Moral Agency, Not an Agency of Morals

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Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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90 Responses

  1. Avatar Bo says:

    Were I feeling gliberal, I would point out property rights are a very large government transfer of freedom from from have-nots to haves.Report

  2. Avatar North says:

    That’s quite a brainful to mull over.Report

  3. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    I’d take issue only with the following:

    But the very concept of “theft” presupposes the existence of a uniform system of property rights, guaranteed and enforced by the government.

    I disagree in part because it proves too much. If we lived without a government, and if I killed you, I am forced by your reasoning to infer that I have done no wrong. The very concept of murder, you might say, presupposes the existence of a set of laws against it, enforced by the government.

    So murdering isn’t a moral wrong in itself, and we do nothing improper when we kill one another, for whatever the reason, unless a government says so.

    From here we can multiply the examples until the government is the only source of everything that is ever good or right in the world. But this can’t be correct.

    The flaw in the reasoning is uncovered when we consider that government is not the creator of these moral imperatives, but only a guarantor that the malevolently inclined will nonetheless abide by them. Other guarantors exist, including our natural right to self-defense, which we almost all still readily employ in emergencies or when the government is not available, and our right as a sovereign people to alter the government when it’s not doing its job properly.

    The existence of these other guarantors suggests that government is merely one factor among several that together help supply us with an orderly civil society, in which a pattern of at least roughly predictable rules prevails. These rules will ideally be (a) guaranteed by a variety of sound institutions and practices, (b) have the support of natural moral reasoning, and (c) lead to the overall flourishing of the society in question.

    Obviously (b) and (c) take a lot of unpacking, but the short answer is to just go read Kant. Internal consistency and universal applicability go a long, long way. But these don’t come from the government. They come from the power of reason — admittedly all too limited — to command general assent in a society of mostly good-willed people. We use government not to create the rules, but to make sure that those who would deny their existence don’t get the upper hand.

    We have no guarantees of these foundations, of course. But I’d still maintain the overall contention that the written law is at its best an attempt to capture a higher and more universal social law, and that we improve the written law by considering what that more universal law truly is.

    Property rights and their proper derivation are the subject not of a blog post or comment, but of a book. But here I would simply say that humans are the planmaking animals. Plans over time are how we survive. For plans ever to have a hope of succeeding — that is, for humans to have a chance to survive according to their natures — there must be an observable regularity about the objects we employ in them.

    Many possibilities exist for how we might set up such a regularity, and private property here competes very obviously with collective ownership. I’d say the reason private property is superior is best articulated by Hayek. No one person or agency can know enough to run an entire society and provide for the wants and needs of all. Particularly not when all of them are out obeying their natures and making plans of their own.Report

    • @Jason Kuznicki, Thanks for the constructive criticism – a lot to mull over here.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Jason Kuznicki, You think that the relationship of a person to herself is as arbitrary and in need of external socially-ontologically constructed buttressing as the relationship of that person to the inanimate objects around her that society calls “ownership” is?Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michael Drew says:

        @Michael Drew,

        I can’t say I follow. The fact is that any society is going to have understandings of each (relationship to self and relationship to inanimate objects), and that these understandings will have a variety of rewards and penalties attached, by a variety of mechanisms, through a variety of institutions, and that any good society is going to permit us to reason publicly about them. I’m not sure where you are headed with it, though.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Jason Kuznicki, “The flaw in the reasoning is uncovered when we consider that government is not the creator of these moral imperatives, but only a guarantor that the malevolently inclined will nonetheless abide by them. Other guarantors exist, including our natural right to self-defense, which we almost all still readily employ in emergencies or when the government is not available, and our right as a sovereign people to alter the government when it’s not doing its job properly.”

      But your example of murder! I do think we could find moral sanction against it outside of the government or any other social institution…maybe…but even so, in this particular case I think “theft” provides a much surer example of a wrong that is only made so when defined by government/the law. As Thompson notes, without rules declaring otherwise, there is no clear understanding (at least not one that occurs in nature/a priori) of “ownership.” Is one’s property being “one’s” property based on who got there first, who mixed their labor, who could make the “best” use of it, or who was most powerful and could forcibly take it?

      Either way, I don’t think your Kantian imperatives would hold up outside of social context, that is, without knowledge of social interaction or a socially defined community. If Kant were alone and the only human to exist his imperatives would not disappear so much as become incomprehensible. They require one take into account the rest of humanity, there is an inherit social component which far from being co-incidental, I think is actually at the heart of sustaining the moral imperatives. And that it’s the same social component which comes back again in the form of government, tribal rule, etc. that yields a understanding of property rights and imbues these rights with any higher meaning.Report

    • @Jason Kuznicki, I believe that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a libertarian cite Kant, but you did follow up with a Hayek citation, so fair enough I think.Report

  4. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    Great post by the wayReport

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Social safety nets and the taxes that support them are, ultimately, little more than an attempt to define property rights in such a way that the moral agency of those who would otherwise be deprived of their moral agency is restored.

    This is one of the things that I’ve been struggling with when it comes to social safety nets.

    In my original essay, I touched on this when I said: This is why stealing is wrong, for example. It takes options away from someone, and yet we see how a “Robin Hood” situation makes us waver. Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor also increases decision-making ability.

