Homogenization and the State

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar Casey Head
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    says:

    This is the point where almost all conservatives fail to recognize that they are encouraging statism, when they start to talk about immigration and “assimilation”. Encouraging people to learn English is well and good, because it sets them up for success. But the idea that newcomers should subvert their ethnic and national background to a shared identity, conveniently omits the fact that most of what we think of as “American’ culture is really custom brought here by immigrants.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Casey Head
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      says:

      @Casey Head, most conservatives are huge fans of statism. They just believe that the purpose of the state is absolute authority in these areas while protecting “freedom” in those areas.

      If you believe that it is the purpose of the state to protect “culture”, then you are probably a statist.

      The biggest manifestation of statism in Conservatives isn’t this, however… it’s in their deference to “authority” in general. Look at any given news story (that allows comments) where the cops shoot the dogs during a drug raid in which no drugs were found.

      Those folks defending the cops? They probably ain’t the progressives.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Jaybird
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        says:

        @Jaybird,
        Absolutely, as a matter of fact, the statist reaction to classical liberalism in the late nineteenth century was conservative — original liberalism was much too progressive and “chaotic” for the conservative statists — the statists just split into left and right movements, but both are basically “conservative,” a reaction to original, progressive liberalism — the fact that modern liberals kept the “liberal” name is a travesty, thus the need for “libertarian.”Report

  2. Avatar Dr. M
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    Not disagreeing with the main thrust of your message, but I think the medicalization of birth is actually a fairly recent event. I was born in a hospital in 1945, but my parents were born at home in 1913 and 1923. My father-in-law graduated from medical school in 1929 and performed many home deliveries in rural Illinois during the 1930’s including a Caesarean in a farmer’s kitchen during a snow storm that prevented travel in 1934.
    Speaking for myself, the biggest development of government over the last thousand years was the establishment of the right of private property. As I understand it, around the year 1000 all land was considered the property of the king. The nobility began to manifest their claims to ownership of land resulting in the Magna Carta. The rights of ownership grew gradually till the 18th century when the enclosure laws in England and the highland clearance laws in Scotland made it possible to expel the peasantry from lands that they and their ancestors had worked since time immemorial (literally.) Without government action there are no property rights, only the right to fight.Report

    • Avatar Simon K in reply to Dr. M
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      @Dr. M, Amusing fact – the feudal system was not abolished in Scotland until 1997, nearly 500 years after it was abolished in England and Wales. Mind you it was less amusing for the remaining crofters (smallholders) who could still be thrown off their land until that recently.

      The emergence of the modern common law idea of private property is really very complex. In the theory of the Feudal system, the King indeed owned the whole country and rented it out in large blocks to his top nobles, his tenants-in-chief, who paid their rent in military service. They did the same all the way down to the peasants, who paid their rent in kind. But when we use terms like “own” and “rent” to describe this system its not completely accurate. People all the way down the spectrum considered themselves to own the land they were using, and freely bought and sold it, and the king was constrained by custom to recognise those transactions. The nobility could even fight one another over land, even though they were all in theory tenants of the king, and by and large the king would recognise the results. There wasn’t the clear boundary between the commercial and political realms that exists today – kings and their tenants are maybe better thought of as businessmen who had to provide their own protection that as a government in the modern sense.

      That was the theory of the system, anyway. In reality it was never as fully and completely accepted as the conquering Norman nobility might have liked. Its unlikely the peasantry ever considered their rent in kind and service to be anything other than an imposition. There were always a substantial number of ordinary folk who owned their land freehold ie. directly under the King without any intervening Feudal superior. The church had what was essentially a parallel system of “book land”, called such because they had recorded title deeds, which noone else had. The monarchs, church and nobility all actively undermined the system by creating chartered cities and liveried companies which paid simple rent or owned land outright, in order to extract more surplus in taxes by allowing commercial activity to carry on without feudal restrictions getting in the way.

      As the state consolidated its monopoly on force, it became less and less necessary for the king to have his nobles do military service, and feudal institutions were folded into the parallel structures which proved to be better suited for a commercial world where you didn’t have to worry about protecting yourself – feudal superior/inferior relationships were converted into freeholds, leaseholds or simple tenancies, everyone eventually got written title deeds, and obligations in service and kind were eventually converted into cash taxes which had previously been a special privelege.Report

  3. Avatar MFarmer
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    says:

    “Without government action there are no property rights, only the right to fight.”

    Rights are natural, pre-government — government, or some form of protection agency, secures these rights from violation.

