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Why is that naughty man still mentioning the Soviet Union?

Sometimes it is the reactions of people that really give me ideas about what to write about. On Tuesday night, I went along to a book-signing and talk featuring the one and only PJ O’ Rourke, who has a new book out, entitled, “Don’t Vote, It Only Encourages The Bastards”. He was thoroughly charming and nice, and, I am glad to say, looks in pretty good shape after having beaten a recent cancer scare. I hope he’s around to tickle our funny bones for many years yet. Tuesday night’s event was put on by the Adam Smith Institute. This was appropriate: O’ Rourke has written about Adam Smith and to great effect.

He gave a variant of a talk which has been heard at several places this week. Here is a write-up of another event he was at by someone called Ian Dunt. And it is clear that Mr Dunt is not a great fan:

The first thing I noticed was the age of the audience. O’Rourke is 63, and the average age of the people listening to him was around that. Noam Chomsky is 82, but most of the people at his gigs are in their 20s, which gives some credibility to the old maxim about people drifting to the right as they age.

Or quite possibly, what happens is that when people in their 20s realise that Chomsky, with his moral equivalence idea that there is no real difference between totalitarian communism and liberal democracy, is talking pretentious nonsense, they wake up. Having a family, running a business, paying taxes and generally living tend to have a sobering, but also enlightening, effect. That is not the same as saying that people necessarily get more cynical or pessimistic as they get older. In my case (44 years old, a few greys but still dashing good looks), I am what might be called a “rational optimist”, to borrow from the title of Matt Ridley’s recent brilliant book. And O’Rourke, all 63 years of him, is pretty upbeat about what happens when free men and women, operating under some pretty elementary rules of the game, are left to get on with life. The real reactionaries and grumps, it seems to me, are those on the “left” – sorry it is a loose term but it will have to do – who so distrust ordinary people to run their lives that they consider it necessary for people to be directed, “nudged” or whatever, in the general direction of Progress. The real old farts are those who think it is somehow not an outrage that the state takes at least 50 per cent of all wealth.

Then we get to this passage:

O Rourke brought up Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative rights, which is all-too frequently ignored outside of academia. In typical fashion, and rather usefully I thought, he turned them into “gimme” rights and “get out of here rights”.

Yes.

As he aged, the role of “gimme” rights, which, as a right-wing American, he termed “entitlements”, diminished, while the role of “get out of here rights” evidently became more prominent. The argument, which is pretty topical given the debate over public spending, is that entitlements don’t ultimately promote freedom and that political leaders have been cowardly in their reluctance to disassociate themselves from them. I’ve never found this a particularly convincing argument and there was little last night to bring me onside, despite its witty and eloquent presentation. Ultimately, “entitlements” like free health care for all maximise freedom because health is the prerequisite for all other freedoms. Similarly, universal free education allows people to assess choices. There is no real freedom under ignorance. There is also, I would have thought, a strict minimal benchmark of material possession, under which political freedoms become irrelevant. After all, what use is the right to privacy if you have to sleep on the streets? It’s a crude example, but it highlights the difficulties conservatives have in completely disassociating economic and political rights.

This is a standard misconception; what the reviewer is claiming is that we need to have rights to things, such as education or healthcare, in order to also enjoy the kind of negative liberty that a classical liberal – as O’Rourke is – values. I am not so sure about that. The ability to act, to choose, or walk, lift your arms and so on is not the same as liberty. What we are talking about here is ability, capacity, or in other cases, wealth. A lot of people use the word liberty, and hence rights, very loosely. And in any respect, if we want more of healthcare, education and so on, it is far from obvious that saying that I have a “right” to something means that I do, or that I can coerce someone else to give me £X,000 to pay for whatever it is I deem I have a right to. Does this mean, for instance, that if Mr Dunt feels he has a “right” to an education for himself or his family, that the state should compel some people to teach him and his kids? Where does this presumption stem from? What happens if those told to teach Mr Dunt’s kids tell him, ever so politely, to get lost?

Also, while it is undoubtedly true that being educated and healthy helps us to make choices, it is a fairly practical point that under liberal capitalism, with more wealth and so on, education and healthcare tend to proliferate. It is poverty that best describes the lack of such things, and capitalism, given the chance, tends to be very good in eradicating this. Of course Mr Dunt, if I sense his political views accurately, probably would then claim that a lot of poor people in rich countries don’t enjoy this, to which I respond by saying that he should consider the role of non-state bodies (like Friendly Societies, etc) in delivering many of the things now presumed to only come from the state. And as a practical issue, O’Rourke could and did point out what a mess the State often makes of eradicating poverty, or even worse, in eradicating the habits that beget poverty. As an aside, a person who writes very clearly on the issue of conflating genuine rights from “gimme rights” is Tom G Palmer, in this recent book, Realising Freedom.

