Thursday, May 5, 2011

More on property, political philosophy, Callahan, and all that

Mattheus has a response here. He's wrong, of course, and fails to quote precisely the passages from my post and Gene's post that would answer his questions - but he gives it a shot :)

Roderick Long - I presume completely independently - has a post on libertarian claims about property here.

I also want to share this great passage from John Dewey's Liberty and Social Control (1935):

"Demand for retention of powers already possessed on the part of a particular group means, therefore, that other individuals and groups shall continue to possess only the capacities in and for activity which they already possess. Demand for increased power at one point means demands for change in the distribution of powers, that is, for less power somewhere else. You cannot discuss or measure the liberty of one individual or group of individuals without measuring the difference of levels.

In the third place, this relativity of liberty to the existing distribution of powers of action, while meaning that there is no such thing as absolute liberty, also necessarily means that wherever there is liberty at one place there is restraint at some other place. The system of liberties that exists at any time is always the system of restraints or controls that exists at that time. No one can do anything except in relation to what others can do and cannot do.

These points are general. But they cannot be dismissed as mere abstractions. For when they are applied either in idea or in action they mean that liberty is always a social question, not an individual one. For the liberties that any individual actually has depends upon the distribution of powers or liberties that exists, and this distribution is identical with actual social arrangements, legal and political -- and, at the present time, economic, in a peculiarly important way.

Return now to the fact that historically the great movements for human liberation have always been movements to change institutions and not to preserve them intact. It follows from what has been said that there have been movements to bring about a changed distribution of power to do - and power to think and to express thought is a power to do - such that there would be a more balanced, a more equal, even, and equitable system of human liberties.

The present movement for social control of industry, money and credit, is simply a part of this endless human struggle. The present attempt to define liberty in terms of the existing distribution of liberty is an attempt to maintain the existing system of control of power, of social restraints and regimentations."


  1. Dewey was always confusing freedom with power; as he does in the above quote. F.A. Hayek had much to say about this confusion; arguing, for example, that this substitution was "only another name for the old demand for the equal distribution of wealth." Hayek calls Dewey "the most explicit defender of this confusion."

    One of the things Hannah Arendt warns about regarding the rise of totalitarian or authoritarian states is confusion regarding terminology like totalitarian, like freedom, like power, like liberty, etc.

    Liberty and power are not allied; they are in fact at odds one with the other.

  2. Got a link?

    Out of curiosity on the Hayek quote, not pestering you for not having a link :)

  3. Yes - confusing terminology is dangerous which is precisely what worries me so much about libertarians!

  4. Daniel, don't you think Dewey's appeal to history involves a confirmaton bias as to what he wants history to prove?

    The French Revolution, which was to change institutions and not to preserve them intact, ended up consolidating the power of one absolute leader by destroying the only obstacle to the power of the absolute leader - the aristocracy. When there was no more aristocracy, there was Napoleon and then Napoleon III.

    If this is what Dewey calls liberation - a form of liberation involving destroying imperfect but needed institutions for arbitrary reasons of progress - I will be glad not to be crushed under the boot of potential liberators in the future.

    Look at poverty across the world, here in the Third World, or even what poverty you might see in the US. Do you think rearrangement of our existing institutions - of property law, corporate law,.etc - will do a single thing to remoe poverty and make human society less "unjust"? I can tell you for sure it will do absolutely nothing.

  5. Nope. That comes right out of my copy of "The Road To Serfdom." Page 30. Every time I read "The Road To Serfdom" I am amazed at how much intellectual heft he put into to such a small book. Quit the tour de force in popular intellectual writing. That's why it continues to sell and why libertarians, etc. continue to wave it along the intellectual barricades.

    Arendt discusses these issues and others in "The Origins of Totalitarianism" and other works. You can get "Origins" online for free as I recall. Arendt remains one of my favorite 20th century philosophers (or sociologists or historians or however one wants to categorize her). I owe a lot of what I think about the state to her thinking.

  6. "It follows from what has been said that there have been movements to bring about a changed distribution of power to do - and power to think and to express thought is a power to do - such that there would be a more balanced, a more equal, even, and equitable system of human liberties."

    That sounds nonsense. Why should the change bring a more more balanced, a more equal, even, and equitable system of human liberties? That sounds like communist fatalism, some kind of eschatologist thinking.

  7. ivanfoofoo -
    I agree - he's kind of a lefty. But I still think with caveats and constraints he makes a good point.

