Liberal Property Rights vs. Collective

Liberal Property Rights vs. Collective Deliberation (WARNING: PHILOSOPHICAL!) — I'm going to jump in here to the debate over property rights taking place between Tom Palmer and Chris Bertram, aka Junius. Naturally, I agree with Tom, because I agree with Tom about most things. However, I do agree with Junius that he did not commit himself to a position as strongly statist as the one Tom seemed to be attributing to him. Nevertheless, I believe that Junius does subscribe to a rather subtler from of statism–one that is false for many of the same reasons that the coarser form is false.
It is agreed on all sides that rights are not invented or necessarily granted by the state. They can arise outside of the state. The question is to what extent these norms morally bind the state. Junius seems to imply that there isn't much special about rights (in the Lockean mold) to distinguish them from other kinds of norms that may arise in civil society. Additionally, Junius seems committed to the view that decisions of the state have a certain special moral authority insofar as the state is a vehicle for democratic “collective deliberation.” So the moral weight of property rights may be justly overwhelmed by democratic choice. This is really the essence of the disagreement. I bet Tom thinks that there is something special about rights, as against other kinds of norms, that sets a very high bar for their defeasibility. And I bet he thinks very little of the moral authority of decisions made by state mechanisms of “collective deliberation.” (In any case, that's what Tom would think if he wanted me to go on agreeing with him.)
Junius writes that, “Just because processes of entitlement can and do arise outside of state and formal legal structures, there is no reason to limit ourselves to those processes once we have the means to deliberate collectively about what we ought to do.” And that's right. The mere fact that property rights arise in civil society is not enough to constrain the legitimate scope of the state. After all, norms of fashion and etiquette arise in civil society, independent of the state. However, it's not the “informality” or state-independence that create accounts for the authority of norms like property rights. It's the fittingness of the norm, the rights principles, to the mutual welfare of the individuals who adhere to that norm.
Where property rights principles come from is one question. They emerged historically for various reasons. Their ongoing ontological basis is another thing. Rights, like other norms, seem to me to be a kind of social facts, in John Searle's sense of a social fact. That is, it's a fact that I have a property right in my computer in something like the way that it's a fact that a One Dollar bill is worth what it is, or in the way that it is a fact that hitting the ball over the outfield fence constitutes a home run. There is a set of shared set of representations and intentions that constitutes the fact. The normative authority of a rights principle is yet another thing. The normative authority derives from the relationship between the system of principles and the well-being of the people who subscribe to them.
Philosopher David Schmidtz makes a distinction between procedural and teleological justifications for institutions. Junius seems to me be attracted to a strongly procedural conception of institutional justification. He concedes that an institution may have normative teeth just on the basis of convention, but seems to be saying that have REAL normative teeth, an institution (like a system of property rights) must be brought about, or at least vetted, by some sort of “fair” collective decision making process. My view is that procedure has very little to do with justification. A set of institutions is justified just in case it will make it possible for individuals in general to be better off than they would be under alternative institutions. That is, it's justified because of the good results it tends to bring about for each individual, not by the process by which the institution emerged.
Furthermore, it strikes me that collective deliberation and democratic decision are in fact exceedingly bad mechanisms for improving individual well-being, other then the well-being of rent-seekers who know how to use democratic processes to coercively extract things from others. There is no reason to expect that the people who engage in collective deliberation and democratic decision will ever know enough to design a system that will bring about better consequences than the unsullied system of liberal property rights. Nor is there any reason to believe that people who are empowered to bring about redistribution by force will be motivated to redistribute optimally, rather than motivated to redistribute to themselves. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the participants in these processes will always have insufficient information, and will always be motivated to game the system. Given this, it's hard to see how the output of these processes could have much normative authority at all, much less trump the normative authority of the system of liberal property rights.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

27 thoughts

  1. Jim – Maine – I'm a Mainer writing about people and places, often centered in Maine, the state I've lived in for the past 25 years. I travel around the state in a variety of roles—writer, author, indie publisher, and triathlete. As a writer, I believe that words matter. Also, I am a voracious reader. Favorite Author: David Foster Wallace Favorite Book: The People's History of the United States Favorite Movies: A Star is Born ('54); Mr. Smith Goes To Washington Favorite Food: Lobster Rolls
    Jim says:

    Biden is a pompous windbag. He’s been in DC since I was 9 (I’m now 46). He’s got so much pork sticking out of his ass, he can’t stand up straight.
    Palin is weak, and showing wear of being overhandled.
    Nothing tonight that will move the polls, IMHO.

  2. Biden reminds me a used car salesman. Palin did good. I don’t know if it changes anything. I can’t stand the Modern Liberal’s Socialism so McCain is the man.
    I do have to laugh when Biden talked about regulation (as in Fannie Mae and Wall Street). Congress was the oversight over Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac AND their work to turn the mortgage industry into a social program ala the Community Reinvestment Act was the root cause of this whole mess. It was just funny watching Biden ignore such key facts.