On we go:

So it was a little disappointing to hear O’Rourke end his argument with a defence of the free market, so dull and obvious that it did his considerable intellect a disservice. The free market merely communicates value, he argued, it was not an ideology or a creed. The reason for Communism’s collapse was its inability to properly account for the value of things, which money does instantly. It’s quite true, of course, but the only time it would crop up is when arguing against a Soviet economist. There are very few, if any, people today arguing for Soviet Communism. The current argument in the West is really about the appropriate balance of the mixed economy under a deficit, where merely promoting the benefits of the free market is something of a mute point. Given the combination of his intelligence and his position in a political culture where we usually hear only the raving lunatics, I was expecting something a little more rewarding. Something about this anti-Soviet argument reminded me of his age, and the age of the people around me.

The problem with this paragraph is that the case for the market is far from “dull and obvious”. The mixed economy we have now, as Dunt acknowledges we do, has not exactly shown itself to be a coherent mixture, at all. If the benefits of the market were really “obvious”, then how to explain why, in 2010, after a decade of what is sometimes called a period of “neo-liberalism (often as a term of abuse), we have a country with crippling public debts, a central banking system that operates more like Soviet central planning in how it sets the price of money, a vast Welfare State, high joblessness among much of the populace; a monopolistic healthcare system with problems of all kinds; rising regulatory burdens on business, and the rest? Something is clearly not “obvious” enough for people to realise there is a problem. Sometimes, banging on about the “obvious” is vitally necessary. And all the better if it comes with good jokes that make Guardianistas a bit uncomfortable.

And the line about the Soviet Union also jars. Reminding some people that we once were confronted by a vast, socialist empire, which, thanks to certain forces, collapsed, is a necessary thing. It may make a certain type of left-of-centre person uneasy to be reminded of the Soviet Union, in much the same way as it might make me uneasy to remember a youthful indiscretion. Leftists, when contemplating the terrible history of the SU, might want to say, “Oh, cannot we just move on and get over it?”, but I think that lets people off too lightly.

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46 comments to Why is that naughty man still mentioning the Soviet Union?

  • knirirr

    There’s a nice eggcorn in that last quoted paragraph.

  • Picking up one minor point-

    it is a fairly practical point that under liberal capitalism, with more wealth and so on, education and healthcare tend to proliferate.

    On the matter of education, it seems quite clear that state provision in wealthy economies leads to over-provision. If a poor village has no schoolhouse and then you build one, the local people and their economy will almost certainly benefit from it. But we have now reached a stage of massive over-provision of education, such that stoodents are rioting on the streets of London Town demanding that the state provide them with tertiary education which, in most cases, will be of no benefit- and indeed negative benefit- to both society at large and themselves. Which is a classic example of socialism distorting the price signals in the marketplace.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Ian, indeed. I think though that what I was getting at was the potential supply of useful training and education will increase in conditions of great market-based prosperity. I also think that, absent current labour market regulations and tax costs, that apprenticeships would make a comeback, and so would the kind of training facilities catering to said.

    A lot of the higher education sector is a bubble; but there may indeed be a serious shortage of other kinds of education and training. We don’t know for sure, but all the more reason to leave this to the voluntary side of things, rather than through the Prussian approach that has been the conventional wisdom pretty much since the UK’s Forster Act of 1874.

  • Maybe an example of the Keynesian perversion of Say’s Law.

    “It is the job of the State to create a general glut”.

  • >Noam Chomsky is 82, but most of the people at his gigs are in their 20s, which gives some credibility to the old maxim about people drifting to the right as they age.

    So the right has trouble attracting young people, but the left has the bigger problem that it can’t hold onto its audience.

  • There are very few, if any, people today arguing for Soviet Communism.

    Not many people ever “argued for Soviet Communism” (although some complete shits (who should be remembered for this for ever) did). But many did argue for other things that they considered wonderful, and which lefties still do consider wonderful and do still argue for, and what they got was Soviet Communism.

    That whole “move on” thing just sounds to me like: “Don’t study history, it’s too embarrassing.”

  • Darrell

    One might hope Mr. Dunt knew the difference between “mute” and “moot”.

  • Gareth

    He gave a variant of a talk which has been heard at several places this week. Here is a write-up of another event he was at by someone called Ian Dunt. And it is clear that Mr Dunt is not a great fan:

    The maxim Dunt raises is vexing – if people intrinsically move right as they get older why are their old socialists?

    And as a practical issue, O’Rourke could and did point out what a mess the State often makes of eradicating poverty, or even worse, in eradicating the habits that beget poverty.

    Unfortunately all too often the choices we as voters and the public have is between one flavour of statists and another. Mess making in one direction is replaced with mess making in another direction. The bastards even take us not voting for them as a sign that voters are content.

  • Kim du Toit

    if people intrinsically move right as they get older why are there old socialists?

    Some people are ineducable.

  • Just want to say I’m very jealous you got to meet the great man

  • hennesli

    There is also, I would have thought, a strict minimal benchmark of material possession, under which political freedoms become irrelevant.

    and therein lies the problem with orthodox libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism – all freedoms and rights become subjegated to private property.
    If every part of the earth is privately owned it means that some have the right to prevent others from living; for the right to own implies the right exclusively to occupy; and in fact laws of trespass are enacted wherever property in land is recognized. It follows that if the whole area of _terra firma_ is owned by A, B and C, there will be no place for D, E, F and G to be born, or, born as trespassers, to exist

  • John B

    “Similarly, universal free education allows people to assess choices. There is no real freedom under ignorance.”

