Saturday, February 26, 2011

Rights are social constructions

Which means that you, as an individual, can't "experiment" in the construction of alternative rights regimes. You can agitate and persuade. You can try to construct a community from scratch (although that seems quite hard and more than a little artificial). But you can't "experiment" with a system of rights because that individual action of experimentation is nested in a social context of rights.

Take a recent post from Troy Camplin - an Austrian blogger and one of the few commenters at Coordination Problem who acts like it's a Cafe Hayek comment section. He writes:

"One of the things the Mises Institute is big on is opposing intellectual property. In that spirit, I have decided to try something, which is to offer one of my plays, a satire called Hef's Bunnies for anyone who wants to produce it. The entire text is on my blog Interdisciplinary World. Producers may feel free to pay me a commission, or not, as I discuss there. Please, feel free to spread the word. Only if it gets produced will this experiment work, after all."

On his other blog, Camplin provides much the same introduction to the satire. He says "I've decided to give their idea a try". The problem is, he's not giving a rights regime that does not include intellectual property rights "a try" at all! He is decidedly acting within the existing IP rights regime. He is exercising a fairly conventional right to alienate his property. The same goes for collectivists who "give up" private property in communes. They are actually exercising fundamental property rights. Now, perhaps they are building a social group which, within its own context, does not acknowledge and therefore does not enforce rights in the same way that the wider community does. In this sense they are attempting at least to socially re-construct rights. But the regular failure of these communes demonstrates not only the efficiency of property rights, but also how ingrained these rights are in our psychology. Commune dwellers could live in squalor, after all. The squalor of an American commune dweller is probably better than the way a lot of the third-world lives, and there may even be bit of romance in it given the common cause they share. It doesn't break down for the squalor alone - it breaks down because people find deliberate social reconstruction quite unnatural.

But at least they have a "society" to speak of - a social fabric - and thus some prospect of erecting a substantially new rights regime! Troy Camplin doesn't have a social fabric. He is one guy exercising his property rights, which is why it's so ironic that he thinks he's experimenting in dismantling the very property rights he's exercising.

Rights are social. Rights are relational, to put it more precisely. You can't change a regime of relations by staying within the domain of your own relational priveleges. You have to at least do something yourself that transcends the rights you had in the first place, but even that doesn't construct a new rights regime. That just rebels against the old. A better example is Julian Assange at Wikileaks. He is doing something that actually breaks out of the constraints placed by the existing property rights regime. Now he's just violating that rights regime until it catches on, of course. Until society reconstructs its understanding of rights. But Assange's work can at least be properly characterized as an "experiment" in an alternative intellectual property rights regime. He is not exercising the rights he has in the existing regime in the way that Camplin is.

Kidrock did a youtube video a while back that was actually trying to discourage IP theft in the music industry by facetiously saying it was OK, and people oughta just steal everything while they were at it. Now, he wasn't sincere here - but this is similarly what "experimenting" in a new rights regime would constitute. Not an exercise of rights you have, and not an opportunistic violation of those rights, but the erection of a new ethical alternative to those rights - the promotion of a basis for a new rights regime:

Anyway, rights are socially constructed which means its very hard for determined individuals to just create them from scratch. And you're certainly not creating them by exercising your existing property rights!!!


  1. You don't seem to get what it is I am doing. The arguments I have heard about how a world without IP would work is that people would still be willing to give credit and pay people for their creative works. I have expressed doubt. The way things work now, you send out works and try to get people to produce them with the understanding that they have to pay you. What I am doing is simply putting the work out there for anyone to use without any fear of my suing them. Thus, I am refusing to participate in the current "rights regime" in regards to IP -- at least, in regards to this play. The experimental aspect of it is in regards to whether anyone will actually produce the play and perhaps even pay me. I think you are trying to make far more out of this than I certainly was.

  2. I simply don't see how exercising your intellectual property rights constitutes an experiment in an alternative property rights regime.

    That's like saying giving donations is an experiment in an alternative property rights regime.

    Now - one could conceive of a theoretical rights regime that would be structured such that more transactions happen the way the transaction you offer here happens. But simply exercising your existing rights to mimic the outcomes that would happen in the property rights regime you would prefer is nothing more than cargo cultism.