    I mean, seriously. Look at Bill Gates. Let’s say we give him a hundred bucks. He doesn’t even notice. He makes $250 in the time it takes for the elevator to open after he pushes the button. $100 makes *NO* difference to his life *AT ALL*.

    Let’s move down a ways and talk about giving you or me or any given reader of this website $100. It’s not a game-changer, but it’s got a hell of a lot more marginal utility than for Bill Gates. That’s a wonderful date with the spouse, or a game for one and a book for the other, or one less thing that has to be worried at this week. It doesn’t change much, but it is a small and pleasant windfall.

    Now let’s go to one of those Fourth World countries. $100 is *LIFECHANGING*. It’s the difference between clean water and typhus. It’s the difference between the baby dying and the baby making it to 5 years old. It’s the difference between a village starving and a village making it. It’s a life or death amount. You thought there was a big shift in marginal utility for Bill Gates and you/me? It’s *NOTHING* compared to the marginal utility change between you/me and folks living like savages in 4th world countries.

    So, then… wouldn’t the moral thing be to take the money from Bill Gates and turn the 4th World countries into, at least, 3rd World ones?

    Well… I waver.Report

    • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird,

      Let us be thankful that our Bill Gates is using his money to help those fourth world people in the best ways he can figure.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird,
      “So, then… wouldn’t the moral thing be to take the money from Bill Gates and turn the 4th World countries into, at least, 3rd World ones?”

      This is something that bugs the hell out of me, as well. It always seemed arbitrary to me that we were more concerned with bolstering safety nets in our own, relatively wealthy countries than in creating them in Fourth World countries.

      Believe it or not, thinking about things in the way I describe above helps it seem a lot less arbitrary. The question still bugs the hell out of me, but increasingly I’m realizing that short of doing something that involves a lot of doing the ultimate act of depriving someone of moral agency (ie, war and killing), there’s very much a practical limit to how much good foreign aid can do.

      Additionally, I’m recognizing that the minimum level of property necessary to the meaningful exercise of moral agency can vary substantially from society to society and country to country and from era to era. As I suggested yesterday, the rise of our (elite-driven) cultural emphasis on credentialism (and credentials really have become a form of property in so many ways) provides a pretty heavy restriction on the moral agency of those unable to afford credentials, thereby justifying a stronger safety net.

      Lastly there is the fact that definitions and enforcement of property rights are inherently not uniform across political boundaries – indeed, political boundaries have quite often in history been little more than geographical demarcations of different systems of property rights. If you read taxation and safety nets as merely a part of the definition of property rights, then suddenly spending that $100 on a wealth transfer here rather than sending it to a Third World country seems a lot less arbitrary.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        @Mark Thompson, I want to tread carefully here… one problem that I think that we ought avoid like plague would be arresting development.

        Let’s say you’ve got kids. Adolescent kids. What’s the best thing for them? Well, a swat upside the head, instructions to straighten up and fly right, and forced to get a paper route/baby sitting job will result in… eventually… an adult.

        If you give the kid an allowance until he’s 22, if you buy him cars and pay for his insurance, if you make it so that he doesn’t *NEED* a job, he’s not likely to GET a job.

        Next thing you know, you’ve got a 22-year old without a resume.

        You get a kid who has to pay for his own car, his own gas, his own insurance, his own entertainment, next thing you know, you’ve got a 22-year old who is on a management track.

        Right?

        Now this is *COMPLETELY* different from the “charity” that is providing him with a room with a bed, and regular meals. Providing a bed and meals is what the kid needs. Beyond that will arrest his development.

        So I wonder how much of our social safety net results in arrested development and, if we’re going to be taking money from this guy to give to that guy, wouldn’t it be better off given to the guy who needs a bed and meals than giving it to the guy who needs gas?

        If you know what I mean?Report

        • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird,

          I really don’t buy that story. I could it has a certain plausibility but where is the evidence?

          Perhaps the people are lazy non-workers because there are no jobs. Perhaps creating opportunities for people solves the problem. I can’t tell you that because I don’t have the evidence.

          I have a deep skepticism for the claim that the poor stay poor because they have it too cushy.Report

          • Avatar Koz in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

            “See Greg Mankiw on the long duration of unemployment, and see Mark Thoma citing David Altig on the relatively high number of job vacancies relative to unemployment. I would explain both of those phenomena as being due to destruction of human capital. Under the 2007 pattern of specialization and trade, some workers had human capital which suddenly depreciated. It is difficult to create a new pattern.”

            http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/07/what_is_job_cre.html

            Destruction of human capital is the essence of liberalism/social democracy in modern industrial nations.Report

            • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Koz says:

              @Koz, In which Koz rewrites history such that the folk Marxists were in power in 2007.Report

            • Avatar Koz in reply to Koz says:

              Should that be a surprise? Folk Marxism dominates most of industrial nations in Europe and has a strong presence here.

              Folk Marxism always costs. For a long time the cost was pretty cheap and most people acquiesced to paying it. Now, the cost has gone up dramatically, and there’s a lot more people (both here and in Europe) who are ready to repudiate folk Marxism. Whether or not they get the opportunity to do so is what politics is going to be about, probably for the next decade or so.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

            @ThatPirateGuy, I have a deep skepticism for the claim that the poor stay poor because they have it too cushy.

            This was not my argument.