    The arrogant nanny state deciding when people will be fit and appropriately informed to examine choices and come to rational decisions.
    In fact one has to get rid of the mind conditioning it so graciously imparts to begin to see reality. Or just agree with JMK and say: In the end we are all dead.
    Which, I guess, is true.

  • Hannesli,

    unless D, E, or F are supernaturally created, they are presumably the children of some combination of A, B and C and thus have the land of A, B and C to exist upon until they can purchase or rent some land of their own.

    Much like now, in fact.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    If every part of the earth is privately owned it means that some have the right to prevent others from living; for the right to own implies the right exclusively to occupy; and in fact laws of trespass are enacted wherever property in land is recognized. It follows that if the whole area of _terra firma_ is owned by A, B and C, there will be no place for D, E, F and G to be born, or, born as trespassers, to exist

    IanB has already had a bit of a bash at this rather bizarre scenario, but let me add some thoughts, since the author of the comment has made a comment of a kind I occasionaly come across. Namely, that if everything could be privately owned, then some folk who don’t own territory would be trapped, so to speak, or held hostage, unable to move anywhere. They would not be slaves as such, but they’d be stuck.

    This strikes me as a bit unlikely. For a start, as IanB said, these non-territory owning people would not have landed from another planet, but have parents who do own territory, a good deal of which they’d get to buy; also, existing land gets broken up and sold off, and so the market would move, with some big estates falling off, new ones emerging.

    Let’s also not forget something else. In reality, groups which were frozen out of owning land, such as the Jews in Europe, were able to flourish best in the most classically liberal bits of it, such as the Netherlands, or the UK the mid-17th Century (after Cromwell rescinded the old anti-Jewish laws). And as a result, they ended up owning quite a lot of stuff. The same applies to other groups around the world who have had a strong entrepreneurial tradition but with few large natural resources.

    The scenario of private landowners ganging up to prevent “outsiders” from being able to interact in mutually beneficial economic exchange is possible in theory, but like many extreme scenarios sketched out to attack liberal societies, they tend to be undermined by their own implausability.

  • Jonathan, what you are presenting as a liberal society being attacked is not liberal or libertarian, it is a propertarian society, where property rights have primacy over liberty.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Paul, well considering that I regard
    the institution of several property
    to be congruent with the idea of self
    ownership – which is what freedom is
    about, I don’t quite accept your point. In
    practice, there is not a conflict unless
    property is monopolised, ie, controlled
    by some kind of state.

    In other words, a propertarian order
    is also a classical liberal one in certain
    respects; attempts to heavily restrict
    ownership and transfer of property
    therefore are unliberal, as I see it.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Paul, the right to own property IS one of the major benefits of Liberty!

  • Laird

    I would go farther, and say to Paul that the concept of “liberty” is meaningless in the absence of property rights. If someone else (whether acting individually or collectively, through that form of gang we call “government”) has a “right” to take your privately owned and justly acquired property, you are merely a species of slave. If you think “liberty” means freedom to steal, yours is a very strange definition of the term.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Paul, another point to make in rebuttal is that if you cannot keep intruders off your turf (and no, I am not going to get into some long, exhausting argument with you about whether property rights exist, we’ve been around that block before), then that tends to be a loss of your liberty, when liberty is understood as the right to go about your life unmolested. The security that comes from having your own piece of turf, so to speak (and that applies even to the temporary right to rent a bit of property and enjoy privacy as a tenant) is not to be sneezed at. It is, in fact, pretty bloody central to what freedom is about.

  • terryg

    Mr Dunt mentions some old maxim about people drifting to the right as they age.
    I wonder if he`s aware of another old maxim that says “if you`re not a socialist by twenty, you haven`t got a heart, but if you`re still a socialist by thirty, you haven`t got a brain”

  • Pat

    To quote Mr. Dunt “defence of the free market, so dull and obvious”- That the defence is dull matters not a bit to me, and that it is obvious means it is irrefutable. I think Mr. Dunt’s problem is that he is more concerned with being entertaining and clever than he is with being right.
    As to the value of education- it would be interesting to know how much of the knowledge gained at school is actually useful to shop assistants, lorry drivers, car washers etc.- my guess is virtually none, so for them compulsory education was a waste of time that everyone else had to pay for- only the teachers benefited. On the same theme, the insistence that only graduates can teach five year olds to read benefits only the universities.

  • As to property rights in the sense of land obviously thy are very important but there are limits. to do with the externalities of what you do with your property. Do I have the right to build a hog-rendering plant next to your up-scale country club? Do I have the right to dam a river on my land and damn those downstream? It’s hellishly complicated and it has been dealt with here many times.

    One argument I have seen here is that I can be forced to financially compensate those I have harmed my schemes. Up to a point that works and it will certainly tend to dissuade people from doing silly and harmful things with their land to the detriment of others but…

    It doesn’t feel right. In a sense that seems to elevate money to being fundamental and not property in and of itself. I don’t think there is a simple answer because it’s very difficult to regard land in terms of splendid isolation.

