Politics as Religion
There was a time when libertarianism seemed to make sense. It explained so much, so clearly. It was, briefly, the darling of the media and major politicians such as Reagan paid lip service and appointed officials based on their libertarian creds, long before the radical right of the Tea Party demonstrated how to leverage commitment into influence. Reportedly, major corporate funding financed grants and college endowments aimed at proving and proclaiming the wonders of free markets, to the vast annoyance of more mainstream moral/economic scholars. (A case in point was the alleged financing of Robert Lefevre and his protégé, later-to-be-congressman Dana Rohrabacher, by a Roger Millikan, owner of vast textile mills in the deep South, whose only stipulation, or so it was claimed, was that the issue of protective tariffs on textile products not be mentioned. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/01/us/01milliken.html?_r=0)
But this hardly bears on the real internal troubles within libertarian circles and thought. Certain questions were not answered then, or since then. Raising them in libertarian circles instantly results in a flurry of uncomfortable, accusatory looks followed by a quick change of topic. The consequence has been an aging movement with few if any major intellectual advances in the past half-century, and little hope for the future. There has been way too long without answers on issues such as children's rights or original property claims for the movement to simply dismiss them as "we'll solve them as we get to that point." In recent years, we have been losing members as that article of faith becomes less credible.
Yet the obvious problem areas have, I contend, a common intellectual root. Once that root is exposed and expunged, the good, solid, extensive work that initially seemed so positive and revolutionary can go forward. This could have happened in the '60's - or even earlier - but non-rational factors turned a movement that stressed rationality into a pseudo religion. Some of us - myself, for example - recognized the problem early on and even wrote extensively, if naively, of the necessity of dealing with such basic issues. For our trouble, we were ostracized and became the target of hate attacks, as betrayers of the faith. Decades later, we would be banned from discussion groups for refusing to SHUT UP about the problems. Now most of those who were most trenchant in their proclamations on the libertarian articles of faith - such as the mindless "Live a Libertarian Life" crew - are dead or inactive or soon will be.
So, we are running out of time. The remainder of the original movement that is still alive and intellectually productive will either get its act together or fund those who can employ that vast treasure trove of libertarian thought to move forward, or it will act as the brakes and roadblocks to what could be a new renaissance in libertarian thought and action.
I will try to provide links as needed for the various references I will sketch out, but those who know my style will be prepared for long periods of germination and thought between bursts of coherent integrations, after which there is a period of consolidations and tracking of sources. Please feel free to assist.
By way of introduction to where my thoughts have been taking me, one of the central issues where the libertarian movement got things wrong is exemplified in my blog:
(I overheard a fellow libertarian commenting on this sarcastically as "Maoist libertarianism" or some such take. Be warned.)
A deeper look at what we mean by that most sacred of concepts in the libertarian lexicon - property - can be found here:
Before you spend a month reading these two blogs, I'll try to present a synopsis.
The central mistake was the absolutist view of property as supported by a miss-reading of Locke. What is ignored in Locke is that he never intended that "mixing ones labor with the land" be taken as a legal framework or formula for grants of title, much less an absolute moral endowment. Locke presented the "mixing..." as a moral foundation that justified the existence of property as such. A simple line of questioning quickly demonstrates the absurdity that follows from miss-applying the "mixing..." out of context.
How much mixing is required? Do I have to physically touch and/or move every molecule - in a conic section to the center of the earth? If merely exerting the labor to literally stake out a mining claim is sufficient, presumably with digital mapping and electronic encrypted tags in place of stakes, showing up in Google maps or the equivalent, then why not stake out the moon? Mars? The solar system, as in "Hitch Hiker's Guide...", etc.
And then, there are all the prior "mixings..." Who has not contemplated taking a path between the mountains instead of around them? Every vector is a potential path, mine, fish-pond, power dam, and people put up stakes on that and surrounding property, investing their expertise at estimates of value future into exploration of geology and local product and creation of roads, maps and other infrastructure. They do this with or without explicit titles based on "mixing." Everyone has an interest and has contributed something to the final pot. Who, then, may claim the exclusive title? "Mixing..." does not resolve this. There are too many prior claims. Property title, in fact, is the legal way to resolve these conflicting claims, allowing for proprietorship, meaning that long term planning becomes feasible.
It is said that without justice, there cannot be peace. But I say unto you - without property, there can be no justice. The boundaries of exclusive use enables an accounting of who deserves what and a way of resolving disputes that reach across the boundaries, such as so-called externalities. When two or more individuals or groups have conflicting or mutually exclusive plans for the use of the same physical or intellectual resource, then either a stalemate ensues, with no one able to enjoy the planned use, or some kind of accommodation happens such that for some stipulated period some subset of the conflicted groups has total control over that resource.
This is not the only possible scenario, of course. Parties may agree to use only a set amount of a shared resource, such as a stream or grazing land. The goal in these agreements is to provide for maximum productive use of resources for everyone. One method of achieving such an outcome is via bidding. Whoever submits the highest bid gets the exclusive or preferential access, while the proceeds of the winning bid are then shared equally among the losers and winners.