            My argument was that development was arrested. It has nothing to do with “lazy” or “cushy” as much as the creation of moral hazard. I think that Clinton’s “Welfare Reform” was very much a step in the right direction.

            There is nothing wrong with needing welfare… there is something very much wrong if one is on welfare and raises a child who then grows up to need welfare who then has a child who does so.

            If there are 3rd generation children born into welfare, something is fundamentally wrong and we need to explore how and why we are arresting the development of the people we’re pretending to help.Report

            • Avatar gregiank in reply to Jaybird says:

              @Jaybird, I don’t think anybody has ever doubted that having multiple generations born into welfare is a serious problem. However every time i have seen stats that group is always a smallish part of people who receive “welfare.” Most people who get gov help are on it for a relatively short period.

              I’ve worked with many people who were stuck in multi-generational poverty. My sample is biased since i work in mental health, but still, a lot of those people who are stuck on welfare have a double butt load of problems. They usually have more then one helping of mental illness, substance abuse, physical abuse and chronic medical problems and not just in their selves but going back generations. There is no easy solution nor is “just suck it up” a remotely likely solution.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

              @gregiank, so then the solution to those problems seem to be… what?

              Understand that their development is not, in fact, arrested and they are achieving to the top of their abilities and we (as a society!) ought continue to care for them in perpetuity?

              I am certain that such will, once again, lead us to the conclusions that OWH (ptooey) reached almost a century ago.Report

            • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Jaybird says:

              @Jaybird, This is why I favor a safety net system with no strings attached, in which the safety net is provided in as liquid and fungible a form as possible (ideally in the form of that remarkable invention called currency). The more strings that are attached, the more likely one’s development is to become arrested as moral decisions are removed from the recipient. The fewer strings that are attached, the more the recipient has the freedom to determine for himself what is necessary for “mere survival” and what is appropriate for moral calculus. In short, the more strings we put on that safety net, the more it ceases to serve its purpose as a guarantor of moral agency and indeed becomes an active tool for the suppression of same.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

              @Mark Thompson, let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that that isn’t on the table.

              We have to pick between supporting more or less the status quo, doing more of more or less the status quo, or less of more or less the status quo.

              How much damage have we done? How much damage are we continuing to do?Report

            • Avatar Koz in reply to Jaybird says:

              “This is why I favor a safety net system with no strings attached, in which the safety net is provided in as liquid and fungible a form as possible (ideally in the form of that remarkable invention called currency).”

              Let’s also note that this emphasis on moral agency is not necessarily aligned with the plain humanitarian interest that motivates most people to support safety nets, ie feed the hungry clothe the naked etc.

              How should we address that? Should we have one safety net to improve the moral agency of the economically disfavored and another one for humanitarian relief? If we only have the former how (if at all) do we address the other humanitarian concerns?Report

        • Avatar Bo in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird, well, consider that you obviously don’t believe that we should leave kids on the hill at 8 and see how that turns out in a decade either, even though a kid who made it through that could probably disassemble a sheep into food, clothing and shelter in 15 minutes by the time he was 22.

          So, to use a recent political issue, where do you figure providing medical insurance for this hypothetical kid falls on the allowing to grow up vs. arresting development scale? Going down the list of liberal projects, i.e food, shelter, medicine, education, it seems to be a pretty strict subset of things that most parents think would retard their kids’ growth if they withheld rather than if they provided.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Bo says:

            @Bo, I’d look to see what, in fact, is being provided.

            We all agree that, sure, we (as a society!) have a responsibility to educate our The Children.

            Would *YOU* send your kids to public schools in Washington DC?

            If the answer is “no” (and I presume it is), I’d ask “why?”

            If it turns out that the kids in Washington DC aren’t getting a quality education, I’d say that there is something fundamentally wrong with what we’re doing.

            And we need to go down the list.

            Food… are more people malnourished and/or obese than when we started?

            What are we doing wrong?

            What about shelter? Medicine?

            Let’s go all the way down the list.

            We agree that we ought to be doing something… but compare what we dream we ought to be doing to what we’re actually doing.

            Are we doing more harm than good? Are we arresting development?Report

            • Avatar Bo in reply to Jaybird says:

              What exactly is there that is worse than when the government first got involved? Is education here worse than in 1634? Is starvation more prevalant than in 1931? Is medical care worse than in 1964? Up until our most recent recession, we had almost 15 straight years of sub 7% unemployment; is that a sign that we’ve been arresting the ability of people to enter the adult world? Your comment just sounds like a bunch of vague aspersions against the government rather than a list of actual problems with it.Report

            • Avatar Bo in reply to Jaybird says:

              @Jaybird, mostly it’s just that when you talk about gay marriage or marijuana dispenaries or police knocking down people’s doors or restricting free speech or gun rights, you obviously have a really strong and clear idea of what exactly the government’s doing wrong and why it should stop, even when I disagree. This comment, by contrast, just seems really, really tenuous. But I am a liberal, so take that with whatever grain of salt you desire.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

              @Bo, when I talk about the government not recognizing gay marriage, or busting dispensaries, or throwing pamphleteers in jail, these are things that are happening to individuals without their consent.