  3. A spate of IP donations isn't going to do it.

    What you need to do is figure out a way for people to start thinking of those who have the expectation of command over their own IP as rights-violators.

    In other words, to experiment in a new IP rights regime the trick isn't for you to make donations - the trick is to make the person that insists on the exercise of the right to own IP be perceived as a thief.

  4. The right to life and liberty is not a social construct. It is derived from the axiom of self ownership. This is why I consider initiation of force to be immoral - it violates the truth that we each own ourselves.

    the trick is to make the person that insists on the exercise of the right to own IP be perceived as a thief.

    Exactly! I totally agree, Daniel.

  5. Mattheus -
    When - in chronological time - did we become endowed with this non-socially-constructed right to life and liberty? I'm fine with a ball-park but I want a year. And do apes have it? Do rodents? Do lizards? Ought I not to kill and eat a fish? Or for that matter a plant?

    Your whole claim here is circular, Mattheus. A right to life and liberty is based on a right to property (i.e. - "self ownership"). Well where did the right to property come from? It's axiomatic, you say? Elaborate.

    Rights are relational, so of course they are derived from the sorts of relations we have with each other.

    Now, I have absolutely zero problem with going through everyday life as if there was some sort of independent, non-artificial reality to it. That's a wonderful way to live, and it's how I live on a day to day basis. But that doesn't make it accurate.

  6. I'm not interested in others' attitudes toward their own their own creations. I am interested in peoples' actions in regards to my work. If the anti-IP people at LvMI are right (and if my play gets produced this way), I will end up being better off by having my play produced, there will be people who will pay me to use the play, and I will still get the credit. That's what I'm interested in finding out: if they are right about that.

    BTW, in regards to the swipe at me in regards to the tone of my comments, I have a particular style -- it is agonal in nature -- that works for me. Using it I get my students to think in ways they don't typically think, by challenging their beliefs. Using it, I get people to defend their ideas in the strongest fashion, so that I get the best argument from them, which helps me in what I'm interested in, which is learning the truth about things. I make no apologies for my style.

  7. It's not agonal in nature - it's ad hominem in nature.

    Brutal and blunt is one thing. You are not simply that. Sorry - just being blunt.

    I'll try to find an example later today or tomorrow - it's an accusation that merits an example, I understand.

  8. This from a guy who cites the emanations of a wealthy member of the white power structure (Ben Franklin) as proof rights do not inhere in us but are socially constructed!

  9. "it is agonal in nature"

    I think this is correct. I often feel death pangs upon reading Troy's comments.

  10. anonymous - citation is not proof, merely agreement. Proof requires somewhat more, if it's even possible on these sorts of questions.

  11. Daniel,

    If anyone's claim is circular it is yours. Rights are socially constructed therefor they are socially constructed.

    "Well where did the right to property come from?"

    There are a variety of theories; pick one you like.

  12. "the trick is to make the person that insists on the exercise of the right to own IP be perceived as a thief."

    Umm.....I think Troy is renouncing his thiefhood.


  14. "Rights are socially constructed therefor they are socially constructed."

    Um, Gary, I don't see anything remotely like that in the post. This post was *assuming* rights are socially constructed and then discussing the implications of that. There is no argument here for the assumption at all. Now, that is fine: every piece of writing can only argue for so much and must assume everything else. Simply assuming X is quite different than arguing for X in an argument that first assumes X.

  15. Gene Callahan,

    "Um, Gary, I don't see anything remotely like that in the post."

    You're right. However, this isn't the first time that Daniel has flogged this poor horse.

  16. I do not engage in ad hominem. Nor can you find anyplace where I do engage in ad hominem. The fact that you think I do suggests that you do not understand what an ad hominem attack is. And if you think that accusing you of ignorance is ad hominem, that only proves my point.

    An ad hominem attack is one where one says, for example, that one should ignore what Thomas Jefferson had to say about liberty because he was a slave owner and adulterer. Those facts have nothing to do with the logic of his arguments. I don't engage in those.

