Posts Tagged ‘property rights’

Todd Seavey and Kerry Howley (joined by Dan MacCarthy) continue their debate of whether libertarianism should include concern for more than just property rights. Its an old debate, one that Seavey and Howley have had in the past in their respective blogs, and one I have commented on extensively earlier, so there’s nothing much to really add. There’s one point — it struck me then, and it strikes me now — that however, I should reiterate.

Kerry at one point writes: “None of this is to say that it is the state’s place to force a family to accept its children, a church to welcome all comers, or a sex worker to embrace all lonely hearts. There is a difference between emotional coercion and physical force.” I am glad. If Kerry actually advocated using laws to overcome social pressures, I would have to stop calling her a libertarian.

But then, the reader could be forgiven for wondering what really are these guys arguing about. As Todd says: “There’s a vast universe of moral and philosophical judgments beyond libertarianism, and one of the beauties of the philosophy is that it leaves people free to debate those countless other matters without breaking the minimal ground rule of respecting one another’s rights.” If Todd agrees that a libertarian may validly  advocate for all the things Kerry wants (as long as they do not insist that it be included in the libertarian canon) and Kerry agrees that all the things she wants ought not to be coercively imposed, it seems to me that these people are speaking a bit past each other, or at the very least, their debate is more semantical than substantive.

No, I am not saying that there isn’t a disagreement, merely that the disagreement (Kerry: Libertarians should combat more than state tyranny, though not through the legal route; Todd: It is perfectly fine for libertarians to combat social tyranny by social means, though we should not mandate it as a part of libertarianism) is not as wide as the debate might make it seem to be. Todd’s position (which I completely agree with, by the way) doesn’t really seem to counter Kerry as much as some other straw-woman who wants to break apart racist, homophobic or patriarchal conventions by force. Kerry’s counter-reply also seems mildly oblivious to Todd’s position. I share Kerry’s concerns and I agree with Todd’s position. Isn’t that a little funny?

But anyway, those who aren’t steeped in this subject too thoroughly should really read the Reason article; Howley, Seavey and McCarthy are all fine writers, and they make all the points worth making. Also you may wish to glance at Ilya Somin’s take on the issue.

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A small victory for freedom and common sense, though for the wrong reasons:

A court in Breda, Netherlands has overturned the smoking ban the government imposed last summer. The judge ruled that the ban violates Article One of the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The judge argues that the ban disproportionately affects the owners of small establishments with no additional staff.

The correct reason why the smoking ban is doubly absurd is that it targets private, not public places and in particular ones where most customers come specifically for smoking. The fact that passive smoking can lead to cancer is quite irrelevant here because no one is forcing a non-smoker to go to these places. 

A similar law in the US, for instance, would immediately ban most hookah bars. I would think anyone would see the underlying absurdity and inherent dangers immediately but apparently that is not the case.

I am also surprised — as when I read the linked comment above — at most people’s amazing lack of understanding of the basic libertarian principles and their propensity to attribute positions to their opponents that they do not hold. (For the uninitiated, this is usually referred to as a strawman argument)

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(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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It is a sign of how far anti-discrimination laws have gone when a dating website is sued for not including homosexuals in the matchmaking service. I completely agree with Jacob Sullum:

In a settlement with the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, the online dating service eHarmony, until now limited to heterosexuals, has agreed to start matching men with men and women with women. The deal resolves a complaint by a gay man who claimed that eHarmony’s failure to accommodate homosexuals violated New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination.

[…] I’ve never bought the argument that gay marriage—i.e., the government’s evenhanded recognition of relationships between couples, without regard to sexual orientation—is a way of forcing “the gay agenda” onto people who object to it. But this coerced agreement, compelling a private business to provide a service it did not want to provide, certainly is. As Michelle Malkin notes, “this case is akin to a meat-eater suing a vegetarian restaurant for not offering him a ribeye or a female patient suing a vasectomy doctor for not providing her hysterectomy services.”

Also read this old article by Jason Dixon.

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And the moral is not the legal.

It is a distinction that often seems to be lost. Admittedly, most people, when faced with the distasteful, the unpleasant or the unfair have a natural impulse to ‘ban it’. That is an emotional response. As we grow up, we learn to separate the emotional from the rational. Libertarianism simply takes this ability to make distinctions to its logical conclusion.

Of course social and personal issues are important and they need to be addressed. It is a worthy goal to oppose hateful, discriminatory, bigoted or irrational conduct. The right way to do that however is by social means, such as ostracization or education. It is wrong to pretend that no harm is done by letting the political into the personal. Moreover, even when one is using purely social means to stop a harmful practice, it is important to keep the political-personal distinction in mind.

