One of the most shocking things about the brutal attack in Woolwich yesterday was the arrogance with which one of the bloodied knifemen claimed to be acting on behalf of all Muslims. In what sounded like a South London accent, this British-seeming, casually dressed young man bizarrely spoke as if he were a representative of the ummah. He talked about “our lands and what “our people” have to go through every day. He presumably meant Iraqis and Afghanis, or perhaps the broader global “Muslim family”.
How can a couple of men so thoroughly convince themselves that they speak for all Muslims, to the extent that they seriously believe their savage and psychotic attack on a man in the street is some kind of glorious act of Islamic resistance? Perhaps because they live in a country in which claiming to speak “on behalf of” a community, even if you’ve never been elected by or even seriously talked to that community, is taken seriously. A country where one’s identity, one’s racial or religious or cultural make-up, now counts for everything, certainly for more than what one does or what one believes. A country in which the politics of identity, the narrow and deeply divisive communal politics of shared cultural traits, has been privileged over all other kinds of politics.
- Brendan O’Neill
He was writing in the aftermath of the murder of a young soldier in London this week.
There are many reasons how this state of affairs came about, and I am sure commenters have their views on this. I would point to what has happened in our own education system and the climate of ideas in the West for the past few decades. While Western society is, by some measures, more “individualistic” than it used to be – and that is a good thing – in some ways tribal mentalities remain strong. Maybe part of that has to do with post-modernism and the whole challenge to the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth, and that there are universal, shared qualities that all humans have, most importantly, the capacity for long-term, rational action, coupled with notions of taking responsibility for one’s actions, linked as that is to the idea that humans have free will.
As those notions have been challenged, or even mocked – consider how it is fashionable these days to say we are all driven by “unseen” motives and urges that come from Darwinian evolution – then people are more susceptible to collectivism, to group-think, with its consequent view of people as either “belonging” to this or that group. Throw in the features of Islam as it is today as described by the likes of Bernard Lewis, and this fusion of religious fundamentalism, craven Western self-abasement, victimology, and post-modernist moral relativism, then it is not hard to see why these thugs can claim to speak for a whole chunk of humanity.
“If, as I believe, the distinctive distance from our organic nature, we should rejoice in the expression of changing human possibility in ever-advancing technology. After all, the organic world is one in which life is nasty, brutish and short and dominated by experiences that are inhumanly unpleasant. Human technology is less alien to us than nature (compare bitter cold with central heating; being lost without GPS and being found with it; dying of parasitic infestation versus vermicides or spraying with pesticides) and the material of that part of nature that we are: our inhuman, or at least impersonal bodies. Anyone who considers the new technologies as inhuman, or a threat to our humanity, should consider this. Better still, they should spend five uninterrupted minutes imagining the impact of a major stroke, severe Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease on their ability to express their humanity…..Self transformation is the essence of humanity and our humanity is defined by our ever-widening distance from the material and organic world of which we are a part and from which we are apart.”
- Raymond Tallis. In Defence of Wonder, page 200.
Imagine you are mountain climbing or hill walking with a friend. Disaster strikes, and your friend is badly injured. Weather conditions are such that if you leave him overnight, he will certainly die. With great difficulty you are able to half carry, half drag him most of the way down the mountain. At last you see the road in the distance. Making your friend comfortable as best you can, you leave him, stagger to the road, and wait a long time for a car to pass this lonely spot. Eventually one does – you stop it by practically throwing yourself in front of it – and tell the driver that there is a seriously injured man some way up the hill who badly needs help.
“I’m not getting blood all over the seats of my car,” says the driver and speeds off.
By the time another car comes it is too late.
Something a little like this happened to a man called Charles Handley climbing in Scotland in the 1950s or 60s. In 1985 the BBC made a gripping dramatised reconstruction starring Gareth Thomas (Blake from Blake’s 7) called Duel with An Teallach. In fact Handley’s experience was even worse: despite his incredible efforts at rescue, An Teallach claimed two of his friends that day. I could watch the play again online and clarify my nearly thirty year-old memories of it, but I won’t because it was one of the grimmest things I have ever seen.
