Property Rights are Imaginary

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.

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407 Responses

  1. Murali says:

    But it is property, in fact clearly defined and depoliticised property rules that reduce conflicts and enable social coordination. It is when ownership is up for bargaining with the government that tensions rise and people raise hands or in some cases votes against each other.

    Moreover, the right to use property in ways that one sees fit is an important and basic right. It is important because the right to put one’s own property productive or personal to use in whichever way one sees appropriate is part of those deep projects and commitments the pursuit of which our rights are there to protect in the first place.Report

    • Jonathan McLeod in reply to Murali says:

      I would have to agree with you that the ability to use property – of, shall we say, things – is important to the exercise of our freedom. Transportation and buildings aid freedom of association. Books, paper and computers aid freedom of expression. I’m sure we could go on and on.

      However, I think it’s a bit of a leap to then say that the ownership of those things is an inherent right. Further, I can’t see any inherent right to making boundaries – which, at least in Canada – are mostly used to prevent others from enjoying the freedoms that we enjoy.

      Again, I’m not discounting the utility of property rights, but I would say that they’re subordinate to our other basic, inherent freedoms. I would consider them more along the lines of our democratic rights. There’s only a right to vote if we have decided that there will be a government that rules us all.Report

      • Murali in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

        Jonathan, afew things:

        1. I think there is a difference between the ownership of private proprty and the right to exclude people from entering your own private property and immigration restrictions. As a Rawlsian, I think I can affirm both a right to free migration and a right to pivate property. How to resolve conflicts is harder but we might be able to coopt some kind of contract situation with a veil of ignorance to work things out.

        2. Things really depend on how you justify rights. What gives rights their force? WHat the hell are rights in the first place? What is the difference between inherent and not-inherent rights?

        3. Ownership is a complicated thing. It is not any one set of rights, but a bundle. Also, there doesn’t seem to be any one part of the bundle that is strictly necessary all the time for something to be counted as privately owned.Report

    • rexknobus in reply to Murali says:

      “But it is property, in fact clearly defined and depoliticised property rules that reduce conflicts and enable social coordination. It is when ownership is up for bargaining with the government that tensions rise and people raise hands or in some cases votes against each other.”

      Except, of course, when I decide that my lot here in the suburbs would supply me with much more income if I were to put in a McDonald’s or a Jiffy-Lube. The government keeps me from doing that…and, indeed, keeps my neighbor from doing that. Your notion of “whichever way one sees appropriate” not only won’t work in the real world, but doesn’t do a very good job keeping the tensions down.Report

      • Murali in reply to rexknobus says:

        The government keeps me from doing that…and, indeed, keeps my neighbor from doing that. Your notion of “whichever way one sees appropriate” not only won’t work in the real world, but doesn’t do a very good job keeping the tensions down.

        So you infer from government doesn’t let you do that to doesn’t work in the real world. And you know that it doesn’t do a good job of keeping the tnesions down how???Report

        • rexknobus in reply to Murali says:

          I thought that was strongly implied. The government regulations (in the case of my suburban neighborhood called “zoning laws”) keeps myself and my neighbors from doing a great many things with our “…right to use property in ways that one sees fit is an important and basic right…” freedom that would destroy the neighborhood. I own my property outright. It is mine. But I am not free to use it as I will and I am darned glad of that. I don’t think that any of my neighbors would tear down their house and put up a Jiffy-Lube. But I don’t trust that (or them) enough to get rid of the zoning laws that prevent it.

          There are many, many laws affecting my, and my neighbors’, property ownership and I am probably not aware of them all. But I’m glad they exist. That is government, from my point of view, curtailing my rights in order to reduce tensions. To make my living situation better.

          I own my car outright. I am glad of the laws that restrict what I can do with that property. Those laws keep tension down. Not to open a whole can of fish (in both meanings of the word on this site), but I’d like to see firearms governed in much the same way that cars are.

          I’m having a hard time coming up with any piece of property that I own that I think should be absolutely unencumbered by some laws. I type surrounded by an immense library of books. I don’t want any laws telling me how to organize them, or indeed, which ones to read, but I am in favor of laws that limit my methods of disposing of them, for example. Just tossing them out on the street to let the rain wash them away should be illegal.

          So I, for one, strongly disagree that “the right to use property in ways that one sees fit is an important and basic right.” The right to own and use property is part of this big, complicated, interwoven web that we call society. We have rights and we have responsibilities and they can often clash. It doesn’t always work all that well, but it’s better than a world where everybody gets to do exactly what they want with all their stuff and somehow it will all even out.Report

          • Murali in reply to rexknobus says:

            I think you are straw manning my argument (or at least misunderstanding me)

            Property claims are important. But that means that we require serious jusification in order to over-ride them. Not that they are absolutely inviolable all the time. At least in a number of instances you have mentioned, it is not that property rights are even being over ridden in those cases, but a question of whether property rights extend that far. Littering is a great example. Laws against littering don’t violate property rights simply because property rights don’t extend to the right to litter (at least not in public spaces).

            Certainly, rules are required to co-exist peacefully in society, but far too often, people use the obviously reasonable rules to establish the point and then think that this unproblematically extends to other sorts of rules as well. In a liberal society, coercive rules require justification. Moreover, that justification has to be appropriately public.

            Your preference that your neighbour not set up an auto repair shop next door to you is about as valid as a white man prefering that a black man not move in next to him.Report

            • rexknobus in reply to Murali says:

              “Your preference that your neighbour not set up an auto repair shop next door to you is about as valid as a white man prefering that a black man not move in next to him.”

              Seriously? Do you honestly believe those two things are “about as valid?”Report

              • Murali in reply to rexknobus says:

                Tell me how they are different such that one claim deserves to be successful while the other doesn’t.Report

              • rexknobus in reply to Murali says:

                Why don’t you tell me what the difference in your experience might be standing thirty feet from a lube shop and standing thirty feet from a black man?

                Thirty feet is an arbitrary choice made because “next door” doesn’t have much precision. Choose your own distance.Report

              • Murali in reply to rexknobus says:

                For me no difference. But if a man can work on his car in his own garage, I don’t see why a man can’t work on other people’s cars in his own garage and charge money for it.Report

              • rexknobus in reply to Murali says:

                Dodging. My examples were “Jiffy Lube,” “McDonalds,” and “lube shop.”

                But I shouldn’t dodge either. I would object to my neighbor tearing down his house and building a Jiffy Lube franchise. I fully support the government interference that keeps him from doing so. The difference between that and preferring to not have a black neighbor seems incredibly obvious to me — but it amounts to noise pollution, smell pollution, traffic pollution, aesthetic pollution, etc. Show me a chart that measures those sorts of things and that also shows me that a black man moving into the house next door to me measures about the same (to use your notion) on the same chart and, by golly, I’ll object to the black man as well. But since in all likelihood the black man is not going to have anywhere near the same effect on the neighborhood as a Jiffy Lube franchise or a McDonalds, then there is no objection. I’m not even stating that I am not a racist. Perhaps I really hate the thought of a black man moving in next door to me — but I am not silly enough to think that his effect will be anything at all like the effect of the franchises that your notions would permit to come into my neighborhood.

                You said: “For me no difference.” Bullshit.Report

              • Murali in reply to Murali says:

                It seems really impressive that you know my mind and my preferences better than I do. You should teach me how to read minds.

                In the bad old days of jim crow, as I understand it, people made very similar sorts of objections to african american moving into the neighbourhood and why there was so much support for jim crow laws. Other people of other ethnic groups often cook all sorts of foods which have nauseating smells (at least to me, especially the fish). People used to hink that african americans moving into the neighbourhood contributed to aesthetic pollution. My neighbours already park their cars by the side of the road all the time. If my neighbour were to chain the oil in his own car, the smell and noise would already be there. What counts as pollution is not always objective. The rap music a hypothetical black neighbour would play could count as noise pollution as would another neighbour’s grunge. Tolerating these differences is part of what living in civil society is all about.Report

              • rexknobus in reply to Murali says:

                First off, after a few hours, I regretted using the harsh “bs” and wish I had typed “nonsense” instead. Sorry.

                Second, I obviously don’t get your mind at all. If you can equate a neighbor frying fish and parking in the street to having a McDonalds next door…well, we’re just on different pages.Report

              • Murali in reply to Murali says:

                It just seems to me that whatever discomforts that we would think accompanied a McDonalds being set up next door are already present. In fact, when I was in Arizona last november and december, I did stay next to a McDonalds. And there was a bar and a taco bell’s across the street. And a 7-11 as well. And, McDonalds are air-conditioned and enclosed. Lots of Singaporeans live right above hawker centers, which are not enclosed, and have multiple cuisines many of which have much more pungent smells sold side by side. People can be drinking there well into the night. It’s really not unusual to have restaurants and bicycle shops, food centres and other places of commerce right in the middle of residential district. That’s what having walkable cities is all about: amenities right nearby. Unless maybe I’m missing something. Is Jiffy lube an exceptionally messy and polluting kind of car servicing centre?Report

  2. BlaiseP says:

    Exceedingly well put. James Wilson’s On the History of Property provides some fascinating insights into how notions of property were seen when the Constitution was being drafted. It’s all very good.

    But we see how incomplete Justice Wilson’s vision was at the time. The world had at most one billion people in his era. We now have seven billion. We wage idiotic wars, justifying them on the same antique, idiotic propositions as in his time, encumbered by the national borders created in his era by colonialists who had no vision of nationhood: the Belgian Congo and all its people was the exclusive property of King Leopold. Now look at these sad little nations, reduced to selling hardwood which took centuries to grow — for pennies on the dollar — to be made into expensive furniture. They are no less exploited now than they were then.

    Why do we tolerate this nonsense? We live on a round world, governed not by the geometry of Euclid but that of Riemann, where seemingly parallel lines intersect, not once but twice, returning to their origin points. What goes around, comes around.Report

    • Well put, Blaise.

      I tend not to comment much on the politics of Africa, because I do not have sufficient knowledge. It is, however, pretty obvious that these often-arbitrary lines can be ridiculous and can cause more pain than they prevent.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

        These antique borders afflict the entire world. When did they become Holy Writ? Those weren’t settled doctrine back when they were drawn, that’s for sure.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

          The odd thing is that general agreement on borders is, in itself, a good thing, as it reduces the tendency to violence stemming from multiple claims to certain territory.

          But what we have here is a lack of general agreement. The international community (hoping to avoid war and bloodshed) wants to treat these borders as holy writ, and to some extent the governments of those states do, but lots and lots of the people within those states do not. And if you can’t get the agreement of the people within those states, you never will get to that general agreement.

          In a perfect world, ethnic nationalism would die away, and governments dominated by ethnicity A would treat their minority ethnic group B well enough that the Bs didn’t care that their kindred Bs were the dominant group in the state next door.Report

    • MikeSchilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Great metaphor.Report

    • rexknobus in reply to BlaiseP says:

      FWIW — I just finished reading Margaret MacMillan’s “Paris 1919,” a book about the boundary negotiations and re-drawings in the months after World War I. A really well-written look at an attempt to set the world right after a massive cataclysm, and the less than ideal results of that attempt. A very good read.Report

  3. Mike says:

    Your are somewhat right, there really are no property rights in this country. You don’t own your land, you only rent it back from the government in the form of property taxes….and then they’ll come take it back on a whim. Even your own possessions aren’t yours. A police officer once told my neighbour after his four wheeler was stolen “You don’t really own anything, all you can do is load up on insurance and don’t get attached to stuff.”

  4. Kolohe says:

    I’d rather believe the polite fiction that property rights are inherent and that they matter, than acknowledge the reality that they don’t exist – as no rights do.

    Treating property rights as some second best construct is exactly how those that are powerless but hold some stake in their own economic life get fished over time and time again. A situation that is equally true in the political and socials spheres, down to the very right to exist, with all other rights of conscience and self-sovereignty.Report

    • Jonathan McLeod in reply to Kolohe says:

      I agree that if we so de-value property rights, we’re just going to wind up screwing over those with less power. This is why I am sympathetic – if not a full-throated supporter – of the movement to enshrine these rights in the Canadian constitution. I just think then we are, at times, over-valuing them, which brings other problems.Report

  5. Kolohe says:

    (I also don’t think a link to a James Holmes story in reference to burglary is what you were going for, which presumably was to point out the downside of castle doctrine).Report

  6. NewDealer says:

    North American property right concepts seem to trace their way back to Locke. And since Locke was instrumental in forming North American concepts of government, we probably defer to him a bit much on property. I think even Nozick defended property rights by a simple “Well someone has to own it.”

    I agree with you that immigration should be easier but I am not sure that a nation-state is unnatural or bogus. Humans are social and tribal by nature. We define ourselves by many different tribes. Some small, some large. These tribes exist on a familial, local, national, and international scale. The tribes can be innate or moved into. They are socio-economic, geographic, religious, ethnic, cultural, or a combo all rolled into one.

    I am not a psychologist but I think these tribal identities are necessary for our psychology and to give our lives meaning.Report

    • Wardsmith in reply to NewDealer says:

      Of course for /us/ to have North American property rights, we had to make sure the original “tribes” had to relinquish theirs.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Wardsmith says:

        This is also unfortunately true.

        I wish there was a way for people to celebrate and have pride in their tribal identities without being threatened by tribes who represent counter-points.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Wardsmith says:

        But few of the original inhabitants had any system of property rights, and fought constantly over hunting grounds (collective borders). This is one of the problems with the treaties causing the problems in Canada. Collective land ownership doesn’t let anyone actually use the land productively because it belongs to everyone and no one. This problem appears at all levels, from nations to tribes to neighborhood associations.

        There are two basic views of land ownership, the Roman system where all land belonged to the state and was just leased out for productive purposes, and the Common Law system where the each piece of land has a deed, and the deed has a series of names attached to it. A land-owner is transitory but a deed is forever. Ignoring the deeds and the system of personal land ownership (which includes corporations) leads to bad results in almost all cases.

        The Palestinian/Irsraeli conflict stems directly from tribal ownership overriding actual property ownership, when Israelis decided the Palestinian deeds were invalid because they’d fled and encouraged Arab countries to invade. Such an egregious violation of property rights guarantees a bitter, generational conflict. The US was wise enough to do no such thing during the Civil War, aside from turning part of General Lee’s estate into Arlington National Cemetary.

        Going back to the original post, it held that freedom of expression, belief, religion, and association were fundamental, but the belief in property rights was artificial. That’s backwards. One of the ways we deduce what rights exist is by observing what people will fight and die for. Property disputes are always bitter and often violent, and get worse as the scale increases. People will fight over land, and will fight over it everywhere and across all times. If the Rome had recognized common law real-estate it might not have been sacked so much. In contrast, freedom of expression or religion are historically rare, and freedom of belief existed only as long as you kept your beliefs to yourself.Report

        • Gaelen in reply to George Turner says:

          I think it would be worth separating out the claims that Indians didn’t have property rights regime from the problem of ill defined borders. Some (maybe most) Native American system sound much like the Roman one–with ultimate power over a territory in a sovereign, and usufruct rights going to individuals for homes, agriculture, or trap hunting. The fighting over territory is just one of those things sovereigns do (made more common by ill defined borders and more sovereigns, but still).

          Don’t mean to be a pedant, just read you as implying that there are two kinds of property regimes, and then Indians over there with no property rights. If I misread you by bad.Report

        • Sam in reply to George Turner says:

          If anybody’s wondering – and with no disrespect at all meant to George – his comment explains perfectly why I don’t believe in the concept of rights. The idea that, “Well, they didn’t have a conception of property like we have a conception of property and thus we can ignore any and all claims that they might have had within a system like ours!” is utter imperialist hogwash.

          For the record, I am not saying that George necessary believes it as I just described it; I don’t know. What I’m saying is that the argument functions exactly as I just wrote it. And it justifies every imaginable bad behavior that happens to have been committed in a way that expressly benefited the ancestors of some.