As Todd Seavey puts it in this excellent post:

Libertarianism’s chief strength, then, has always been in recognizing the vast gulf between, on one hand, myriad, never-ending social complaints (along with the conflicting social philosophies built around them) and, on the other hand, the minuscule and tightly constrained range of things that rise (or, if you prefer, fall) to the level of political/legal complaints.

The more causes for political complaint people believe themselves to have, the more likely a total state becomes. If selling trans fats — or simply calling a woman fat — is deemed an assault on social justice, a Kafkaesque web of petty laws becomes more likely.

[…] Maybe it’s high time we formulated a more-explicitly tiered language for talking about such distinctions, though: wrong vs. illegal vs. ought-to-be-illegal — grey area, merely unpleasant, bad idea but not really morally-loaded, etc. — since these things so often get lumped together. Libertarianism, though, like no other philosophy, hinges on recognizing these distinctions rather than treating That Which Is Bad as necessarily deserving of simultaneous avoidance, moral condemnation, outlawing, punishment by God, etc., etc., etc.

Most of my posts have been concerned with laws that arise from this failure to distinguish between the moral and the legal. There is the obscenity law, laws against prostitution, laws forbidding discrimination and hate speech, laws that regulate freedom of association, blackmail law and so on. Do these laws improve the ability of some people (the alleged victims) to make more out of their lives? Doubtful, but let us assume that they do. However, even then, any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that such laws are immoral.


That is not to say that all laws in this complex world can be straitjacketed into a strict property-rights system. First of all, property rights can be tricky to define in the borders. Secondly, we need to make sure that whatever political system we are proposing is sustainable. The real world is full of political ambiguities. A dogmatically libertarian state just isn’t in the cards, the poor aren’t going to magically go away, deregulation will hurt some people. Finally liberty may be the basic moral good but it is not the only good one needs to survive. And people on the edge will always choose survival first.

In short, we do need to worry about the consequences of everything, even libertarian prescriptions. I believe that it does make sense to have a certain level of mandatory taxation, even if some of that money will necessarily go into projects you do not support. It does make sense to have a certain minimum degree of redistribution and welfare to ensure equilibrium and also to help develop the basic capacities to exercise freedom in children. It makes sense to have compulsory security checks in certain places and it most certainly makes sense to prevent private citizens from acquiring nuclear weapons. It may even make sense to mandate certain consumer protection laws — such as those that deal with information disclosure — though I am less convinced about this. And so on.

What does not make sense, is to pretend that laws like the above —  all of which restrict some basic individual rights — are morally neutral/superior or liberty enhancing. They may be necessary and they may increase the happiness of many people and depending on my rational and empirical analysis of the particular issue I might even support them — but to claim that those laws are anything other than a necessary evil is unlibertarian.

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The city of Belmont, California, recently passed a law that bans you from smoking in your own house if it shares a floor or ceiling with another apartment. So how far will smoking bans go, and how harmful really is second-hand smoke?

Watch this great documentary by the folks at Reason magazine where they take on such questions.

I hate the smell of cigarette smoke as much as anyone. However, as Nick Gillespie puts it, “You may like the nanny-state when it watches something you hate, but sooner or later politicians will go after something you like.” The same thing of course, was expressed decades ago in a different context by Martin Niemoller.

That is why there is no such thing as trivial nanny-stating. Whether it is helmet laws or smoking bans or drug laws, it is the same insidious principle and it needs to be opposed. But I am straying from the original point, which is — watch the video.

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Read about it here.

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Intellectual property laws, such as those relating to copyright or patents, are a source of considerable disagreement among libertarians. The reason is not hard to see. In the words of Rodrick Long,

When libertarians of the first sort come across a purported intellectual property right, they see one more instance of an individual’s rightful claim to the product of his labor. When libertarians of the second sort come across a purported intellectual property right, they see one more instance of undeserved monopoly privilege granted by government.

In this fine article, Long argues against intellectual property laws from a libertarian perspective and points out there are other means (such as laws against fraud) to achieve many of the same results. My position on the matter is less extreme than Long’s. I believe that a case does exist for some intellectual property laws; however I also believe that current laws are more restrictive than is necessary. For instance, there is no justification, in my opinion, for the absurdly long copyright laws that currently exist in the United States (and were passed incidentally, under pressure from media corporations).

The matter is complex and deserves a longer post, which I hope to attempt some day. For now, I’d like to point the reader to the fact that Neil Nataniel is currently guest-blogging at Volokh on what he calls the “copyright paradox”, a reference to the fact that copyright simultaneously enables and restricts free speech. The first two posts are here and here.