Have you guessed where this post is going? Tweak the story a little. Now Charles Handley has a gun. You have a gun. You can damn well make that driver help you get your friend to safety. And if that means he has to carry your friend on his back to the car so that you can keep the gun trained on him, too bad.
Do you do it?
Stealing his car, even without the intention “permanently to deprive” him of it, as the Theft Act puts it, is a violation of his property rights. Temporarily enslaving him to help you carry your friend down to the car is even worse. I think I would do it, even so. Afterwards I would admit the crime, pay compensation and submit to punishment.
As anyone who has read Perry de Havilland’s post from yesterday will have guessed by now, what I have tried to do above is make a similar thought experiment to the one used by Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute, the one pretty much everybody but me had no sympathy for. I tried to present a scenario that would appeal rather more to the Samizdata audience than Bowman’s somewhat contrived one. I have tried to inveigle you into sympathising with the bad guy – the government – in Jaded Voluntaryist’s excellent re-casting of Bowman’s analogy:
As an aside, this is not even close to describing welfarism. The people holding the gun aren’t disabled. And the baby isn’t drowning. And it isn’t a baby. And you’re not able bodied (at least not compared to the gun wielder). In fact, in his metaphor he has the relative power relationship completely backwards.
The able bodied arsehole is waving the gun at a disabled man, ordering him to carry some random stranger on his back. A stranger who may be disabled, or may be stupid, or may be lazy, or may just be unlucky. The stranger’s complicity aside, none of that is the disabled victim’s fault. And yet carry him he must because he’s not the one with the gun.
Will I be joining the vast majority of citizens in the countries of the developed world in supporting the welfare state, then? No. There is one crucial element of Bowman’s analogy that I have kept in my scenario, but which, as Jaded Voluntaryist implied when he said the baby was not drowning, does not apply to welfarism. That element is that my story depicted desperate circumstances, which is another way of saying it was a one-off. Welfarism is a system of indefinitely repeated thefts and partial enslavements. They say that it is a continuous crisis, that as there are always babies drowning somewhere you must always be rescuing them, but the insincerity of this claim is demonstrated by the fact that “somewhere” only includes the territory of your nation, state or other tax-gathering unit. Babies outside that arbitrary circle – glug, glug, goodbye. And how can it be justified for you to be forced to spend, say, 55% of your time baby-rescuing but not 56%, or every waking hour?
Overlapping this, welfarism is legitimized repeated thefts and partial enslavements. The man with the gun does not acknowledge or make reparation for his crime. It is he who decides what constitutes crime.
Furthermore there are all the factors that Jaded Voluntaryist implied in his re-casting of Bowman’s analogy. It is not just babies you have to keep rescuing, but adults, and once your presence is a predictable part of the system, those adults start acting like babies on the assumption that you will always be there. That is not likely to end well for you or them.
I will refrain from re-stating further objections to the system of welfare. I am sure most of you have thought of them already, but all these thoughts did lead me to another topic upon which the opinions of Samizdata readers and writers are much harder to predict.
Having to carry a stranger because otherwise the stranger will die is approximately the position of a pregnant woman expecting an unwanted child.
A key part of the pro-abortion argument is opposition to forcing a woman to give up part of her body and her time to carry the child. Foetus. Whatever. For instance, this comment from yesterday’s Guardian by commenter ZappBrannigan says,
Don’t let them win the battle of symbols. Don’t use their terminology. They are not “pro-life”. I propose “mandatory-gestation” instead.
Or here is commenter Thaizinred from the same comment thread:
No already born person has a right to directly use another person’s body to stay alive. People aren’t forced to donate their bodies, or body parts, even if someone else will die without them, even if the person who will die is their child.
The latter’s argument overstates the case. The pregant woman does not have to permanently give up her body or her body parts, but the general point is starkly made, and in a way that will resonate with many libertarians.