          Furthermore, the idea that “ignoring the deeds and systems of personal land ownership…leads to bad results in almost all cases” simply ignores the fact that the way things were done lead to bad results in every imaginable case, particularly for the people who originally lived here, as well as anybody who wasn’t privileged under that newly implemented system. Even more distressingly, it acts as though the implementation of this new system was some sort of net good and as such, we should simply ignore the litany of abuses that produced this alleged achievement.Report

        • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

          I think that would be close to what I’m saying, especially in the East or along the West Coast. It probably wouldn’t apply to highly nomadic plains Indians, which might be more akin to a Winebago owner thinking that everyplace he drives automatically becomes part of his territory.Report

          • Sam in reply to George Turner says:

            I’m sorry George, but I need to clarify again: are you saying that indigenous peoples who had lived in a place for thousands of years, and who were then slaughtered for doing so after having the audacity not to necessarily recognize the absurd property claims of newcomers, is comparable to a guy who bought a large vehicle and drives it around?Report

            • Gaelen in reply to Sam says:

              Sam, I took George to be responding to my comment up-thread about native american property regimes, he was ( and I don’t want to speak for George) just making a point about differentiating the regimes based on geography and social structure.Report

              • Sam in reply to Gaelen says:

                -If your interpretation is right, then I withdraw my question.

                -However, I’m still unpersuaded by the, “These Native Americans didn’t do things like Europeans, so it sucks to be them!” line of argument.Report

            • George Turner in reply to Sam says:

              They didn’t get slaughtered. All the tribes are still here, aside from some Eastern tribes that became indistinguishable from the rest of us (Heather Locklear is an eastern Indian). The death toll from battles with whites was lower than Chicago’s normal murder rate, and the casualties in both the Eastern US and Western US are less across three centuries is less than the casualty estimates of the Iraq War.

              Their death rate is thought to have dropped significantly because we put an end to thousands of years of tribal warfare that by archeologists estimates killed at least 30% of them from human violence, just based on wounds that left marks on the bones, and from early contact accounts they gave of their tribes’ battles.

              A few thousand people claiming an area the size of Western European countries like France or Germany was not going to survive under any conceivable reality. There were large areas of the US where the population density was approximately that, which drove the US cavalry nuts.

              But if you insist on fairness, lets have everyone in California, Oregon, Washington State, and New England shipped back to Europe, since they also have no right to claim land in other states and they can’t remain living on occupied native territories. Depopulating the west coast and New England is the least we can do to right a social wrong.Report

              • greginak in reply to George Turner says:

                George, you really need to cite where you are getting your “facts” from regarding Native American populations. Until then, you don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Infections disease killed up to 90% of many tribes. By the time euro’s started to intensively settle the east many tribes had already been decimated so they vastly underestimated how many NA’s were there. A few thousand NA’s in an are the size of France…huh?Report

              • Sam in reply to George Turner says:

                1. You’re assuming that everybody here is white.

                2. Here’s an estimate of 4000 dead Cherokee during their Trail of Tears move and here’s the number of American casualties from the Iraq War.

                3. You’re description of Heather Locklear seems to considerably simplify things in your favor.

                4. I have no idea what you mean when you compare with Chicago’s murder rate. More than 500 people were killed in Chicago in 2012. That’s awful but comparable? See above where 4000 were killed in a single years-long conflict with a single tribe.

                5. I think we all know why you’re very weirdly decided that only the Eastern and Western United States count.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Sam says:

                And Cherokee are still thriving (I used to work in Cherokee). You picked the equivalent of their Holocaust (which had less than 0.1% as many deaths), and that’s probably the worst death toll you’ll find across a span of a couple centuries. We are record keepers and our newpapers are always desperate for juicy stories, especially ones involving death. Compare 4000 dead in a one-time event (which was unintended and caused outrage among non-Indians, incuding the commander tasked with moving them to Oklahoma) with disasters, wars, and purges that Europeans and American immigrants suffered as routine.

                Yet after you tally the Trail of Tears, the numbers keep getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. A war fought for a decade over an area the size of France (and on up into Canada) produced casualties numbering in the hundreds, and that was a big war by Indian war standards. The numbers just aren’t there. When you add them up across different periods to calculate the annual averages, you end up lower than Chicago’s homicide rate, often less than a dozen a year for an entire territory during the periods of conflict.

                Lots of people love studying the history of settlers, Indians, cowboys, and especially their conflicts and battles. They dig through the original sources and write books about it. Sometimes they tally up all the known incidents, which is why I can say the numbers aren’t there. The difference in perceptions is not a matter of a hidden genocide missing in the records because everyone would boast about any successes, or try to stir up outrage over any losses, and they would do so quite publically, guaranteeing newspaper stories all the way back East. The Indians themselves would record all the battles (and now post about them on their websites). Probably every battle that can be called a battle has a wiki page.

                Often even the big battles the casualties were astonishingly small. The huge Commanche War (their territory was the size of Texas) ended with the massive Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, in which about 400 US forces engaged a combined force of 1,500 Indians from the Commanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne. The US forces charged directly through their camps and routed them. The US suffered one casualty and the Indians suffered three. Having lost their horses and most of their supplies, the Indians ended up back at Fort Sill.

                In an earlier war, many nations in Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere combined to form an invasion force to take Kentucky from early pioneers. Their assault force, invading a state about the size of England and drawn from a place that would rival Western Europe, numbered about a couple hundred. There were many dozens of casualties. Such low level conflicts are inconceivable in Europe, where forces that size would constitute a good brawl in a beer hall.

                So you might have the impression that the number of deaths was staggering, but they’re actually quite small, perhaps in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 on both sides from Plymouth Rock to the end of the Indian Wars out West (and when you divide that total by the number of years, you end up with a homicide rate that Chicago’s police chief would envy). A great many tribes were never even in conflict with the settlers or the US military, and yet they’re still outnumbered by the tribes that were, like Cherokee, Apache, Sioux, and Navaho.Report

              • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                Actually, those who assert that disease wiped out the Indians have no idea what they’re talking about, because there’s never been any real evidence for it. The claims are based on circular arguments where they assert a pre-contact population to measure the death rate, and assert a death rate based on estimates of the pre-contact populations derived from guessing a death rate.

                Indians, whose memories go back extensively, don’t seem to remember such a plague, nor is it found in any of the early chronicles. They had smallpox, but smallpox isn’t any more fatal to Indians than to whites, and there’s absolutely no genetically inherited immunity in any human population. Even if just about everyone got smallpox, which was often true in Europe, the death toll was rarely extreme and populations saw little effect.

                If you assume normal population growth rates as found throughout the developing world, plagues from the early European explorers could’ve wiped out 98% of the population and it still would’ve fully rebounded by the time the Pilgrims landed. Yet obviously their numbers didn’t suffer anything remotely like such a reduction, and current studies along De Soto’s route through Indian cities have found absolutely no increase in deaths, which would be demanded if his path was ground zero for a decimation from disease.

                We know there was a sequence of major plagues around Mexico City that had devastating consequences (yet still, of course, left Mexico City as one of the largest populations), but a Harvard trained Mexican epidemelogist went over the autopsy records and ruled out all known European diseases, doing some brilliant detective work to link them to an as yet unknown indigenous, rodent-borne hemoraghic fever well known to the natives and greatly feared.

                I’d recommend Hinge’s book “Numbers From Nowhere” which is all about the pre-contact population debate, and that there’s no evidence of a huge decline, much less any way to put even rough numbers to it.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to George Turner says:

                That is, you choose (for whatever reason) to believe Henige, who hardly represents the consensus view.Report

              • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                As he points out, the “consensus” of high counters has no historical, scientific, or mathematical basis, if there even is a consensus. Virtually all scholars agree that there’s still more than an order of magnitude difference in pre-contact population estimates. That would indicate that any disease had either a 9% mortality rate or a 90% mortality rate, which is just about as useless a figure as you can have.

                Other scholars note that the idea of a massive depopulation caused by disease didn’t even occur to the people that were there. Even the Spanish thought any decline was due to Spanish brutality, as did everyone else. After a Spanish emperor crunched the numbers and said there simply weren’t enough Spanish soldiers to have bashed in the heads of that many people, the thought was that God was clearing out Indians as part of his plan. If there was evidence of devastating epidemics seen by people who were there, don’t you think they’d have pointed to it?

                Not considered was that the Indians were smart enough to just get the heck away from the Spanish overlords, or that early priests were lying like dogs about how many millions of Indians they had converted to Christianity.

                Other scholars agree that any population decline from early Spanish contact would’ve been fully made up by the time the English started settling. Simple math says that no population can carry on as much tribal warfare as the Indians did and not be able to maintain sizeable positive population growth or they’d have all gone extinct long before we got here.

                But Henige’s main point is that we can’t accurately know how many Indians were here because there aren’t any scientific methods that could tell us.Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Sam says:

              I’d like to reiterate Sam’s request for George to clarify what his basic line of argument on this topic is. George avoided the question by choosing instead to litigate Sam’s peripheral claim about Indians being slaughtered.

              Set aside whether they were slaughtered, George. I take you basic point to be something like that, essentially, because native people hadn’t developed property systems like the Europeans’, essentially the land here was available for the taking by those who had such system to apply to it. This is because of the superior economic effects that those systems have. Essentially, it was better from a utilitarian perspective for white men to assume control of this land for, essentially, the purpose of administering a system of property recording over it, including from the native peoples’ perspective if they had been dealt into that system in some fair way.

              Is that approximately our position? If so, what would this dealing in have looked like. or in any case, in your preferred counterfactual history, how would the property system have developed as Western conquest of the continent proceeded, and what actual steps would have been taken (and/or would have been necessary) to ensure that the native population was not dealt an injustice of (obviously) historic proportions.

              I’m really not clear what your bottom line here is, but the tone and thrust of your rather considerable number of factoids on this subject seems to suggest that, basically, you have a fairly well-developed view that the whole idea that the Indians got royally and unjustly screwed is a bunch of bunk. Is that kinda what you’re saying?Report

              • George Turner in reply to Michael Drew says:

                So if you don’t infringe on some land claims, do you leave a tribe like the Comanche who numbered about 30,000 people (a small town’s worth) in total control of their 300,000 square mile territory (an area over twice the size of Germany)? Do you really think they were using all of that 300,000 square miles, at least in any sense greater than the way a New Yorker uses Kansas to fly to LA? That’s 10 square miles per person.

                How do you even know that you’re on Comanche land if there’s not enough Comanche for one to even ride past your area once every year or so? If their entire population split up into groups of a hundred, each group sending out thirty scouts, each scouting party would have to cover a thousand square miles to make sure nobody has encroached. That’s a lot of riding.

                But if you really want to respect their rights to their ancestral land, well, their ancestral land is up in Wyoming (up through about 1700). You might as well call Belgium the ancestral homeland of the Spanish because the Spanish had ocupied Belgium long before the Comanche were in Texas, and Belgium is closer, too. In fact, the Spanish were in the Southwest long before the Commanche, so why would we think the Comanche get to claim the whole region and not the Spanish?

                So you’ve got a tiny number of people claiming a huge swath of territory, having arrived there not long before the US settlers did, who don’t have sufficient numbers to patrol it, much less control it, and you want to set up some kind of property regime that gives a minor suburb’s worth of people most of five or six Western states?

                But suppose you did try to keep the entire Commanche territory free of settlers. How do you do it? And do you think Mexico or European nations would let an area twice the size of Germany sit there, defended only by a couple thousand guys on horseback who were no match for the logistic capabilities of even a token European force, indefinitely? How do you patrol an area three times the size of the UK to make sure no settlers are settling, at least without filling the place with forts and cavalry patrols? If you do that, aren’t you occupying their territory? It’s not a question of if most of their territorial claim would get thrown in the waste can, it’s a question of who would do the tossing.

                So how about if we set aside an area the size of a smaller European country for them, say 4,800 square miles? We did that. Then we cut it to about 860 square miles and bought them out with personal land grants and cash, so today there is no Comanche reservation. They own land. The result is that they’re the most highly educated tribe in the US, consisting of doctors and lawyers and businessmen. They weren’t shielded from the economic opportunities the rest of America enjoyed.

                There are a great many Indians, even in Canada, that are pushing for something similar. They say that the greatest impediment to Indian success is the nutty land system and payments we give them, which have had crippling results.

                Here’s a Forbes article about it.

                Part of the change it mentions in 1934, when we stopped trying to bring Indians into the private property system, occured right after we lost our only Indian Vice President, who had spent years as the Senate Majority Leader working on their behalf. The notions that have failed them since are the same that crippled them in the first place, that the tribe is sacrosanct and communal property ownership would protect them from further suffering at European hands.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to George Turner says:

                I’m the one asking the questions here, George. 😉

                But seriously, I really am trying to get a sense of what you’re saying, because so much of what you’ve said seems to be very kinetic reactions to things other people (might have) said (or implied in your mind)? You ask me how I could think this or that would be good or workable; I don’t, necessarily. I’m just trying to understand what your basic point is.

                For example, you don’t seem to want to say whether the native population by-and-large got screwed. Did they? It seems like maybe what you’re saying is that what screwed them is that their tribes were given land rather than individual families or individuals themselves. Is that your basic point?

                Doesn’t this still leave the question of how to figure out how much land must be given to individuals who are not accustomed to thinking of land ownership the way in which you’re suggesting they come into that status, so that you haven’t done injustice on a grand scale to them and their ancestors. Just because it would have been inconvenient and unstable to “give” tribes and amount of land that would have allowed their way of life to continue more or less undisturbed doesn’t mean it was right to given them tiny fractions of that amount, nor does it make it any more workable in the actual history to have tried to get tem to adopt a cultural practice of formal individual recorded ownership that they simply weren’t (I don’t think…?) familiar enough with to make work, and that would have profoundly altered their way of life to be able to make work in any case…

                I guess the point is that there wasn’t necessarily a good way to carry out the expropriation of their world from them. You say that it would have been unworkable to keep whites out a tract of land the size of Germany had it been given to them. well, certainly. But was it their agenda that they be kept out, or was it the European agenda that, generally “property” means the “keeping out” of unknown and unwelcome visitors to property that is owned. But the imperative was not that whites be reliably kept out of lands newly designated to “belong” to Indians. the imperative was to allow some large fraction of this land to “belong” to whites, which means to “keep out” unwelcome (brown-skinned) visitors (who have been given enough land, whether individually or collectively if their backward culture can’t make the individual ownership paradigm work just yet, so that they ought to be able to stay off *my* tract, dammi!).

                Perhaps the impostion of this view of the relationship between people and land on the life of the native people in this land was. That doesn’t make the least unjust of the ways to have carried out that imposition necessarily not (massively) unjust. Your observations about what would have been more prudential for these native populations’ and, in particular their descendants as they learned and adopted the paradigms of the new order, are likely entirely valid – i.e. you can likely show that the approach that was taken was more harmful than others that might have been taken. But that’s not the same thing as showing that the entire injustice lies in having taken that (in retrospect) more harmful approach rather than the one that you think would have left a fair number of people better off today than the one that was taken.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Lat para first sentence should end “…was inevitable,” sorry.

                And sorry for all the other typos and nonsensical fragments, too.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                ….Oh, and I should also say, I’m not sure if this claim:

                “that the entire injustice lies in having taken that (in retrospect) more harmful approach rather than the one that you think would have left a fair number of people better off today than the one that was taken”

                …is in fact one you’re making. I’m unclear whether it is. That’s precisely what I’m quizzing you to try to understand. So I completely acknowledge the possibility that I’m rebutting a claim you’re not making. In fact, I hope that’s the case, even though if you didn’t like that I am doing that, I would understand that, too. It’s worth doing for me, though, because I think it’s a claim that’s important to rebut even if just as a matter of stating it as a hypothetically possible view that people should not hold (for reasons given).Report

              • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                I’ll try to clear up a couple of points.

                My position is that in many cases, especially the very large land claims, we were taking away something from people who had just taken it away from someone else, through violence made possible by European changes. This problem was well recognized long ago.

                The Comanche swept down from Wyoming and terrorized the entire Southwest, which was by no means devoid of an indigenous population at the time. In fact, the big tribes of plains Indians had initially been on quite small parcels with adequate water and soil to maintain some corn and other crops, which isn’t a very large area in that region. Most were limited to sections of small river valleys.

