Friday, April 27, 2012

The sentences that surprised me most to read today

"The origins of “liberaltarianism” are found in the fact that the conventional libertarian philosophy — embodied by property rights “absolutism” — simply  does not resonate amongst the majority of people. It is difficult for someone to accept that, in the grand scheme of things, property rights are more important than, say, a welfare check that allows someone to survive."

[UPDATE: These sentences still perplex me. Jonathan's comment below perplexes me even more (as you'll see in my reply). But the point is, Jonathan claims he's not saying what I suggest he's saying - so please take a look at his comment to get his actual take. I'm still keeping #2, #3, and #4 because they're still important for anyone who does think those things]

This is in Jonathan Catalan's defense of bleeding heart libertarianism from recent critics. I am making the assumption that the second sentence is intended to shed light on the factors driving the situation described in the first sentence. Operating on that assumption, I have a few thoughts:

1. Jonathan has a much weaker grasp than I would have thought he would on why libertarianism doesn't resonate with the majority of people.

2. To state the obvious, I think if you ask most people what they think is the source of our ability to survive and thrive today, far, far more people will cite property rights or markets or something like that than will cite welfare checks. Most of these people will not be libertarians.

3. If you press them on what would be best for a poor person - a welfare check or a private sector job - very few people will say "welfare check". Most of these people will not be libertarians.

4. If the BHL movement or the libertarian movement in general doesn't realize this, it's never going to make much headway.


  1. I think you misunderstood my point -- maybe I was to ambiguous. It's not that people don't agree that property rights are necessary in general; it's that people don't agree that property rights trump everything else all the time. For instance, most people don't agree with property rights absolutism when it comes to taxation; if they did, then everyone would think taxation to be wrong.

    Neither did I mean to imply that when you ask a non-libertarian what's better, a job or a welfare check, they'll choose the latter. I'm a little perplexed at why you interpreted the sentence that way. What I meant is that most people don't agree with the proposition that writing a government check to the poor during bad times is bad, because property rights trump everything else.

    1. "For instance, most people don't agree with property rights absolutism when it comes to taxation; if they did, then everyone would think taxation to be wrong."

      Only if you think taxation violates property rights... which most of us think makes no sense.

      "I'm a little perplexed at why you interpreted the sentence that way."

      I thought you were saying that most people do not think that property rights "are more important" than, "say, a welfare check". I guess I thought that because those were your exact words!!! OK, yes, I'd agree with you if your point was only that a lot of people think welfare checks are not bad things (although I think you'd be very surprised how much push back you'd even get on that point - the "undeserving poor vs. deserving poor" meme is very widespread).

      I'm dumbfounded that you thought those two sentences were saying what you just said above, but I'll take your word for it and change the post.

    2. "Only if you think taxation violates property rights... which most of us think makes no sense."

      If my income is my property and the government takes my property through taxes, then taxation is a violation of property rights. The only way it wouldn't be a violation is if income wasn't my property or if I had a choice not to pay taxes.

      "I guess I thought that because those were your exact words!!!"

      Words are shaped by context. ;)

      And yea, I'm not saying that liberals agree with all forms of redistribution. Certainly, an extreme example is the military. A lot of liberals don't agree with high military spending, even if some people do think the military trumps property rights (to provide a "public good").

    3. That taxation is coercion does not mean that taxation is theft. Taxes as a compulsory levy to enjoy more expansive use of one's property rights does not make much sense as a notion of theft if it leaves people better off. All those folk who are not anarcho-capitalists subscribe to some version of the second.

    4. In other words, taxation is part of a compulsory exchange, not merely a taking. (I expand slightly on this point here.)

    5. I read Jonathan's words the way Jonathan describes them here in the comments. He isn't saying that the public don't think property rights are important. He's saying that they think other things are more important and take precedence then giving welfare as an example.

    6. Who thinks welfare is more important than private property? That's what I thought he was saying and it sounds nuts to me.

    7. Lorenzo,

      Here's an interesting old article from Gene Callahan touching on many of the same issues this discussion and your article do.

    8. @Daniel:

      Well, taxation interferes with property rights. Welfare is funded through taxation. So if you support tax-funded welfare, at some margin, you find property rights less important than welfare.

    9. PrometheeFeu, that's exactly how I look at it.

      There are two ways of looking at property rights. They can be seen as something everyone must protect, something that comes before government. Or, they can be seen as a set of rules put in place by government to adjudicate between private citizens but not always between government and private citizens. That is, they can be rules that the referees and the players must obey, or rules that only the players must obey. Daniel sees them as rules only the players must obey, and believes that normal people see things the same way.

      I'm not really an anarcho-capitalist, I recognise the positives to this argument. It's certainly how in practice all property has come into being. As John McCarthy said "Honor among thieves is the ancestor of all honor. Likewise, democracy among tyrants is the ancestor of all democracy." I agree with Gene and Hobbes when they say:

      "Hobbes contended that the only way that rational individuals can escape the 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short' life of humans without a sovereign is for them to surrender some of their natural liberties to a sovereign power."

      The important question is "How much?"

    10. So - just to clarify for people who may read this comment - I don't see them as only rules that the players must obey.

      I think the before/after government is tricky. Obviously they come before government. I should hope everyone understands that rights don't "come from" government. But collective action is hard and to generate the full suite of enforceable rights such that they actually exist we form institutions to structure our interaction with each other. Some of these are public and some of these are private. I guess the best way to put it is that of course rights come before government, but government (and also private institutions that perform similar functions) is important for thinking about how rights are actualized in everyday life.