I am anti-abortion with reservations and get-out clauses. So I mock the Guardian readers and other “liberals” (in the degraded modern sense) who one minute angrily make the arguments above; who denounce anyone who opposes welfare or jibs at high taxes as a callous, selfish sociopath; who would abort themselves with a rusty coathanger rather than admit that Ayn Rand ever said a good word – and who next minute channel Rand , becoming the purest of pure no-forced-assistance libertarians when the topic is abortion. Such people end up saying that you must give half your time to helping strangers in no particular danger but have no obligation to bear temporary inconvenience to save the life of a being you caused to exist.
So much for them. What about you? To some, I would guess, it is very simple. You are not inconsistent. You are pure libertarians, perhaps indeed Objectivists and proud of it, and you make your stand on the property right of the woman to permanent, uninterrupted, unconstrained use of her own body. You might, perhaps, also think that the foetus is not human until birth but your argument does not rest on that, as Thaizinred’s comment did not.
To use another analogy, your view is that if the captain of a ship at sea sees survivors of a shipwreck clinging to wreckage, the captain can and, for some of you, ought to rescue them, but he does not have to and must not be compelled to.
A minority of libertarians – including me – have views more like these guys: that the foetus becomes human before birth (I shall leave aside the question of exactly when, or if “when” can be exact) and his, her, or its parents (I am trying not to beg the question of whether the foetus is human by choice of pronouns) owe him, her or it protection whatever the inconvenience just as they owe protection to their one day old or one year old child.
And suddenly I’ve run out of steam. This always happens when I talk about abortion and the related question of obligations to small children. There are so many sides to the question. What about rape? What about unintended conception? What about the difference between actively killing and merely withdrawing sustenance? Can I come up with a reason to forbid the Spartans to expose their babies on the mountainside that does not open the door to welfarism and all its ruinous consequences? What about this, that and t’other?
Abortion is a sharp issue. Not many of us have carried out a life or death rescue, with or without force being used. Quite a lot of people have had abortions or been closely affected by them. I hope discussion won’t be too acrimonious, but I think almost anything is better discussed than not.
Sometimes, when trying to win an argument, a person might invoke the old “but it is surely just common sense that X is X or Y is Y”. And let’s face it, we all do it a lot of the time. Trouble is, this can lead us astray on difficult moral issues, for example, or in science, where “common sense” once led people of high intelligence to scoff at the notion of gravity, or that the earth was a sphere, etc. For all I know, people once thought it was “common sense” to have absolute rulers, burn witches, keep slaves and shun those of other races.
I thought about this issue when I read this item by Bryan Caplan, in discussing the Michael Huemer book that Perry Metzger recently wrote about here.
This comment in the EconLog thread, by RPLong, caught my eye:
Common sense is one of those fuzzy concepts that people invoke to buttress their arguments without providing additional facts or reasoning. I consider appeals to common sense to be a lot like saying “very, very, very…” That is, appealing to common sense provides more verbiage without providing any additional substance. It’s a waste of time. Unless we can actually show with facts and reasoning that our position is the more sensible, there is no use discussing that which appears most “commonly” to be sensible. If you have the more convincing position, then you can certainly demonstrate how much more convincing it is.
That’s surely the crux of the matter. It is one thing to say that “My opinion about the wrongness or rightness about abortion or the proper teaching of kids is just, you know, common sense.” But as soon as you start to break down the issues, look a premises, unacknowledged philosophical/other assumptions, it gets much more complicated. In some cases, an appeal to “common sense” is just an argument from authority.
Bernard Levin wrote this about a deceased leader much-lauded by progressives when certain domestic grievances became public after the icon’s death:
Tito’s widow has been claiming (unsuccessfully) her inheritance; he had got rid of her a few years before his death, no doubt to instal something more agreeable and up-to-date in her place, and they clearly parted very non-speaks indeed – so much so that she seems to have lived under conditions not far removed from house arrest ever since.
The marital relations of Tito do not concern me; what caused me to twitch an eyebrow when I read of the dispute over his property was the list of said property. It included cars, motorboats, horses, yachts, jewellery, paintings, a score of villas, orchards, a safari park and vineyards; and the value amounted to millions of pounds.
You see the point immediately, no doubt. What was this noble, selfless, upright, honourable, caring, moral, austere, heroic, truly socialist figure – the Stafford Cripps of the Balkans, the Keir Hardie of the non-aligned, the Nye Bevan of small nations – what was he doing with millions of pounds’ worth of luxury goods, disappointed widow or now disappointed widow?
