Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Free meditation on personal liberties

Like the free market, this post will have no central planning. I'm just going to let my thoughts make their way onto the screen by way of my fingers.

That seems like the right way to introduce this post, not only because it excuses the fact that I have no idea what I'm going to say, but also because the topic of this post is the libertarian/classical liberal philosophy of personal freedoms. Specifically, I've been thinking about that philosophy championed by thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, which says that a free society is one in which we cannot determine ahead of time what the collective goal of society should be. Rather, we simply design government to uphold certain fundamental human rights, and then let humans interact in unpredictable ways.

There are a couple of fundamental theoretical problems with this. One is this: if no one has the authority to determine what is the proper goal for the collective, why does anyone have the authority to determine what rights an individual should have? The other problem is this: is there any set of individual human rights that is actually absolute and self-consistent?

Let me talk about the second problem first. In my view, nearly every individual right must be relativized, not merely because we haven't yet found politicians who are honest to preserve our fundamental rights, but rather because certain rights are mutually contradictory.

Consider this simple example. We believe that each person has the fundamental right to his own life, as well as the fundamental right to own property. The State, we believe, is obligated to defend both of those rights. But this is impossible, in an absolute sense. In order to protect the lives of citizens, the State must necessarily impose taxes on them. In an absolute sense, this infringes on their right to property.

One might object that this doesn't infringe on the right to property, because in fact a fair exchange has taken place: protection of life in exchange for taxes. But this is not correct, because taxes must be collected based on coercion and not exchange--otherwise the State would cease to be the State. Clearly not all coercion is unacceptable; without it we would have total anarchy.

Indeed, it would be unacceptable to make the protection of human life into a private exchange. Then the rich and powerful could afford to protect themselves more than the poor and weak. But the whole point of a State is to preserve fundamental human rights for both the strong and the weak. If the right to life is not fundamental, what more do you have? Therefore, some people must be forced to give up part of their property, even if they would rather not, and even if they don't feel they're getting an even trade.

So what if we tried to make property rights absolute by imposing a certain limit on how much the State could tax its citizens? Yet in simple economic terms, this is a price cap; it is inefficient by nature. Let's still just consider nothing but the two fundamental rights I've already mentioned: life and property. In order to defend the lives of all of its citizens, the State's costs may go up or down. During times of war, its costs will go up. During times when there is particular danger because of terrorism, costs will go up. During times when there is an extraordinary amount of crime, costs will go up. How can the State pay for these additional costs if it has no ability to tax beyond a certain rate?

Thus these supposedly fundamental rights are inherently conflicting. The State cannot preserve both in any absolute sense. What must happen, then, is some sort of collective bargaining. Because the State must have the power to coerce its citizens into paying taxes for the protection of all citizens, it will naturally always seek to tax at the highest amount it can get away with. Democratic election of government allows the citizens to keep the State in check; it allows the people to make some sort of collective bargain with the State in order to keep the price of government down.

There may be other more efficient ways than democracy of performing this kind of necessary collective bargaining, but the point is that a bargain is necessary. The right to life and the right to property are necessarily in conflict. They cannot be held absolutely. Demand that the State protect one, and you increase the risk of losing the other.

I use these two rights as illustration to make my point clearer to libertarians and conservatives, who are often prone to say that these are the two most important rights--perhaps the only two rights that the government ought to really enforce. Yet even those two rights are not consistent with one another; they are not absolute. If the right to life is absolute (and I'm inclined to side with this one over property) then the right to property is not; conversely, if the right to property is absolute, then the right to life is relative, and frighteningly so.

But I could go on to give real life examples of "rights" that we Americans have endowed ourselves with which are all clearly mutually contradictory. Let's start with one that is particularly ironic. Is it everyone's right to own a home? Our government's policies suggest that it is, yet we all know it isn't. But for those inclined to say that the right to own a home is a necessary corollary of the right to own property, let me answer: nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the two are totally opposed to one another.