    This applies to positives as well as negatives. The British tax-payer paid for the Jubilee line extension and who benefited financially. Why land-lords along the way of course! Easy access to central London adds a lot to the value of a flat. This of course is totally different to how the railways – including the LU – were originally built. One of the fundamental reasons the railways are such a mess is the way they were privatised divorcing land-ownership from train operations. The original railway pioneers made their money on property mainly.

    Cue Mark Wadsworth giving one based on LVT in 5,4,3,2,1…

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Oh, noooooooooo, Nick!

    Seriously, though, obviously the issue of one property owner causing a nasty issue for a neighbour is handled, as well as these things can be, by the Common Law. There all sorts of grey areas, of course.

    As for the rise in land values that can occur, well, I know there are some land tax advocates who have used such rises in values which they think are caused by developments nearby (not always easy to make that link, IMHO) to justify such spending in the first place. Well, if some people could predict that their houses/land got more valuable because of a rail link, say, then it is surely up to the rail company to convince the owners of this, and make some commercial deal with them if, for instance, they need to purchase land to lay down a line.

    In the case of governments with the violence-backed pwoer to tax, though, it is frankly not good enough for a politician to claim that rising land values will arise from their pet spending schemes and then seek to send the bill to the landowners; what happens with “white elephant” spending projects which turn out to be a fiasco, and far from raise values, actually make the surrounding area less valuable? Who picks up the tab for such clusterfucks?
    (Answer: schmucks like you and me).

  • JP,
    I suspect I didn’t make4 myself clear. I did type that furious quick. I was not advocating that gov builds x and bills local land owners for the amenity. Something more along your example of the railway company. Which I thought was similar to my example of the early days of the London Underground in which private companies bought the land, dug the tunnels and then primarily benefited not so much from the fares but the fact they now owned land with much improved transport links. It gets totally bent out of shape when there isn’t that direct connection as is now the case with the division of the railways in general into train-operators and land-owners.

    I was joshing about Mark and LVT.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Nick, yes, I know you were joshing, you scamp!

    I think the government’s decision to force railway firms to surrender their property portfolios was a mistake. Going way off topic, I think the way that rail privatisation was handled was not very good, although it was not the disaster that the BBC and all the other usual suspects tried to make it out to be.

  • guy herbert

    Ian Dunt bears regular reading. He is as libertarian in opinion as you will get in any mainstream political commentator.

    I think the article aims at exposition of O’Rourke’s approach and appeal for an audience soaked in British politics but that may nonetheless not be aware of him.

  • Jonathan Pearce: In other words, a propertarian order is also a classical liberal one in certain respects

    No, it isn’t.

    Property rights can either destroy liberty, or be neutral with regard to it, but property rights can never increase liberty in the proper “negative liberty” sense.

    ‘Nuke’ Gray: Paul, the right to own property IS one of the major benefits of Liberty!

    No, it isn’t, for much the same reasons I gave to JP. Liberty and property are unconnected.

    Laird: I would go farther, and say to Paul that the concept of “liberty” is meaningless in the absence of property rights. If someone else (whether acting individually or collectively, through that form of gang we call “government”) has a “right” to take your privately owned and justly acquired property…

    By trying to argue that property is necessary for liberty to exist by assuming the pre-existence of “privately owned and justly acquired property”, you are just begging the question.

    JP: Paul, another point to make in rebuttal is that if you cannot keep intruders off your turf … then that tends to be a loss of your liberty

    Conversely, if you can initiate force to stop somebody going somewhere you don’t wish them to, that tends to be a loss of their liberty, which highlights the absurdity of the idea that property is somehow equivalent to liberty.

    The security that comes from having your own piece of turf, so to speak (and that applies even to the temporary right to rent a bit of property and enjoy privacy as a tenant) is not to be sneezed at. It is, in fact, pretty bloody central to what freedom is about.

    It might have value, but it is not liberty and it is not central to what freedom is about.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    “Property rights can either destroy liberty, or be neutral with regard to it, but property rights can never increase liberty in the proper “negative liberty” sense.”

    I disagree very strongly. I don’t think I am going to persuade Paul, but for those who might be interested, here is another bite from me

    Paul says that property can say “never” increase liberty. But I get the impression from Paul that he regards liberty as kind of “the right to do what I want”, and of course, if that’s the term, then I suppose it would constrain Mr Lockett’s “freedom” if, for example, I own a large chunk of land (let’s assume I came into its ownership through agreed and fair means, so we don’t have to worry about initial acquisition issuesd). He would like to use that land, drive on it, or whatever. But he has to get my permission first, or pay me some cash, or whatever. That is a constraint on my “freedom” in this sense, but it is a strange use of the word, in my view. Suppose I want to look at Paul’s wallpaper and he tells me, as is his right, to sod off. Can I really claim that my freedom has been infringed? Surely not.