Nor … is the corruption of power limited to one end of the political spectrum. It is true that supporters of left-wing regimes, and of left-wing insurgents against right-wing regimes, invariably claim that the defeated or beleaguered forces of the right are financially corrupt, and those making the claims proudly contrast their own side’s scrupulous purity in money matters, to such an extent that it sometimes seems as though Marxism is not an ideology but an antibiotic, with the miraculous property of cleansing the patient’s blood of avarice, dishonesty and a taste for grands crus and caviar.
But apart from the fact that it almost always turns out, even if only after some years, that the Marxist power-brokers were not in the least averse to sleeping off feather beds, dining off gold plate and exercising every variety of droit de seigneur, there is no evidence at all that a belief in communism, even if it is genuine rather than cynically professed, is in any way a guarantee of financial probity and moral uprightness.
As it happens, I knew that Tito was a crook as long ago as 1977, when on a state visit to France, he stopped at Michel Guérard’s place at Eugénie-les-Bains (to judge by that waistline, I bet he didn’t go for the cuisine minceur) and skedaddled without paying the bill.
I remember thinking at the time that Tito had been so accustomed to bilking restaurateurs and shopkeepers in his his own country without being challenged (because none, back home, would dare to challenge him) that he had altogether forgotten that elsewhere a bit of give is expected to accompany the take.
– Bernard Levin, from an article originally published in the Times on January 24th, 1986, and reprinted in his collection In These Times.
I have never heard that the late Commandante Hugo Chávez went so far as to put his troublesome ex under house arrest, but he has certainly had wife trouble. Marisabel Rodriguez, his second wife, claims that he made use of his official position to bully her. Not just wife trouble, woman trouble generally. Like Tito, Chávez was something of a Don Juan. His longest lasting paramour, Herma Marksman, told the Sunday Times in 2006 (subscription required to see full article) that he was a romantic lover but was “imposing a fascist dictatorship”. The similarities between Tito and the now presumably re-reincarnated reincarnation of Bolivar do not end there. Chavez seems to have done well for himself. I would prefer to have more than one source before endorsing the oft-quoted estimate of his personal fortune at a billion dollars made by Criminal Justice International Associates (CJIA), but An Argentinian journalist, Olga Wornat, can be heard here being interviewed by ABC News in 2007 and she does provide sources to suggest he liked the high life. Wornat wrote a book about several Latin American leaders called “Accursed Chronicles”, for which she interviewed Chávez himself and many of those close to him including cabinet members, his two ex-wives, his long time lover Herma Marksman mentioned above, his tailor and his psychiatrist. She says that he had collections of luxury watches and Italian suits, spent $65 million on a private Airbus (with a $500,000 bill to repaint the flag on the jet so it would look the way it did when he used to draw it in school) and that his family, despite the turbulent relations between him and them, were the “richest in Venezuela” and were the “royal family” of their home state. His daughter Rosines flashing wads of dollars on Instagram caused widespread irritation among less well-connected Venezuelans, who face severe restrictions when trying to obtain dollars.
Comnandante Chavez had the waistline to match Marshall Tito’s. Did he feel obliged to pay his restaurant bills? I did not find any specific claim that he did not, but it would be a brave restaurant owner who presented El Presidente with a bill when said Presidente had displayed such a penchant for expropriations, often done openly on his personal whim and in revenge for trivial thwarting of his desires; who, for example, seized the Hilton resort on Margarita Island in with the words,
“To hold the conference we had to ask for permission… and the owners tried to impose conditions on the revolutionary government. No way,” AFP quotes Chávez as saying. “So I said, ‘Let’s expropriate it.’ And now it’s been expropriated.”
Chávez is one up on Tito; Josip stole the meal, Hugo stole the whole building. In response, let it be noted, to the rightful owners having had the gall to expect that their permission was required before the revolutionary government could use their building.
So, when’s the reading of the will?
Michael Huemer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, recently released a book called “The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey” that has made quite a splash in some libertarian circles.