    Also, DeLong doesn’t provide anything to back up his assertion of what a Night Watchmen government would be like in the 21st century, but one thing he has wrong — there would be no State, powerful or otherwise.Report

    • Avatar Simon K in reply to MFarmer
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      says:

      @MFarmer, If rights exist prior to and regardless of the institutions that enforce them, how do we know what they are? If you lived in a working communist dictatorship, or in a hunter gatherer tribe, how would you know that you had a right to private property, for example?Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Simon K
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        @Simon K,

        It’s a very complex question. The beginning of the answer — but only the very beginning — is the law of equal freedom: You have the maximal freedom that is compatible with a like and equal freedom in others.

        This maxim describes your connate natural rights — the considerations due to you by virtue of being a human. They are the same for all people, at least ideally.

        Rights in property might seem at first a counterexample, but they are not necessarily so. The right to acquire property can still be equal, and still be a connate right, even if the distribution of property cannot be.

        Given that attempting an equal distribution of property presents so many problems, no one has a connate right to any property. Rights in property are termed adventitious rights, and they belong to their own subset of rights theory.

        The topic really is very large, but it rests on reason and on a few very basic premises, each of which is relatively difficult to deny. The fact that communist dictatorships don’t do what they should in no way invalidates the exercise of reason, which tells them what right behavior might be.Report

        • Avatar Simon K in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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          says:

          @Jason Kuznicki, Thanks Jason. I understand and broadly agree with the idea that we shouldn’t argue about rights to particular distributions of property or to particular outcomes. In my view, there are ethical arguments for these things but its not very illuminating to talk about them in terms of rights.

          To focus my question a little more – It seems there are many possible sets of connate rights that are compatible with the law of equal freedom. For example its still equal to have no right to private property at all, or for there to be property only in those things you could directly and personally use. Isn’t there an infinite set of possible sets of rights compatible with equal freedom?

          Which leads to a further question – where does the law of equal freedom itself come from? I can see that its a useful basis for agreement if you were setting up a society from scratch – without it the unequal partners would have no reason to agree to cooperate – but if you are in a situation of unequal freedom (which we are and more or less always have been), what is that dictates that we should imagine a situation of equal freedom and re-orient our institutions around that idea?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to MFarmer
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      @MFarmer, Agreeing with you, the question I always have is, if rights are natural and protected by the government, do they protect them from violation only for their citizens or for all human beings they deal with. It would seem like the latter, but then you have refugees, aliens, the Romani, etc, and it’s not so clear. At least not for governments.Report

  4. Avatar MFarmer
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    says:

    Conversely, if rights are determined by a government and dependent on government actions, then they aren’t rights just permitted behavior santioned by the government which can be taken away if the government decides they are no longer helpful to the common good or just because the government decides to do so. Contract law and all that go into determining property rights, but it’s still natural and reasonable to own the product of your labor and to possess land, because all other natural rights depend on property rights, and it’s also possible to make contracts without a government. The communist idea of abolishing property rights means that someone will control property in the name of the “people”, because otherwise it wouldn’t work — people will reasonably determine at some point that their labor entitles them to ownership, especially when they see a group of decadent slobs, representing “the people”, slopping up the product of their labor.Report

    • Avatar gregiank in reply to MFarmer
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      @MFarmer, You can say its natural to own products of your labor and posses land except for the fact that many societies haven’t done that. Many native american or other aboriginal peoples have not had those concepts or had them in a very limited fashion. If you want to look back to very “natural” people, humans before development of agriculture, they were nomadic hunter-gatherers so they likely had only tribal territories but no private ownership of land.

      I’m not advocating for those kinds of lives, but calling political ideas natural is more about claiming the moral high ground and inflating the importance of your own ideas.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to gregiank
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        says:

        @gregiank, how’s this?

        “Decentralized notions of property are evolutionarily selected against.”Report

        • Avatar gregiank in reply to Jaybird
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          says:

          @Jaybird, So its less natural? So claiming your own beliefs are more “natural” isn’t self-righteous and unearned? I don’t think evolution selected anything although Guns, Germs and Steal had a lot to do with it. That isn’t evolution though. If you want to posit, along with all the needed bio research, that there are genes for notions of ownership and such, have fun. I think we’ll have the complete gay aardvark genome sequenced before then but its your time.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to gregiank
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        says:

        @gregiank,
        The capacity to use reason, and follow reason, developed over time, and is still developing — the gatherers were soon dominated by the hunters, who at first slaughtered them and took the women and property, then decided it was best to make the weaker gatherers slaves, then as intermingling and socialization took place, divisions and cooperation developed but the powerful still ruled the powerless — as reason developed from under the oppression of one group after another, one God after another, man reasoned he/she had the right to own the fruits of his/her labor, the right to life and the right to liberty and the right to pursue happiness without being dominated.Report

        • Avatar greginak in reply to MFarmer
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          says:

          @MFarmer, umm Mike, not just hunters and gatherers ( no people just did one, they go together) but modern people have lived in a crude proto-communist fashion. Now most of those people lost out to western industrial people due to the above mentioned Guns, Germs and Steel, but many tribal people still live that way. I get that you think your way is best, i’m not arguing that. But there are more things that are natural in this earth, Mike, then drempt of in your philosophy.Report

          • Avatar MFarmer in reply to greginak
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            says:

            @greginak,
            Yes, there are more things that are natural.