    Remember that a key feature of laws about the acquisition, transfer and use of property is that it creates stable, and crucially, predictable rules that allow us to get on with our lives, to make plans. If we haven’t got a way of delineating mine and thine, and if property rights are constantly under threat of capricious authority, then surely that is a serious impediment on the plan-making abilities of individuals, and as such, a constraint on freedom.

    That is why, I think, clear property ownership rights are, as I said, congruent and integrated with the idea of “get out here” freedom, as O’Rourke called it. And that applies even if one differs about how exactly property rights can be established in the first place (such as through natural rights theories of the Locke type, or rule-utilitarian ideas as in David Hume, Harold Demsetz, and others.)

    Like I said, I don’t expect Paul to be convinced here, but I find it most odd for a person to claim that the issue of several property can not increase liberty. Severality is, by the way it ensures that more than one body owns property, a clear precondition for a liberal order, as I understand it. That is why I tend to regard with great suspicion those so-called “libertarians” who downgrade the importance of respecting and unpholding property rights.

  • JP:

    Paul says that property can say “never” increase liberty. But I get the impression from Paul that he regards liberty as kind of “the right to do what I want”

    No, I think that description would fit your version of liberty far better than mine. I would broadly go along with the Spencerian definition of liberty as “each has freedom to do all that he wills provided that he infringes not the equal freedom of any other.” If you feel liberty is better defined another way, I’d be interested to know what definition you’re using.

    Like I said, I don’t expect Paul to be convinced here…

    Of course not, because you’re not really offering anything that could convince anybody, primarily because you are operating to a vague definition of liberty which seems to amount to nothing more than things you want. Liberty isn’t just a meaningless term that you can use to describe anything you like. It has independent meaning.

    but I find it most odd for a person to claim that the issue of several property can not increase liberty.

    It’s just a simple statement of fact. If property rights are applied to rivalrous goods, they are liberty neutral, as they are applied to items that cannot be controlled simultaneously by multiple people and therefore fall outside the scope of liberty. If property rights are applied to non-rivalrous goods, then they are destructive of liberty.

    That is why I tend to regard with great suspicion those so-called “libertarians” who downgrade the importance of respecting and unpholding property rights.

    Firstly, nobody is “downgrading the importance of respecting and unpholding property rights.” The issue being addressed is the interaction between property rights and liberty and what arrangement of the former is compatible with the latter.

    Secondly, I find it bizarre that you would talk about so-called “libertarians” when your own status as a self-declared libertarian is, to say the least, shaky.

  • Paul, can you please explain what you mean by this:

    If property rights are applied to rivalrous goods, they are liberty neutral, as they are applied to items that cannot be controlled simultaneously by multiple people and therefore fall outside the scope of liberty. If property rights are applied to non-rivalrous goods, then they are destructive of liberty.

  • Laird

    Alisa, where he is going with that is into an agrument against intellectual property. (The clue is his use of the term “non-rivalrous”, which is never used by anyone other than opponents of intellectual property rights.) We’ve been down that road before, and it’s not worth revisiting.

    And he disparages my requirement that property be “justly acquired” (which is merely to eliminate fraud and theft from the discussion) with the nonsensical statement that it is “begging the question”. Whatever you may choose to call it, any philosophical system which does not recognize that property rights are an essential element of freedom cannot be fairly described as “libertarian”.

  • Laird:

    Alisa, where he is going with that is into an agrument against intellectual property. (The clue is his use of the term “non-rivalrous”, which is never used by anyone other than opponents of intellectual property rights.)

    Even with the most cursory bit of research, you’d find that the division of goods into rival and nonrival is fairly standard in economics.

    And he disparages my requirement that property be “justly acquired” (which is merely to eliminate fraud and theft from the discussion) with the nonsensical statement that it is “begging the question”.

    It was begging the question. You were trying to present a flawed argument which attempted to prove a conclusion by first assuming that the conclusion was true.

    Whatever you may choose to call it, any philosophical system which does not recognize that property rights are an essential element of freedom cannot be fairly described as “libertarian”.

    Your understanding of liberty appears about as sound as your understanding of economics and logic.

  • Alisa:

    Paul, can you please explain what you mean by this: “If property rights are applied to rivalrous goods, they are liberty neutral, as they are applied to items that cannot be controlled simultaneously by multiple people and therefore fall outside the scope of liberty…”

    I’m working along the lines of Spencer’s definition of liberty as “each has freedom to do all that he wills provided that he infringes not the equal freedom of any other” or “every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty to every other man.” If we take the example of something rivalrous, like a coat, we can’t both wear it simultaneously. Therefore the only way we can have equal freedom with regard to its use is if we both have no freedom to use it, so, if a system of property rights allocates one of us the right to wear it at a given time, we both still possess the maximum amount of freedom to act that it is possible for us to possess simultaneously. Hence the creation of that system of property rights is liberty neutral, although, of the many such systems which may be used, there may be objections to some on other grounds.

    “…If property rights are applied to non-rivalrous goods, then they are destructive of liberty.”