  3. Great live blog! lol
    Alz says: “I can’t stand the Modern Liberal’s Socialism so McCain is the man.”
    Good luck fighting socialism with McCain. And thanks so much for capitalizing Modern Liberal’s Socialism, otherwise I wouldn’t have known precisely which liberals you were referring to! The capitalization suggests you’re talking about the whole cohesive mass of people that lean left on social/economic issues. Thanks again.

  4. Here is specifically what I am referring to. Watch “How Modern Liberals Think” by a guy named Evan Sayet. He used to write for Bill Maher. It’s very good. You’ll need some quiet time (45 minutes).
    And, yes, you are right about McCain, but Obama represents the worst of Modern Liberalism. That video has changed a lot about how I think about “liberals.”

  5. Try using for live blogging, I used it tonight to cover the Canadian Leaders’ debate; live blogging in the past was a serious pain, but this made it actually enjoyable.

  6. how silly is it all? Let’s face it, if Palin had answered ‘Your biggest weakness?’ question with ‘Tina Fey’ everyone would be saying this morning how well she did – that’s how silly it all is.

  7. “I am never doing that again.”
    That’s a shame. Much better than the real thing, and more accurate to boot…

  8. Please flip flop. This was great.
    It made me happy I watched the debate, because that made this even funnier.
    Oh, and 8:40 should have been Palin, not Biden.

  9. Nice post. An excellent synopsis of what happened. The debate was definitely not a game changer. Interestingly enough, as there were no knock-out punches, both sides claim victory. Hell, had a haymaker landed and one of the parties had hit the deck and bled to death, both sides would still claim victory!

  10. Haha–“Biden: Look, Gwen. Gwen, look. Look. Gwen, let me tell you how stupid this dunce is. Really, they’re GWB clones.”

  11. Democrats will vote for the Democrat. Republicans will vote for the Republican. That’s how it has always been.
    John McCain and Joe Biden are politicians. They know their numbers, and they know Washington.
    What is different about this election is culture. Where is America going, culturally?
    This is where Barack Obama and Sarah Palin come in.
    Some say race is a factor against Obama, but I say it is the opposite: Obama has been propelled upwards by his skin color. The positive ‘racism’ (Black-Americans supporting him, White-Americans feeling guilty about the legacy of slavery) far outweighs the few remaining pockets of negative racism (traditional bigotry) that still exist in our country.
    Whereas Black-Americans account for 12 percent of America, women number about 51 percent.
    This is where America’s reaction to Sarah Palin gets interesting. It is not only sexism at play, but regionalism too. Keep in mind that America’s reaction could be vastly different from the media’s reaction, which tries to intervene in how America thinks and observes for itself.
    For the last decade, American women have been trying to become either the fifth ‘Manhattanite’ cast member of ‘Sex and the City’ or a ‘Desperate Housewife’ on Wisteria Lane. The White male executives who created, packaged and marketed these female stereotypes have made plenty of money as women across America spent time and money trying to become ‘Carrie Bradshaw’. But somehow, these wanna-be’s never lived it up as glamorously.
    Sarah Palin is all about God, Family, Country and Shot-Guns. She is a completely New American Woman. She was not constructed by a Public Relations agency in either New York City or Los Angeles. She is not a Hollywood creation. Sarah Palin is simply a product of American small-town wholesomeness: happy childhood, hard work, self-discipline and a bright, and almost chirpy, outlook on life.
    Sarah is not the high-maintenance, drama-seeking, bulimia-suffering fragile caricature of a working woman as peddled by TV.
    Her husband, Todd Palin, is not a neurotic metro-sexual obsessing over the price of organic arugula, or whining about his commitment phobias to his shrink. He is a man’s man, and frankly, a woman’s man: just your regular American guy—wholesome and uncomplicated.
    Sarah and Todd are American ‘retro’, but it is retro made cool all over again. They are a brand of Americana that has been tested and true—genuine, confident and mature.
    Something happened to the Obama brand on the way to the election. It is as if the fashion gods decided that “Didn’t you know? No one wears Obama after Labour Day.”
    Once exotic and different, the Obama brand has been turned into something weird and creepy. “Obama’s Witnesses,” “Obama’s Blue-Shirts,” “The Obama Youth Fraternity League”…Plus, after the initial swooning over him, most people still think that there’s something “off” about Obama; as if he’s hollow, or hiding something.
    Today, the Obama brand has become decidedly “uncool”. That’s why people tuned out from watching him debate McCain.
    On the other hand, Americans are discovering that they are intrigued by Sarah Palin. The TV pundits may want to spin things their way, but the surest measure of who won the Vice-Presidential Debate is that, at the end, the vast majority of viewers walked away from their TV sets and said to themselves, “I’d like to see more of Sarah Palin—unfiltered and uncut.”
    The Obama camp may be celebrating too early. There are still plenty of people out there that haven’t made up their mind, and Obama’s triumphalism may begin to sound like arrogance, and he’s already been accused of that.
    This is indeed a culturally interesting time to be an American.

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