                Then came the horse, introduced by the Spanish, and a new way of life was born, either pursuing the bison herds or raiding, pillaging, and plundering any tribes that hadn’t yet mastered horses and a nomadic lifestyle. Then they got proficient with guns and became even better at hunting, raiding, and terrorizing, which is why 30,000 people could overrun an area three times bigger than the UK and which had been populated for ten thousand years.

                So in that case, how can there be any remotely just determination of what they’re due? They were worse than the settlers, almost as recent, and just as dependent on European weapons and livestock for their success. The land they took over had been bloodily carved from the actual indigenous populations that couldn’t mount successful defenses against large lightning raids. But much of the raider’s population was also made from all the captured members of these earlier tribes.

                So who gets what in that situation, and why is it only us who are supposed to figure this out, as the Comanche of the time probably didn’t spend much time fretting over the rights of their indigenous victims, otherwise they wouldn’t have spent over a century terrorizing them. This starts us off on an endless chain of reparations.

                These are questions that we actually wrestled with when we were trying to figure out what to do about various plains tribes, and how to put and end to all the raiding a stealing and killing that had become part of their lifestyle. The Battle of Little Bighorn was fought on behalf of a tribe whose territory had been overrun by the Sioux. That tribe had probably not possessed it very long, either. Figuring out who owns what when everyone is just running around raiding each other is a fool’s business. (Figuring things out in the East or West Coast was much simpler, but among parties of nomads who’ve been warring for a couple human lifetimes, forget it.)

                So the question is how to do best for the Indians. The path we chose was to give them permanent houses, schools, health care, and land. That had worked in the East, and Eastern Indians were often in charge of such programs for Western Indians, having gone through the same process and understanding what should be done. Thus we signed treaties, supplied materials, clothes, money, and all sorts of other things.

                But the Eastern Indians had largely melted into society far earlier, and the majority owned property and businesses just like everyone else. Yet instead of just letting the Western Indians acclimatize to their new neighbors naturally, as eventually happened in the East, we were faced with widely dispersed nomadic populations who moved on horseback. A village can’t be upgraded with two-story houses if it moves around on horseback, whereas two-story clapboard houses were a common feature of Indian villages in the East prior to the Revolutionary War. So to start the shift toward modern civilization, the nomadic way of life had to end, and change is painful. But change they did.

                Indians are no slouches and very, very bright, so transformation came rapidly. Sitting Bull traveled Europe shortly after battling the US Cavalry. Many Western Indians became fighter and bomber pilots back when we were flying biplanes. If Native Americans can learn to command fighter and bomber formations that quickly (34 won the Distinguished Flying Cross in WW-II, and Tinker Air Force Base is named after Major General Clarence Tinker, who was Osage, born in 1887, went to Indian school, and died leading B-24’s at Midway), I think they could figure out a land deed.

                So let’s toss aside the idea that they just weren’t culturally able to understand our land system, which is infantalizing people who have no problem becoming top-notch lawyers (like Charles Curtis who was Senate Majority Leader), generals, or anything else, or that people who were the terror of the plains and the terror of the skies (Greg Boyington was Sioux) were inherently helpless victims and always will be.

                Native Americans were so competent at business that white jealousy caused the Trail of Tears debacle, and many made a fortune in the California gold rush. As far as historians can tell, the speech by Chief Seattle was about control of Seattle businesses, not animals that weren’t even native to Washington State (the “re-imagined” Earth-Day speech written by a man who became speechwriter for The Moral Majority).

                So we come down to land, and land that we set aside for them. Land we didn’t set aside isn’t at issue, because there’s a lot of Indian land that we didn’t touch because an Indian owned it, since their property is the same as anyone else’s – off a reservation. Most Native Americans don’t live on reservations, prefering New York, LA, Phoenix, and San Francisco instead, and there’s no telling how many never bothered with reservations at all.

                The problem on the reservations is that the land can’t be used for much of anything. We created a limbo where in many cases the property system might as well be Guatemala’s or Peru’s, with the hook that the land would be tax free and forever theirs, along with some benefits. Businesses are very reluctant to have any dealings on tribal lands because their legal options are too uncertain, just like doing business in, well, Guatemala or Peru.

                They didn’t have to opt in to this system, and most don’t, but for those that did it’s an economic trap, creating poverty. The whole guilt complex everyone in this thread is pushing is a result of that poverty, caused by the system we put in place for them – not from taking land from the Indians. The Indians who gave up on the reservations, and thus all ethnic or ancestral land, aren’t the ones who are dirt poor. If the land under this system was vastly larger, the poor area would just be vastly bigger, and they’d have to drive further to escape it.

                Just giving them lots more money isn’t the solution, since that’s just bigger welfare payments, and unless we sustain it indefinitely it still won’t result in a significantly better business climate on the reservations, and would likely just pull more people back onto the reservations, expanding the problem we’re wringing our hands over instead of solving it.

                We could help make the reservations run better, or provide better services, or all sorts of other things, and perhaps we should, but isn’t that just making a reservation a more comfortable economic trap?

                We can’t even undo what we’ve done in creating the reservations because we have treaties with them, and those still on the reservations have to make their own choices about whether to change their systems. Some have, allowing state law to operate on tribal land, and have seen massive economic growth from it. But changing what has become comfortable and familiar is an uphill battle, especially when the powers within the tribe get part of their status from the current system.

                If it weren’t for this system of tribal ownership, there wouldn’t be concentrations of Indian poverty, and who would feel guilty about rich Native Americans who own strings of hotels? (I stayed in a beautiful hotel, one of a large number owned by a Cherokee who’d been a test driver for General Motors).

                If we had just let the Native Americans have large personal land claims (probably my prefered choice), most would’ve sold or devleoped their holdings long ago, and today their descendants would be like anyone whose great grandfather used to own a huge ranch outside someplace like El Paso back in the 1800’s.

                Income and property taxes would’ve eliminated any wildly extreme, vast, personal holdings, or joint holdings, or family holdings. There’s also no way we’d have created an income tax graduated by DNA instead of income, and if we’d simply said that Native Americans don’t have to pay income or property tax, we’d have just ended up with a hundred million Native Americans with Irish, Italian, and German last names (that happened anyway), or a class of tax consultants who moonlight as Native American match-makers.

                But if you could come up with a system in the 1800’s whereby Native Americans were by and large fabulously wealthy today, then most people in this thread would have spent the last century desperately trying to undo it in the name of fairness, decrying the one-percenters with native blood who exploit the poor and cheat the system. Native Americans would be despised by the left for their inherited, unearned wealth, and Congress would quickly rectify the situation and tax them into oblivion.

                So there is no magic bullet that would make them all wealthy, or compensate them justly for the historical accidents that life on this planet entails, which even on their part involves a lot of unjustness to other tribes who weren’t fortunate enough to survive until European contact, just like the rest of us still here.

                You can either work toward solutions to the current problems, many of which are out of our hands due to treaties, or pointlessly run around trying to inflict guilt on people who had nothing to do with creating the current problems, just because inflicting guilt feels good. If you’re into that, I’d suggest aiming your guilt at China and Russia, since they are the actual, scientifically accepted ancestral homeland of Native Americans and yet mysteriously and completely devoid of Native Americans. At least we still have ours.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to George Turner says:

                Awesome comment, George (of which, apart from bare facts on which I defer to your impressive background in this area, I agree with very little, but that doesn’t make any it less awesome…). Very clarifying as to your view. Thanks for taking the time.Report

              • Roger in reply to Michael Drew says:

                I agree with Michael,

                This is one of the most interesting and informative comments (or OPs for that matter) I have ever read on this site. This comment is fishing BRILLIANT. Excellent job, George.Report

              • Wardsmith in reply to Michael Drew says:

                I agree with everyone who agrees that George has written some space awesome comments here. Perhaps he’d consider doing an OP on the subject? Please, pretty please?Report

              • George Turner in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Well Todd, as I’m presenting what would be the contrary view of events for the thread, I’m not emphasizing the views that everyone already has.

                For example, you covered one part of the Seminole conflict, with the conventional view that they were victimized. We fought, and it was brutal, but they remain undefeated. Some other points to mention is that the Seminoles had been the ones who resisted the Spanish, and who had gone into cattle prior to the War of 1812. Cattle aren’t a traditional native American pursuit, but that an trade had seen their population jump from 1,200 to about 4,000 in ten years, till 1823. Their tribe also includes black Seminoles, who were escaped slaves, and most were moved to Oklahoma (about 15,000 members there). Most of them also fought for the Union in the Civil War.

                The few remaining in Florida focused on cattle, trade, and tourism, and they only decided to push for reservations until the 1950’s and 1960’s so they could set up churches and some other structures to help preserve more of their tribal identity.

                I’d also point out that their tiny tribe is headquartered in Hollywood Florida, is one of the nation’s largest cattle ranchers, and owns the entire Hard Rock Cafe chain of restaurants, and lord knows what else. They are obviously better at business than we are.

                An example of that would probably be the Pequot (the “Destroyers”) of Connecticut, whose active tribal numbers diminished to about two until they opened the Foxwoods Casino, which now grosses $1 Billion dollars a year for the 375 members.

                In contrast, when we try to manage Native American money “for their own good” it creates ugly cases like multi-millionaire Jackson Barnett, an illiterate Creek who could be the inspiration for Jed Clampet, except that that that the government managed his money for him, paying him a couple hundred a year in living expenses. He finally ended up living in Hollywood California, of course.

                Jackson Barnett’s interesting tale.Report

              • carr1on in reply to George Turner says:

                Totally anecdotal story here.

                I grew up in Oklahoma, and like most Okies I’m of mixed ancestry. Stepfather #2 was a full-blood Choctaw. He was very educated and a lawyer for the Choctaw Nation. He represented the Choctaw Nation on several high-profile lawsuits against the federal government.

                Stepfather #2 once told me that his issue wasn’t with ‘who conquered who or how’, it was that the US government broke practically every treaty signed with the Choctaw tribe. Again, that was his assertion, and I can’t verify.

                But it did change my view of Native Americans, at least at the tribal level. I quit seeing them as helpless victims, and more as an empowered people that not only were willing – but were successful! – taking on the powerful US government to right the wrongs (the breaking of legally binding treaties – or contracts) as they saw them.

                I think another great thread would be the corruption in the Bureau of Land Management throughout it’s history…Report

              • Will Truman in reply to carr1on says:

                Odd as it seems, there are fewer excuses for the contract-reneging than there are for the killing, in some ways.Report

              • greginak in reply to George Turner says:

                Pointing out the NA’s later became pilots or lawyers is irrelevant to whether they understood the different property system American’s were operating under when we were taking their land. It isn’t infantilezing them to point out they had a different conception of property and that it worked just fine for them.

                It really is old news that NA’s fought and killed each other. Really, we all did know that. That is also irrelevant when discussing the morality of what the US did to them or how they need to adjust to modern life. The big struggle NA’s are having is trying to hold onto what is best from their old culture while still living in this world. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “walking in two worlds”.

                Little Big Horn was fought because Custer was spoiling for a fight. Was there a pretext of defending other NA’s? Well look at it this way, if there wasn’t a pretext of helping another NA band would Custer still have wanted a fight? Yes. Would the US have still wanted to clear out the NA’s? Yes

                Guilt…oy….screw guilt….None of this is about feeling guilty. If that is all you can hear then that explains a lot.Report

              • George –

                Despite all of the kudos for what was really, a well laid out and thoughtfully written comment, I have to say that I must disagree. Or to be more precise, I must disagree that the moments of history that you choose to highlight are the most accurate presentation of the way we acquired land from Native Americans.

                Your version seems to be that we arrived on the East Coast, got along famously with our new red brothers so well that they happily became memberso f our society. Then, pressing westward, we would have been happy to have left Western tribes to whatever land they wanted, but after deciding that we needed to help the protect the Good Indians from the Bad we debated and deciding we needed to consider what would be best for them – and no real thought to own our well being – we then rolled up our sleeves and did the hard work to give them a leg up. I am over-simplifying, I know, but this seems to be the flavor you’re going for (at least to my reading).

                As I say, I do not agree that this is a particularly accurate way to view that history.

                You are correct, of course, that tribes warred with one another over land and resources long before we arrived. However, it seems an odd leap to go from there to, well, it was anyone’s land, really. After all, sovereign kingdoms in Europe at that time were constantly warring for land and resources as well; I doubt they would have agreed that their land was any less sovereign for this and therefore up for grabs for anyone passing by.

                As to the history of our relationship with Native Americans, you seem to be skipping large chunks. Shortly after we were an actual nation, we purchased land from France in a transaction, the legality of which Jefferson himself doubted, in part because of it was not entirely clear the France actually “owned” them. Once the Louisiana Purchase was complete, the United States began relocating tribe on the East of the Mississippi to the West. This was not done out of a sense of altruism; it was done because the land East was considered too valuable to “waste” on the tribes. Furthermore, we didn’t really ask for them to move – we were a little more hardcore than that. Indians that defied Jackson’s Indian Removal Act were hunted down and summarily executed. The Seminoles and a few other Florida tribes opted not to sign the displacement treaty at all; as a consequence their nations spent the next seven years at war with the United States. By 1942 when the war was finally over, the remaining number of those tribes in Florida, previously in the tens of thousands, was estimated by the government to be about 300.

                Not only wasn’t this a benevolent act on our part, it wasn’t seen as such at the time. The moves were widely protested by Europeans as well as American Christian missionaries. Even then congressman Davey Crocket deplored the action.

                As US expansion continued westward, we showed a willingness to forcibly renegotiate treaties as we developed a need for additional land and resources. You are correct that Native Americans might well have done better for themselves and their children had they simply assimilated into white, US culture, but the reality is that quite often they were not welcome to do so.

                This comment has gone on long enough, so I’ll just stop here.Report

              • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                Todd, oops, my reply ended up above instead of below your reply. It’s the one mentioning that the Florida Seminoles own the Hard Rock Cafe restaurant chain.Report

        • Aidian in reply to George Turner says:

          Collective land ownership doesn’t let anyone actually use the land productively because it belongs to everyone and no one.

          I don’t know why this is necessarily true. The land could be used productively as long as everyone also had a collective ownership interest in that productive use. Because, you know, the idea of collectively owning means of production has worked out so very well in the past…Report

    • I don’t think the need for some sort of tribal identity or society or nation-state means that property ownership and international borders become somehow more sacrosanct. We certainly are social creatures, and we have, in some way, “chosen” to order ourselves in the current manner, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t big problems with the way exclude people.

      And, in the end, that’s what so much of property rights and nations and borders comes down to, excluding people.Report

      • Roger in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

        Interesting choice of words, Jonathan.
        I have argued in the past on this site that property rights are actually conventions. However they are a particularly extreme case of conventions. Ones which are so “sacrosanct” that they seem inviolable.

        I of course agree that property effectively excludes people. Another way of looking at poperty rights is that it allows us to define who gets to decide how property is used and who gains from its use. It solves the old problem of something owned by everyone is effectively owned by nobody and is quickly subject to tragedy of the commons. Property conventions align the interest of the property and the owner, and thus can lead to preservation and improvement of the property in the interests of the owner.

        In other words, effective property rights, lead to material and capital improvement over time. The key to not excluding people is to allow everyone a fair opportunity to participate in the system of acquiring property.Report

  7. Hobbes > Locke #FTW.

    Great post.

    This is sorta what I was going for once upon a time here:

    • …did you really type Hobbes > Locke?

      Next you’ll claim Hobbes is better than Hume, too…Report

    • Somehow, I totally missed that post. I think I was on vacation that week. It was solid, dude.

      It’s interesting, these two posts dovetail quite nicely, but mine is by no means meant as an attack on libertarianism. I still self-identify as a libertarian; I just might be the least-doctrinaire one on this site (wait till I finally write my gun symposium post).