              When I talk about stuff like education, or welfare, or down the list, I’m talking about things that (most) everyone agrees ought to be around to some degree and stand in line for… even as it slowly damages them like a cancer. There’s a part of me that thinks that I, at least, would be better off if I didn’t have to subsidize this cancer and if the people in line were responsible for paying for it themselves, maybe they’d fight for a non-carcinogenic version.

              If you know what I mean.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird, I think a good encapsulation of what you’re talking about was a piece in the Knoxville Sentinel. Comments with links don’t tend to go through, so google “African experience converts a socialist”. You have to consider the source (the opinioneer, not the philantropist I mean), but I think there’s something to the notion.Report

      • @Mark Thompson,

        It’s nor arbitrary. It’s having a nation. It’s a form of national solidarity. I think proximity (both in terms of physical and institutional) is a perfectly legitimate form of negotiation.

        I mean, it’s arbitrary in the sense that I would help out my brother if he was in a financial jam but would not help out some guy on the street even if I completely believed the story of the financial jam he says that he is in.

        The alternative to helping someone out within proximity is often not going to be helping out someone in a land far, far away. It’s buying a new iPod for yourself. I think this is a natural part of the human instinct. It sucks for the people far, far away, but it gives charity to those with some sort of relationship or connection within proximity.Report

  6. Avatar Koz says:

    “Social safety nets and the taxes that support them are, ultimately, little more than an attempt to define property rights in such a way that the moral agency of those who would otherwise be deprived of their moral agency is restored.”

    To be honest I’m not really following the moral agency part of this argument and am skeptical of it. In the abstract, I think it’s an important part of personhood that everybody gets the same moral agency. As a practical matter cultural and economic factors are very important and can color our moral agency in obvious or subtle ways. I’m not sold on Mark’s theory of moral agency under socioeconomic pressure, but it’s probably as plausible as anything without digging on this significantly harder than I have.

    But there’s a particular practical angle to social safety nets that needs to be addressed. We need to think about safety nets in terms of what ought to be done and what can be done.

    Given what we know about economic history for the last 50 years or so, it seems pretty clear to me that very little can be done directly at the government level for the working poor, the unemployable or nearly so. What can be done is that the overall labor market conditions can improve to the extent that such people can participate in it and earn a living. And in our good times, that’s exactly what’s happened. Rich Karlgaard writes a poignant anecdote here:

    http://blogs.forbes.com/digitalrules/2010/07/tammys-economy/

    This is where folk Marxism comes in (and the Hayekian-mainstream conservative rebuttal to it). In a prosperous economy, strong property rights are the rule, and safety nets (and national defense and salaries for customs inspectors, etc) are the exception. This is okay because most rules have exceptions. But whatever exceptions there are, are justified as exceptions and limited to them.

    But as the exceptions grow and grow the justifications for them get weaker and weaker, the economy loses its ability to grow until it finally gives up the ghost, which is what we’re seeing here. As that happens we lose our prosperity and our ability to have effective safety nets.

    Therefore, for those who like to say that they favor capitalism with safety nets, like Erik and Mark, there should always some justification of what those safety nets are supposed to look like and why they are feasible.Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Koz says:

      @Koz, I don’t find this very convincing. The reason is that it assumes that “strong social safety nets” are an exception to “strong property rights.” My whole point in this post is that safety nets are – or at least can be – an integral element of property rights. Indeed, on some level, property rights are themselves inherently a social safety net.

      What is perhaps particularly telling here is to compare the US (with a low level of taxation and comparatively weak safety nets) to Denmark (with a high level of taxation and extraordinarily strong social safety nets) on the specific question of “strength of property rights.” Thankfully, there is an organization known as the Heritage Foundation that does the legwork on this question every year. You may be surprised to learn that Denmark’s score on that front is better than the US’, and has been for the last two years. Prior to that, the US and Denmark scored equally every year. Notably, the same story is evident with every single Scandinavian social democracy. This tells me that there is no evidence that social safety nets are at odds with strong property rights and that, instead, safety nets can be a legitimate and integral part of any system of property rights.Report

  7. Avatar Koz says:

    “I don’t find this very convincing. The reason is that it assumes that “strong social safety nets” are an exception to “strong property rights.” My whole point in this post is that safety nets are – or at least can be – an integral element of property rights. “

    Of course, that’s exactly the part I’m disagreeing with.

    The Scandanavian states are worth talking about more, but aside from that (and without getting too deep into Heritage’s methodology) there’s a very good reason why the US score below countries like Norway, etc. We have Demo majorities in all our political branches of gov’t and the activist mentality behind them is completely corrupted by folk Marxism.

    I don’t know how closely you’ve been following the sovereign debt crisis, but in terms of gov’t policy and measurables the US is actually on par or below par with Germany and the big Euro industrial democracies. The reason why the PIIGS have a sovereign debt crisis and we don’t is because we still have Americans living in America and a significant number of them are motivated by an anti-folk Marxist mentality.

    In short America, for the moment at least, is a nation of anti-folk Marxists being ruled by folk Marxists. Which are you?

    If we cannot repudiate the folk Marxist rulers (and soon) we should expect that our property rights should continue to weaken relative Denmark, etc., and our possibilities of prosperity to weaken right along with it.Report

    • Avatar Travis in reply to Koz says:

      Anyone who calls Barack Obama and the current Democratic majority in Congress “Marxists” automatically disqualifies themselves from rational debate.Report

      • Avatar Koz in reply to Travis says:

        I’ve been using that word on this site with a very specific meaning for what, 2 months? Maybe 6 months? Can you not follow along?Report

        • Avatar Travis in reply to Koz says:

          @Koz, it’s not even remotely true.