  8. Prateek - did he say "historically the movements to change institutions have been liberating", or did he say "historically the liberating movements have changed institutions"?

    Big difference, no?

  9. Yes, that's worse.

    A liberating or empowering movement is hence not just a necessary condition for change of institutions.

    It is a sufficient one.

    If liberation -> then institutional change

    illustrates that wherever there was "liberation", a giant pile of rubble of destroyed institutions was found on the path to it.


    If institutional change -> then liberation

    illustrates merely that when you find the rubble of destroyed institutions, one of the recking balls (but certainly not all) was likely that of social "liberation".

  10. ivanfoofoo,

    A very good reason to dismiss this outright; Dewey has a hobby-horse that he is trying to sell here - namely that we need active levelling by the state to create certain ends that he and bunch of like minded people approve of. It is all very good and well to say, yeah, "history marches on" (we can all agree with that, and that is so banal as to almost not need comment), but that is not what Dewey is arguing here ultimately - he is arguing the old system where the state avoided picking ends really never existed and hey, we might as well pick the ends we want now. That is a very dangerous way of thinking and quite ahistorical to boot.

  11. He's wrong, of course, and fails to quote precisely the passages from my post and Gene's post that would answer his questions - but he gives it a shot :)

    Strictly speaking, I don't ask a whole lot of questions. I more or less correct you and Gene on your points.

    My post was made under the pretense that it I legitimately own my ears, hair, toenails, tongue, etc. and it is coercion if anyone wants to use them. It also applies to things I have made with my labor.


    I didn't realize you disagreed with me on that and were arguing that defending my body is aggressive. Next time I'll write a post on how up is down, blue is green, and Keynesian economics is the driver of growth.

  12. You can rest assured I have no use at all for your toenails :)

    re:"I didn't realize you disagreed with me on that and were arguing that defending my body is aggressive"

    I didn't realize I did either. Do I? Self-ownership is one of the few "natural rights" type arguments I actually accept.

  13. Well, "coercion" doesn't mean very much if it is stretched this broadly. It's not a concept I am interested in because it can't have any role in solving ethical problems. But I think Gene's argument is a fair criticism of a lot of anarchists; they too adopt this broad definition.

  14. Why do you think it can't have role in solving ethical problems? It seems to me it has a central role. I'm not sure why you say this.

  15. Even attempts to limit coercion are coercive by this measure. Every society becomes equally and completely coercive. There is no question of more or less.

    No, we just need a more sensible definition of coercion. Something that doesn't generate these kind of paradoxes.

  16. Slow down there buddy.

    "Equally and completely"? Where in the world did you get that?

  17. Pinhead!

    This is zero-sum garbage. Trade doesn't make us wealthier. All human interactions should be viewed in regards to relative-power relationships. Democratic socialist academics should be put in charge of society to intelligently reword institutions. You people never change.

    "Return now to the fact that historically the great movements for human liberation have always been movements to change institutions and not to preserve them intact."

    One of the greatest movements ever was the anti-Communist movement, a movement committed to preserving capitalism and the bountiful wealth, beauty, and freedom that it brings. It's no wonder you're so worked up about that Mises piece; when the Fascists stood against the Communists they stood against Progress.

  18. Daniel,

    I suppose I am mostly responding to Gene's argument quoted in the previous post. All possible social arrangements are coercive, even the attempt to minimise coercion is coercive, because some people don't want to minimise coercion. In the end, it's all equally coercive unless we by chance all happen to never disagree.

    For the concept of "coercion" to be interesting or relevant to real problems, it needs to be defined in more narrow and concrete terms. It also is unlikely to function as the kind of first principle for ethics that so many try to use it for.

  19. I don't want to put words in Gene's mouth, but I'm a little surprised that you're reading "they are all coercive" with "they are all equally coercive". Presumably we can understand coercion in degrees, right? "I demand $5" from you is obviosuly worse than "I demand $10 from you". We can utilize the concept of indifference curves to ntoe that coercions for other things that can be exchanged for $5 or $10 are therefore different. We can note that a local coercion where someone has greater say may still be coercive but it is less coercive than a regional, national, or global coercion where someone has less say. We can note self-ownership with Mattheus and conclude that taking some tax money to support benefits that a person has enjoyed (such as rights enforcement and roads) is less coercive (albeit still coercive) than violating self-ownership. We can probably also note degrees of coercion in individual actions that aren't traded on any market. For example - taking $100 from a person is not as bad as raping that person or torturing them or killing them. Taking something to correct a historical accident or bad luck (like a kid growing up in an impoverished family and suffering because of decisiosn his parents made) where nobody benefits from that pain is presumably less coercive than taking something to just give it to somebody else (like agricultural subsidies).

