Archive for December 8th, 2008

(Post updated)

I haven’t had time to post much of late but here are excerpts from two posts today that express accurately what I feel about those matters. Isn’t the internet great?

Todd Seavey on why the ambiguity of property rights at the boundaries does not mean that the concept becomes less important or that we should reject it as the basis of libertarian philosophy:

Now, a few very bright, well-informed commenters over the past few weeks who consider themselves more or less libertarians have said they think libertarianism is as guilty of being amorphous as feminism (and, crucially, that’s not my biggest complaint about feminism), with one noting that even hardcore anarcho-capitalist David Friedman (son of Milton) points out tough cases such as whether the photons from someone’s flashlight falling upon you constitute trespass. But such examples were meant to address ambiguities in a property rights system, not ambiguity about whether property rights are central to his/our philosophy, as Will Wilkinson at least seems to think is debatable. [..] It’s important to distinguish between saying property rights are 100% rigid and unambiguous (which I’m not really saying) and saying property rights and property rights violations are the central concerns of the philosophy and provide the traditional litmus test for what is or is not considered permissible under a libertarian regime (and this I certainly am saying, as are plenty of other people).

I couldn’t have put it better. The system of property rights form the moral basis of libertarianism. Like any other system, there are potential intellectual riddles associated with its application to certain areas. The existence of certain complexities and ambiguities at the boundaries of a system does not mean that there is something fundamentally wrong with applying the system in the vast majority of cases where it is well-defined. It simply means that in those extreme cases, a bit of subtlety and intellectual care is needed. (*)

Next, here is Radley Balko (‘The Agitator’) on the recent ridiculous standoff in Boston where a SWAT team surrounded a woman’s house because she bought too many Christmas presents for the poor. Apparently, they feared she was mentally disturbed.

We’re seeing this more and more. Mentally unstable people who present an immediate threat to others is one thing. But sending the SWAT teams after someone who’s depressed, or even suicidal, is absurd. Even if Michalosky was contemplating suicide (and it appears she wasn’t), why is that any of the police department’s business? And who thought pointing a bunch of guns at her head would be an appropriate course of treatment?

Radley’s point, and I whole-heartedly agree, is that even if the police had just cause to believe that she was mentally disturbed (and in this case they didn’t, unless they think philanthropy is a mental disease) they had no business coming after her. As John Stuart Mill put it, the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his or her will, is to prevent harm to others. Period.

(*) Another example of where property rights become hazy is when we are dealing with a commons (such as the environment) that can be altered by the actions of our private property (such as cars) and that in turn can affect other private property detrimentally (by injecting polluted air into another’s lungs, or by flooding towns). Once again, this is a situation that calls not for abandonment of our freedoms and property rights but for intellectual care. Unlike some other libertarians, I do not doubt that anthropogenic global warming is real; however any solution must strike a balance between the various interests involved, both moral and economic. For instance, systems like cap-and-trade or carbon tax are less freedom restricting than blanket bans or other government mandated strict regulation. Unfortunately, some environmentalists and politicians are prone to making wildly exaggerated claims and advocating coercive methods on this topic. That is destructive — both to liberty and to science.


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