Arnold Kling links to an essay at Cato Unbound by Daniel Klein on the political philosophy of progressivism that I find a little troubling. Klein's case is that progressives found their perspective on the "overlordship" of the state, that all rights and freedoms are derived from the state, and that the state has ultimate ownership of all things.
I struggle with how to react to something like this. On the one hand, I feel like it's such nonsense that it really ought not to be responded to. I'm even more frustrated because I'm starting to notice a pattern with Klein: evidently, he really believes that non-libertarians are not friends to liberty, that they ignore or are ignorant of economics, and essentially that the position is bankrupt. Instead of actually discussing some non-libertarian position with him, one ends up trying to walk him back off the brink of his own claims. It's not a productive dialogue, and it's not a very pleasant dialogue to partake in when you know he thinks you're ignorant of economics and indifferent to liberty.
I struggle with how to react - but clearly I'm "reacting" with this blog post so I better get to it. I don't find Klein's point especially convincing. He cites several late nineteenth century and early twentieth century collectivists claiming that the state owns everything. Fine - that certainly isn't hard to find. What's not clear is how that is the basis of modern progressivism. As far as modern progressives go he only really cites Cass Sunstein (and some co-authors of Sunstein). Even that is hard for me to evaluate because he doesn't cite him extensively at all. The only citation is that "Private property [is] a creation of state action". I wouldn't imagine this is that controversial even if you wouldn't agree with it. I think private property can be an emergent social institution as well, but I wouldn't quibble too much with Sunstein on this - the state, after all, is the source of the legal framework for property rights. To say that property rights are somehow contingent on the state is not the same as saying the state owns everything, of course. But this is one of the many points that Klein simply finesses. So it's very hard to get a handle of the argument. There is no real connection offered between early collectivists and modern progressives, and the sparsely quoted quoted Sunstein is hardly representative of modern progressives - Sunstein is an interesting guy, but a very odd, unique guy.
I've sketched out my basic political philosophy (which I see as essentially classical liberal and able to accommodate multiple classical liberal ideologies - so not uniquely "progressive", but it certainly includes progressivism) here before, but this seems like a good opportunity to again because Klein - in the end - is trying to erect a progressive political philosophy in terms of its understanding of property rights.
My view is similar to Sunstein's (as quoted by Klein - I'm not deeply familiar with Sunstein) insofar as I think property rights (by which I mean our claim to anything for use or disposal) are largely artificial or constructed. I do not find "natural rights" to be a coherent position. Klein's error is in assuming that this artificiality implies (1.) meaninglessness, or (2.) contingency on the state. It doesn't imply either. But it does imply that property rights may be incomplete, unfair, etc. The fundamental problem and justification of the state is not that our property rights are contingent on the state (that would be circular), but that justice is contingent on property rights. I cannot establish the injustice of theft unless I can identify what is stolen as my property. Otherwise it's simply free appropriation. So justice becomes contingent on an artificial framework of property rights, that are incomplete and hereditary. We inherit our property rights regime and the property that has been amassed under that regime from prior generations. What we have is wide scope for injustice. If I take a pump and run poisonous smog into your house, I could be prosecuted for poisoning you. If a firm pumps the same poisonous smog into the air they could not be prosecuted (at least they couldn't at one point... and they're limited in prosecution now). Why? It's the same act. The difference is the arrangement of property rights.
This is what bothers me so much when libertarians act as if they genuinely believe their's is uniquely a philosophy of liberty, or that those who raise questions about the property rights regime are somehow unfriendly to liberty. When you ignore one act of poisoning because property rights are incomplete but pay attention to another because property rights are complete, you're not espousing a philosophy of liberty or non-coercion at all. You're espousing a philosophy that legitimizes coercion by virtue of the incompleteness of property rights. There is nothing classically liberal about that.