As just one example, Bryan Caplan recently implied in a blog posting that he believes it to be the best book of libertarian political philosophy ever written.
I have not quite completed reading it, but I have already come to the conclusion that Bryan is absolutely correct. The book is a gem, destined to become a classic, and any serious libertarian should have it on their shelf near their copies of the works of Hayek, Rand, the Friedmans, and the rest of the pantheon. They should even, dare I say, read it.
(And with that understated endorsement, on to my review.)
One of the divides within the libertarian community is the debate between minarchists and anarchists — that is, between those that believe a night watchman state is a good idea, and those who are skeptical of the notion of any state at all. Outside of libertarian circles, of course, the question gets scarcely any attention at all, and it is generally assumed that the state is both a practical necessity and morally justified.
The topic that Humer’s astonishing tour de force concerns itself with is the moral and ethical underpinnings of state power, an area known in political philosophy as the problem of political authority.
In considering the justification for the state, a nagging question naturally arises. Most people would claim it is morally impermissible for your neighbor to force you to give money to a charity of his choice at gunpoint. However, in stark contrast, most people would claim it is permissible for the state to do essentially the same thing, that is, to extort taxes from you using the threat of force in order to spend those funds on projects other than your own.
Most people appear to claim there is an important difference between these cases — otherwise, they would not believe in the legitimacy of the state.
The eponymous problem of political authority is the question of what the distinction between these cases might be — on what basis, if any, might we justify this difference in treatment between the behavior we consider ethically justified from individual actors versus the power we accord to the state.
Huemer systematically addresses the justifications that have been articulated for political authority over the centuries, from hypothetical social contract theory to consequentialism and everything in between. I will give away the punchline by noting that his arguments would appear to fatally damage all of them.
Political philosophers generally start by attempting to construct a complete moral framework within which they justify their positions. Huemer takes an entirely different approach. He does not assume that we all agree on a single universal moral framework. He only assumes that most of us generally share similar moral intuitions about certain sorts of situations in the average case. (The strongest sort of assumption he demands is that his reader agree that beating people up without provocation is usually bad.)
Because he demands that the reader agree with him on so few things and so weakly, Huemer’s argument gains enormous strength, since there is no need to accept an all-encompassing ethical theory to believe the rest of his arguments.
On the basis of very pedestrian ethical assumptions, Huemer manages to build a case against any moral justification for political authority whatsoever. He engages, attacks and destroys arguments of all sorts with panache. Even John Rawls famous “A Theory of Justice” (perhaps the most cited work written in philosophy in the last century) is mercilessly examined under bright lights and staked through the heart.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is the simplicity and lucidity of his prose. Unlike many of his academic peers, Huemer’s writing is crystal clear and (nearly) jargon free. A bright ten year old would have no difficulty with the language. He does not seek to conceal weakness beneath an avalanche of polysyllabic words and mile long sentences. Instead, he makes his arguments so straightforward to understand that there is little or no room to disagree with him.
I am uncertain as to whether Huemer will persuade many people. As Swift once observed, “it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” Most people hold their political positions not as a result of rational contemplation but because they were exposed to a set of ideas at an early age and have an emotional attachment to them that is not easily altered. The fact that Huemer is arguing for unfamiliar idea that goes against most conventional wisdom is probably more important to the average reader than the razor sharp edge to which he has honed his arguments.
Never the less, in a hypothetical world in which all chose their views on the basis of rational consideration, Huemer would be changing hearts and minds by the trainload.
“But just because my choices are limited doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I don’t have absolute freedom doesn’t mean I have no freedom at all. Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.”
- John Horgan, giving Sam Harris a bit of a kicking.
Read the whole piece. Food for thought.
“In the past few decades there has been a movement sometimes described as the “postmodern movement.” There’s no single word that’s really adequate to describe it, but that’s one that the people [involved] typically accept. In many respects, they see themselves as challenging the Enlightenment vision that there is an independently existing reality, that we can have a language that refers in some clear and intelligible way to elements of that reality, and that we can obtain objective truth about that reality. They advance the view that what we think of as reality is largely a social construct, or that it’s a device designed to oppress the marginalized peoples of the world–the colonial peoples, women, racial minorities. They see the attempt to attain rationality and truth and knowledge as some kind of power play, and what they want instead is what they take to be more liberating–a rejection of the rationalist view.”