      I think what your post did quite well was demonstrate the necessity of some sort of government structure to protect our liberty. And if we’re going to have some sort of property rights regime, we have to have some sort of government to enforce them… hell, we need a government to institute that regime. Ignoring that, or claiming that we can have some sort of market of justice systems that will adjudicate these things is pure fantasy.Report

  8. Sam says:

    The absurdity of what property rights – which some people care to believe in VERY MUCH right until you ask about the property claims of native populations – is what lead to me to conclude that rights themselves are a bunch of ridiculous crap.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Sam says:

      Sounds like throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Or do you mean “natural rights”? In which case I’d agree with you.Report

      • Sam in reply to James Hanley says:

        Given that we massage and nuance every right at every imaginable opportunity, I find the entire idea to be nothing more than a fun story we tell ourselves to make the world seem more just. Natural Rights are the most ridiculous of all, but really, I find myself unconvinced by any of it.

        Also: I became convinced about this at a weeklong libertarian workshop dedicated to the celebration of rights, so they clearly missed on selecting me.Report

        • Conor P. Williams in reply to Sam says:

          Please tell me it was an Institute of Humane Studies gig. They killed off my nascent libertarianism also.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Sam says:

          So you don’t think we can make social agreements on what things we will treat as rights?

          And you went to a weeklong libertarian workshop? What the hell kind of masochist are you, anyway?Report

        • Stillwater in reply to Sam says:

          I find the entire idea to be nothing more than a fun story we tell ourselves to make the world seem more just.

          Natural rights are a problem, I admit. But constructed rights – which are a useful fiction! – seem to have an important place in any social system based on objectivity, the rule of law, impartial resolution of conflict, etc. Those aren’t fictions, it seems to me.Report

          • Sam in reply to Stillwater says:

            Except that constructed “rights” aren’t rights; they’re nuanced laws which almost tend to benefit the majority, often at the expense of minority groups that we believe that “rights” protect.Report

            • Stillwater in reply to Sam says:

              they’re nuanced laws which almost tend to benefit the majority, often at the expense of minority groups that we believe that “rights” protect.

              Not true. Rights have typically benefited a minority on their initial implementation and are then expanded to include others. Voting, for example, was a right circumscribed was limited to a minority citizenry by arbitrary boundaries that were subsequently eliminated. Same with life, liberty, opportunity, etc. If there weren’t an initial “right” in each case, then expanding it wouldn’t have made any sense. So those rights are a real and tangible thing. Well, maybe not the right itself, but the effects have having a right and exercising it are. Even if they’re constructed.Report

              • Sam in reply to Stillwater says:

                Disagree. Those people who couldn’t vote weren’t really “citizens.” They became citizens when the voting white males decided that they were. Those voting white males, incidentally, only decided that their precious right actually applied to another class of newly included people as a means of keeping the peace, not because there existed some mutual recognition that, “Oh, maybe those people are just like me.”

                I’d argue that gays continue to exist in a 2nd class status, given the way that their relationships are still treated by majorities.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Sam says:

                What white males feel about it is irrelevant. The argument for expanding the franchise was that skin color and sex are arbitrary factors wrt determining who gets to vote. Even if those old dudes only reluctantly expanded voting rights to others, the arguments (as well as public opinion, granted) were against them. But that result was predicated on, and derived from, the fact that landed white dudes had an established, codified right accorded to them.

                It may have been constructed and arbitrary as all hell in the beginning. Sure, I’ll grant you that.Report

              • Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

                I agree with Stillwater,

                Rights are clearly revealed on history as starting as privileges for the elite which are then objectified. These objective privileges are then used as currency to buy off others or gain their political support. It becomes a cheap way to “buy” supporters in battles between the privileged few.

                The best summary of this pattern is covered in Violence and Social Orders by Douglas North, John Wallis and Barry Weingast.Report

    • George Turner in reply to Sam says:

      Those claims are exactly why we say we respect property rights. Groups don’t have them. What about Irish property rights in Colorado? What about Polish property rights in Alabama? The whole concept falls apart.

      If we talked about “gay property rights” not a single person here would even think that we were claiming that there was a piece of territory somewhere that belonged to gays, as a group. Everyone would assume we were talking about a law that tried to keep gay persons from owning or renting something.

      So when we talk about indigenous property rights, what it should really mean is that a native American has exactly the same inviolate rights to own a piece of real-estate that anyone else does, and in fact they have that right. In America, even foreigners have that right. People get off the plane from other countries and buy US property the same day. The world’s millionaires by land here because that ownership is inviolate, often unlike land in their home countries.

      The reason issues over Indian land claims aren’t a disrespect of property rights is that you can’t put ethnicity, ancestry, or religion on the deed in the block where the name is supposed to go. Without an actual name, it’s all BS.Report

      • NoPublic in reply to George Turner says:

        The reason issues over Indian land claims aren’t a disrespect of property rights is that you can’t put ethnicity, ancestry, or religion on the deed in the block where the name is supposed to go. Without an actual name, it’s all BS.

        Otherwise known as the “Kill everyone that knows who owns the land and/or burn down the registrar of deeds and you can do whatever the fish you like within a generation or two” rule.Report

      • Gaelen in reply to George Turner says:

        “So when we talk about indigenous property rights, what it should really mean is that a native American has exactly the same inviolate rights to own a piece of real-estate that anyone else does, and in fact they have that right”

        George, this kinds of ignores the fact that US courts did not recognize Indian’s ability to sell their land. Once the Europeans ‘discovered’ it sovereignty went to the crown/sovereign and Indians had a right of occupancy (until some white person wanted the land).

        And just as a point of fact, sovereigns as groups (ie the US government, or the an Native American tribes) do have property rights.Report

        • Gaelen in reply to Gaelen says:

          Punchier version. Indians had a property right, we took it, and then they have equal rights to buy it back from us.

          Also George, I don’t mean to be stalking you, I’ve just been reading up on Native American and Colonial property regimes lately, and the topics of discussion recently led me to start commenting.Report

      • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

        Well there’s the rub. In setting aside land for Indians as an ethnicity, we prevented individual Indians from selling the land to whoever they wanted. That’s a major, major mistake for individual rights. As I said, anytime we try to institute tribal or ethnic property systems, it creates far more problems than it solves.

        Do you know of any county in the US that uses ancestry or ethnicity to determine whether you can live there, or what rights you have there? Is there any county that has a “whites only” rule?Report

        • greginak in reply to George Turner says:

          Who exactly is saying land should be set aside to Indians as an ethnicity? Land was “owned” by the tribe. Not individuals and certainly not as we do it now.Report

          • George Turner in reply to greginak says:

            So if the land is owned by the tribe, it’s not clearly owned by individual tribe members, like living in a county where all the land is owned by the county government. Even though the people might elect members of that government, they still don’t own the land, their government does.

            You have to seperate ownership from authority. The tribe can be treated as the governing body for a territory (tribal lands, a reservation, or any marked boundaries) with no problem at all. Yet if that authority is extended to the concept of ownership, it means that the individuals represented by that authority don’t have full ownership over parcels of the territory (farms, housing lots, etc) because they can’t freely sell it, and can’t get clear title to their property.

            This makes it virtually impossible to get a loan using a house as collateral because the house isn’t a seizable asset, and makes it hard to get credit or access to any of the other financial instruments the rest of us depend on. The uncertainty over actual land ownership (personal deeds) means improving a house is fraught with risk, since possession of the property, and thus the house, could be contested. Thus most Indian reservations are filled with mobile homes which can at least be moved to a different plot of land, and the real-estate has that unfinished look common to third-world countries where the status of property rights is equally nebulous. This keeps Indians living on reservations down at the bottom percentage of US wealth.

            But if the Indians could get clear title to their property, then they could sell it to outsiders. If rich outsiders liked their real-estate, then very quickly they’d buy up all the Indian properties for boatloads of cash and the entire reservation would actually be owned by non-Indians, defeating the purpose of having “Indian land”. Yet the result would also be Indians who go buy property elsewhere and get full legal title, just like any Irish, Italian, English, German, Swede, African, Mexican, Chinese, or Japanese person does.

            The only people hurt by Indian land are Indians, because communal property doesn’t work well at all for what people want to use personal property for. Whites do maintain large tracts of communal property, such as parks, but we visit them, we don’t try to raise families or start businesses there.Report

            • Roger in reply to George Turner says:

              “The only people hurt by Indian land are Indians, because communal property doesn’t work well at all for what people want to use personal property for.”

              Amen, George.

              Greg is of course right that land was “owned” by the tribe, which is a rational property convention for nomads and/or hunter gatherers sparsely distributed. It is a totally dysfunctional convention for those involved in agriculture, production or even HG’s with higher population densities.Report

              • Sam in reply to Roger says:

                You guys are engaged in a various elaborate game of blaming the victim. In this particular case, your argument amounts to, “It’s the Native Americans fault for not being more European in their understanding of property rights.”Report

              • Roger in reply to Sam says:

                Your efforts at turning this into a racial dispute are doing more to obscure than enlighten. If a subset of people refused to adopt the useful convention of driving on the right (or left), and thus constantly crashed into each other, it does no value to say that I am blaming the victim for all their injuries.

                Failure to adopt the proven solution of property conventions is guaranteed to make victims widespread. Full stop. And for the record, property rights weren’t uniquely white or European in origin, only the liberal defense and rationalization of them was.Report

              • Kim in reply to Roger says:

                No of course not. Neither was slavery, which is part of any comprehensive discussion of property conventions, particularly when youw ant to call it a “proven solution”

                … oh, and we might as well include marriage (including capture marriage), in the whole property rights thingy.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Roger says:

                That is, if a group of people who had been driving on the left refused to had their cars confiscated by the more powerful and better-armed recently-arrived drivers-on-the-right, it’s their own fault for not accepting the obvious superiority of driving on the right.Report

              • Roger in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                You are mixing together and thus confusing two points.

                The first is whether it was just to steal land from native Americans. The answer is no, just as it was unjust for later tribes to steal from earlier occupants.

                The second is whether these occupants, once living on a designated area should adopt property conventions. Here the answer is yes assuming they don’t want to live in permanent poverty. Malthusian reality guarantees that they will soon overpopulate any reservation, thus eliminating to viability of tribal ownership.

                And Kim, nobody is arguing for the social convention of slavery or forced marriage. Nobody. It is possible to support a concept of property rights which does not include the right to own another. Get the difference?Report

              • Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Then you’re not talking about proven solutions anymore. You’re talking about a recent, new idea.
                And I’m skeptical. ;-PReport

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                The second is whether these occupants, once living on a designated area should adopt property conventions.

                That is, specifically adopt the property conventions of those who forced them into the designated area. And I’ll agree that the practical answer is that they must, because that regime has been imposed on them by greater force.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                We can’t always choose the game. Sometimes we can only choose the best strategy for playing the game that’s been forced on us. That doesn’t mean it’s right; it just means it’s real.Report

              • Roger in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                The odd thing about Mike’s latest comment here is that the problem is actually that the Indian’s failed to adopt the dominant property conventions and are suffering for it.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                @Roger: Yeah, that’s exactly what I meant. Having been conquered, there is no other useful choice. And if I read James aright, he’s saying the same thing.

                That’s a different conclusion from “The regime that won was a priori superior.”Report

              • Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Roger: trail of tears. nuff said.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                @Roger: the Cherokee did have treaties and a system of land deeds. The Cherokee completely bought into the White Man’s system, dressed like him, ate like him, went to church like him. Sold land to him. Took the White Man to SCOTUS and won in Worcester v. Georgia.

                Didn’t matter though. The Cherokee were ethnically cleansed out of their nation, complete with concentration camps and the America version of Sonderkommando to roust out those who remained.Report

              • FTR, my biggest problem with the start of this thread isn’t that I see inherent racism in any of the arguments.

                It’s that the argument that if Native Americans had just divided up their property differently within themselves before we Europeans arrived we’d have let them keep it all or paid FMV is eye-rollingly credulous.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Mike, yes, you read me right.Report

              • Roger in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Why are you trying to constantly shift the conversation, Mike?

                Even a casual reading of what I wrote does not sum up to a claim that the winning regime was a priori superior.

                Failure to adopt the social convention of individual property rights for a population of people with modern medicine and a restricted territory is a losing strategy.Report

              • Roger in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Again, Blaise, this comment directly above addresses your reply.


                It was wrong to steal from and kill Cherokee. It was a mistake longer term for surviving tribes to avoid adopting property conventions.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                @Roger I’m confused. Your second paragraph denies that you consider that our style of property rights is a priori superior, and then the third one asserts that it is.Report

              • Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                “Failure to adopt the social convention of individual property rights for a population of people with modern medicine and a restricted territory is a losing strategy.”

                … kibbutzniks disagree.Report

              • Roger in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Mike, do you honestly believe that “the regime” is a synonym for “useful social convention”?

                Seriously, dude, quit trying to win rhetorical arguments and try to have an honest discussion.

                And Kim, you are right. The Indians could have tried to build a Kibbutz. That could have been an alternative social experiment. Kind of fun to consider actually.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                By “regime” I mean “the way our legal and social system defines and deals with property rights”. And my assertion (which I’m not saying to win any arguments) is that, while it’s not a priori superior to the ones the Indians started with, has won, and anyone living here must, as a practical matter, accept it. I don’t know what’s terribly controversial about that.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                The Kibutzes were abandoned as failures by the people who lived in them. Those few that remain try to survive on tourism.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:


                In 2010, there were 270 kibbutzim in Israel. Their factories and farms account for 9% of Israel’s industrial output, worth US$8 billion, and 40% of its agricultural output, worth over $1.7 billion.

                Not to mention what they make from the tractor rides and hand-made menorahs.Report

        • Gaelen in reply to George Turner says:

          I’m with you that the reservation system is a terrible system. I’m was talking about Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), were the claims of whites who had bought title to land from Native Americans was held to be void. My point was that the only right they had was occupancy, and we didn’t really respect that right in practice, leaving them basically SOL.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Sam says:

      It is because I am a staunch believer in property rights that I often bring up the unresolved property claims of native populations.Report

        • James K in reply to Chris says:

          To be fair, I don’t think they have a claim on Greenland.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

          I’m not saying I have a solution. I’m not saying that every inch of land can or should be returned. But I also don’t think we can ignore them, especially if we want to espouse a society build on respect for property rights.

          As Hanley and some others can attest to, it is one of my biggest criticisms of much formal libertarian policy put forth in America, largely because it is often absent. Hanley, much to his credit, has been more than willing to tackle the issue.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

            In fact it was one of the points that made me throw down Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia in disgust. After staking so much on the notion of property rights, he simply shrugs his shoulders at the problem of our land claims having descended from what he himself would describe as theft.

            On the other side, the repeated claim that “it’s unjust that we have what our ancestors stole from their ancestors” is no more insightful than Nozick’s position. We have dueling absurdities, each of which prevents us from having to deal with the damnably intractable problems of knowing what needs to be returned from whom to whom, or estimating appropriate compensation by figuring out how much wealth would have passed down through successive generations had the land been left in control of its original owners.Report

            • This is pretty much exactly how I feel (except I haven’t read Nozick).Report

            • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

              I don’t know if both positions are equally absurd, though.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

                My Swiss Mennonite ancestors were driven off their land and emigrated as refugees to America in the mid-late 1800s.

                I would feel absurd demanding compensation from the Swiss government as a matter of justice.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                Absurd, yes. But EQUALLY absurd… I’m not so sure.

                Saying, “You stole that hammer from me. Return it,” is not absurd at all.
                Saying, “Your father stole that hammer from my father. Return it,” may or may not be absurd.
                Saying, “Your ancestor stole a tree from my ancestor than your ancestor than fashioned into a hammer, so give me the hammer,” is absurd.

                However, there is at least a logical consistency there, even if it is practically absurd to try to apply it. Nozick’s absurdity is rooted in an inconsistency that undermines his entire theory. If he had a principled objection, that would be one thing. But shrugging his shoulders, as you say he does, seems to largely be arguing for convenience.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

                Well, there’s the old saying that a large enough difference in quantity effectively becomes a difference in kind. As an analogue, I’d say a distant enough ancestor is different in kind than a more recent ancestor. There was some dude and some chick living at subsistence level in the Swiss Alps 2,000 or more years ago who got it on and begat someone who begat someone who begat someone who…..etc., etc…..begat someone who begat me. That dude and chick are not my ancestors in any very meaningful way, other than that I’ve probably still got a statistically insignificant amount of their DNA sequence floating around in me somewhere…but possibly not even that.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                But don’t you need claimants before discussing competing claims?