The value of proprietorship can hardly be underestimated. An individual or group employing a focused effort, and able to scrutinize results to whatever degree needed to improve their approach, can generally make much better use of a resource than a collective or temporary decision process. For this reason, many free market advocates, including many economists, have implied that the original grounds for property title are simply not particularly important. That worthless heir will soon lose his inheritance, the mob boss will have to find investments to launder his ill-gotten gains, and, thus, most of the underlying value will likely find its way to more productive employment.
This is generally true, but it falls afoul of the impact that unjustly acquired capital has on society in general. When, instead of compensation to those excluded from use of originally common property by a legal title, we see the pure and absolute seizure of capital, then, inevitably, we also see that capital becomes a mechanism of seizing and further concentrating more and more capital with no necessary increase in total value, and often an actual decline in the basic wealth of the poorer members of society. The 1% then become a vanguard of the employment of coercion and propaganda to protect their privileged accumulation of wealth and thus a class conflict is manufactured where none was inherently required, had the creation of title been based on equity rather than force or some arbitrary fantasy about mixing one's labor.
More to come...
From the local Occupy site, from an ongoing discussion of "capitalism."
I think that a lot of people oppose any kind of "wealth redistribution" on the basis of several beliefs:
1> Where will it stop? If you think that giving everyone a cut of the pie equivalent to say $1,000/yr, regardless of productivity, is a good idea, then why not $5,000, or $50,000? I.e., just equalize income - and wealth globally. If you could in fact do that with today's world accumulation of capital, the majority of people - who live on much less than that - would be temporarily better off. However, why work or work harder and better - why get that doctorate in bio-chem? - if you're just wearing yourself down while the neighbors won't let you get any sleep because they can get the same amount by partying? A culture such as Sweden can come much closer to a "middle class for everyone" idea because they have an extremely high level of social trust and moral expectation.
And, in fact, the answer to this objection is not to deny its validity but to establish that the realistic limit is an optimization function. I.e., what level of equalization provides a floor of basic sustenance that allows for capitalization and productivity for the people at the bottom, while not killing the incentive to work for the people at the top, the Zuckerberg's who provide services that people want?
From the moral/economic perspective, if you add a $1 value to something that two billion people want, then maybe you ought to be able to claim $1billion as reasonable compensation, keeping in mind that your better mousetrap rests on the work of billions of people who came before and created the science and culture and capital base that made your invention possible, as well as the individuals who gave you something special and personal that lead to your success.
In this artificial class warfare that keeps us apart, what is missing is the concept of gratitude, both on the part of the vast majority of people who benefit from the Newton's and Zuckerberg's as well as often from the great creators among us, who often fail to recognize that while their innovations are their own, that 99% of that capacity came from the investment of others.
So, I would argue to the reasonable fears of equalization that there are objective, natural limits, reflecting the facts. Nobody wants to kill productivity. Nobody wants to starve. The two goals are not incompatible.
2> What about the moral right to ownership, that mixing of ones labor with the land, or, as Rand put it ~ "You have a natural and absolute right to life, which implies that you have a natural and absolute right to take the actions necessary to preserve and improve that life."? Isn't some collective claim a violation of this?
I think I already dealt with that in the context of the roughly equivalent Lockean formulation. Locke recognized the need for a process of negotiation to establish a property title. Everyone one has some degree of mixing with every particle of the universe. And Rand would be the first to say that your rights end at the property line. Which implies a process independent of the moral claim per se.
The key remaining difference between the progressive left take on property and my own is that the left comes down on the Zeitgeist* side, a world of central planning and universal standards. They don't want to just hand everyone enough money to survive and get back to productive lives. They want to define what constitutes an acceptable life standard and then refine and regulate and fine tune that ideal to match individual circumstances, based on their standard.
I deal with this in much greater depth than is possible here in my joeuser blog on a solution to Poverty. I will note in passing that perhaps the greatest single period of human creativity on record (prior to modernity) occurred with ancient Greece, where the broken geography, which made invasions mostly cost ineffective, allowed idiosyncratic city states to go their own paths and yet be able to visit and observe the advantage and faults of their neighbors. There's no substitute for trial and error and the scientific method.
A question was posed to me on fb: "What's your critique of libertarianism? And what do you call your economic vision in which money is returned to the commons?"
I refer to myself as an anarcho-commonist. I don't mean by that that I think that the commons and the rule-based governance that commons require are optimal in general, but rather that the bottom line of the social contract is that we have a right to live - meaning we can morally prohibit someone else from killing us or making life impossible or unbearable.
That right implies that we each individually have a basic claim to the earth - and beyond - and that any socio-economic regime has to take this preeminent fact of an implicit commons, owned collectively into account. The simplest expression of this egalitarian commonism is the concept of a universal voting share in the wealth. That share could be used to express a preference or demand for a dividend or for a change in the way that titles are parsed, or any number of issues that fall naturally into the collective domain. It is not, IMHO, an excuse for socialism or any scheme that does not rest on economic reality and justice.
A regime that ate the rich would end up making everyone very poor. But a regime that fails to recognize the rights of the commons and the commoners is a revolution in the making. A stable balance is a matter of economic analysis and factual, objective input. People are not stupid, in general. They know that wealth is dependent on intelligent work, and that the people who do that work deserve to be wealthy - but not to the exclusion of the legacy I have referred to.
For details, check out my blogs on the JoeUser site