- John Searle.
A philosopher who believes in reality, that humans have volition and can reason about things. Obviously some sort of dangerous maniac who is a menace to society.
Yesterday, the Rhode Island State House of Representatives voted to legalize same sex marriage. There is some question as to whether the State Senate will also approve the bill, but there is clearly a trend building towards state by state approval of such unions here in the United States.
I’m strongly in favor of allowing gays to marry, and I’m very happy that the marriage equality movement is starting to win, but I’d like to point out a sad side note.
Although the growing victories of the same sex marriage movement are indeed a wonderful thing, they seem to be happening for entirely the wrong reasons. That is to say, this does not seem to be a triumph for the idea of human freedom. The reason the movement for gay marriage is winning in the US is primarily because more and more people think gays are decent people, and not because they’re willing to live and let live regardless.
The true test of whether you are in favor of freedom is this: if someone else is doing something you hate, but which does no violence to others, are you willing to leave them alone on principle?
If you are willing to leave others alone even if you dislike their behavior provided that behavior doesn’t physically harm third parties, then you support human freedom for its own sake. If you are only willing to leave others alone if you actively approve of their behavior, you are simply reinforcing your own tastes.
So, if you believe the reason we should permit gay people to marry is because you think gay people are decent, normal people, I can’t give you credit for supporting freedom in general (although I am glad that you’re with me on this one cause and will in no way refuse your help). If, however, you think that group marriages or Baal worship or something else you find creepy should be allowed simply because everyone involved is a consenting adult and it isn’t any of your business, then you are truly my ally.
Frequently, one hears anti-marriage equality spokespeople say things of the form “if you’ll let gays marry, why shouldn’t you allow group marriages”. (The exact other thing they pick for comparison varies but is not important.) When this happens, many of my friends say “oh, that’s a false equivalence, that politician is such an idiot for comparing those things”, but I think that is untrue, and they’re picking the wrong answer entirely.
The right answer is “if an adult woman and two adult men or any other combination want to get married, that isn’t my business either, whether I think it is a good idea or not”. As it happens, I’m not an advocate for polygamy – it doesn’t seem like a terrific idea to me – but if it is among actually consenting adults, it isn’t my business at all, regardless of whether I like it or not. The right answer is “if a group of people want to gather weekly to pray to the ancient Aztec gods, that isn’t something I should have any say about, no matter how stupid I think it might be, since it does not involve me.” As it happens, I’m an atheist and think all religions are a foolish waste of time (if not actively harmful to the participants), but it isn’t my business if people wish to engage in any peaceful activity, and prayer neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
The politician making the comparison between gay marriage and polygamy is demonstrating that he doesn’t really believe in freedom – but so are the people who support gay marriage only because they happen to like gay people.
I’m willing to let neo-Nazis post antisemitic screeds not because I like neo-Nazis but because I believe freedom is more important than my distaste. If I only allow people to speak if I like what they have to say, I would be in favor of speech I like, not in favor of freedom of speech.
Similarly, it is not my place to tell a businessman who he should hire or fire, or where he should open his shop, or what days of the week he should keep it open, or from what countries he should buy his goods, or what he should make or sell. It does not matter if he is only selling copies of “Mein Kampf” typeset in comic sans and that he only will employ racist blond white men. I might not like what he is selling or who he employs, but it isn’t my business. If he wants to pay the racist white men he hires $2 an hour and they’re okay with that, it isn’t my business. If he legitimately buys a store 500 feet from a school, it isn’t my business if that’s where he sells his copies of Mein Kampf.
It is easy to be in favor of the right of others to do things you like them doing, of course. It is, in fact, a challenge to find anyone who wants to make activities they favor illegal. The real question is whether one accepts the right of others to do things that one does not like, on the principle that freedom is in itself a value worth supporting.
I, like lots of people from around these parts, am not a democrat. It seems to me that as the franchise has been extended – especially to people who aren’t paying the bills – so, freedom has been lost.