                For instance, suppose Group A displaced Group B, which was in turn displaced by Group C. Group B makes claims against Group C. For one reason or another, Group A makes no claims on either Groups B or C. Is it appropriate for Group C to respond to Group B’s claim that they have no basis for a claim because of the unclaimed claims of Group A?

                … my head hurts…Report

              • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                But, if nothing else, hopefully this demonstrates to Sam that at least SOME property rights advocates take seriously the claims of displaced people, even if they can’t necessarily offer a simple solution to the issue.Report

              • Wardsmith in reply to James Hanley says:

                The Thracians, Phrygians, Etruscans, Mysians, Lydians, Burgundians, Normans, Saxons, Druids, we could go on and on. There’s a LOT of displaced tribes throughout history. Winners win, losers lose.

                All hunter gatherer societies require vast amounts of land, approximately 10 sq km per person. The Native Americans who were hunter gatherers /needed/ vast territory. From an evolutionary perspective, hunter gatherers are a dead-end.Report

            • James K in reply to James Hanley says:

              There’s a reason why English common law has a concept of Adverse Possession. After enough time passes, it gets too hard to disentangle who stole what from whom.Report

              • Kim in reply to James K says:

                +1. be better if we started from adverse possession, rather than property rights.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to James K says:

                James K,

                That is why, when bringing up such points, I tend to focus solely on specific treaties that were signed and then violated. Regardless of my feelings on, say, slavery reparations, I realize that such an argument needs much more than claims of property rights. But, say, the Black Hills… I think there is a much stronger case there, though it too suffers from an issue of timeliness.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

                I’m all for giving back the Black Hills and rousting all the white folks out of there. Compensation all around though.

                Mostly because I’m curious to see whether crass commercialism trumps sacred beliefs once all the tourist shops are back in Native American hands. It’d be a hell of an anthropological experiment.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                On that basis, do you think the nature of a claim matters? If the Native Americans (it escapes me exactly which tribe it was) say they want the land back to build strip malls and casinos, should we consider that differently?

                I’m tempted to say yes, only because if they just want land, any land, for strip malls and casinos, we can probably reasonably accommodate them elsewhere. But the moment land become “sacred”, the situation gets trickier, and I am very weary of telling other people what is sacred to them and what they can do with their sacred things.

                This seems to be much of what makes Israel a clusterfuck.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

                Well, I haven’t thought about that. I probably don’t want to try, either, except to agree with you that we can probably accommodate casinos and strip malls with some other land more easily than we could accommodate claims of sacredness. So perhaps we don’t have to privilege sacredness in the sense of according it any greater respect than a strip mall, but only recognize that because those other folks do, sacredness places greater constraints on our ability to satisfy the claims.

                I am very weary of telling other people what is sacred to them and what they can do with their sacred things.

                Well, you can’t expect people to respond well when you say, “You know where you can shove that Bible?”Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Kazzy says:

                Heh. They can and they do tell us where to shove that Bible. Comes with the territory — for Christians only. Everyone else seems to get a pass, insisting on their rights to impose their world vision on everyone else. Furthermore, should anyone else be offended, they’re sure to whine about it, attracting the Usual Suspects, leading to a great orgy of self-pity and disgusting feats of onanism.Report

              • James K in reply to Kazzy says:

                Treaty violation certainly puts you on a firmer footing, New Zealand has ongoing issues around that too.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

              There’s no absurdity to any of this. I return you to Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee and everything which proceeds from that case.

              So what, the Native Americans were hard done by. We made treaties with them and broke them all. Perhaps there are a few notable exceptions but not many. The reason to throw down Nozick is this: his notion of property rights is theology, not reason. Justice is what the courts give us.

              Property and ownership issues resolve to documentation. A cop finds four iPads stolen from the Apple Store in someone’s vehicle. How does the court go about finding the suspect guilty? There’s no bill of sale and there are records of the serial numbers of those iPads on the inventory for the store from which he stole them.

              Someone buys a plot of land with a lien on it. What do we say about the resulting contract? We say there’s a cloud on title and the bill of sale is invalid — until someone proves the lien has been paid off.

              Rights are an existential problem domain. Trespass upon those rights must be proven. Do I have the right to play my music loud and annoy my neighbours? If there’s no ordinance to that effect, who can defend my neighbour’s right to not be disturbed? We’re all at the mercy of this effect: it’s all fine and good to say our ancestors stole land from someone else — but what about you and me, who have lived our whole lives within the confines of what Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee and the legacy of the supremacy of SCOTUS has brought forth?

              What about all those title deeds down at the Recorder’s office? If someone tried to purchase land from the Native Peoples based on the terms of some broken treaty, nobody would have recognised the deed thus created. This isn’t an intractable problem. When MacArthur went into Japan and created title deeds for all the peasant farmers, taking that land away from the daimyo feudal overlords — was that absurd? No. It was a matter of enforcing our writ over a subjugated Japan. We didn’t take any of that land.

              The power of law derives from the power of government to enforce its writ. Rights and obligations thus created are therefore arbitrary.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Sam says:

      The absurdity of what property rights – which some people care to believe in VERY MUCH right until you ask about the property claims of native populations – is what lead to me to conclude that rights themselves are a bunch of ridiculous crap.

      I agree that rights—property or otherwise, including even the right to life—are imaginary, but belief in property rights can easily be reconciled with rejection of the idea that aboriginal people have a rightful claim to their ancestral lands today.

      It comes down to the question of which is the lesser wrong: Taking away land from someone who spent the money to buy it on the open market, and possibly made improvements to it, or failing to give it to someone who never really did anything to establish a claim to it other than having distant ancestors who lived there, and who quite possibly stole the land from someone else anyway.

      If the original inhabitants of the land were still alive, then I’d say by all means give them their land back, but things being as they are, it seems pretty obvious to me that the former is the greater wrong.

      A surprisingly large percentage of the people who disagree with this support very high inheritance taxes. Apparently the strength of one’s claim to an inheritance grows with each passing generation.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        A surprisingly large percentage of the people who disagree with this support very high inheritance taxes. Apparently the strength of one’s claim to an inheritance grows with each passing generation.

        Hell, compound a 50% inheritance tax over 15 generations, and they’re lucky the taxman let them keep the reservations.Report

        • Sam in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          So you’re against the inheritance tax (because it takes something away from those with a rightful claim) but you’re for not giving land back (because that would give something to those with a rightful claim)? How does that work?Report

          • Brandon Berg in reply to Sam says:

            Inheritance doesn’t screw over an innocent bystander. If your parents leave you money, the government doesn’t have to take that money from someone who earned it to give it to you. Your parents pass it directly on to you, and that’s that. That isn’t the case with the sort of fifteen-generations-removed pseudoinheritance we’re talking about.

            Basically, I support inheritance rights, but consider them inferior to personally-earned property rights where the two conflict. For that reason, I’m okay with a revenue-neutral shift away from income taxes and towards inheritance taxes, but not a revenue-positive increase in the inheritance tax.Report

        • MikeSchilling in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          A surprising number of people who don’t believe in inheritance taxes oppose reparations for slavery on the grounds that there aren’t any slaves left, only their descendants.Report

      • Sam in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        I’m sorry, but this is a modern convenience that we’ve created for ourselves to justify the crimes of our ancestors. “Yeah, it was bad or whatever, but it’d be worse if we didn’t have all of this stuff that’s really convenient for us and the things we care about, so, best not to even worry about it.” It’s really a bunch of crap and it is a painfully obvious example of how fundamentally unserious many people are when they talk about property rights being a thing that matter. They matter when the right people have the land; they’re easily dismissed when the possibility exists that those right people might not.Report

        • Brandon Berg in reply to Sam says:

          Try not to flout your poor reading comprehension.Report

          • Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg says:

            Damn it! Flaunt.Report

            • Sam in reply to Brandon Berg says:

              Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were arguing that because it would be inconvenient for America as we now understand it, changes cannot be made and, in fact, shouldn’t even be considered. You though were saying something else though. What was it?Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Sam says:

                The chance for the victims to be made whole at the expense of the perpetrators has long since passed. The descendants of the victims can now be compensated only at the expense of those who not only are innocent of any wrongdoing, but who were in the vast majority of cases not even direct beneficiaries of the original crime—I don’t know exactly what percentage of land in the US is currently owned by someone who inherited it from the first white inhabitant of that land, but it can’t be very much.

                Your glib dismissal of the cost to these innocent bystanders as “inconvenience” is not worthy of a serious response. And to compensate the descendants of the natives for…what, exactly? The fact that their ancestors were victims doesn’t make them victims. We all have ancestors who were wronged horribly at one time or another, but that doesn’t mean that we’re all victims who deserve compensation.

                By any sane standard, “I worked and saved and paid for it” is a better claim to a resource than “My ancestors owned it 200 years ago.”

                That you managed to get from that to your comment above is an indication of how “fundamentally unserious” you are.Report

              • Sam in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                Again, you’re saying that because white people won then, the issue is settled. This is a convenience for our modern society.

                You are right that uprooting the foundations of our modern society would be wildly inconvenient and would create scores of victims who had done nothing wrong; I’ve never denied it. But then, that’s exactly what happened to Native Populations. So if it happens to you and yours, it’s bad. If it happens to those people then, shrug.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

                Sam, I think the temporal thing is relevant, and your responses to Brandon have been glossing that part over, when it’s sort of the most important part of his argument.Report

              • Sam in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Which temporal thing?Report

              • Kim in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                The temporal thing that says that the continuing discrimination and stealing of wealth is unimportant. That says that the slaves were the only victims.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                I think Brandon would reject a property rights violation on any current member of a tribe on principle. If you were to go steal somebody’s truck from a reservation, that’s an infliction of an injustice on somebody who lives, right now today.

                Reparations for past misdeeds is a separate problem, and isn’t necessarily tied to “my people” vs. “those people”, nor is it necessarily a rejection of property rights framework for the sake of convenience.

                To some extent, every person on the planet stands upon land that they regard as theirs… where somewhere in the past history of the planet someone else laid claim to that land by violently taking it from somebody else. Everybody. Nobody’s hands are clean. The Gaelic people were pushed out by the Picts who were pushed out by the Britons who were pushed out by the Anglo-Saxons who were pushed out by the Normans.

                If your point is that we should remember that, I agree with you.

                If your point is that there are consequences of those actions – in the particular case of tribal lands – that are still creating pernicious problems here in the U.S. (and Canada, Mexico, Australia, and a number of other places) that should be addressed, I agree with that, too.

                If your point is that former U.S. administrations screwed over existing inhabitants even after the initial taking of the land, by failing even to live up to their (unjust) compensations, I’m still on board.

                If your point is that any just system of property rights would require recompense for all of those incidents, I think you’re stuck with an intractable construction problem.

                Rejecting any method of distributing property because it fails to address an intractable construction problem is just choosing to reject all methods of distributing property.

                In any event, one can agree that the United States owes some sort of reparations to people who were already here when Europeans showed up… without agreeing that the tribes justly are owed the entire continent, and that isn’t necessarily just a convenient misuse of property rights framework.Report

              • Sam in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


                I want to embrace how thoroughly you’ve responded. I also want to note that my point about bringing up native property claims isn’t so much that I think that New York City should be returned to those that were there first (although signed treaties should probably be honored, and if they’re not going to be, then payments should be made), but that it is funny how quickly a deep-seated belief in property rights disappears when historical injustice is brought up. We’re asked to believe, in essence, that property rights should begin RIGHT NOW, with everybody having what they have RIGHT NOW, and whatever happened before, even if it was yesterday, just doesn’t matter, because to upset things as they are RIGHT NOW, would be an even graver injustice.

                Elsewhere in this thread, Stillwater acknowledged that rights really only apply to some people, not to everybody, and although I’m not comfortable with the idea of using the term “rights” to describe things that apply to some but not others, I think it is a much more accurate way of discussing the topic.

                Needless to say, I’ll vote for you in the next election.Report

              • Kim in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Patrick, Brandon,
                You’ve heard of Pretty Bird Woman House?

                Those rapists, those arsonists aren’t exactly hypothetical.Report

              • Chris in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                I have issues with the temporal thing. Let’s imagine for a moment that a person, let’s call him Brandon, inherits property from his father. Brandon’s father acquired this property before Brandon was born, by killing your father and taking it. Do you have a claim to that property, even though it is now in Brandon’s hands, the perpetrator is dead, Brandon wasn’t even alive when the crime that ultimately led to his inheriting the property was committed, and you didn’t own the property at the time? What about if Brandon’s grandfather had killed your grandfather? His great grandfather? His great great grandfather? Where do we draw the line?Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


                I believe the answer is that we perversely decide that the beneficiary of the murder should get the spoils, and that the family of the victim is properly screwed. We then call this justice. It doesn’t look like it to me, but I’m the odd man out around here.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Elsewhere in this thread, Stillwater acknowledged that rights really only apply to some people, not to everybody,

                Subtle point: I didn’t acknowledge it so much as express my opinion about it. A natural rights theorist may/will dispute our views on this. I find those arguments unpersuasive, myself.Report

              • Chris in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Sam, I am agreeing with you.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:



                – How much of your wealth can be meaningfully traced back to your great great great grandfather?

                – How many generations must pass before you decide your argument no longer applies? I.e., the Ojibwa pushed the Sioux out of their lands, and the Sioux pushed the Blackfeet out of theirs. Does justice require that we give Wisconsin back to the Sioux? Do we need to give Britain back to the Anglo-Saxons and divest all people of Norman descent of their property? I’m all for repatriation of Nazi-looted art to its owners or their immediate descendants, but what if we discover a piece hanging in an obscure American museum 300 years from now–do we need to track down the great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren of the 1930s-era owner?

                -What about intellectual property? Does your focus on justice to the descendants of the property owner require a permanent inheritance of intellectual property? Given the amount of wealth that such property embodies, surely there’s no justice in ever depriving the creator’s descendants of that wealth and allowing others to co-opt it, right?Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Do you have a claim to that property, even though it is now in Brandon’s hands, the perpetrator is dead, Brandon wasn’t even alive when the crime that ultimately led to his inheriting the property was committed, and you didn’t own the property at the time? What about if Brandon’s grandfather had killed your grandfather? His great grandfather? His great great grandfather? Where do we draw the line?

                Exactly where we draw the line is unclear, and, I think, an issue where reasonable people can disagree. What is clear is that the line comes before the point where one of Brandon’s descendants sells the land at market value to an innocent third party, and enough generations have passed that it’s unlikely that the descendants of the original owners would have inherited anything anyway.

                It’s no less ridiculous to say that I should get some free land in Europe for being white. Surely at some point some of my ancestors must have been driven off their land.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


                1. I have no clue. But it probably doesn’t hurt that he was white, that his children were white and somewhat educated, that their children were white and very educated, that my parents then had me and could afford to live in neighborhoods with good schools and that those good schools gave me good opportunities and that those opportunities ended up producing a higher level of earning than I might have enjoyed otherwise. Do you disagree with that?

                2. I would argue that one place to start is honoring signed treaties/contracts and in places where doing so is practically impossible, translating those treaties/contracts into cold hard cash. Do you disagree with that?

                3. I’ll get back to you on intellectual property. That’s an interesting question.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                We’re asked to believe, in essence, that property rights should begin RIGHT NOW, with everybody having what they have RIGHT NOW, and whatever happened before, even if it was yesterday, just doesn’t matter, because to upset things as they are RIGHT NOW, would be an even graver injustice.

                I don’t think that very many people accept this as a reasonable baseline (although there’s certainly more of those types than there are people who honestly think all the white folk ought to pack up and leave the continent).

