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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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1.

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.

2.

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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