  17. Gene,

    I thought we were past all that. As someone whose style is uncannily similar to mine, perhaps you should consider the effect of thrown stones and glass houses.

  18. Gary - that wasn't my argument. Mattheus specifically cited rights in his justification of the origin of rights.

  19. To Troy Camplin -
    I crossed out the reference to Cafe Hayek - and I'm going to clarify and disengage on this a little. Your comments would fit in nicely at Cafe Hayek, but I'll cross it out as a note of de-escalation.

    First, I think it's ironic that you reference Jefferson in your discussion of ad hominem attacks because one of the posts I was looking at was one where you treated Marx, Keynes, and Rousseau in precisely the same way that you described treating Jefferson - dismissing their ideas because of things you found unsavory about them (much of which seemed completely fabricated or embellished by you anyway): I couldn't find a lot of evidence of direct insults to other people, despite my recollection of you being a commenter worth steering clear of. The biggest concern is simply the quality of your thought when you stumble across an idea that rubs you the wrong way. This example sticks with me:

    Absent of evidence or will to look through more, I'll retract any claims that you had insulted other people, although I think you've definitely demonstrated you don't take others' ideas seriously.

  20. I looked again at what I said about Rousseau, Marx, and Keynes, and I never once engage in ad hominem attacks. I attack their ideas, which is always fair game. I attack their ideas precisely because I do take ideas seriously. And I take their ideas very seriously. If you have been keeping up with my comments on my main blog as I read Keynes' General Theory, you will see that while I mostly disagree with Keynes, I also talk about where I do agree with him.

    For my money, if you treat everyone's ideas as equally valid or worthy of respect or serious, then you are not taking those ideas seriously at all. Ridiculous things should be ridiculed. Outrageous ideas should cause outrage. But in the end, I am interested in truth, not in "being right." When I am proven wrong, I change my mind. But I don't accept things without challence. I respect my opponents enough to challenge them in the strongest terms possible. Only if I did not take people's ideas seriously would I not do so.

    I have an agonistic approach. I tend to look at the world satirically as well (have you read the play?). I take these approaches precisely because I take ideas seriously. I think that it's those people who accept things uncritically who don't take ideas seriously, not those who challenge them.

  21. Nobody is suggesting you treat all ideas as being equally valid, Troy.

    Your post on Keynes and literature did not strike me as the post of someone who took ideas other than his own seriously.

  22. I added you to my new FB group - infovore.

    Gene, I friended you on FB.

  23. It would seem a strange thing for someone to be able to get a Ph.D. in the humanities if he didn't take anyone's ideas seriously other than his own. To do a dissertation, you have to build on others' ideas.

  24. I had posted a longer response, but it seems to have disappeared.

  25. Mattheus specifically cited rights in his justification of the origin of rights.

    Not quite.

    The origin of rights to property rests on the axiom of self-ownership. As Hoppe points out, one cannot legitimately deny the principle of self-ownership without contradiction. The phrase "I own myself" is logically irrefutable (not least of which because if I don't, who does?) because ownership is defined as legal (or legitimate) possession and control. It is as impossible to assert that I do not own myself as it is that A=B.

    We derive the entire corpus of property rights from the single principle, via Lockean homesteading rights and so on.

    It only appeared circular because I was playing fast and loose with the idea that "I have a right to my body." Technically speaking, that means the same as "I own myself" but it allows for a lot of misunderstanding.

  26. Right - you cite a right to a certain kind of ownership in your proof of rights to ownership.

    Am I misrepresenting something?

    Perhaps I should not tie Hoppe to your post here, but you do not seem to have demonstrated that self-ownership is irrefutable at all. It seems, for one thing, that you have to define ownership if you even want to do this - and that's the whole task at hand (to define ownership). What proof is "if I don't, who does?". That's not a demonstration of irrefutable proof Mattheus! Perhaps nobody does.

    And again, I'll ask the question you never answered - when did human first have these rights? 10,000 years ago? 20,000 years ago? 100,000 years ago? Do animals have this right? You say it's logically refutable. Does that mean it is contingent on nothing else? If so then it seems to me every living creature should have the irrefutable right to self-ownership. But if it is contingent on things, then what is it contingent on?