    Presumably also there's a diminishing marginal disutility to coercion. Taking $10 from a rich person and giving it to a poor person is less coercive to the rich person than taking $10 from a poor person and giving it to a rich person.

    These are just things that come to mind immediately.

    I don't think there's warrant to say that we can never completely avoid coercion that means all arrangements are equally coercive, or (to put it differently) that we ethically weigh all coercions the same.

  20. Daniel,

    You are just shifting to a more sensible definition of "coercion". That's fine. Good, even. But it's not the same thing. What about someone else who would prefer we live in a society where you demand $10 from me? Is it less coercive to demand $5 from me than to force someone else to conform to a society of your rules? I don't think such a call can be made about subjective experiences like this.

  21. I fail to see where I've changed anything. Perhaps there was an initial miscommunication.

  22. I believe a response the following may clear up some misunderstandings in this discussion.

    I am a farmer living in a remote area who tends to myself and interacts with other individuals on a strictly voluntary basis. One day, the Communists once again seize the reins of power and set their sights on me. I am to be expropriated of all my land, capital, be incorporated into the Gosplan's grand economic plan as a simple chess piece, and all around steamrolled by the initiators of aggression. If I resist, do you think it's appropriate to frame the argument to say that I am attempting to impose controls over an oppressed minority? Do you a consider there to be a moral equivalence between the actions of the farmer and communist horde?

  23. If that question is directed at me then I've done a real shitty job explaining this :)

    No, there is no moral equivalence whatsoever implied by what I'm saying. I didn't feel like there was in what Gene was saying either, but he can speak for himself.

  24. Russ Roberts interviewed by Nick Gillespie on Hayek vs. Keynes Round Two:

  25. Christopher SchimkeMay 5, 2011 at 9:51 PM

    As a former libertarian and a current student of political philosophy, I'd like to chime in (I just did my MA thesis on a very closely related topic), even though what I have to say might not be *exactly* on topic:

    It seems clear to me that bringing about a libertarian order, or state of affairs, or what have you, *would* be an imposition. For one thing, as you and Callahan recognize, it would involve the enforcement of strong property rights. But really, libertarianism is problematic on its own terms. The enforcement of *any* system of property rights involves *initiatory force*. The "real" libertarian view (assuming a version of libertarianism that conceives of liberty in a morally neutral way, which is what guys like Roderick Long seem to accept) is usually presented as a commitment to a right against the initiation of force or something along those lines. I think that view is deeply confused. Property rights violations are not coercive in the sense that libertarians need them to be, so the enforcement of property rights initiates force. I think what's underlying this notion that the "imposition" of libertarianism would just be some sort of voluntary order, or that it would uniquely satisfy the requirements of liberty, is this idea that merely having, acquiring, or using stuff that's external to the self in no way requires the coercion of others. I accept that claim, but that's really not going to be enough for the libertarian. Property rights violations have to be coercive on this view, but they're not. The only way that they seem to be coercive is in the sense that they restrict the options of "owners" in certain ways. The problem, though, is that appropriation is coercive in the same sense. But initial appropriation and subsequent voluntary transfers have to be legitimate for private property to be legitimate in principle.

    Property regimes limit liberty, and I think they limit liberty in a way that libertarians cannot accept. Some libertarians (Robert Nozick, for instance) avoid this by moralizing their conceptions of liberty, coercion, etc. But that view has serious problems of its own.

    Clearly libertarians shouldn't act as though they're opposed to coercion per se (rights license the use of force), but even if they qualify their view in the way I described above, it still doesn't seem to work. You guys are right.

  26. Christopher Schimke,

    Daniel has made a similar argument before. It doesn't really hold water.

    " the enforcement of property rights initiates force."

    But not towards any specific end. This is something Hayek repeats over and over again I will add. Therein lies what a lot of people can't seem to understand.

    "Property regimes limit liberty..."

    No, what they limit is license; the distinction between the two goes back to at least John Locke. There is also a nice discussion of this distinction in Barnett's "Restoring the Lost Constitution."

    "I think that view is deeply confused."

    I think you are deeply confused about what most libertarians think.

  27. Christopher Schimke,

    Welcome, BTW.

  28. Christopher SchimkeMay 5, 2011 at 11:44 PM


    "But not towards any specific end."