                Where, in fact, we set the lines is of course going to be a problem. Essentially we’re looking to correct (somewhat) for property entailment on the justice side, which were never addressed historically.

                I’m down with keeping this an open conversation.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


                If the point is that we cannot undo past injustice, then it seems like saying that systemic property rights begin today, with things as they are (and not how they were). Unless I’m missing something, doesn’t that excuse the crimes of the past by codifying them into the current distribution of property?Report

              • Mr. Blue in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                A long time back I read a really interesting libertarian piece that said, basically, before we get to a truly free-market economy, we might need to have a massive wealth redistribution first. Why? Because a lot of the people who are wealthy now got there by abusing the government. And if libertarians argue that government has been co-opted and abused by certain individuals for profit – which libertarians argue all the time – then the “reset button” can’t let all of them and their descendants keep their money.

                I don’t think it was well-received, but I thought it was pretty convincing. YMMV on how relevant you see this to the subject at hand.Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Mr. Blue:
                Because a lot of the people who are wealthy now got there by abusing the government.

                “A lot” is doing most of the heavy lifting there. A general redistribution could end up screwing over a lot of people who earned their money fair and square. The ratio of victims of a general-redistribution witch-hunt to actual witches is kind of an important issue that’s being glossed over here.

                Moreover, a general redistribution would result in a major hit to the nation’s capital stoc. With a huge amount of wealth being transferred from people with a high marginal propensity to save to people with a high marginal propensity to consume, huge amounts of real resources would be shifted from maintaining and building up the economy’s stock of physical capital to manufacture of consumption goods. This is a recipe for the mother of all booms followed by the mother of all busts.

                I’d support a government-crimes tribunal to identify people who actually did abuse government favors to get wealthy, confiscate their wealth, and hold it in trust to reduce future tax burdens. But that’s assuming that the tribunal is run by economically literate people who can actually tell the difference between abusing government favors and legitimate business. Fortunately, by postulating that libertarians will ever actually come to power, we’ve already conceded that assumptions need not be realistic.

                A general redistribution, though, to be divvied up equally and handed out to anyone just for being a citizen? That’s a terrible idea.Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Such a terrible idea, in fact, that if the government-crimes tribunal turned out not to be workable, I’d rather just let the bastards have their ill-gotten gains than go with the general redistribution.Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Sam, I think the temporal thing is relevant, and your responses to Brandon have been glossing that part over, when it’s sort of the most important part of his argument.

                I wouldn’t say that the issue is temporal as such. If humans lived forever, reparations would still be possible, and reasonable, after hundreds of years.Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Sam says:

                So if it happens to you and yours, it’s bad. If it happens to those people then, shrug.

                Congratulations on making my list of people with whom I’ve concluded that trying to have a serious argument is a category error. Give my regards to Schilling, Kimmi, and M. A.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                Motes, beams, etc.Report

              • Sam in reply to Brandon Berg says:


                Below, you implied that I’ve treated your arguments unfairly. Here, you get huffy and dismissive of me. Throughout this thread though, you’ve repeatedly argued that doing anything to fix the crimes of the past would be unconscionable. At the same time, I assume you’d never endure the same sort of treatment visited upon numerous native populations and, in fact, you’d howl with outrage if such a thing were suggested. Hell, even above you’re saying, “I’d rather just let the bastards have their ill-gotten gains than go with the general redistribution.” So you’re clearly doing what I explained that you were: tolerating past crimes while objecting to the possibility of current ones. So what gives? What’s your beef here?Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                Like I said, category error. You’ve repeatedly responded to me with dickish comments that fail to demonstrate even a rudimentary understanding of the points I’ve made, up to and including this latest comment. There are decent, intelligent leftists here like Stillwater and Michael Drew, but you are not one of them. I’m done.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                I’m not much of a leftist, really. Pretty agnostic at this point in my life re leftism versus market liberalism. Sympathetic to the values and priorities of the left and sort of nominally on that “team” for argumentative purposes usually, but not committed to any of its tenets and cognizant of the arguments of classical liberals and some libertarians. It hasn’t all shaken out yet for me.

                I do try to give the left-liberal viewpoint a decent voice here, because otherwise , despite some recent kvetching to the contrary,(and other than some other voices as you mention, Elias being an obvious one & Ethan another though he doesn’t argue a ton of political economy; maybe you weren’t) the classical/libertarian perspective would pretty much run the table here. (And that’s due to the quality of the arguments, no the number of people making them.) Perhaps I should relax about that, but generally I find leftism to be on its back foot around here, and just for the good of the discussion it seems worthwhile to clarify and try to improve the views that are given to represent it here. I’m also just interested in the freedom/justice dialectic as an intellectual question.

                Incidentally, Brandon, I’d be curious to know a tiny bit more about you.Report

              • Kim in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                75% of white wealth in America came from racist policies.
                If you’re trying to argue that 25% of something is equivalent to “I paid for it”, you’re a fool.Report

              • Roger in reply to Kim says:


                Which 75%?Report

              • Kim in reply to Roger says:

                Well, I can cite you “giveaway” laws that were racist in practice, cite you court cases where black people were being victimized due to racist policies.
                What would you like to know, sir?Report

              • Roger in reply to Roger says:

                I mainly want to see your math. I just ordered a new DAC for my music room. Which portions of it came from racist policies?Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:


                What people would like to know is that you actually have evidence to back up your very specific claims, and that you’re not simply pulling numbers out of your ass.Report

              • Kim in reply to Roger says:

                Yeah, there’s been research papers written about the topic. I can cite my sources, but those’ll be “I went here and listened to a scholarly lecture on the subject”. I could also refer folks to the dept. at the local uni that was sponsoring the lectures (anyone from the dept could cite you sources).

                Or I could look it up myself, online. Just like anyone else could.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

                Yeah, Kim, the problem is you always say “I could cite my sources,” but you never do.

                And then it’s “something I heard someone say,” which is both unverifiable and excessively reliant on human memory, which we know to be quite unreliable.

                In other words, you don’t actually have a source, so please quit claiming you do. If you have a source, just go ahead and fishing cite it already; and if you don’t have a source you can cite, then quit claiming you have a source.Report

              • Chris in reply to Roger says:

                75% of Sony’s tanks were acquired through racist policies.Report

              • Kim in reply to Roger says:

                Okay, just talk to Thomas Shapiro. If he didn’t actually write the paper I’m citing, he can point you to who did.

                Yes, human memory is fallible (in interesting and predictable ways!). Yes, I wrote blogs about this just a few days after I listened to the lecture.
                Yes, I may actually have the slides at home (somewhere!)Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

                Yeah, well, a cursory JStor search doesn’t turn up anything remotely like what you claimed. Nor does a cursory Google search.

                In the absence of some real evidence of there being any such claim, and that claim based on some real evidence, I’m calling bullshit.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Roger says:

                I am entirely willing to believe that Kim is not pulling her numbers out of her ass, but is instead pulling them out of the ass of some researcher she heard speak one time. (Really!)Report

              • Kim in reply to Roger says:

                The primary vehicle for wealth acquisition and transfer of wealth from one generation to the next is housing.
                As such, some simple work on the Homestead Act and on FHA loans should give you all the evidence you need. (I had a former city councilman describe what the demolition of the Lower Hill District was like — blacks funneled towards “public housing” and whites given homes through FHA. There’s not just statistical evidence that policy in particular was racist. The actual guidelines were explicitly racist).

                Now if you want to bring up other forms of wealth acquisition and passing-it-down, we can discuss how racist the policies were, and how much of the wealth was as a result of racist policies.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

                Nobody here is arguing there haven’t been racist policies that affect wealth. We’re questioning the specificity of your 75% claim.

                And that’s the last I’ll say about it. I’ve already devoted more time to dealing with the spewing of bullshit than any sensible person ever would. The onus is on you–you made the claim, you demonstrate it; you don’t tell others to look it up or to do the research themselves. That’s the position of the bullshit artist.Report

              • Kim in reply to Roger says:

                Shapiro’s written a book “The hidden cost of being African American”
                Now, I’m not going to pretend I read the whole book (just listened to the man speak).
                But, if you’re interested in the propagation of wealth inequality, you might want to take a look at it.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        If the original inhabitants of the land were still alive, then I’d say by all means give them their land back, but things being as they are, it seems pretty obvious to me that the former is the greater wrong.

        Such actions might well be more unjust than the current arrangement. But the point of this argumentation is rarely to argue for attempts to right historical wrongs in property attainment with wholesale redistribution of real property between perceived victims or their descendants and perceived undeserving beneficiaries or theirs. The point is just to argue for restraint and attenuation of moral claims to property stemming from the system of property rights protection that we have today, which protects the patterns of ownership that have resulted from those initial (I’ll throw a generous “arguably” in here) unjust patterns of holdings.

        If we agree that our property rights system has value essentially as an instrument that provides the certainty, clarity, and stability that are needed to create the confidence to allow trading in land to go forward in an efficient and productive way, then we should agree that our moral claims to the property we hold goes only that far. If I steal a bike from you and sell it to a third party, that person’s claim to it might be stronger than mine was before I took his money for it, but neither of our claims to it are as strong as yours is. If we admit that current holdings claims have come into being through a pattern of trading that descended from no just initial starting point, but instead from a grossly unjust one, then we should be modest about the moral claims we make about fundamental rights not to have our duly-gotten property separated from us by public processes. property rights go as far as they do. But they go as far as the government says they do. It’s unclear how much farther they go. (This is something I don’t understand about claims that property rights are somehow the most fundamental rights. No one can literally take away your ability to fall on your knees and pray to exactly the god(s) you want to pray to, or to open your mouth and speak the words you want to say. They can try to punish you for it, but finally, you can do what you want and accept a bullet for it. It doesn’t seem like you can get more fundamental than that. In contrast, people can take away your stuff. You can try to stop them, but you can also fail. And once you fail, property rights come down to a question about what is going to be done about it in whatever regime (or lack thereof) is in place then and there. So property rights do, it seems to me, depend fundamentally on what those in power say about them, and about who has what rights to what.)

        I certainly understand the desire to say that property rights, if not as fundamental as opening your mouth and speaking, are still more fundamental (“pre-political”) than just whatever the government says about them. A pioneer goes out onto the open land, surveys it & settles it; builds on it. How is his claim to that building and that land not more fundamental than what a governor may or may not say about it? Well, they may be. But iy may be that that land was not rightly whose ever he bought it from, or whose ever gave it to him (authorities being in a position to *give away* land, which was not infrequently how titles were initially come by in the American west if I am not mistaken, should arch our eyebrows to begin with…). If that was the case too much in the initial disposition of propty titles, then that throws into question the moral status of claims that developed from that initial plans. Not so much that we need to seriously consider remedial transfers, but perhaps, again, only so much as to make us somewhat modest about what kinds of strong moral claims being in possession of title to property puts us in a position to make about that property. Like, perhaps claims that our title to the property gives us license t claim that taxation of it, periodically or at bequeathment, is somehow an infringement of a strong fundamental moral claim to be entitled to the full use of the property and all the benefits flowing naturally therefrom.

        On the other hand, if you want to claim that holdings patterns were always for the most part just, or just enough, not to throw the whole idea that moral rights in property are fairly directly reflected in current official title holdings patterns into serious question, well, that can certainly be your position. Or, you can deny that the injustice of an anitial patter of holdings degrades over time like a clump of radioactive isotope such that, slowly, moral claims resore themselves (and that we’ve largely reached a place where official holdings more or less reflect real moral claims to property).

        Just the one thing I’d prefer you not to say, unless you really mean it, is that, because it would indeed be unjust and likely impossible to redistribute current holdings a way that fairly redressed harms of decades or centuries past, that those initial unjust patterns of holding exert no moral force on moral claims about present holdings. Our moral claims to our present holdings go as far as they do (perhaps frequently further than just so far as the government says they do), but we need to be a little modest about how far they do go, because it is very open to question how just the underlying holdings – both the initial ones and the ones that have evolved via transactions and transfers – actually are.Report

    • rexknobus in reply to Sam says:

      I shouldn’t do this…but…

      Here comes a spectacularly “privileged western civilization white guy” comment: I would be much more sympathetic to native american claims of land ownership if they had surveyed their lands, created deeds for their lands, bought/sold/traded their lands with signatures on pieces of paper, etc. Perhaps some nations did (I’m by no means knowledgable in the field), but I’ve never heard of it. Can anyone fill me in on facts here?

      And, for the record, feel free to slag me in any way that feels good. I know the comment is incendiary.Report

      • Sam in reply to rexknobus says:

        You could have saved time by writing, “It’s their fault they weren’t more European, not mine.” That’s the position you’re taking implies.Report

      • Kim in reply to rexknobus says:

        “bought/sold/traded their lands with signatures on pieces of paper, etc. ”
        This was done in pennsylvania. People bought XYZ land from the Natives (as far as a scout can run in a day, I think it was… and then the Europeans basically improved the land in order to run farther).Report

      • James Hanley in reply to rexknobus says:

        I won’t slag you, because there’s a reasonable point underlying your comment. I just think it’s a bit overbroad.

        The property rights systems that Native American nations had–and each culture had developed distinct understandings of property rights, so there was no single “Indian conception” of property–functioned well for them prior to the European invasion. In each tribe the rights were well-developed and individual claims were well known and enforceable. What they weren’t is recorded in writing because they hadn’t developed writing yet.

        It’s doubtful whether Europeans would have respected any documented-in-writing claims anyway, but in the absence of such documentation they felt particularly free to co-opt the land. It’s not simply that they used the lack of documentation as thin cover, but that their understandings of property were so over-determined by their familiarity with Western European conventions that they literally could not understand that there were in fact property rights claims that were enforceable within those native societies.

        Ironically, those who today criticize the European invaders attitudes toward property commit the same fallacy, shifting it slightly from “un-owned” to “communally owned,” but still failing to recognize that there were real enforceable individual rights, just within a differing structure of what would be considered a legitimate right.

        For example, Iroquois had private hunting territories. Others had a sort of easement right to cross those territories to get to their own hunting territory, but could not hunt at them. Some West Coast tribes had similar arrangements regarding fishing spots. Some cultures even had intellectual property rights–my battle song, for example, was mine and if you sang it I would be justified in retaliating against you, but I could transfer the right to you in exchange for something else of value, will it to my child, or even just gift it to you.

        So these systems worked fine for the societies using them. They just weren’t robust against competition from the European system.Report

      • rexknobus in reply to rexknobus says:

        thanks for the replies. I did not mean to imply that the European invasion of the continent would have gone any differently. I was only speaking to my own feelings. And I also understand that there was a wide range of nations existing on the two American continents in 1491 (and before). And I have been told (and quite willingly believe) that 100% of the treaties (i.e., European-style white guy pieces of paper) that the European invaders signed with native populations were broken, ignored, etc.

        Sam: I would say: “It’s their misfortune that they had no resistance to new diseases, and did not have the wherewithal to unite and resist the invasion.” That can, indeed, be translated to “it’s their fault they weren’t more European,” but I like my version better.Report

      • MikeSchilling in reply to rexknobus says:

        The Trail of Tears argues that it wouldn’t have done a damned bit of good.

        Also, as a point of interest (not a criticism), this is exactly the argument that Negro League players don’t belong in the Hall of Fame: since their leagues weren’t as organized and didn’t do the same level of record-keeping, we don’t have the stats to see who should be in and who out. (That was particularly hypocritical, considering the number of members whose main qualification is “was a buddy of Frankie Frisch”. And yes, Mr. Kelly, I’m looking at you.)Report

        • rexknobus in reply to MikeSchilling says:

          damn, I would really hate to have anything that I say being construed as an argument in favor of baseball apartheid.

          For the record, the European invasion of the Americas was one of the world’s Great Tragedies. It was not (is not) the only Great Tragedy this world has seen, but it is truly one of the biggies. Given the historical realities of the time (everything from medical knowledge to religious feelings to the accidents of technology and exploration/exploitation) I feel that it was a completely non-avoidable tragedy. I don’t really see how it could or would have played out much differently.