          I’m pretty sure Marx would be rolling in his grave at the idea of a government paying hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to the private health insurance industry.

          Your use of the term suggests that you’re an heir to the tradition of intellectual bankruptcy founded by Messrs. Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to Travis says:

            @Travis, Don’t start Travis, we’re still waiting on his rational fact based step by step explanation of how the GOP as it currently exists somehow represents the last best and only hope for prosperity in America today.Report

            • Avatar Koz in reply to North says:

              Well, if you can keep more curiosity and less snark in your brain while you’re reading you may yet figure it out.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to North says:

              @North, I’m mightily curious Koz. You know the league tgakes guest posts. You could lay out your unassailable logic in a neat concise point by point fasion for all to see as opposed to depending on repeated unsupported declarations and allusions to explanations not yet provided.Report

          • Avatar Koz in reply to Travis says:

            Well then you should be reading Marx a little more closely, especially the labor theory of value. The idea is that value is produced by labor, and labor is produced by people collectively, ie, one person’s labor is the same thing as the next person’s. Therefore whatever money or goods capitalists or bankers end up with is necessarily an exploitation of the workers which can and should be resisted and reversed.

            http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Marxism.html

            As this applies to our contemporary political scene, ie folk Marxism, the idea is that political economy is mostly about distribution. The overall level of economic production is a given, the point is to “fairly” distribute it to needy or politically favored people.

            The opposite of folk Marxism is anti-folk Marxism, which says that economics is primarily a matter of production. Whoever does more, tends to produce more, and tends to get more. allowing for significant vagaries of distribution which we can’t do anything about.

            The upshot is, folk Marxism is a widespread mentality that may or may not exist in some group of people, closely related to Marx’s philosophical work on economics (and not necessarily much to do with particular economic policies of Communist states).Report

            • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Koz says:

              @Koz, Ok, but the whole point here is that no particular theory of ownership is morally superior to another particular theory of ownership, but that a system of property rights (ie, a theory of ownership) is nonetheless necessary for a society to exist and prosper and for a meaningfully large number of individuals in that society to exceed “bare survival” such that the exercise of moral agency is something other than a luxury.

              No matter which system of property rights (in the absence of social safety nets) you institute will result in the State picking winners and losers, with the “losers” defined as people who are effectively left out in the cold without sufficient access to resources that enable them to regularly undertake a moral calculus. If the goal of government is to maximize aggregate individual moral agency, ie, liberty then it must at least attempt to put the losers in a position where “bare survival” is not a concern.

              This does not require a belief that profit and success are necessarily exploitation, nor does it require a belief that one person’s labor is the same as the next person’s, which is inherently a statement of moral value. Indeed, the statement that economics is inherently a matter of production takes an incredibly moralistic view of property rights just as any other theory of ownership must do.

              My argument is that social safety nets should be seen as an attempt to define property rights in such a way as to minimize the moral intrusions of the state inherent in any theory of property rights.

              We are left then to argue over how much of a safety net is necessary to do so and how much of a safety net goes too far and results in the state making an active moral statement in support of the safety net’s beneficiaries.Report

            • Avatar Koz in reply to Koz says:

              Ok, but the whole point here is that no particular theory of ownership is morally superior to another particular theory of ownership,….

              I dunno I might be persuadable to that but I see no reason to take that as a given.Report

            • Avatar Koz in reply to Koz says:

              “No matter which system of property rights (in the absence of social safety nets) you institute will result in the State picking winners and losers,…”

              1. Why?

              2. How does the existence of the safety net change things?Report

            • Avatar Koz in reply to Koz says:

              In fact, that’s a significant part of my point. The states’ ability to sort winners and losers is much more limited than people are supposing. And accordingly the state should give up trying and should be much more willing to let the winners win and losers lose.Report

            • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Koz says:

              @Koz,
              1. That no system of property rights is inherently morally superior to another system ought to be self-evident. One system may be preferable to another under the tenets of a particular religion or set of cultural norms or what-have-you, but one cannot, a priori devise a universally applicable and moral system of property rights.

              2. Re: picking of winners and losers….Group A has nomadically cared for, lived on, and lived off of a giant swathe of land for centuries according to their particular system of property rights. Suddenly Group B starts moving into this swathe of land and laying claims to it according to their particular system of property rights, which has the effect of deeply undermining Group A’s long-established practices of property rights. This inevitably leads to a dispute. The government is called in to resolve the dispute. This government shares a racial and cultural affinity with Group B. As such, the government chooses Group B as the winners and Group A as the losers. Group A is forced onto small parcels of land and to abide by Group B’s system of property rights. The residual effects of this last centuries.

              OR….Group A are millions of slaves who work fields for a smattering of persons in Group B. They are slaves because Group B’s system of property rights defines them as property (ie, government has picked them to be the losers). Eventually the government changes the definition of property so they are no longer considered property but actual persons. Now government has to decide who owns the fields they used to work under penalty of death. The government – dominated by people of the same race as Group B – determines that the plantation owner still owns the fields, and the slaves own nothing. The government has picked winners and it has picked losers. The residual effects of this last centuries.