    Take the example of ideas, or the oxygen in the air around us. As we are able to use them simultaneously, anything which denies any of us the freedom to use them results in us simultaneously possessing less freedom than it is possible for us to simultaneously possess and as a result, liberty is destroyed.

  • Laird

    See, Alisa? (Of course, oxygen isn’t “non-rivalrous”, since only one person can use individual molecules at any one timel; he’s using it as a poorly-conceived alternative to intellectual property rights).

    And Paul, I am perfectly aware that “non-rivalrous” is a technical economic term. My point stands: it’s only used outside of abstruse technical papers is by opponents of intellectual property rights. Like you.

    Ooh, and I’m really hurt by your disparagement of my understanding of liberty, economics and logic. I shall have to retire and lick my wounds.

  • David Gillies

    Twenty-somethings vs. real adults as a gauge of political wisdom, and he plumps for the youngsters? How long has this Dunt [sic] character been shaving? He could derive a mountain of instruction from the title of just one of O’Rourke’s books: Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut. Of course, Dunt might be middle-aged for all I know (and the task of finding out if this is so wearies me to no end) which would be doubly tragic.

  • Laird, in the real world, people don’t tend to care about differentiating between individual oxygen molecules in the air. The relevant issue is the overall quantity in the air and whether or not consumption by one person prevents similar consumption by others, which, here on Earth, it doesn’t.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I find it bizarre that you would talk about so-called “libertarians” when your own status as a self-declared libertarian is, to say the least, shaky.

    I guess we have upset you a bit by pointing out, rather roughly, that your disaparagement of property rights does not fit well with a support for freedom. As a statement of simple fact, I would argue that societies where several property does not exist tend to be illiberal ones generally. I challenge you to contest that statement with actual facts, evidence.

    There is a huge and growing body of writing on the connections between liberty in the classic, “get out of here” sense, and the institution of several property. If you disagree with this body of writing, then say so. But you have to accept that it exists, and to make such a point as the one I quoted is therefore unwarranted, unjust and wrong.

    As Laird said, we’ll have to retire and lick our wounds now that we have been confronted by your magisterial intellect.

  • Paul Marks

    Ian Dunt is misaken – one does not have to be a “rightwing” American to call welfare handouts “entitlements”.

    In fact it is the polite term – would Mr Dunt prefer entitlement schemes to be called welfare handouts? Or stolen stuff?

    As for age – P.J. was just as opposed to tax and spend policies 20 (or 30) years ago as he is now.

    Also I can think of some teenage people who are opposed to calling “legalized” theft “justice” – I was (many years ago) such a young person and there were (and are) many others.

    Where Mr Ian Dunt may be correct is that the majority of young people are not “right wing” (as he calls being opposed to plunder and tyranny).

    But then where would they be exposed to such anti statist ideas?

    Not at school, not in the universities, not in the main broadcasting networks (Fox News is cable and sat only – and is more concerned with day to day events than opposing philosophies, although that may be changing) and certainly not in the entertainment media – the wall to wall leftism of Hollywood and the Pop music world.

    It is only when young people have to go out and earn a living that many of start to question the leftist propaganda they have been taught all their lives.

    I am not surprised that P.J. is not known by many young people here – Chomsky (an apologist for tyranny and a traitor to his country) is held up as a great intellectual and taught in every university, P.J. is ignored (they would never have even heard his name).

    But when they get their first pay cheque and see how much of it goes in tax – then they may start to understand. Then they may start to seek out books that question the assumptions of the left.

    After all – that was the first thing that really hit P.J.s own student radicalism.

  • Paul Marks

    Please note Ian Dunt’s lazy assumption that increasing government intervention reduces homelessness, impoves access to health care and so on……..

    First he is wrong philosophically.

    A person starving to death (and who has an easily cureable sickness as well) is still free – even though he is dying. His freedom may not be “useful” and he may not be “happy” – but these things have nothing to do with whether or not he is free.

    And a fat (but not too fat) and healthy slave is still a slave – even though he is well fed and healthy.

    Confusing physical condition with freedom is a category mistake.

    However, Mr Dunt is also wrong in his own terms – that is why I used the term “lazy assumption”.

    For example, the interventions to “help the homeless” in New York and other cities (knocking down “skid row” areas, “slum clearence” generally, rent control, zoning and other “planning”, high taxes and borrowing to fund public housing and government servivces…..).

    All these interventions make the problem WORSE.

    Just as with health care……..

    All the interventions to “help the vulnerable” (doctor licensing, the FDA meds reguations, Medicare and the other entitlement programs such as SCHIP, the vast web of regualtions on insuers and other providers of health care cover……) all these policies have made health care MORE expensive – have pushed costs up and up. “Obamacare” will finish the job of making private health cover unafforrdable for most people (even with charitable aid) and force them into the government controlled “exchanges”.

    So it is all a double mistake.

    Material comfort is not freedom – and anti private property policies (over time) REDUCE the level of comfort (INCREASE the level of poverty) over what would otherwise be the case.

    As for Chomsky – his “anarchism” is in fact total collectivism (radical anti private property doctrine mixed with egalitarianism).

