Are Property Rights Enough?



Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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15 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    Even as an outsider that was a good dialogue. The way mccarthy and healy explain their views points at why I find the , property rights/gov is EVIL libertarianism often so weak.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    ummm ….urrr…. ummmm howley. close enough for goverment work as they say.Report

  3. Avatar Katherine says:

    It’s an interesting debate.

    On Kerry Howley’s piece, I would say that unfettered individualism is not the only thing that qualifies as freedom. The world she envisions seems to me unmoored, anarchic, excluding the legitimacy not only of government but of faith or tradition or community. The underlying sense of it is that any ties to other people that limit the bounds of your actions are oppressive; the conclusion of that is that only in selfishness is there freedom.

    I also have difficulties with Todd Seavey. He states that:

    ‘She mentions, for instance, that 5.5 percent of medical students, decades ago, “happened to have female bodies.” She concedes briefly that discrepancies in gender roles “may” result from psychological inclinations or voluntary behavior patterns rather than oppression, but she gives us no reason to believe that she has special skills enabling her to decide better than the rest of us when the sorting processes of society have yielded acceptably “free” results and when they have yielded unacceptably gendered ones…

    Howley singles out a few hot-button, familiar issues such as race and gender, but the truth is that every time your fellow human beings decide, say, to be sports fans instead of talking about entomology with you, or to leave town en masse for the Bahamas (causing you to feel lonely), their actions have altered your life options. Tough luck. That’s called “other people exercising their freedom,” not “people oppressing you.”

    That he is willing to compare very real discrimination on the basis of race and gender to other people having different hobbies that you suggests a complete lack of comprehension of the substantial impacts that it can have on people’s opportunity; moreover, it suggests an utter disinterest in trying to understand those impacts. I’m not quick to attribute gender differentials in jobs to discrimination, but “95% of the people in medical school are male” seems like a glaring enough disparity to at least suggest that we should consider if there’s an explanation besides women not wanting to be doctors. His tone suggests that any mention of discrimination is no more than whining, and it puts my hackles up.

    McCarthy’s view comes closest to my own (on cultural issues; on most matters I don’t fit with any of them, as my economic views are decidedly un-libertarian; the freedoms to spew toxic waste into someone’s backyard or make people work 14-hour days in unsafe conditions aren’t my idea of liberty):

    Paradoxically, the nonlibertarian qualities of the mutually antagonistic left and right sometimes entail unexpected benefits for freedom. Some of the most effective centers of resistance to state power over the centuries, after all, have been nonindividualistic institutions such as labor unions, churches, guilds, and extended families. Conversely, when libertarians attack these organs of civil society in the name of freedom, they may only succeed in empowering the state—not always, but sometimes.Report

    • Avatar Bradley in reply to Katherine says:

      the freedoms to spew toxic waste into someone’s backyard or make people work 14-hour days in unsafe conditions aren’t my idea of liberty

      Some day, critics of libertarianism will get tired of using straw-man arguments. Spewing toxic waste into someone’s backyard is an obvious violation of the yard owner’s property rights. Forcing someone to work is coercion. Property rights and non-coercion are central tenets of libertarianism. Perhaps you meant to criticize corporatism instead?Report

  4. Avatar Ryan says:

    I think the key problem, which Howley kind of gestures at, is that we take it as a given that all libertarians must care about preventing the state from interfering with property rights. Whatever else we might build atop that principle, we at least simply must agree on that principle. But why? Why is it obvious that the state taxing me to pay for services must be evil, while my neighbors using religion to deny me opportunities is just “pluralism”? That seems like an almost exactly-backward conception of liberty to me.

    Shorter version, or Why I’m Not a Libertarian: When it comes to making a list of all the things I need in order to be free, property rights (especially as defined by libertarians) might not even be in the top ten.Report

    • Avatar Will in reply to Ryan says:

      So ownership and the uncoerced exchange of goods and services are entirely incidental to the idea of freedom? Come on. I understand that some libertarians fetishize property rights to an absurd extent, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.Report

      • Avatar Ryan in reply to Will says:

        Entirely? Surely not. But ranked against things like the freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of and from religion, equal treatment, and so on, I don’t think it represents the singular aspect of freedom that libertarians seem to believe.Report

        • Avatar Dave in reply to Ryan says:

          I think Locke’s view on property rights (which many libertarians draw from to certain degrees) would include the individual owning one’s self as a property right.

          Many of the freedoms you describe flow from that. Freedom of conscience does since your conscience is your own.Report

      • Avatar Dave in reply to Will says:

        If I recall, Ryan holds a stronger view of positive liberties than he does negative liberties like property rights. That may explain it.Report

        • Avatar Ryan in reply to Dave says:

          I wouldn’t say “stronger”, in that I believe freedom of conscience is the core freedom from which all the others spring – and it’s definitely a so-called “negative” liberty. That said, I take a rather different view than libertarians of the ways in which things like substantive inequalities, non-governmental power, and limited access interact with/undermine the set of liberties libertarians like best.Report

          • Avatar Dave in reply to Ryan says:

            Regarding the first part of your response, I described freedom of conscience above as a property right to one’s own conscience, a view which originates from John Locke’s views on property rights. You may not have seen it yet since we’re having the same conversation in two places but I thought it bears repeating here.

            Regarding the second part, problems involving private power are probably the biggest cause of conflict between the classical and modern liberals. That was certainly the case in the early to mid 20th century. In constitutional law, it manifested itself in a series of controversial labor law decisions. On that end, I think the best legal decision that shows the distinct differences between the classical liberal worldview, which heavily emphasized staying out of private disputes (maybe to a fault) and the progressives who believed that the state should intervene on disadvantaged groups is Lochner v New York. It may look obscene to a liberal looking at it from their developed perspective of how today’s world works, but keep in mind that in 1905, the public-private distinction was arguably much more robust than it was today because common law rights like property and contract were protected more vigilantly.


            • Avatar Ryan in reply to Dave says:

              I saw the first part, and I get it. Although I think it’s odd, to say the least. It seems like kind of an ahistorical characterization of Locke, to say the least. I am not aware that Locke believed non-property rights were derived from an individual’s self-ownership, although I’m willing to be proven wrong on that count.Report

        • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Dave says:

          Some people (me) would say that property rights are a form of positive liberties in the first place. Those same people (me) would also, however, say that a consistent system of property rights is a prerequisite for negative liberties to have any real meaning.Report