              OR….In a particular system of property rights, everything is owned by “the State.” Citizens have no choice but to work for the State in a particular capacity. One day, this system of property rights collapses. What theory of property rights should be used to determine who now owns the factories? A labor theory that would give each worker a share? A management theory that would rest ownership in the people who guided the factory? Or a theory that would give title to the person who created the factory and ran it for personal profit (or, if he was clean, for the profit of the state)? The new, avowedly capitalist government, has close personal ties with the managers and/or the creators of the factory. The state chooses that group as the winners and the workers as the losers. This has residual effects that last quite some time.

              3. I note that in each of the above scenarios, the end result is nonetheless a stable and prosperous economy in which the average lot of most people is improved. But what about the ones who were picked as losers? Not so much. The social safety net mitigates this. It says that the property rights granted at the conclusion of each scenario include a grant of property rights to the chosen losers to at least guarantee them the possibility of improving their lot in life/excercising moral agency/having the opportunity for more than just “mere survival.”Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Koz says:

      Please explain why the US did not score higher than it did between 1999 and 2008. Please explain why no nation scores higher than Sweden this year or Denmark last year. Is Heritage guilty of “folk Marxism” as well?

      Do you understand the gaping difference between “Marxism” and “social democracy”?

      Most importantly, though, I don’t see an actual attempt to rebut my point here that social safety nets are part and parcel of property rights and that property rights are inherently positive liberties.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        @Mark Thompson, Hell Mark, last I discussed the subject I heard that Canada is starting to edge out America. So somehow the Canadians are getting fewer “folk marxists” in power than the US?Report

      • Avatar Koz in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        “Do you understand the gaping difference between “Marxism” and “social democracy”?”

        Folk Marxism is the superset of Marxism, ie Communist command economies, and social democracy. Ie, that the capital base and economic product of society is ultimately a collective asset and can and should be deployed to politically favored ends at the expense of the narrower interests of the property owner.Report

        • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Koz says:

          @Koz, But you’re presupposing here that Communist command economies, social democracies (aka European capitalism), socialist economies, and American capitalism all define “property owner” the exact same way.Report

          • Avatar Koz in reply to Mark Thompson says:

            I’m not following you here.Report

            • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Koz says:

              @Koz, Meaning that your description of social democracy (which is not the same as socialism) as a belief “that the capital base and economic product of society is ultimately a collective asset and can and should be deployed to politically favored ends at the expense of the narrower interests of the property owner”
              …is only accurate if you presuppose that “property owner” has a consistent and universal definition across all societies. It doesn’t.Report

        • Avatar Travis in reply to Koz says:

          @Koz, this construct ignores the fact that there is ultimately only one capital base — our Earth. We do own it collectively, as a species, at least as long as we can survive to enjoy it in an organized social manner.

          All divisions of that capital base are, at their root, arbitrary — lines on a map or lines of computer code.Report

          • Avatar Koz in reply to Travis says:

            That’s a very good point, and the main reason why folk Marxism is as persistent as it is. There is a level, our intuition leads us to believe that the capital base is a collective asset.

            But, there’s at least two and some centuries of unbroken economic history to inform us that assertion of collective control of the economy is always non-economically optimal, and non-socially optimal too.Report

            • Avatar Travis in reply to Koz says:

              @Koz, so who’s suggesting collective control of the economy?

              There’s, of course, a case to be made for certain sectors to be operated by the government, and many may disagree along the lines of which sectors should and shouldn’t.

              But I’m not seeing anyone here suggesting we turn Boeing into a design bureau a-la Tupolev.Report

            • Avatar Koz in reply to Koz says:

              “so who’s suggesting collective control of the economy?”

              The folk Marxists, for example the Obama Administration.

              Where, to put in generously, if there is some social good to be had by asserting collective control over some part of the economy, there’s no reason in principle why it shouldn’t be done.Report

            • Avatar Travis in reply to Koz says:

              @Koz, again, you keep asserting this as fact without evidence.

              Where has anyone in the Obama administration suggested nationalizing a major industry?Report

        • Avatar Simon K in reply to Koz says:

          @Koz, So are the Swedes folk Marxists? And if so, why do they score so highly on the Heritage Foundation’s scale?Report

  8. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Another thing that bugs me is that, according to this (my) theory, smart people would tend to have more moral agency than dumb people (evidence would include the deferred gratification marshmallow experiment).

    This thought process makes me feel really uncomfortable when I start exploring it.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird, is this even debatable, though? We don’t assign children the same moral agency as adults, nor brain-damaged people the same as intelligent people.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird, errr, what more are you looking for? QED, dude!

          I guess what I’m getting at is that we accept this at the margins because it’s obvious. I don’t understand how we can’t have more layered thinking throughout the spectrum. Even among people that aren’t obviously brain-damaged or geniuses, there does seem to be a spectrum.

          A while back I worked as a coder (and later supervisor of coders) and we took on a couple young turks that were in over their head and it was obvious from the get-go. We tried and tried to get them to understand concepts and patterns that almost anyone reading this blog* and it just never happened. It wasn’t that they weren’t motivated or that they didn’t want to do it. They just… couldn’t. Productivity (total, not per-seat) went up when they were let go.