    Perhaps I could say the specific end would be protecting somebody's property right, though I realize this is distinct from pursuing a specific pattern of distribution or what have you. At any rate, how is your point relevant? Is it or is it not true that the enforcement of property rights involves initiatory force against those who choose to violate property rights? All I need is for my case is for that one claim to be true.

    "No, what they limit is license"

    Perhaps you could explain to me in your own words this distinction between license and liberty, and how enforcing property rights merely restricts license rather than liberty. If I want to pitch a tent in your backyard and you (or some suitable authority) forcibly prevents me from doing so (which would presumably be consistent with your having a *right* to your backyard) how is this not a restriction on my liberty?

    "I think you are deeply confused about what most libertarians think."

    Really? Because my touchstones are Jan Narveson and Robert Nozick, two individuals who are essentially *the* libertarian political philosophers. Moreover, I've spent a few years wandering the libertarian blogosphere, reading what self-proclaimed libertarians have to say. I think I understand pretty well what these people think. Admittedly, I probably haven't read as much Hayek as you have, but I thought it was widely acknowledged that his views aren't even representative of libertarianism proper. Perhaps you could go into some more detail as to how I've misunderstood what most libertarians think.

  29. I think we need to start distinguishing free market economists from libertarian philosophers.

    Many free market economists did not have a strong interest or belief in "liberty". At all. Hayek was a Fabian Socialist. Eugen Bohm Bauwerk started out as a protectionist and proponent of industrial policy, but changed his mind when they did not work. Ludwig von Mises too started out as a promoter of progressive policies, and advocated subsidies with moderate tarriffs for Mexican farmers. He also was a friend of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, an industrial corporativist and autarkist. Frederic Bastiat, as Finance Minister, wanted state patronage and protection of the arts and culture, along with heavy defense spending funded by income taxes. He understood those things had opportunity costs, but his personal values went beyond those costs.

    These economists had to accept the values of their governments, not fight against them. That they changed their minds about progressive policies was due to their realization that these policies, from a value-free perspective, did not work. THAT is a true economist.

    On the other hand, Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand, John Locke, and John Stuart Mills are all lightweight philosophers promoting an ideology that is easily burst like a balloon when pricked with a needle. Unlike economists, they have failed to give a value-free criticism of activist government.

    There is a whole world of difference between ex-progressives such as Bastiat and Bohm-Bauwerk, who support free markets from value-free perspectives, and individualist pop philosophers who attempt to justify free markets without learning economics.

  30. Really excellent thoughts, Christopher - and I personally think this point of yours is the heart of it: "The problem, though, is that appropriation is coercive in the same sense".

    I'm not sure I agree (and perhaps I misunderstand) that violating property rights isn't coercive. I would say that it is coercive in much the same way as the initial appropriation (of course you can MORE coercively violate property rights and LESS coercively violate property rights - mugging is more coercive than taxation).

    I also think that libertarians accept this not by moralizing, but simply by changing their definition of "liberty"! Liberty for the libertarian boils down to "the non-violation of existing rights" (and sometimes these are natural rights rather than existing rights).

    Welcome to the blog - please come back often!

  31. This sounds like it might also interest you Christopher:

  32. btw - Gary falls back on "you just don't understand us" a lot (I do too with Keynesianism, to be fair, but then I usually follow it up with a long and detailed explanation of precisely what I think people ought to think of it).

  33. Prateek,

    Mill was not a libertarian; he was much a socialist as anything. He was also an economist; his "Principles on Political Economy" was widely read in the mid-19th century (he was essentially the Keynes of his time). Why you lump Mill into the libertarian category I have no idea; whatever he was, he clearly was not a libertarian (anyone who has actually read his work would know this right off).

    As for Locke, I gotta say, WTF? Locke lived through one of the most turbulent times in British history, had to flee his native land and stay in exile from 1679-1688 after the fall of Shaftesbury, saw the death of Algernon Sidney for his role in the Rye House Plot (Jefferson stated rather bluntly that Locke and Sidney were the wellspring of the American thoughts on liberty inspired the Revolution), etc. He also dramatically changed his mind on a number of issues, including freedom of religion - before he wrote his famous "Letter on Toleration" he had been on the opposite idea, but the bitter experience of the reign of Charles II and constant struggle over the punishment of dissenters, Catholics, etc. change his mind rather dramatically - he came to realize that punishing people for their religious beliefs only strengthened their resolve. His famous "Two Treatises" were the direct result of living through this turbulent period and his changing mind on the nature of monarchy (his earlier views had been much the same as Hobbes'). In short, Locke realized, via direct experience, that his earlier views regarding kingly supremacy were simply wrongheaded.