      But obviously the refs and the players have to abide by it. I'm a little confused as to how you came to the conclusion that I ever thought anything else on that question.

    11. Warren, thanks for that. Gene Callahan makes a good point. I make a much longer case against extolling statelessness here.

    12. "But obviously the refs and the players have to abide by it."

      Maybe it's better just to ask a question.... What do you think "property rights" means?

    13. Current -
      Often this sort of thing ends up as me trying to put into words on the fly a broad concept and somebody nitpicking and reading deep significance over a little bit of phrasing I've used. So how about this - I'll give you an on the fly definition and then you give me yours, and we'll see if I also am willing to say "ya - that definition is good too" to yours, so that we don't needlessly invent controversy on this.

      My definition is that property rights are claims to the alienation of, use of, or income from some object or service.

      There's probably a nit or two to pick with that, but that's pretty good.

      The controversy doesn't really come in the definition - it comes in the application. Specifying property rights and arbitrating competing rights is very tough in practice, and we've evolved all sorts of institutions to do that - some public, some private. In practice, this means that there are lots of social, legal, common law, and cultural reifications of "property rights". This is different, of course, from actually creating a right.

      To get a flavor of the controversy, let's start with the fact that you and I both seem to agree that the government doesn't "create" rights. But it does enforce laws that help to give definition and teeth to preexisting senses of "rights". Take pollution as the obvious example. I can go back to Locke and self-ownership and all that great pre-government-property-rights stuff and claim the right to the air I breath. A manufacturer can go back to Locke and claim the exact same sorts of things. So we obviously have a problem. Government steps in in a number of ways to clarify this - sometimes on the side of the manufacturer, and sometimes on the side of the private citizen. What is so suspect about many libertarians' alleged defense of property rights is that they'll say there's no violation going on on one side but there is a violation going on on the other side.

      They may even go as far as accusing others of thinking that refs are not required to abide by property rights!

      I think this is mostly poor reasoning. Anyone who really recognizes the importance of property rights ought to acknowledge the tension there and ought to be careful about declaring interventions like that as the violation of property rights. There's no escaping violation of property rights and coercion here. Coercion is a fact of life - it's going to happen either way. Liberty is about minimizing coercion, not asymmetrically pretending it isn't there.

      I'd be interested in your definition (and curious if I agree with it) before launching into a discussion of the substance of that comment.

    14. "My definition is that property rights are claims to the alienation of, use of, or income from some object or service."

      I'm not sure that I really disagree with you here. But I think you're only presenting a small part of your case.

      You mention one situation of conflict, the ownership of air. In general these situations crop up when some good changes from being non-scarce to scarce. So, when it becomes possible for the water in springs to be polluted by groundwater pollution from industry then a law is needed to arbitrate in that situation.

      We could go further and talk about non-excludable goods and non-rivalrous goods. I agree that there are interesting problems for any idea about property rights there, and for any system of enforcing them be it private or public.

      But, take the case of welfare. That was one of the things Jonathan was originally discussing. I don't think anyone is really saying that there is a property rights issue there. In that case it's the simple situation that Jonathan describes at the beginning, people think that welfare should take precedence over property rights. So, wealth is taken from some people and redistributed to others, not as recompense for any sort of property rights issue like paying for policing or for pollution, but to serve "social justice".

  2. Lorenzo,

    If I need to be coerced into paying for a service, then I must not be feeling the benefits as much as you say I am.

    1. Or there is an incentive to free ride.

  3. Private voluntary communities would all likely have numerous forms of "collective goods" that would be paid without state coercion through contractual agreement. Condo association fees and time share fees come to mind. People who failed to pay could/would be evicted. People of bad character could be excluded before the fact.

    What non-libertarians fail to grasp is that allegedly minor violations of strict property rights protections generally result in reduced protections for minorities and the powerless. Giant freeway projects and pollution tend to afflict poor neighborhoods, not wealthy ones.

    1. I'm glad you mentioned examples... when I read that first sentence my first thought was that there's no need to keep this hypothetical Bob - private voluntary communities DO have lots of collective goods. That's why we all like private voluntary communities so much!

      re: "What non-libertarians fail to grasp is that allegedly minor violations of strict property rights protections generally result in reduced protections for minorities and the powerless. Giant freeway projects and pollution tend to afflict poor neighborhoods, not wealthy ones."

      Bob, if you don't think non-libertarians get this you're just being ignorant now. There's a huge literature by leftie sociologists on the racial impact of pollution. And extending property rights and other rights to minorities is what the Civil Rights movement was all about (you know, those laws that Rand and Ron thought probably were a bit inappropriate). Please stop being so patronizing to people you obviously have no clue about.

    2. The lefties write about pollution in poor neighborhoods, yes. But they refuse to see that strict enforcement of private property rights in the bodies and physical property of the poor solves this problem and that leftist policies necessarily reduce and eliminate those protections. They fail to see that democratic socialism gives the gang selected by the majority carte blanche to loot the minority (and probably the majority too). And yes, I'm quite patronizing with such clueless people.

      98% of everything written by "progressives" is based upon a purposeful or oblivious failure to distinguish crony capitalism from laissez faire. Suppose that the Romanian government was taking over a village so that a gold mine might be created in violation of the property rights of the inhabitants. It's only libertarians who will react with a complaint about the strict property rights of those inhabitants. And it's all because we are such bleeding hearts about the never-ending pile of victims of "progressive" policies. We could make a lot more money worrying about other things.

    3. I insist that the poor old minority lady can keep her house when the commission wants it for a freeway. I guess that makes me a sociopath who hates roads.


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