            Historians have traced the early beginning to separate groups of hunters and gatherers — it was later that they did both together, after the more mobile, warlike hunters conquered the gatherers and dominated them in the first known stable “societies”. I can provide the sources if you like. One source that leads to many others he has footnoted is Alexander Rustow in Freedom and Domination, written around 1957.Report

    • Avatar Simon K in reply to MFarmer
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      says:

      @MFarmer, Sure it seems natural and reasonable to own the product of your labour, and to own land (at least given certain provisos), but lots of things seem natural and reasonable – “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” seems natural and reasonable to a lot of people. Why privilege one set of reasonable ideas over another? Especially when it produces conclusions that are counter to widely held ethical intuitions, as pure natural-right libertarianism often does?

      Don’t get me wrong – I’ll rate Locke’s prescription for just property ownership and distribution above Marx’s any day. But its a device for measuring and arguing for or against certain kinds of government actions – nothing more and nothing less. Use it to argue against Kelo v New London, the insanity that is the US tax code, and civil forfeiture and I’ll be right with you. But its a false dichotomy to say either rights are prior to the state and not dependent on it, or they have no meaning because they’re completely vulnerable to government discretion. They’re meaningful precisely because they’re actionable, and they’re actionable only because society accepts them and the state gives us a mechanism for acting on them and a (flawed) mechanism for holding itself to account for them. It makes no sense to talk about rights unless there is a state (or an extremely state-like entity) to enforce them.

      The prototypical stateless human society – the one we lived in for the vast majority of our pre-history spanning hundred of thousands of years – was a semi-nomadic hunter gatherer band. In such societies personal property and even life are dependent on constantly shifting alliances. Its meaningless to talk about rights in this context – if you tried to enforce your rights you’d be dead, nothing more to it than that.Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Simon K
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        says:

        @Simon K, Following Jaspers, Toynbee, and Voegelin there occurred during the Axial Age (800-500 BCE or so) something of a pneumatic outburst across if not the planet then the Levant/Mediteranean regions. This irruption resulted in the most important discovery, the beginning of an epoch in which we continue to this day: the etiological argument of Aristotle, that man does not stand autonomous, he does not “exist out of himself but out of the divine ground of all reality.”
        Locke addresses the problem of existential representation as it moves out a condition of “transcendental” representation, as in a condition where the state’s function is directed by the divine order of the cosmos.
        While the ‘natural rights’ folks cheered, what they failed to detect was the parlous effects of immanentization which was the natural result of the above movement in concert with a associated effects of gnosticism, apocalypticism,
        and a burst of Neo-Platonism during the fifteenth century.
        So we might examine the phenomenon associated with ‘liberty and freedom’ as expressed by the founders. In expressing the existential representation of man did they place us in a condition where the secular order would collapse into an immanent-worldview that has brought forth the American state that not only eschews the ‘amor Dei’ but has reduced society’s ordering forces to a ‘amor sui’ condition. If this is true, then the establishment of our “natural” rights, expressed by Locke and others, is, at least in the American version, grounded in a condition of egohphanic revolt.Report

  5. Avatar MFarmer
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    says:

    From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs does not seem natural based on the study of human nature. There is nothing natural about making slaves of producers — it has to be forced. Reason is something that can never come to absolute knowledge regarding rights, but we can take what we know about human nature and reasonably name the rights which best promote human flourishing. This is what was done by the founders influenced by Locke and others — it’s not written in stone, but it appears to best we know so far. You can disagree, and many can disgree and build societies based on other principles, and what will be will be, but so far life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness appear to be basic natural rights which best promote best human flourishing.Report

    • Avatar MFarmer in reply to MFarmer
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      says:

      @MFarmer,
      Ethics is another issue, and what we do with our freedom depends on our ethical understanding, our morals — many people in a free society may choose to elp others in need, and many do, but it seems unnatural to force people to be moral — there’s no morality in coercion — morals and ethics have to be chosen.Report

    • Avatar Simon K in reply to MFarmer
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      says:

      @MFarmer, When you say recognising certain rights promotes human flourishing you’re appealing to consequences. That’s fine, but it undermines your position that these rights are so fundamental that they exist prior to the institutions that enforce them. There are plenty of other things that promote human flourishing – sewers, primary education and nutritious food, to name a few. I’d agree with you that these things are not fundamental rights, so why are Lockean property rights so fundamental they get to escape any trade off against other considerations?