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Rights and “Rights”

John and Terry Hoffius own an apartment building in Jackson, Michigan. In the summer of 1993, they had a vacancy and advertised it. They were contacted by a couple, Kristal McCready and Keith Kerr, who expressed interest in renting it. When asked if they were married, McCready and Kerr replied in the negative. Mr. Hoffius informed them that according to his religious beliefs it was sinful to cohabit out of wedlock and that he would not countenance it by renting to them. McCready and Kerr soon found another apartment in the area but would not just let the matter drop. They filed a suit against the Hoffiuses, alleging housing discrimination. The case went all the way up to the Michigan Supreme Court. In a 4-2 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Hoffiuses had violated the plaintiffs’ “rights” by not renting the apartment to them. [1]

In a 2002 decision, the California Fair Employment & Housing Commission fined Melissa DeSantis $500 for inflicting “emotional distress” on a would-be roommate by allegedly telling him that “I don’t really like black guys. I try to be fair and all, but they scare me.” The decision also required her to pay the would-be roommate $240 in expenses and take “four hours of training on housing discrimination.” [2]

Ann Hacklander-Ready rented a four-bedroom house in Madison, Wisconsin, and sublet three of the bedrooms to female housemates. After two housemates moved out, Hacklander-Ready and her remaining housemate, Maureen Rowe, looked for replacements. They initially accepted a rent deposit from Caryl Sprague, knowing that she was a lesbian. Hacklander-Ready and Rowe later decided they were not comfortable living with a lesbian, and returned Sprague’s deposit. Sprague then filed a discrimination complaint with Madison’s civil rights commission against both Hacklander-Ready and Rowe. The judge ruled against the duo, and ordered them to pay damages. Rowe settled but Hacklander-Ready appealed. She lost and was ordered to pay $23000 to Sprague in attorney fees, in addition to thousands of dollars worth of damages. [3]

In each of the above examples, someone’s rights were violated. It was the person who the court/commision found guilty.

The right to associate, fundamental to any free society, includes the right to not associate. The right to free speech incorporates the right to express opinions that may offend others. The ever-expanding scope of anti-discrimination laws strikes at the heart of these freedoms by telling us what we cannot do with our own property and what opinions we may not express. The greatest threat to liberty in the United States today comes not from the Al-Qaeda but from within — from the recent explosion of various laws that seek to erode civil liberties in the name of “compelling state interest”. Anti-discrimination laws are a prime example of those.

The original laws

“A society that puts equality – in the sense of equality of outcome – ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality”. -Milton Friedman

The two primary American federal laws that govern discrimination in businesses and property are the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [4] (henceforth abbreviated to CRA) and the subsequent Fair Housing Act of 1968 [5]. These laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion and sometimes sex. For instance, Title II of the CRA mandates that a person cannot be refused entry into a public place (such as a restaurant, hotel or theatre) on the basis of these characteristics. Title VII forbids employers from discriminating against a member of the above “protected classes” in any aspect of employment including hiring, firing and compensation. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to refuse to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of his race, color, religion or national origin and it also outlaws discriminatory housing adverts.

Now, equality before the law is one of the fundamental tenets of a democratic society. Thus, there is no place for any kind of discrimination in legislation, government agencies or state-funded institutions. Indeed much of the CRA is concerned with outlawing this kind of state-mandated discrimination and I have absolutely no quarrel with those parts of the Act. Titles II and VII of the CRA and much of the Fair Housing Act, however, go much further than that; they impose restrictions on privately owned businesses. They lay out a particular moral standard and require that this standard supercede the individual’s choices even in matters that ought to be strictly his business. That to me is unjustified and immoral.

Some might argue that certain restrictions on freedom are necessary for ensuring social justice; that a complete absence of anti-discrimination laws will inevitably result in terrible consequences. My answer to them is this: the restrictions on individual liberty that anti-discrimination laws impose are huge and therefore they cannot be justified unless the likely consequences (of not having these laws) are sufficiently catastrophic. Let us therefore pause to consider what will happen, in this day and age, if all anti-discrimination laws which curtail property rights are repealed. Will it lead to overt discrimination in private businesses? Yes, some. However there is no doubt in my mind that the loss of profit, and more importantly the social stigma this will invite will be a very strong discouraging force and will ensure that instances of discrimination remain extremely rare. The current mainstream attitudes, as the reader will undoubtedly agree, are overwhelmingly against discrimination and no business that gives even the slightest importance to its brand image will dare indulge in overtly discriminatory conduct. The beauty of a free society is that there is always plenty of choice and a person who is the victim of one irrational bias will nevertheless find ten other places that will serve him without reserve.