But what is the alternative? That's not easy either. What we're stuck with - which John Dewey noted back in 1935 - is a situation with coercion in either direction. But people weren't waiting around for Dewey to say this. It was implicit in the property rights regime. People understood its fundamental artificiality when fields were being enclosed in England, and when titles were being passed down. Do you think it's coincidence that the nation-state emerged with the rise of property rights and market activity as the fundamental principle of social organization? Of course it's not coincidence. We are faced with coercion on all sides. I am coerced when someone pollutes the air I breath, and that happens because property rights to the air are incomplete. I face a fundamental disadvantage in remedying the situation because the law acts on the behalf of property-owners and the very fact of property-ownership gives property-owners a resource advantage in challenging my claim. The solution has been the emergence of the institutions of a democratic state to weigh these claims and represent people independent of property although that, as libertarians are quick to note, is coervice too - we are coerced on all sides. The classical liberal idea of the state (I am not using the word as Klein does - as a synonym for libertarianism) is therefore not one of overlordship of the state, but a repudiation of the assumption that a fundamentally artificial property rights regime is natural - and an attempt at a weighing of various coercions in a way that is consistent with human liberty, human equality, and human dignity. This is not in opposition to property rights - quite the contrary! Democratic, liberal states emerged precisely to purge coercion from an artificial property rights regime, when necessary. What I think is appropriate for classical liberals of all stripes to acknowledge is that this does mean that the authority of the state is artificial and coercive in the context of the existing property rights regime. But what libertarians like Daniel Klein need to recognize is that it is an artificial institution that has emerged naturally in response to the artificiality and coercion of an emergent property rights regime. In that sense it is not inherently more coercive than a minimalist libertarian state (which itself has the potential to be extremely coercive for the reasons I outlined in the previous paragraph).
I need to bring Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine into this before I close. Jefferson and Paine wrote a lot about the role of time in political philosophy, particularly as it related to this question of property rights and coercion. They noted that property rights are inherited and over the course of English history they were legitimated by their inheritance. Centuries ago theft, conquering, and corruption established privilege and over the centuries privilege evolved into property. That which was artificial and coercive became legitimate. That isn't all - inherited privilege granted resource advantages to descendants. We see the same thing in America today with the legacy of slavery. Inequality is durable. Slavery may have ended one hundred fifty years ago and segregation may have ended fifty years ago, but if your father didn't get a good education because your grandfather was forcibly prevented from getting a good education or from earning the money to send your father to get an education that is a tangible disadvantage for you. Jefferson and Paine recognized the power of time in translating these disadvantages. The black community today is still being coerced by the institution of slavery and by the institution of segregation because of the heritability of property rights.
Libertarians puzzle and fret over the nation-state as if its some accident that the state and the market emerged together. Similarly, some libertarians puzzle over why good freedom-loving guys like Jefferson and Paine were so keen on inheritance taxes. It's not an accident that inheritance taxes, popular democracy, and liberty were all embraced by the same people in the founding era! It's not an accident that enemies of inheritance taxes and popular democracy were also the enemies of liberty. It's because what is known as "libertarianism" today is fundamentally imbalanced and coercive (when it's left on its own), so people who were opposed to coercion in the founding era added popular democracy, inheritance taxes, and the like to their calls for liberty. Those who embraced coercion opposed all three. Real classical liberalism always embraced self-governance, equality, and liberty. Libertarians quote the support for liberty and try to recreate a classical liberalism that excludes the other priorities.
Finally - I want to share a link that Xenophon shared with me the other day on a libertarian critique of Rothbard's views on the rights of children. It hinges on the idea that children didn't choose the families they're born into, and therefore it's legitimate to expect certain care for children from parents. Otherwise, parents are coercing children into acquiescing to a situation they didn't freely choose. I think the ties between this argument and the Jefferson-Paine point about the role of time and inheritance should be clear, and I largely agree with it. Not surprisingly, Jefferson was also a big fan of universal, public education for children. This makes sense when you see classical liberalism as a claim about artificial, potentially coercive inherited social constructs. It makes less sense to support public education in the way that Jefferson did if you see classical liberalism as synonymous with libertarianism.