Sunday, June 15, 2008

I'm going to make what I assume is an unoriginal observation, but it came to me in contemplating fairness in the context of libertarianism. Feel free to point out why my thinking here is completely wrong.

It's my understanding that the fundamental principle of Libertarianism is that it is wrong to initiate force. If force is used against me, I can respond with force, but when no force is used against me, I may not. A second tenet is that fraud is wrong - I should not attempt to gain by deceit. But Libertarians also have this idea of "property", and this is where I think the philosophy goes off into the weeds.

Let us stick to the first principle for now. Initiating force is wrong. If that is so, then consider the following situation. I have a house. Someone picks the lock on my front door and moves into my spare room. Finding a key to the house, they make a copy of it, returning the key, and continue to occupy my house. They stay out of my way, and act like a good guest, providing their own food and so on, but it remains that I did not invite them. And so I undertake to evict them, by forcibly removing them, and by standing guard so that they can't come back to the house.

Who in this case initiated force? Was it the person who moved in to my house? Or was it me, when I tried to evict that person?

I think that you could make a case for either position. And I think that if you take the latter position, you are right, and if you take the former position, you are fair.

I don't mean to propose that we should all accept it when people break into our homes and move into our spare bedrooms. What I mean is that if you take this as your premise for how Libertarianism works as a philosophy, then you wind up with a society in which the common good is cared for. And if you take the other position, that it is okay for me to use force to evict a squatter, then you wind up with a society in which the common good is not cared for.

7 Comments:

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

You need to get Seth over here to tackle that. I'm pretty much with you.

Sunday, June 15, 2008 6:41:00 AM  
OpenID Ed said...

Hernando de Soto, _The Mystery of Capital_. Highly recommended, although it's been 7 years since I read it. Countries in which property rights aren't protected tend to be poor and squalid. Property protection leads to incentives, which leads to innovation, which leads to (in most ways) better standard of living and better lives all around.

Property is important. We don't have to like it, and we can wonder about worlds in which that isn't so, but the human brain is hardwired in such a way that it is.

Sunday, June 15, 2008 5:42:00 PM  
Blogger Perry E. Metzger said...

There are two points here.

First, I think the common good is indeed cared for. Adam Smith said this far better than I can, centuries ago: when many people work productively (not steal, mind you, work) towards their own good, they inevitably are directed, "as though by an invisible hand" to use Smith's words, towards the common good. You might grow wheat to make a profit, but for you to make a profit, other people have to get to eat the wheat in the end.

Second, without property rights, it is hard to achieve the common good this way. If you think you can make enough in trade to buy insulation for your house and a new stove that you need by growing lots more wheat, you might work really hard growing the wheat. If people just take the wheat, and take your old stove to boot, you probably won't see the point in laboring. The reason to respect property rights is because if we respect them, people will work to produce new things instead of stealing the things other people already have. If we make the incentives favor theft and enslavement over hard work, everyone will become poorer because we'll end up with a race to the bottom, with everyone battling to steal the finite pool of what we have instead of trying to make more.

(In the ancient world, one of the reasons people were poor and stayed that way was because the most common way for a society to "get rich" was to form a gang and go out and steal from your neighbors and enslave them. Poor farmers and artisans made things, and the Alexanders and Caesars stole from them. In the modern world, this sort of thing is generally frowned upon -- the societies where that is still common are also the ones where there is the greatest human suffering.)

The key insight in all of this is that the world's goods are not a fixed quantity. If I take a fallen tree in my back yard and make a chair, the world now has one more chair than it had before, without anyone having less than they did before. If I grow vegetables in the empty field beside my house, the world has more food than it used to, without my having caused pain to anyone in the process. Working is a positive sum behavior. Work makes the world better. Theft, though, is zero sum -- only one person can sit on a chair at a time, and if I steal the chair you built instead of making one, there are no more chairs in the world than there were before, but you, as the chair maker, probably feel less inclined to ever make anything again.

None of this means we can't behave charitably towards others. If you see a poor person and decide to give them some of the food you grew because that fits your values, that's a choice you made, and you probably won't feel dejected about the possibility of growing more food because of it. If someone steals all the food you had grown, though, you might say "why should I bother growing more if people are simply going to take it from me?"

Sunday, June 15, 2008 7:15:00 PM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Dad (Ed),

The evidence tends to support de Soto's thesis. However, de Soto is saying that we should in fact initiate force to protect property rights. So I would argue that he isn't a Libertarian.

Monday, June 16, 2008 2:03:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Perry, you're pretty much saying the same thing as my dad, I think. What I would be interested in hearing is your explanation for how the protection of property rights in the example I gave is not an initiation of force - that is, in what sense did the trespasser initiate force, thus justifying my forceful response?

As to your assertion that the invisible hand of the market cares for the common good, I think the evidence is that it does not. Instead, what it does is to provide an alternate context for exploitation, where rather than using physical force, economic force is used to coerce production. And unfortunately this economic force actually frequently translates into physical force when you get to the bottom of the pyramid.

And as for your remark about how I can choose to be charitable, I find it interesting. It seems to me that by saying this the way you have, you are saying that the ethical system of the market has a different status than the ethical system of generosity - that one is the fundamental way things must work, and the other is an artificial construct.

But in fact they're both artificial constructs. And neither one of them works. Both have strengths and weaknesses. The reason I raise this discussion is because I am in search of a pungsumba, a third alternative, which works better.

Monday, June 16, 2008 2:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a person who has been in this position for a quarter of a century, I have to ask, "Is MY good not to be considered as part of the common good?"

Thursday, August 28, 2008 5:10:00 PM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Of course it is. But the *common* good is a funny thing. All boats must be floated. If you are in a situation that is appropriate to the common good, but uncomfortable for you, then you have an incentive you would not otherwise have.

On the other hand, if we are considering the common good, it might be worth asking: would whatever situation you describe prevail if the common good were truly being cared for?

Thursday, August 28, 2008 10:55:00 PM  

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