For the right to own property does not mean you have the right to own any particular thing; it simply means that you have the right to keep what you have, and you have the right to dispense of what you have in any way that you see fit. If I have a car and I choose to dispense of it by giving it away, that is my right. If I choose to dispense of it by trading it for $50,000, then that is also my right, and it is the right of the fool who chooses to make such a trade to dispense of his $50,000 in that way. The right to own property means you can't tell me how to dispense of my property, nor can you tell me what I must own.

On the other hand, if everyone has the right to own a house, then no one really has the right to his own property. Because in that case everyone who wants a house is entitled to receive one from the labor of society. This means that, if necessary, someone can be forced to build a house even if he isn't getting what he wants for it. In other words, he doesn't have the right to dispense of his labor the way he chooses. His right to property is sacrificed.

This is especially the case with the idea of universal health care. Actually, the latest health care bill past by Obama and the Democrats is overtly anti-property rights, for it actually requires that a person buy a product that he or she may not want. Even if this weren't the case, any attempt to provide every person with a particular product will inevitably lead to the infringement of this right to property. It is just as I stated above; someone will be forced to dispense of his or her labor in a way that doesn't give desired compensation.

I could go on and on, of course. The right to consume whatever resource you want conflicts with your right to live in a healthy environment. The right to free speech conflicts with the right not to feel threatened or abused. The right to privacy conflicts again with the right to life--no, I'm not talking about abortion, I'm actually talking about the conflict between the desire to be protected from terrorism and the desire to have the government leave us alone.

Now many libertarians, or even conservatives, would say that the problem is that we have to get back to those fundamental rights enshrined in Mr. Jefferson's famous writing: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (property). But here is why I have started with life and property. These two alone are sufficient to illustrate the necessary tension between all rights, no matter how simple.

And that brings me back to the first point I mentioned. If one would argue that making a few individual rights absolute, while making the rights of the general society a relative thing which cannot be predetermined by human presumption, where then did those individual rights come from? Is it really any less presumptuous to think that we have determined which individual rights are fundamental than to think we know which direction is best for society? I do not argue that the two are the same thing; I understand perfectly well the distinction between individual liberties and the rights of general society. I am merely asking, who tells us that some rights are sacrosanct, while others are not so important? Mr. Jefferson was a fine man, but I would not make a deity out of him (my enrollment at the University of Virginia notwithstanding).

I don't know that there are any easy answers. Some might suggest that the best way to sort it out is to let the democratic process do its work. I suppose that's akin to the way many libertarians and conservatives suggest we just let the market do its work. The problem is that of course it doesn't work. Neither democracy nor markets are natural. Do you know why we can't just let the market do its work? Because the market doesn't exist; it is an abstract entity that we made up. All we have to rely on to "do its work" is the actual people who belong to this world. And indeed, if they can rely on someone establishing a free market in which to freely exchange goods and services to one another, I believe that people will generally find an equilibrium that is to be desired. But who can establish such a thing? I'm not sure a free market has ever existed.

Democracy, on the other hand, is far worse than the free market, in the sense that I cannot idealize it so much by claiming it has never existed. Democracy has existed, and it has done countless evils. This is because, as I have said before, the State has incentive only to implement those policies which earn reelection, and not those policies which are actually best for its citizens, or the world in general. And citizens, in turn, have every incentive to vote for those politicians that benefit them, personally, rather than voting for those that benefit the whole. Democracy is indeed the worst form of government ever invented, except for all of those other forms of government that have been tried.

All this to say that I don't think letting some societal construct "run its course" is any sort of theoretical solution to the question of how to form a free society.

I don't pretend to have the answers, or really any hint of an answer at this exact moment. Really this post is just a matter of me blurting out something that's been on my mind. I'm sympathetic and even quite enthusiastic about the classical liberal or libertarian philosophy of political economy, but I find its theoretical groundwork a little shaky. I've tried here to critique it on its own terms, using economic explanations for why individual liberties are not consistent with one another. Indeed, I think the stunning theoretical realization I've come to is that the problem of scarcity, which economists are so familiar with, extends even into the moral realm, so I don't think it's possible to formulate any two human rights that are actually mutually consistent in any absolute sense. The simple reason is that if I know I must provide two different protections to people around me, then any time I am forced to choose between them I will necessarily fail.

Well, that's enough rambling for one night. I really should have gone to bed a couple hours ago.

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