          As with a great many Human Great Tragedies, it fits into a conversation about property rights rather well, but discussing it is not condoning it.Report

  9. James K says:

    I think the phrase “inherent right” is doing a lot of work here. What is an inherent right? How do you decide whether a right is inherent or not? For most of history free speech and association (and voting, for that matter) were considered more corrosive to social harmony than you feel property rights are, so what is your underlying principle here?

    I tend to be an instrumentalist when it comes to rights, so I tend to think in terms of useful (or not) rather than inherent (or not). And property rights are definitely useful, without them any kind of economic progress is basically impossible. Sovereignty is a bit of a different issue, and I don’t think it has any necessary relationship to property rights. While rulership used to be a property of ownership, they have been decoupled for quite some time now.Report

  10. The word you are looking for is not “imaginary,” but “conventional.”

    Property rights as we perform them in society are conventions. The goal of these conventions is to enable individuals to lead secure and dignified lives with a reasonable chance of securing material safety, comfort, and happiness.

    But if you’re going to insist on “imaginary,” very well then — I imagine that I, and not you, are the owner of your stuff.

    Who’s to judge between us? Someone else, who is also imagining? No good can come of that….Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      “Conventional” is a bit ambiguous in meaning.

      We don’t have to stick with an adjective. How about just, “Property rights are conventions”? Jonathan could then decide whether he wants to add in an editorial “mere” in the appropriate syntactical place…Report

      • That be a good way to present it, and I probably would add in the “mere”.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

          I’d urge you not to add in the “mere.” We are a social species, and we live in close proximity in large numbers. Conventions are absolutely critical to relatively peaceful and cooperative co-existence. That doesn’t mean any particular convention, or set of them, can’t be questioned and changed (in fact most of them continually evolve over time), but I’d argue there’s nothing “mere” about them.Report

        • Roger in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

          Yet a “mere” convention would be one which is not useful or beneficial, on net. History and economics offer overwhelming arguments against that position.

          Property rights are useful conventions which solve a particular set of problems for social beings. They are not imaginary. They are not mere. They are pretty much essential for people in larger and more complex societies to thrive. Indeed they are so essential, that they are best viewed as intrinsically sacrosanct.Report

          • Kim in reply to Roger says:

            pish. property rights are best viewed as just another value, one that we trim at our convenience, and will continue to do so until it becomes nothing terribly special.Report

          • Sam in reply to Roger says:

            They’re exceedingly useful conventions to those with the guns and the strength to enforce them. They’re not nearly as useful otherwise.Report

            • James K in reply to Sam says:

              But that’s true of law generally. Are you proposing anarchy?Report

            • James Hanley in reply to Sam says:

              So do you think I, a rather privileged white guy, can go to the other side of town and just waltz into some unarmed old poor black lady’s house and take what I find without facing retribution?Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to James Hanley says:

                You’d have a much easier time of doing so than she would to you.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

                Sam, we all know the world’s not a perfect place, but your argument was that property rights are particularly useful to folks like me, rather than the old lady. Now consider, the old lady has very little to begin with, while I have comparatively lots. I could take a much larger portion of what property she owns than she could take of what I own. She may not even own the house–all her wealth could be in her furniture and a few pieces of jewelry, while I not only own my house, but have other real estate and lots of paper wealth. If I robbed her dwelling of everything in it, I might take all she owns. If she robbed my dwelling of everything in it I’d mostly be mightily inconvenienced.

                Now, which one of us has the comparatively greater protection from each other through the existence of property rights, given that in the absence of enforcement I could steal much more of her wealth than she could ever steal of mine?

                Also considering she’s unarmed and old, in the absence of law generally, which one of us do you think presents more of a real threat to the other? Sure, she might bang me in the legs with her walker, but I can retaliate with a 2×4, baseball bat, hockey stick, automobile, etc.

                I think you are approaching everything through the assumption that every social structure that exists self-evidently fucks over the underprivileged to some vast degree. In so doing you completely lose the ability to actually analyze those social structures in a meaningful way, and to ask what effects they really have.Report

              • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

                I’m approaching it from a different perspective: that the social structure that exists is self-evidently tilted in a very big degree towards the rich.

                You don’t seem to take it as a given that you could forcibly/fraudulently take that woman’s wealth, in our society. Fraudulent loans took many an old woman’s house.
                As to force? I don’t doubt that you’d have trouble. I do doubt that richer people would have trouble.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to James Hanley says:


                And I’m arguing that you could do whatever you wanted to that little old poor black lady’s property and face far fewer repercussions (or, at the very least, be able to manage those repercussions far better) than she could if she did whatever she wanted to yours.Report

              • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

                I don’t believe you rise to that level of privilege.
                Those who do? Yup.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Kim says:

                Wait, an upper middle class caucasian white-collar professional doesn’t rise to that level of privilege?

                Do you think Bill Gates would? I don’t.

                So let’s think about that. That means through law we’ve managed to shrink the pool of people who are that privilege down to some pretty damned small numbers. That’s a hell of an achievement in the long history of the world, isn’t it?Report

              • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

                Gates is a good guy, from what I can see.
                Not everybody as rich as him is as decent. And even the nice “rich bastards” tend to hold a grudge (*cough* Rooneys *cough*).

                Your point is well made — if you believe it. I believe that sheriffs can be bought for a hell of a lot less than you think (particularly in certain places).

                I might have mentioned a very curious game, that’s called “burn the house down” (it’s done for amusement).

                I could also mention a different curious game, it’s called “rob the tourists blind” (local kids breaking into locked up for the winter residences).

                How much of this is done under the knowing eye of the law? defacto legally? Not sure, really.Report

            • Mr. Blue in reply to Sam says:

              Sam, it seems to me that the advantage of the current system, government-enforced property protection, is that it doesn’t require guns in later modern times. It requires money and lawyers. Which isn’t ideal, but better than guns, I think.

              But let’s assume that you have godlike powers. What kind of system would you sketch out? Then, what solution do you think we should pivot to without godlike powers?Report

          • Jonathan McLeod in reply to Roger says:

            That’s not how I would define “mere”, at least not in this context. As mentioned above, I would use it as a counterweight to the idea of property “rights” being some sort of unassailable holy grail.

            The discussion around the inclusion of property rights in Canada’s charter (for instance) has definitely seen a lot of people putting far more value on property rights than one would likely put on a (mere) convention.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

              Understood, but the trick is ensuring that other people understand your intended meaning, and I doubt the likelihood of that.

              I think the word “convention” all by itself is a sufficient counterweight to the idea that something is unassailable. If you doubt me, go find some natural law property rights enthusiasts and yell, “property rights are social conventions!”

              Then write a post about how you escaped alive (assuming you do). 😉Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

                It can be tricky to get others to understand one’s meaning. Whether for Jonathan to get his meaning across it would have been better to include mere or not seems like something there just might not be one right answer to – it depends on the audience, and just what he would have wanted to say about property rights being conventions. If his point was to say that they are conventions and not magical properties, it seems reasonable for him to think it was a good idea not to leave it short and exclude mere. (Another option I just thought of would be to say that they “are merely conventions,” I suppose modifies their state of being rather than the things themselves, which i think is closer to what’s at issue here.) It’s also reasonable for you to think that that meaning would have been sufficiently conveyed while leaving out mere. But in ant case, what I do think Jonathan would have been right to think is that, when the context rather clearly indicates the distinction he is trying to make, that it would take a motivated reading to read his “mere conventions” as “conventions of little positive value to society.” I think it’s fair to suspect that had he left it at “property rights are conventions,” those who say they tend to read the “mere” as an assertion of low value probably would have found a way to say that Jonathan’s statement that property rights are conventions didn’t convey the proper degree of estimation for the value that those conventions have, or in any case found a way to put forward their view of their value. That’s because that’s a substantive question that endures on its own, not an artifact of language.

                But the thing is, this all leaves the trick as being getting the listener to understand one’s meaning on the first try. And that is indeed a tricky trick to pull off. But there aren’t that many settings in which a discussion is constrained to that first try, and this id definitely not one of them. A big part of the point of this place is for all of us to engage in an iterative process that helps to work all this out. So it’s not really that big a deal if he wasn’t precisely perfect in choosing his words to be unambiguously understood on first interactions with them. We can try to get the basic idea idea across in the first exchange, and then refine as we go on. And anyone who’s not on board with that really isn’t on board with the general modus operandi of this whole site. There’s a reason Jonathan chooses to engage here and not in places dominated by natural law property rights enthusiasts, and I think it’s the same reason we all do.Report

          • Michael Drew in reply to Roger says:

            a “mere” convention would be one which is not useful or beneficial, on net.

            I don’t believe that’s what the word must mean, especially when it’s clearly being used to say “this thing is a convention and not something else much grander.” It can still be useful, even very useful, even critical to societal success.

            Conventions generally tend to have their reasons for existing – their uses. I maintain that, strictly, saying something is a “mere” convention is not necessarily commenting on its value, though I don’t take issue with believing that it connotes a lower appreciation for it’s value. But I do take issue with insisting that it explicitly denotes low value, especially if the speaker denies that meaning. One can say something is a mere convention rather than, say, a divine property while not saying it isn’t a valuable convention.Report

    • Yeah, but “conventional” is far less confrontational than “imaginary”.Report

      • Chris in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

        I think Jason’s right, though. “Imaginary” may be more confrontational, but it’s also much less accurate.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Chris says:

          For some ideas about what rights, including property rights, are (and not particularly uncommon ones), “imaginary” is not a less accurate descriptor of that kind of thing than “conventional.”Report

          • Chris in reply to Michael Drew says:

            I don’t think that’s true. Rights are real in the sense that any convention that has an impact on people’s lives is real. If nothing else, they’re real in a functional sense. “Imaginary” implies unreal. This is not to say that they aren’t human creations, just that those creations cease to be merely “imaginary” when they start to do things.Report

            • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:

              To say that something is a human creation — and thus that it’s not really worth what we think it is — strikes me as a colossal act of question-begging.

              Driving on the right side of the road is conventional. It’s also a good idea, given — ahem — the nature of automobiles.

              Enacting a regime of relatively stable and secure property rights is conventional. It’s also a good idea, given the nature of human economic activity, and the incentives that will either cause people to produce wealth, or not.

              This is why I’m grudgingly happy with the both/and approach to the question of whether property rights are natural or conventional. Conventions can either be set up to reflect how we are, our character and tendencies, or not. Property rights are one convention that I think really do reflect our nature.

              I reject the word imaginary for a reason that hasn’t been articulated here yet. In the realm of the imaginary, we have only aesthetic values to guide us, and there is no way to settle a dispute over tastes. In the realm of convention, there may be disputes — indeed, of course there are — but there are also settled and unproblematic areas, and in those areas, we can get down to the business of making things, trading them, and enjoying the fruits of our labor.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I don’t buy all this “nature of automobiles” crap. Automobiles are socially constructed.


              • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I’m not sure if you’re replying to me or just using what I said as a launching point, but in case it’s the former, I want to point out that nothing I said implies that something “isn’t worth what we think it is” because it’s a human creation.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Property rights. Heh. In a property rights dispute, the guy with the better lawyer always wins. If property rights are so “conventional”, why was the Dred Scott decision based on property law? How about that for a convention which reflects our true nature?Report

              • Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

                In what sort of legal dispute does “the guy with the better lawyer” not generally win?Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

                Shrug. I’ll stipulate to the need for good lawyers. But let’s not play silly games here with Unalienable Rights. Rights of any sort are moot if they are not enforced. If ever there was a tree that fell in the forest and nobody heard it, it’s some jamoke turning up in court pro-se trying to fight an easement.Report

              • Just Me in reply to Chris says:

                I have heard of people defending themselves and winning. Granted that is anecdotal. I don’t think they qualify as the better lawyer. Just that they had a better case.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I’ll take the guy with the better lawyers over the guy who is better at killing and maiming. It’s a narrow win, but it’s still a win.

                Why was Dred Scott based on property law? I’m not sure I understand the relevance of the question. The decision was based on property law because at the time, the conventional property law of the United States allowed slavery.

                That was wrong — of course — and I resent your implication that I’m supportive of slavery. That’s just beneath you.

                When I say a thing is conventional, I am certainly not saying it’s perfect, let alone that it’s always and everywhere a perfect reflection of our nature.

                That we can improve on it, however, is important. And we certainly should, as we did. That’s one of the great things about a convention — we can always improve on it.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I’m not saying anything about what you support. The Thirteenth Amendment had not been passed when Dred Scott was decided and slaves were property.

                As such, property rights, for all the foo-foo dust the Libertarians have been throwing around, property rights are in fact imaginary. Completely bogus. Since Kelo, we know the score. Rights are nothing without enforcement. It’s the enforcement mechanisms which matter, the title deeds, the vehicle registration, the bills of sale, the treaties and all the other mountains of documents we use to prove we own anything in life. We get to keep what’s ours because we can prove it.

                Napoleon sells the Louisiana Purchase to Jefferson because he’d just conquered Spain. Nobody asked those damned old Injuns what they thought about their land being sold out from under them. The deed to your property, show me its provenance and I’ll show you some completely arbitrary decision made by someone with the power to enforce his writ. Didn’t Brother Likko lay this out in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee?

                Who gets to say Justice Taney was wrong in Dred Scott. You and me, sitting here at our desks in 2013, with our notions about humans-as-property? I don’t think so. We work with the light we are given in our times. You think about the incentives that will either cause people to produce wealth … and I think about the or not part of your statement. If ever there was a monstrous load of begged question, it is property law. Contained within its doctrines is a term of art force majeure which sums up its nature entirely. Your right to property is only as sound as the bulwarks which keep someone else from seizing it.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Given the choice between “might makes right” and “foo-foo dust,” I shall happily wallow in the latter.

                Do you really mean to say that whoever has greater force of arms is the more justified? Because that’s all that your posturing here amounts to.

                Of course rights are unenforceable without enforcement. That’s true, but it’s also a tautology. Its says nothing about which among various competing rights claims deserves priority, if we are in a position to choose. And yet that latter question is what we — the wallowers in foo-foo dust — are trying to settle over here.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Do you really mean to say that whoever has greater force of arms is the more justified?

                Stop begging questions. Just replace “force of arms” with “force of law” and you’ll get back on track. Of course law is a tautology. It derives its power from those wonderful euphemisms, “law enforcement” and “justice system”.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

                There is no sense in which I have begged any questions here.

                Or at the very least you have failed utterly to demonstrate one.

                I’ve asked if your position does not boil down to “might makes right.” It seems to me that it does.

                If you can explain how or where you disagree with the idea that might makes right, then you will have answered my challenge, and I will stand corrected. Gladly, even, because I’d hate to think that a person of your intelligence would subscribe to a juvenile moral theory like that one.

                If you can’t, then we’re at an impasse. What you are writing here certainly looks to me like “might makes right,” gussied up with a whole bunch of poetry to be sure, but still. There it is, all the same.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Sorry to jump in Jason/BlaiseP, but I’ll happily argue that right or wrong has nothing to do with it: might makes reality. What does it matter what the underpinnings are? Might made the United States what it is today; might made the Native Populations leave or die; might protected the property rights of some at the expense of others. Not only that, but you’re going to bat for this idea if your comments here are any indication.

                Or do you believe that Native Populations should get back what was stolen from them?Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Force of arms is question-begging and you know it. Force of arms could also imply I am at liberty to drive my neighbour off his land, which we did as a matter of course, going back to Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee.

                I have furnished enough examples, most pointedly at the property rights of a slave owner, to which you took considerable umbrage. You know perfectly well the Thirteenth Amendment hadn’t been passed and Justice Taney observed that fact. I quoted him. I furthermore pointed out the absurdity of buying property from the Native Peoples on the basis of broken treaties. You will not now say I am posturing.

                You’re the one who hasn’t made his case, Jason, you and your obtuse questioning of what’s relevant. As for what’s beneath me, just quit rolling your eyes and condescending to me. As for what’s beneath you, you don’t have a leg to stand on.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Force of arms is question-begging and you know it. Force of arms could also imply I am at liberty to drive my neighbour off his land, which we did as a matter of course, going back to Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee.