    The “freedom” he supports is the “freedom” of such regimes as Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

    One third of the population died (and the rest of the population were heading the same way).

    So much for material comfort being “true freedom”.

    They were slaves AND they were starving to death.

    In the end socialism (under it own name – or falsely called “anarchism”) is not offering us “another sort of freedom” or the “preconditions for freedom”.

    All it is really offfering us is better material conditions in return for slavery – and the offer is a lie, for the material conditions (over time) are worse (not better) than they otherwise would have been.

  • I guess we have upset you a bit by pointing out, rather roughly, that your disaparagement of property rights does not fit well with a support for freedom.

    Not at all. For a start, I’ve not disparaged property rights, I’ve merely pointed out that liberty and property are separate concepts with the potential for trade-offs between them and that, when there is a potential for such a trade-off, I view liberty as having primacy. I’m satisfied that the points I’ve made are sound, a satisfaction which is only strengthened by the fact that a number of people who instinctively want to disagree haven’t been able to offer a solid refutation.

    As a statement of simple fact, I would argue that societies where several property does not exist tend to be illiberal ones generally. I challenge you to contest that statement with actual facts, evidence.

    I’ve no desire to. Societies which recognised several property in slaves were arguably amongst the most illiberal, but on the whole, I don’t particularly disagree with your point. Neither do I accept it has any relevance to any of the points I’ve made.

    There is a huge and growing body of writing on the connections between liberty in the classic, “get out of here” sense, and the institution of several property. If you disagree with this body of writing, then say so. But you have to accept that it exists, and to make such a point as the one I quoted is therefore unwarranted, unjust and wrong.

    There may be some correlation, but as I said, there are also points at which one, if increased, will reduce the other. The body of writing you hint at does nothing to alter that and for that reason, my comments stand.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I’ve no desire to. Societies which recognised several property in slaves were arguably amongst the most illiberal, but on the whole, I don’t particularly disagree with your point. Neither do I accept it has any relevance to any of the points I’ve made.

    The crack about slavery deserves a response:

    Of course a society in which the ownership, by brute force, of human beings is illiberal. Ownership of people is clearly wrong and was condemned at the time it happened (which is why some of the Founding Fathers in the US were sneered at the Brits for said). Slavery is as un libertarian you can get. One cannot own someone’s life unless they’re willing to sell it. The obvious contradiction of the existence of slavery in say, the early US Republic was noted at the time as a contradiction.

    Also, I was very careful to make it clear that I was not talking about ownership of people. Ownership of resources stems from Man’s need for self-ownership and control; as such, it is clearly incompatible with owning someone else, and self-contradictory if it does. This is why great liberals in the 18th and 19th centuries, for instance, campaigned to end the slave trade by reference to the sort of notions of “self-ownership” used, in a Lockean sense, to justify ownership of things.

    And if I recall, you made the assertion, way up this board:

    “Jonathan, what you are presenting as a liberal society being attacked is not liberal or libertarian, it is a propertarian society, where property rights have primacy over liberty.”

    My defence of property rights is not about them having “primacy”. I answered, I believe that a society in which several property (of things, not people) exists is typically and highly congruent with a liberal, open society. It is not about one having primacy over the other. It is more about a balance.

    You have also said that my claims to be a libertarian/classical liberal are “shaky”, but I fail to see how you can claim this, or on what authority. For sure, in the end there is no final authority to which one can claim to be a libertarian or not, but consider at random, the following writers, all of whom have connected several property and liberty in the classical liberal sense, as I have. I think I share the company of:

    Milton Friedman (and his son, David);
    Robert Nozick;
    Tibor Machan;
    Tom G. Palmer;
    Murray Rothbard;
    Hans Herman Hoppe;
    Ludwig von Mises;
    FA Hayek;
    Henry Hazlitt;
    Richard Pipes (his book, Property and Freedom, as the title suggests, connects the two very well);
    Anthony de Jasay;
    Richard Epstein;
    Randy Barnett;
    David Kelley;
    Ayn Rand;
    Roy Childs;
    Stephen Buckle (“Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius to Hume);
    Eric Mack.
    Tocqueville;
    Lord Acton;
    Nigel Ashford (of Institute of Humane Studies in the US);
    Blackstone (as in the Commentaries).
    And many more.

    Now, not all these writers see or saw eye to eye; and they cannot all be lumped easily together. But, by and large, they all saw individual liberty (in the negative sense) and several property as a sort of close marriage – with the occasional tiff and row about who takes out the garbage and takes the kids on the school run. I think they are all, loosely, part of the libertarian/classical liberal tradition. Which is why the likes of me and Laird can argue, with a fair degree of support, that those who regard several property as not a key aspect of liberty are at odds with libertarianism.

    Anyway, let’s leave it there. PJ O’Rourke has flown home.

  • JP:

    My defence of property rights is not about them having “primacy”. I answered, I believe that a society in which several property (of things, not people) exists is typically and highly congruent with a liberal, open society. It is not about one having primacy over the other. It is more about a balance.