    I normally enjoy your posts, but when it comes to Locke and Mill, your comments fall far, far short of the mark.

  34. Prateek,

    Hayek quotes Locke and Algernon Sidney heavily throughout his works; he found them of great value (indeed, the title page of "The Constitution of Liberty" quotes Sidney).

    I gotta ask, have you actually read Hayek?????


    I see, so when someone says that libertarians are deeply confused, and that plugs into your silly prejudices, that is alright, but when I say someone is deeply confused about libertarians, that isn't?


    It makes all the difference in the world obviously.

    There are a couple of hundred years worth of literature describing the difference between the two. Locke has a nice discussion of this in Chapter dos of the "Second Treatise." I'm not going to into because it is a well known term in libertarian circles, and as you have stated, you've been on lots of libertarian blogs - surely you've run across it, given all this experience of yours.

    Because I dunno, you've never heard of the term license apparently? Anyway, Hayek was a classical liberal, but it would have been nigh impossible to have a modern libertarian movement without him. I'm a libertarian, so I guess I am one of "these people." I've never met a libertarian I didn't find some fundamental agreement with, and the whole "non-coercion" principle is way overblown by outsiders - I never invoke because it has never made much sense to me - it is the hobby horse of Objectivists though (though even they apply it rather strangely - it isn't considered coercive to bomb the shit out of a foreign land if they are violating liberty and it is practical to kick their ass - it is like they did extra credit in Hugo Grotius or something).

  35. Well what do you mean "deeply confused". A lot of the time when I'm critiquing libertarians I'm simply saying their definition of libety is somewhat different than mine. I don't know if that's an assertion of confusion or just a note of clarification. You often look at libertarians through rose-colored glasses. We all do it of course, but since libertarians have never really had political authority it's easier to idealize them. Once someone gets political power their flaws usually come out loud and clear.

  36. I am on fire!

  37. Daniel,

    I'd say I look at libertarians through the experience of an insider.

    Libertarians get political power? Har, har, har.

  38. We might get power this way, but it would be sort of by accident (it reminds me so much of Latin at university):

  39. Ok, that was really just an excuse to link to a bit from my favorite Python movie. It was at best tangentially related.

  40. I've been tweeting a lot about Hayek lately and apparently the F.A. Hayek Institute has noticed; they are now following me on Twitter. :)

  41. Christopher SchimkeMay 6, 2011 at 7:31 AM


    "Welcome to the blog - please come back often!"

    Thank you, and I will.


    "On the other hand, Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand, John Locke, and John Stuart Mills are all lightweight philosophers promoting an ideology that is easily burst like a balloon when pricked with a needle. Unlike economists, they have failed to give a value-free criticism of activist government."

    Are you saying that these people are lightweights because they're philosophers or are you saying that, relative to what counts as a good philosopher, these people are lightweights? Well, I'll just say that in my opinion nobody who knows anything about contemporary philosophy should be calling Nozick a lightweight.

    Regarding your point about value-free criticisms, so what? They're philosophers; what they're doing when they're engaged in political philosophy is normative inquiry. What else should they be doing? Those are issues that everybody who has an opinion about politics takes a position on. Wouldn't it be nice to have some clear thinking in this area?


    "There are a couple of hundred years worth of literature describing the difference between the two."

    So what? Could you sum up this distinction between license and liberty and tell me why it supports the idea that the enforcement of property rights doesn't restrict liberty? Seriously, why can't you do that? Is this a debate or is this Reading Recommendation Hour with Gary Gunnels?

    "Because I dunno, you've never heard of the term license apparently?"

    What makes you think I'm unfamiliar with the term? In the context of philosophical discussion I usually use it to mean 'moral permissibility.' But I've never seen the term used in an argument against the notion that property rights enforcement restricts liberty. Tell me how appeal to this concept helps libertarians. If you can't be bothered to do anything but give me a list of reading recommendations, why did you bother getting into a debate with me in the first place?

  42. "If that question is directed at me then I've done a real shitty job explaining this :)"

    It was more of a free for all with intent progressing the discussion a tad bit.

    I've noticed that you're debating this issue on the Mises forums with liberty student.

    Just a word of caution:

    "LibertyStudent is a belligerant moderator who hounds anyone who dissents too much and almost always argues in the form of non-sequitors, strawmen, and what is essentially taunting."


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