What about the destructive wholesale discrimination against blacks in the early part of the last century, some may ask. One answer, of course, is that times have changed and the example is irrelevant to our present topic. The discrimination against blacks that occurred then will have never occured today even if there was no CRA. Indeed, the massive change in the attitude towards blacks among ordinary people and the rejection of the slavery-era mentality occured in the years before the passage of the Act (the very fact that the Act passed with popular support is testament to that) and thus many of the provisions of the CRA were unnecesary from inception! In some ways, however, this answer is unsatisfactory for it seems to leave open the question of whether a CRA-like act would have been justified, say, a hundred years ago (disregarding the fact that it would have never passed then!). A better answer is obtained by taking a closer look at the precise nature of that wholesale anti-black discrimination. As Ruwart points out [6], that wholesale dicrimination was a direct result of legislation. Laws were passed by the government which made it costlier to hire blacks, made it illegal for blacks and whites to mingle together and mandated discrimination in several other ways. In a truly libertarian society such laws would not exist, nor would anti-discrimination laws like Title II and VII, for all these laws share a defining characteristic — they restrict freedom and choice.

However, the greatest irony is that coercive laws like these seldom have the desired effect. They may achieve some (forced) racial integration but that does not naturally translate to less racial tension. They take away basic property rights and replace them with governmental tyranny and meaningless political correctness. In the words of Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul [7],

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 not only violated the Constitution and reduced individual liberty; it also failed to achieve its stated goals of promoting racial harmony and a color-blind society. Federal bureaucrats and judges cannot read minds to see if actions are motivated by racism. Therefore, the only way the federal government could ensure an employer was not violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to ensure that the racial composition of a business’s workforce matched the racial composition of a bureaucrat or judge’s defined body of potential employees. Thus, bureaucrats began forcing employers to hire by racial quota. Racial quotas have not contributed to racial harmony or advanced the goal of a color-blind society. Instead, these quotas encouraged racial balkanization, and fostered racial strife.

Of course, America has made great strides in race relations over the past forty years. However, this progress is due to changes in public attitudes and private efforts. Relations between the races have improved despite, not because of, the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

The draconian morphosis

The original laws were however only the beginning; the top of the classic slippery slope. They opened the doors to more recent anti-discrimination laws that are much more draconian. For instance, Title VII of the CRA applies only to businesses with 15 or more employees. This was done in mild deference to the relatively private nature of small businesses as well as to save them from the often formidable costs of fighting a discrimination lawsuit. Many states however have since enacted laws that are essentially versions of Title VII without the 15 employee exemption. Thus, in California, anti-discrimination laws apply to employers with more than 5 employees; in New Jersey, the law applies to even 1 employee companies.

Many other examples are provided by David Bernstein in an excellent article [8] .

“While the civil rights laws of the 1960s were generally sensitive to civil libertarian concerns, contemporary antidiscrimination laws often are not. For example, in deference to freedom of association and privacy considerations, the 1964 Act prohibited discrimination only in public facilities such as restaurants, hotels, and theaters. Newer laws, however, often prohibit discrimination in the membership policies of private organizations ranging from large national organizations like the Boy Scouts of America to small local cat fanciers’ clubs.”

Of the many inroads that anti-discrimination laws have made into the private realm, one that I find particularly disconcerting concerns roommate selection. The original form of the Fair Housing Act only covered landlords, not roommates (except on the issue of discriminatory adverts). They also contained an exemption clause for landlords who rented less than four units and lived on the premises. Recently however, as the examples in the beginning of this article show, the law has been interpreted to cover roommates, even those who do not own the apartment. Deciding who to share a house with is an intimate matter and when laws and courtrooms interfere with that, something is very wrong. Eugene Volokh’s post on this subject [9] mirrors my sentiments.

Frankly, I am surprised at the relative lack of outrage on this issue. If the government attempts to clamp down on free speech there will be protests, and rightfully so, but many of these protesters will remain silent on issues of freedom that touch on politically sensitive themes like these. Of course, most of us are not racist, sexist, or anti-gay. However, a necessary characteristic of freedom of expression and association is that there be no caveats; the real test of liberty is when people offend.

There is no doubt that discrimination can be extremely offensive and pernicious; thus the idea of allowing people to discriminate may strike some as going too far. In the end however, as David Bernstein puts it, “it is a small price to pay for preserving the pluralism, autonomy and check on government power provided by civil liberties.”


1. Housing Discrimination Laws and the Continuing Erosion of Property Rights-www.fff.org

2. FEHC Dec. No. 02-12, 2002 WL 1313078

3. http://volokh.com/2002_07_14_volokh_archive.html#85248159

4. Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Wikipedia

5. Fair Housing Act – Wikipedia

6. http://www.theadvocates.org/ruwart/questions_maint.php?Category=6&id=156

7. The trouble with forced integration – Ron Paul archives

8. http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=2719

9. http://volokh.com/posts/1179259134.shtml

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