    Aside from the last two sentences, that section doesn’t particularly contradict anything I’ve said. Some forms of property right may typically occur within those societies which are more liberal. However, that doesn’t mean that they are inherently connected or equivalent, nor does it mean that other forms of property right are not harmful to liberty.

    You have also said that my claims to be a libertarian/classical liberal are “shaky”, but I fail to see how you can claim this, or on what authority.

    For precisely the reason that you have a tendency to describe me as a “so-called libertarian” when I suggest that liberty should have primacy over property rights, or that a certain property right should be scaled back or removed – your primary concern appears to be property rights, not liberty. When a restriction of liberty in order to create property rights is suggested (such as so-called intellectual property), you’re prepared to consider that sacrifice of liberty.

    Possibly the most telling example is what at first may appear to be the most innocuous. It is those final two sentences in the first piece I quoted:

    It is not about one having primacy over the other. It is more about balance.

    As a libertarian, I don’t seek balance, I seek liberty. I’m no more comfortable seeking a balance between liberty and property than I am seeking a balance between liberty and security. I don’t understand how anyone who self-identifies as a libertarian could be.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Some forms of property right may typically occur within those societies which are more liberal. However, that doesn’t mean that they are inherently connected or equivalent, nor does it mean that other forms of property right are not harmful to liberty.

    Apart from highly restrictive IP, and the sort of privileges granted by governments to certain types of corporations, I cannot actually think of how several property (that word several is the vital one) is damaging to liberty.

    I think several property and liberty are connected: a society in which there is a strong sense among people that they own their lives and need to be able to protect and develop the fruits of their labours is likely to be one where ideas of ownership of things are also strong. The writers and people I quoted above would agree.

    “As a libertarian, I don’t seek balance, I seek liberty. I’m no more comfortable seeking a balance between liberty and property than I am seeking a balance between liberty and security. I don’t understand how anyone who self-identifies as a libertarian could be.”

    The trade-off between liberty and property is unwarranted. It is not a zero-sum thing, in my view. Liberty is not, as I said at the top of this board, simply the ability to do what you want, whenever you want. It cannot apply, without anarchy, in the real world of human beings and where there are scarce resources that have multiple uses.

    For instance, you cannot walk into my home without my consent; I have a “monopoly” over my territory, so in that sense it is sort of “government privilege” in the true but trivial sense that the government is supposed to prevent my home from being burgled, but it would be odd to say that your freedom is somehow restricted by my requiring some permission before you walk in.

    Anyway, time to shut up and go to bed.

  • Apart from highly restrictive IP, and the sort of privileges granted by governments to certain types of corporations, I cannot actually think of how several property (that word several is the vital one) is damaging to liberty.

    Slavery is one example we’ve covered. More relevant than property systems being damaging to liberty is the fact that property systems over tangible goods are liberty neutral, so several property is no more beneficial to liberty than a system where property rights are allocated by lottery. You could argue (quite rightly, in most cases, in my opinion) that the former creates more utility, but not that it creates more liberty.

    I think several property and liberty are connected

    They are not. I have given a definition of liberty and a explanation of why, given that definition of liberty, property rights cannot increase liberty. Unless somebody can show that there is a different, more widely accepted definition of liberty, or show a flaw in my reasoning, I’m standing by that.

    The trade-off between liberty and property is unwarranted. It is not a zero-sum thing, in my view.

    I have given examples where it is and where you have been willing to consider that trade-off or seek, in your own words, a balance.

    Liberty is not, as I said at the top of this board, simply the ability to do what you want, whenever you want.

    I find it quite ironic that you keep falling back on this old chestnut, when I’m the one who has tied myself to a specific definition of liberty and applied it consistently, while you seem to treat liberty as some vague set values with no consistent theme other than that you personally value them.

    It cannot apply, without anarchy, in the real world of human beings and where there are scarce resources that have multiple uses.

    You’re pounding a straw man. I’ve already said further up the page that “if property rights are applied to rivalrous goods, they are liberty neutral” and repeated it in different ways, so I’m not saying that property rights in rivalrous goods are incompatible with liberty. I’m just saying that those property rights are neutral with regard to liberty and therefore, your preferred system of property rights is no more associated with liberty than a system of property rights by lottery or for that matter, no property rights at all.

  • RonF

    I would have thought, a strict minimal benchmark of material possession, under which political freedoms become irrelevant. After all, what use is the right to privacy if you have to sleep on the streets? It’s a crude example, but it highlights the difficulties conservatives have in completely disassociating economic and political rights.

    A common argument. “What good is a right to ‘x’ if I cannot afford it? Thus, you must pay the taxes necessary to provide me with minimal ‘x’.”

    Very well. The 1st Amendment guarantees me the right to freedom of the presss. Are we then required to buy poor people printing presses (or free access to government ones)? The 2nd Amendment guarantees me the right to keep and bear arms. What kind of handgun shall the Federal government start providing to homeless people?

    The left is perfectly content to let economic restrictions keep people from exercising those rights they dissapprove of. They only think that the government should have to subsidize certain rights, excluding some that are in the Constitution and including some ‘rights’ that they have invented out of whole cloth.