts on this sort of thing on this blog):

"Really excellent - I think Nozick's approach to these questions that Hinkle applies is very important, my only concern is that I think people underemphasize the fact that any voluntary contract is going to be constrained by a rights structure that is imposed on us institutionally/externally. You can't contract without an understanding of rights, so the question becomes "do I get a say in what my rights are?". You clearly don't - that institutional framework is exogenous, although clearly always changing and evolving.

This is why I like the contractarian approach of a lot of libertarians (as opposed to the approach of guys like Rawls) and I identify with it, but I don't think it has pushed the institutional understanding of what a "voluntary contract" would really mean far enough (at least in what I've read and seen people argue - I'm not claiming to be an expert).

I think one of the more important pieces that should be brought along with Nozick is a short essay that Dewey wrote in 1935 about property rights - I forget what it was called exactly. It was essentially making the same point that I did above - that what you can "voluntarily contract for" is dependent on a structure of rights, and the framework of rights that you operate in is externally determined (forced on you, as it were) as well. So if these are "voluntary contracts", they're only "voluntary" in a superficial sense. In addition to the rights structures we inherit, there are also presumably endowments (monetary, genetic, etc.) that constrain our "voluntary" contracting.

The solution, I think, is a Buchanan type approach - constitutionalism. That doesn't solve all problems, of course (you can still ask "was the constitution passed in a just way?", "are future generations constrained by the constitution?", "is the constitution ethical?") - but it at least addresses the problem of the structure of rights under which we voluntarily contract head-on. And ultimately I think that's all we can ask for."

2. Peter Boettke shares this interesting looking paper by Nathan Nunn. It's a survey of the literature on the long-term impact of historical events for economies (ethically the Earth may belong to the living, but in actuality it often does not). I haven't read it, but this is the abstract:

"This article provides a survey of a growing body of empirical evidence that points toward the important long-term effects that historic events can have on economic development. The most recent studies, using microlevel data and more sophisticated identification techniques, have moved beyond testing whether history matters and attempt to identify exactly why history matters. The most commonly examined channels include institutions, culture, knowledge and technology, and movements between multiple equilibria. The article concludes with a discussion of the questions that remain and the direction of current research in the literature."

1 comment:

  1. The Dewey ideology explained:


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