      I don’t disagree with you that these rights are part of the basis of a good society, by the way. I’m disagreeing with you about their status within its institutions – they’re not so fundamental as to stand up regardless of their consequences and therefore not the only things we need to consider when deciding the proper scope of government action.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Simon K
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        says:

        @Simon K,
        If we’ve found certain ways of being, like having soveriegnty over your own life, it’s yours and no one elses, and that freedom promotes one to become fully human, and pursuing happiness leads to being fully human, then we can say these rights are natural to human beings — sewer plants make life better but they aren’t natural — the rights are natural parts of being human, even if we are born on an island with just a few people around. You have a right to defend your life, to act with freedom and to pursue happiness, and if you didn’t have the right to use the resources available and apply your labor and keep the fruits of your labor, if others could just take what you work for and you didn’t have a right to privacy or the use of resource like land, then it would diminish your life, you freedom and your right to pursue happiness and make you less of a human being and more of a slave to others. You would say it ‘s not natural to be slave, right? And you would say that if the human race is to survive, it’s not natural for others to freely take lives, that you should be able to defend your life — it’s a natural action — and that it’s natural to pursue your own happiness. How could you ensure the safety of your life, be free of domination to be what you are and pursue happiness if you are controlled by others? It doesn’t seem natural to being a human to be controlled by others, does it? These are natural conditions which make us human, and we don’t have a right to violate these conditions of other humans. It seems obvious.Report

  6. Avatar Simon K
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    says:

    I’m a huge fan of James C Scott and I’m enjoying the Cato series a lot. He really is one of the most original political writers around.

    Thing thing that interests me most, which some of the Cato participants sort of touched on but no-one fully developed, is the interaction between legibility, and especially state-enforced legibility and markets. Markets obviously use legibility, and sometimes that legibility is created by the state. Someone in the Cato discussion mentined social security numbers as an example. On other occasions, market participants take advantage of illegibility to get the better end of the deal. Car salesmen do this all the time, but they’re not the only culprits. But on other occasions the requirements of legibility end up overwhelming all other considerations to an extent that makes the actual product almost worthless. Supermarket produce – someone mentioned tomatoes – is a classic case. In some cases state-imposed requirements of legibility created for very valid reasons end up blocking out market participants who would have added something very important and might even undermine their own purposes – US requirements on animal slaughter, for example, are so onerous they block small producers almost completely and therefore trade constant minor food safety issues for small number of catastrophic ones.Report

  7. Avatar Kaleberg
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    says:

    Property rights are a government service. In fact, you can define a government as the property right enforcer of last resort. Property rights have always varied with the society. Look at the various laws mentioned in the Old Testament. Property was ancestral, and could only be alienated for certain periods. Slaves were considered property, even in the United States until the mid-19th century. Wasn’t there some big war a while back about the issue? There are all kinds of property. We have copyrights and trademarks. The Northwestern Indians had the rights to tell and re-enact certain stories. Some societies do just fine without these kinds of property.

    If you want the most freedom of action, you need several competing layers of authority. There is no tyranny like the tyranny of the family or a small town. Ask any woman about the former. I can understand the fears of larger scale authorities. When an elephant turns, it can do great harm, so it is best far away, save when it is needed.Report

  8. Avatar Metamorf
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    says:

    Though DeLong appears to be taking (mild) issue with Scott, both are overextending their respective arguments. Scott, for example, in pointing out how state-enforced standardization can be oppressive, wrongly extends that conclusion to market-induced standardization. In fact, it’s possible for standards to co-exist with vernacular practices, though at some cost to state control particularly. And DeLong, by presenting the likely options as either a weak (aka failed) state or a potentially oppressive one, fails to note other versions of the state that make the notion of a limited but effective state much more plausible than he allows.

    For more on Scott, see this, and for more on DeLong, see this.Report

  9. Avatar Rufus F.
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    says:

    Jung once wrote that “nothing is ever lost in the psyche”. I wonder if that applies to those customs and traditions you mention.Report

  10. Avatar PQ
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    says:

    “Of course, as DeLong points out in his critique of Scott’s thesis, local places can be just as tyrannical, and sometimes the King’s justice is the only justice for people under the sway of a local tyrant.”
    Yes, but a local tyrant is a lot easier to overthrow, or if need be, kill, than the King is. And a local tyrant can be escaped by simply moving to the next town, while the King’s reach cannot be escaped. I’ll take the odd local tyrant, here and there, any day; to a global one, or even the possibility of a global one. The local tyrant is subject to the discipline of the market, because “customers” can take their business elsewhere; while the King is not.Report

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