    The action axiom is trivial - this self-ownership axiom is simply wrong.

    You'll note I did cite Locke in the post, btw.

  27. You're still missing the point. Your objection - and its solution - are similar to the alleged infinite regress involved in a marginal utility explanation of money demand. I don't have rights because I have rights. I have rights because it is inconceivable to have any understanding of justice without reference to the fact that man controls and operates himself.

    Let me ask you directly: Do I own myself? It's a straightforward question. Do I exercise legal possession and control of my body?

    I can't answer your question in any kind of meaningful or satisfactory way. When did we begin with these rights? Gee, maybe upon discovering them? Maybe when the first man felt certain acts were improper because nobody should hurt him? I can't give a timed date. There is a Sorites paradox involved (probably because our language isn't perfect). But even if I can't give an explanation to when these rights began, it doesn't refute the truth of the principle of self-ownership.

    Why are you invoking the action axiom?

  28. I don't understand what you're trying to say in that first paragraph.

    You do "own yourself". But that is not the axiomatic point that you claim it is. You don't necessarily own yourself. You have a right to yourself because society has evolved the recognition of such a right. The assertion would be less tenable 15,000 years ago. Not only would it be less tenable, it would be largely meaningless - depending on where you lived you wouldn't have much of a context for making sense of that sort of claim. And anyone who "violated" what we would today recognize as a right to self-ownership wouldn't be morally culpable for much of anything.

    If you can't place a date on it, can you narrow it to a species? Why does man have this right and not animals or plants or rocks? What is it about man's self-ownership that is axiomatic? Why is vegetarianism justifiable but not cannibalism, and why does cannibalism among other species have no ethical content?

  29. Why, in short, is this an axiom for you? What is irrefutable about it? You assert that but you don't demonstrate it's irrefutability.

  30. Humans have property rights because they are evolved from territorial apes, which have territory (which is property) that they defend and recognize to exist in other apes troops. Those apes evolved from territorial monkeys, which evolved from territorial insectivorous mammals, which evolved from territorial protomammals, which evolved from territorial reptiles, which evolved from territorial amphibians, which evolved from territorial lobe-finned fishes. That's what we have property rights.

  31. Troy - I agree with you completely. I'm not sure where you fall on this axiomatic question that Mattheus and I are tussling over.

    I don't want you to think that I disagree that some earlier version of property rights existed - that we evolved social understandings of rights because of our territoriality (which itself remained dominant through the eons because it was selected), and that we attached moral dimensions to those understandings. When I ask Mattheus when we "got rights" it's not to laugh at the idea that some sort of proto-property concept existed before humans. I think it did. It's not note that the axiomatic claims that Mattheus is making start to sound a little silly when you consider the full scale of evolutionary time.

  32. My cat has a very decided understanding of her property, and living in society with her, she and I have come to a joint relational understanding. But I don't think there's anything in her instinctive territoriality that indicates any axiomatic property rights. She and I work out our respective property rights in our society.

    If I violate her understood property rights she'll just be mad at me and lose trust in me. But I haven't violated anything she had inherently. I've only transgressed the markers we've set up in society with each other. Just like when I kill a cow to eat it, I haven't violated any right to self ownership because we don't have such a social understanding about that cow's rights. The cow may not like it, but that's a different matter.

  33. Not that I can explain precisely why it's important, but plants and animals can't articulate their rights. Only man can. There's a crucial intellect distinction between animals that can articulate complex thoughts, and animals that can articulate only simple thoughts.

    And, I don't necessarily own myself?

  34. Mattheus -

    1. So what about mentally disabled people, senile people, and children? Are they fair game too? We can be cannibals as long as we eat babies and old people?

    2. You do own yourself, but there's no necessary, axiomatic reason for it.

  35. I'm not sure where the "self-ownership" claim gets us. I'll stick with the evolutionary explanation, including the fact that the social elements (like the cat marking its territory) are evolved as well. One cannot violate our evolved nature without severe consequences. In the end, all that I believe stems from my understanding of our evolved nature. And that includes property rights. Property rights are so deep and primitive that vilating them is among the most destructive actions (to society and human psychology) one can engage in.


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