But Douglas Carswell MP, begs to differ. I recently interviewed him for Cobden Centre Radio about his new book The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy. One of his central claims is that we shouldn’t be blaming democracy.
Now, I appreciate there will be people out there thinking: “Well, he would say that wouldn’t he?” Which, of course, is true – it would not be in the interest of any politician to say that he was about to take away the vote from, say, 47% of his electorate.
But that doesn’t mean he is wrong.
To save you the trouble of reading the book or listening to the podcast (although I would be delighted if you did – it’s one of my better ones) this is the short version of Carswell’s argument: the United States was a democracy long before that state started to expand. The state only started to expand after the invention of what Carswell calls “unequal taxation” – taxes that only some people pay. Ergo, don’t blame democracy.
So, has he got a point?
James Rummel of Chicagoboyz posted this sad but telling photo essay about what happened when a hobo moved into a shed next to a restaurant that had closed down.
Strictly speaking, I wouldn’t call this a tragedy of the commons, more a tragedy of the consequence of poorly enforced property rights. The events James Rummel describes could just as easily happen here; the recent changes in the law that made squatting in residential properties a criminal offence do not apply to commercial buildings. Of course squatters can be evicted by civil proceedings as before, but it is not an easy process.
I would guess that the sympathies of most Samizdata readers will be with the property owner – and so they should be. To be stuck with a deteriorating building that is costing you money every day that goes by is no joke. Quite soon, I would guess, a point of no return is passed beyond which it becomes uneconomical to even try to make the building attractive to a potential buyer or tenant, particularly if, as in this case, someone is actively subverting any attempt to do that. To rub salt in the wound, you can bet that all your nice well-meaning neighbours are tut-tutting at what a heartless slum landlord you are, leaving that fine building to decay. Large numbers of people apparently do believe that landlords let buildings decay for the fun of it. Here are some of them, in the comments to another Guardian article by the same Ally Fogg whose article about the man arrested for burning a poppy I was praising the other day.
However sympathy need not be a zero sum game. Sympathy for the landlord should not preclude sympathy for the homeless man. Many factors can make a man or woman homeless; drink, drugs, unemployment and shattered relationships among them. It is also possible, or even probable, that the hobo’s plight, as much as the landlord’s, was ultimately caused by official contempt for property rights. Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson” is more than half a century old now, but the lesson still hasn’t been learned.
It may reach a point where many landlords not only cease to make any profit but are faced with mounting and compulsory losses. They may find that they cannot even give their property away. They may actually abandon their property and disappear, so they cannot be held liable for taxes. When owners cease supplying heat and other basic services, the tenants are compelled to abandon their apartments. Wider and wider neighborhoods are reduced to slums. In recent years, in New York City, it has become a common sight to see whole blocks of abandoned apartments, with windows broken, or boarded up to prevent further havoc by vandals. Arson becomes more frequent, and the owners are suspected.
That passage was describing the effect of rent controls. Other restrictions on the property rights of landlords, such as ever-stricter demands as to maintenance and compulsory inspections, making it extremely difficult to evict a non-paying tenant, or forbidding tenancies with short notice periods even by mutual agreement, work a little more slowly but get to the same sorry result in the end. When the government penalises landlords it also penalises tenants and those who would like to be tenants but cannot find a place to rent.
I have made no secret here of my admiration for Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.
I was especially struck by the pages where he describes The Enlightenment, and I have taken the liberty of scanning these pages into my personal blog. If anyone connected with the book objects, my posting will be removed, so if a brief exposition of what The Enlightenment was and how the ideas behind it all fitted together appeals, go there, soon, and read on.
Two questions naturally arise from Pinker’s summary. First, is it an accurate description? Or does Pinker impose a coherence upon Enlightenment thinking that it never quite possessed for real? (My guesses: yes, and no.) Second, if I am right that Pinker does describe the unified scientific and moral agenda of The Enlightenment accurately, then how true are these ideas? Were errors made, as well as truths declared? Did these errors do harm? (Did any of the truths do harm?)
I could go on, but prefer not to. Suffice it to say here that it’s there if you want it, for the time being anyway.