          If these people couldn’t understand the simple logic of a variation of HTML even though their jobs depended on it, how can we expect them to understand philosophy, theory, and morality the same way that you and I might. And if they can’t fully grasp the complexity of the concepts, how can we hold them as accountable as people that can?

          * – Some of you might be thinking “Oh, well I hate math and stuff and couldn’t imagine programming either!” You’ll just have to trust me that this was ridiculously simple stuff. It wasn’t easy to be great at it, but basic competence was a really, really low-hanging fruit. It was far more common for people to be bored witless than to not be able to do it. I did it while watching episodes of The Office on the corner of my screen.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Trumwill says:

            @Trumwill, And if they can’t fully grasp the complexity of the concepts, how can we hold them as accountable as people that can?

            This thought seems to give me a hell of a lot more of the heebie-jeebies than it gives you.Report

            • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Jaybird says:

              @Jaybird, I suppose I am kind of “no duh!” about it now, but it was a pretty substantial realization at the time. Partially that differences in intelligence could be so noticeable and intractable even among people that weren’t serious outliers, and partially the policy implications of this realization.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

              @Trumwill, in the past, part of the policy implications included the right to have kids turning into a privilege extended.

              It seems that we inch along, ever closer, to a Brave New World.

              I don’t trust the dalits but I sure as hell don’t trust the brahmin.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Jaybird says:

          A clarification, I understand that moral agency is not the same thing as moral theory, but I do think that there are aspects that are intertwined. I choose morality because it’s one of the more complicated concepts. The same applies to simple cause-and-effect (which is essentially what coding is, once you learn the syntax) and coming to grips with the consequences of our actions (both what they are and why they are important).Report

  9. Avatar gregiank says:

    @jaybird- First off, does anybody else find it really irritating when a part of a thread runs out of space/ links so we either have to drop down to the bottom or leave it hanging. I know i do.

    so you wrote this “so then the solution to those problems seem to be… what?

    Understand that their development is not, in fact, arrested and they are achieving to the top of their abilities and we (as a society!) ought continue to care for them in perpetuity?

    I am certain that such will, once again, lead us to the conclusions that OWH (ptooey) reached almost a century ago.”

    i don’t think of people in terms of developmentally arrested. I think there are people who are far on the negative tail end of the distribution in terms of having a really shitty deal in life. My bias not just as an evviiiiil liberal but also as person who has worked in mental health for years is that some people will need certain supports and help if they are function positively in society and avoid being a drag. Some people will need significant MH or substance abuse services and such. The people i’m thinking of have often ended up with their children in care of or under suupervision of the state. so the choice seems to me to give help and support to help people do better so the rest of us don’t have to care for their kids in a foster home or in youth detention.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to gregiank says:

      @gregiank, dude, I don’t think of stuff as “evviiiiil liberal” vs. “good whatever” but “is what we’re doing today better than 10 years ago?” and the kicker “does it seem likely that we’ll like the answer to that question in 10 years?”

      It seems to me that we’re outsourcing more and more and more responsibilities to someone else and setting it up so that more and more will be the responsibility of someone else.

      Is my take on that wrong?Report

      • Avatar gregiank in reply to Jaybird says:

        @Jaybird, yes it is wrong, deeply wrong in every possible way….i kid .. i kid.

        I think we are coming at this from very different points of view. Are we outsourcing more stuff to other people: I don’t know. I think looking at in a purely philosophical manner misses the pragmatic reality how some things are done. How do we not outsource child protection or community mental health? Beats me, but those are community tasks we have outsourced mostly for the reason that it is the only way they can be done. I don’t find it less moral to hire the gov to do certain tasks.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to gregiank says:

          @gregiank, it seems to me that we outsource our childrearing to the government (if it weren’t for summer, would parents spend more or less time with their kids than, say, teachers in any given year), we outsource our charity to the government, goodness only knows what will happen with Health Care Reform *IN PRACTICE*…it seems to me that, eventually, this will implode.Report

  10. Avatar Simon K says:

    Mark – I was hoping you were going to tackle this subject, since its the primary reason I have trouble calling myself a libertarian, even though you and I seem to agree on many things and you do call yourself a libertarian.

    I think this is a good article and I don’t have a lot to add. My own personal justification of safety nets is not so much to do with moral agency – although I think thats a good point – as positive freedom. There are certain positive freedoms – being able to get enough to eat, having clean water, having a basic education – that are so basic to meaningful pariticpation in society that simply guaranteeing negative freedom can’t ever make up for them. Since – as you say – property rights at least partly assert a positive liberty themselves, some amount of transfer from haves to have nots can be justified.

    This is probably a very poor argument (I’m neither a lawyer nor a philosopher), but its more convincing to me than the view that stops at negative rights and refuses to go any further. I have trouble calling myself a libertarian precisely because I don’t think you can justify safety nets off the back of a purely Lockean framework. The closest I can get is saying that any workable system of property rights necessarily has to protect more than can be justified by the owner’s need to be able to use it and recoup a benefit from whatever effort the put into it, which inevitably results in a shortage of certain kinds of property and windfalls coming to those who happen to own them. A safety net can make up for the necessary unfairness of even an ideal system of property rights (our actual system of course has far more sources of unfairness in it). But its a big leap from that to justifying an income tax …Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Simon K says:

      @Simon K, Thanks, Simon. I think this is an important point that you make, even if you didn’t intend it as such:
      “My own personal justification of safety nets is not so much to do with moral agency – although I think thats a good point – as positive freedom. There are certain positive freedoms – being able to get enough to eat, having clean water, having a basic education – that are so basic to meaningful pariticpation in society that simply guaranteeing negative freedom can’t ever make up for them.”

      I think this is absolutely typical of a lot of liberals to think of safety nets in this way. To be honest, it’s how the average person would (and perhaps should) think about them. But I would wager that my moral agency/property rights justification and your positive freedom argument are ultimately exactly the same argument, just with a vastly different vocabulary – a major reason that I think liberals and libertarians so often wind up talking past each other. In some ways, this post is more an attempt to translate liberal/ordinary person arguments for safety nets into language that libertarians can better relate to than it is an attempt to provide a new justification for safety nets.

      I think this is evidenced in part by the fact that so many of the liberal commenters in this thread have precisely and exactly understood my argument even though I’m using language they would never use.Report

  11. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    @Jaybird

    “Government schools is outsourcing child-rearing to the government. We edge ever closer to school during the summers. Children will spend more time with teachers than with their parents.”
    The slight of hand worked into the above, and which gregiank is getting at, I think, is that the government is somehow necessarily an alien institution.

    Schools don’t outsource to the government per se, they outsource to the local community, or nearby communities, whose members make up the students/teachers/staff of the schools. They educate in this manner because of the efficiency, real or imagined, of specialized labor. That if for instance, all parents were to educate/rear their own children to the fullest, there would be quite a lot of arrested development as working adults find their time split between a 20 hour job and raising their kids. I’m not saying parents raising/educating their kids wouldn’t be more beneficial in many/most ways, but its outsourcing to the “government” seems nothing other than the rational decisions of property owners en masse looking for the best ways to increase the amount of property produced and thus available.

    School all year round seems as much driven by economic/competitive necessity (especially in a global market) as by some drive to abdicate responsibility to the state.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      @E.C. Gach, historically, this is fairly unprecedented. The overwhelming majority of human experience includes children spending more time with parents and family than with strangers.

      There will be unintended consequences and many of them will be unpleasant, mark my words.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

        @Jaybird, schools are a rather recent invention when looking at the span of human existence true enough. but they do seem to be sort of common now in much of the world. if i remember correctly they do try to things at school that we consider a good thing.Report

      • Avatar Travis in reply to Jaybird says:

        @Jaybird, the American standard system of 9-month public education to the age of 16 to 18 has largely been in place for going on 150 years now.

        As a result, in conjunction with the Morrill Act-fomented mass accessibility of higher education, we’ve seen rapid advances in science, technology, medicine and overall quality of life — and these advances have more often than not been led by American and American-educated men and women.

        Of course there will be unintended consequences. But I’m really not sure what the alternative is. Those without a high school-level education, at least, aren’t equipped for employment in the modern world.

        The need for mass unskilled labor simply isn’t there anymore. For better or worse, such workers have largely been replaced, at least as long as we have the energy available to operate the machines replacing them.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Travis says:

          @Travis, one thing I wonder is whether public education today is of the same quality back in (whenever).

          I’m guessing “not”.

          And wondering if that wouldn’t be a problem.Report

          • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Jaybird says:

            @Jaybird, quality would require us to define the objective. If it’s to produced civic minded adults who are politically literate and involved in their communities then the answer is probably worse.

            But if it’s to supply the current market with the kind of information workers it needs, then probably better, except in gaping parts of urban and ultra rural America.Report

  12. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    And Travis’ point is I think the central one. Truly it’s market forces that demand so much schooling.

    Many countries have more day’s of school then the U.S. Some have 6 day school weeks, and some have longer school days. Whether this is good or bad in the long run, does anyone else see a choice?

    If children in India/China are willing to school twice as much as children in the U.S. and be more focused at school because of a drive to better their situation, how can U.S. workers compete by going slower/doing less?

    And so while historically speaking, this might be a recent phenomenon, it seems primarily market driven, at least in the past 50 years.Report

  13. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    I completely agree with what you’re getting at, but those cultural differences alone aren’t going to make up the difference of 8 extra hours of schooling a week/30 extra days of schooling through out the year.

    At some point the U.S. kids are going to have to be expected to learn more (e.g. multiple languages, more time reading and writing, more time in general).

    There is a huge backlash against a college degree as unnecessary for performing the vast majority of available (or recently available) jobs in the U.S. However, at the same time other countries a plunging forward. Outsourcing will be an unavoidable factor going forward, and until underdeveloped countries make rapid advances and decide that maybe their students don’t need to spend so much time in school, I’m not sure how much of a choice economically speaking we in the U.S. will have.

    I completely agree with your sentiments, being a home schooled child myself. But unless perhaps through some massive online education program, I’m not sure how viable it is in relation to other countries to keep parents and children together for that much everyday.

    It was possible for my family because of beneficial circumstances coming from the growth and prosperity of their generation, but I’m not sure that same luxury will be there for me when I have children.

    Of course we could surrender our place as a global economic/military juggernaut and retire to the backwaters of the developed world to live in peace and quite (and this I have absolutely no problem with).Report

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