                Not so. If force of arms is all it takes for you, Blaise, to sit back and say that justice was done — then you speak for yourself.

                It is what you’ve said, repeatedly. Anything else is mere foo-foo dust for you.

                I’m just wondering if you realize the implications of it.

                Sam Wilkinson says that “might makes reality,” and I of course would not deny it. The questions of moral philosophy — as I’ve already said — are not about which things determine reality on the ground.

                For philosophers, the questions are more like: If I were at liberty to choose, which course would I choose, and what would my justifications be?

                Those are both interesting questions, and no amount of table-pounding about greater force of arms is going to change that. The debate is as old as the one between Socrates and Thrasymachus, but Socrates did win it decisively.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Well, Sam, I take the position that property rights are existential constructs. Despite its pejorative overtones, the word Absurd must be applied to property rights: our rights are not predicated on any underlying reality. Natural Rights are an ignis fatuus. Our rights are Entirely Artificial, the product of legislation, itself the product of human judgement, laws enforced by a justice system which applies those laws to human conflict.

                Good government applies Equal Justice Under Law. Natural Rights attempts to put Equal Law Under Justice.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Just to be clear, you saying something is conventional, and you saying it’s a convention: samesies?Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Yes. I’ll be posting a reply to the original post, and to several comments in this thread, where I’ll expand on what I believe it means. But I never intended a distinction between the two of them.Report

              • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Also, I think your “aesthetic” vs. empirical standards is related to my point about why “conventional” is more accurate than “imaginary” (which I think is your point as well): imaginary things are only evaluable by aesthetic criteria because they have no practical impact, and therefore no empirical basis for evaluation. Conventions have practical effects, and can therefore be evaluated by looking at what they do.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:

                Yes. And my comment at 9:10 was not by way of disagreeing with you. I think we are very close to completely agreeing here, in fact.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Add me in on your perfect/near-perfect agreement. I think there’s no real disputing that property rights are social conventions, but social conventions that are found in all cultures throughout human history. When anthropologists occasionally claim that culture X does not have private property, they are engaging in a combination of over-romanticism and superficial comparison to the modern western convention of property.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to James Hanley says:

                I would add only that some conventions are more or less in tune with deeply ingrained or even innate aspects of human life and economic activity. Others are downright destructive. No society anywhere makes a convention of toasting special occasions with cyanide.

                Property rights are a useful convention because they allow for the possibility of economic coordination. In this, they are just as human — and just as natural — as the use of language, which one can declare either natural or artificial, depending on where the line is drawn. That line itself is rather conventional, is it not?Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Agreed. It is in our nature to make conventions, but what types of conventions we tend to make also draws from our nature, and particularly the interaction of that human nature with the relevant environment (which can be, variously and as an integrated system, the natural ecology, our social ecology, and inter-tribal/national ecology).Report

              • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

                I’d disagree about how natural property rights are, while noting that they are universal, at least in some abstract form.

                Also, I think many of us non-libertarians on the left would make a distinction between property and possession, and also between different sorts of ownership (for example, owning a burger is different from owning a car, which is in turn different from owning a piece of land).Report

              • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

                I’d also note that language is “natural” (in fact, hard-wired to some extent, even if you’re not a Chomskyan), while languages are constructed. I’m not sure there’s an analogy to this in property, though perhaps ownership is “natural,” while certain conventions built on top of an innate conception of ownership are constructed, with one of the emergent concepts of those constructed conventions is our concept of property.Report

              • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

                Humans are just a bunch of hairy apes with pretensions of grandeur. They no more wish to look at what is innate within themselves, than to see what is innate in others.

                To what extent morality itself is unnatural? I wonder…

                We make conventions because we are innately game-playing beasts, and we have an innate liking for human company. If the game wasn’t any good, people simply wouldn’t play Civilization.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Property rights are socially sanctioned rights to specific uses of specific resources. That’s a coinage of my own, back from when I was actually focusing on this stuff.

                The “socially sanctioned” gets at the issue of property rights being conventions.

                The “specific uses of specific resources” gets at the different sorts of ownership. For example, I don’t “own” my office–the Dean or President of my school can boot me out at any time. But I have some set of recognizable rights to it–I can boot out other people.

                This is why we can have legally enforceable naming rights to stadiums, or private easement rights over other people’s property. The variety of ways in which the “bundle of sticks” (not my coinage; a common one in law and political theory) that we call property rights can be bundled and unbundled and differently bundled is effectively infinite.

                If we can focus on it from that functional perspective we can stop worrying about things like property v. possession and other philosophical and moral irrelevancies. Possession is just a potential stick in the bundle that any society may or may not respect as part of the bundle.

                Your property rights are those things your society agrees you have a right to do with certain resources. No more, no less. The only real interest is in comparative property rights–how do different cultures structure the allowable bundles differently, why do they do so, and what are the effects of different bundles?

                Pardon me if I sound a bit crabby throughout this thread–I find 90% of what people argue about property–from both the left and right–thoroughly superficial and moralistic.Report

              • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

                The only real interest is in comparative property rights–how do different cultures structure the allowable bundles differently, why do they do so, and what are the effects of different bundles?

                Those questions admit so many possible answers that that “only real interest” is a pretty big one.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                I’d also note that language is “natural” (in fact, hard-wired to some extent, even if you’re not a Chomskyan), while languages are constructed.

                There is an analog to this in property (although probably not so age-specific as language acquisition). Individual self-interest requires some degree of control over one’s environment, which requires some degree of demand that others respect one’s control over the environment* to some extent. Being social requires some degree of cooperation with others, such as recognizing (to some extent) their claims of control over the environment (to some extent) in exchange for their recognizing (to some extent) our claims of control over the environment. Theories of interacting individual and group selection provide a sound theoretical foundation for suspecting this to be the case.

                Logically, it’s difficult to see how we could have become a eusocial species without having evolved an inherent tendency toward such demands and recognitions. That we find some rudimentary analogs in closely related primate species and variants of such structures in all human societies is strong suggestive, although not conclusive.
                *Environment is used very broadly here–that piece of bone that I use as a rudimentary fishhook is part of my environment, or at least a tool that helps me exert some degree of control over the environment, via the capture of fish.Report

              • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

                James, yeah, that’s what I was trying to get at with the analogy to ownership rather than to property (though perhaps possession might still be a better word than ownership).Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                The phrase “Natural Language” probably belongs over on Dr. Saunders’ Merriam-Webster post.

                Language is completely artificial if it is to communicate. The very act of falsifying a statement, the usual eviction notice for bad science and weak thinking, requires semantic definitions of terms. Language can be subsumed into protocol: agreed-upon syntactic structures, domain applicability, transport, acknowledgement — things that end in P are good, like TCP. Things than end in A are less-good: A stands for Architectures as in CORBA.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


                I think I mostly agree with you, although I wonder if there’s still not a bit of reification of “property” there. Property is the bundle of sticks society recognizes you as having. Possession may or may not be one of them. The ones they recognize are the ones you “own.” We do get possession and ownership confused, probably because of our concept of fee simple ownership, which is very useful in law but fuzzes the extra-legal analysis a bit.

                Those questions admit so many possible answers that that “only real interest” is a pretty big one.

                Exactly! There’s many and many a career’s worth of study there, if we can just get people to focus on that instead of masturbating over the concept of justice. (Not that justice is wholly irrelevant; but of course neither are any of the other things that lead folks to masturbate.)Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to James Hanley says:

                (…neither are any of the other things that lead folks to masturbate.)

                Am I to take this as some sort of assault on my beloved Franke Potente? Because I won’t have it sir. I WON’T HAVE IT.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


                Are you familiar with Chomsky’s arguments about language (from back when he was doing real work, instead of posing as a political theorist and playing public pseudo-intellectual)? If so, do you reject them?Report

              • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

                I don’t think that wordplay is artificial. I think it’s something strangely innate within us.
                Even languages built without the ability to communicate to others have it, after all.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Franke Potente is not wholly irrelevant.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                @James Hanley: I had a 9:00 class in Anatomy and Physiology and an 11:00 class in Linguistics with a Chomsky-ite. When we got to the structures of the brain, especially Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area, I thought “Ah! Chomsky’s language organ!”

                I went on to work with creole languages and trade languages, where neither speaker is using his own native language but a demotic variant understandable to both. To make things easier on myself, I concentrated on Hausa and French, languages I spoke well enough to sort out how reduction grammars were applied. Turns out lots of demotic languages simplify grammar along the same lines.

                Chomsky’s argument for a Universal Grammar began to erode in the face of the evidence. Chomsky’s linguistics sorta remind me a bit of Galileo’s simplification of what Copernicus was saying about the motion of the planets. Galileo wanted the orbits to be perfectly circular, though Copernicus’ data said they had to be ellipses. Galileo, for all his science would tell us about the moon, didn’t understand how the moon created tides. And thus it was with Chomsky and me. Chomsky was just too dogmatic, a bit like the Queen of Hearts: sentence first, verdict after. And with Chomsky, it was “sentence” first.Report

              • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

                James, I actually don’t buy the poverty of stimulus argument, or the idea of an innate language faculty, or any of Chomsky’s iterations of universal grammar (I’d be lying if I said I understand the minimalist program, but I think so would most people, including perhaps Chomsky himself). That said, I don’t think there’s any denying that, at some basic level, language is innate and “natural” in a narrow sense. I’m not quite sure what Blaise is getting at with his comment.

                Also, I think that this type of “natural” fits pretty well with an abstract conception of ownership. I know there are some people doing empirical work on this, but I don’t know that work very well.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to James Hanley says:

                Property is the bundle of sticks society recognizes you as having.

                See, property is fascism.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Mike Schilling wins the thread.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


                Leaving aside the details of Chomsky’s grammar arguments (which I won’t pretend to know well enough to discuss meaningfully), I’m not sure how language could be innate without some kind of innate language faculty. But we’ll set that aside for another day.

                (P.S. have you read Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind?)Report

              • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

                James, I haven’t read the book, but I know a bit about Kanzi.

                By language faculty, I mean something specific, namely a module devoted specifically to language, that exists as such in our genetic blueprint. I mostly mean that I don’t think the brain works quite like that. Instead, it co-opts a bunch of other stuff (areas associated with motor functions, e.g.) and produced language in a (neurologically) distributed way. This is a real point of contention within the cognitive sciences, but probably doesn’t matter in any discussion of a “language faculty” that’s not meant to make any neuroscientific claims (like, say, the one we’re having).Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                @Chris: Disputing the basis for Chomsky’s linguistics is difficult — if I want to be fair to what Chomsky actually said. We’ve all heard of Piaget, I suppose, and his theories about child learning. Lev Vygosky had different theories, especially about how a child learns in a cultural context.

                Chomsky had an awful lot to say about children. None of it was based on research on how children actually acquire language. They were based on what his wife had to say about it, based on how children learn to read. As a developmental psychologist, Noam Chomsky was completely out of his depth and most of his Universal Grammar stuff is based on terribly shoddy research.

                Babies cry because they can’t speak yet. Children quickly master language because they get things they want if they know the words for them. Everyone calls up Grandma when the child says “Ma-ma” or “Da-da”, oh it’s such an important milestone. But they don’t call Grandma when the child utters his first word. And that word is always “NO!”Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


                OK, I get that. I really look forward to the cog/neuro folks sorting that out, hopefully in the near future.

                My hunch is they’ll find a fair amount of modularity with lots of distributed processes co-opting those modules. Not because I’m particularly knowledgeable about cognitive architecture, or because I think split-the-difference is the answer to every question, but because that’s the basic model that physiological evolution seems to follow.

                So hang onto that prediction and hopefully before we both die we can see whether or not I was close to the mark.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                But they don’t call Grandma when the child utters his first word. And that word is always “NO!”

                For the record, our first daughter’s first word was “doggy.”

                That hierarchy hasn’t changed over the years.Report

              • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

                “Children quickly master language because they get things they want if they know the words for them. ”
                Fine and dandy, Blaise, until you meet a person whose native language isn’t taught to them by others (note:possibly exacerbated by ear infections). Someone who has to translate into words any idea he has.Report

              • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

                Blaise, Chomsky, to my knowledge, didn’t do much experimental work, mostly simulation and theory. The evidence, which he’s gathered over the decades, is actually pretty strong, which is why Universal Grammar (though in several variants) is still the consensus among linguists, and will probably continue to be for some time. And there is more empirical evidence for it, from other sources, since Chomsky first started writing in the 50s.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                @Chris: not one serious linguist of my acquaintance takes Chomsky’s linguistics seriously. He’s become a bit of a joke in linguistic circles.

                @Kim: I have no idea what you’re talking about. A child with an ear infection will always hammer out a protocol with his caregivers.Report

              • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

                James, Dennett had an interesting talk recently on this sort of thing. I’m going to look and see if I can find it, and I’ll link it here, even though we’ve clearly gone pretty far afield. I do actually think these sorts of things have implications for things like rights, but that’s a long argument to make.Report

              • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

                Blaise, as someone who’s spent more time around linguists than I’d like (that’s a joke, if there are any linguists about), that’s not my experience, but I guess we just know different linguists.

                I remember going to a Chomsky linguistics talk in the early aughts, and then to dinner with him and the linguists, and watching them get all googly eyed the whole evening.Report

              • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

                A very good friend of mine doesn’t think in words at all. He thinks in pictures (can’t draw, so they’re essentially a private codification of the world).
                Naturally, one does develop protocols.

                But if Chomsky’s thinking was correct, my friend’s pictures would form some sort of … grammar. And that’s not really what happened.

                [note: anyone who wants to say “that’s not neurotypical!” is well within their rights. [n.b. dammit, someone already stole my neologism! Mine first!]]Report

              • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

                James: “The only real interest is in comparative property rights–how do different cultures structure the allowable bundles differently, why do they do so, and what are the effects of different bundles?”

                Chris: “Those questions admit so many possible answers that that “only real interest” is a pretty big one.”

                Yet answer them we must.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                I’ve pretty well given up on linguistics as a science. I don’t think it ever qualified as one, really. I’ve yet to run across a linguist who’s ever made a falsifiable statement. For all the acrimonious go-round between the likes of Lakoff (who can’t do math) and Chomsky (who can’t do research), I just quit caring. It’s like Kissinger’s old joke about why academic debates are so vicious: the stakes are so small.

                My old man had a theory about linguistics: you know you’ve mastered the language about the time you start getting the jokes. Linguistics is so deadly serious, so full of itself. Yesterday I was talking with Hanley about how to approach his assessment methodology through brute-force lexical analysis. I don’t have to understand the framework, all I need is some basis for comparison.Report

              • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

                seen properly, linguistics is both a subset of game theory and of compression analysis.
                Let the CS guys get a decent crack at it, and they’ll have it licked before sundown. (yes, this is overly optimistic.)Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                @Kim: you’ve just described Chinese. There’s not much grammar to Chinese, either. There’s tons of grammar in Japanese, to the point where Japanese needs three different sets of glyphs. But the big set kanji literally means Chinese Characters and all of them have two separate readings, ON, the old Chinese word and KUN the Japanese word.

                Chinese doesn’t have adjectives. It has verbs. There are a few cases where words are inflected but not many. It’s completely graphical. I can look at a Chinese character and not know its meaning but I can see a character like yi and know it’s got something to to with a city or che and know it’s some kind of vehicle, at least something with wheels on it.

                The reason Chinese has so little grammar is because so many people have to speak it. It has to work for six different linguistic groups. Of course it will take on some graphical form. It can’t possibly work as a phonetic language structure, too many people. We see the same semiotic problem with the signs for Men’s and Women’s bathrooms. Or red octagonal stop signs. Take your driver’s test and they’ll give you the signs without any words or numbers on them and you have to say what that sign implies.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                Heh. “Games Theory”. That’s another one for Dr. Saunders’ Merriam-Webster post. I would like to impose a fifty dollar fine on anyone who uses that phrase and cannot explain the difference between perfect and complete information.Report

              • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

                I don’t claim a perfect knowledge of the field. 50 cookies to the jar.
                But fun to look up, and reminds me greatly of a game where the objective of the game was to learn the rules in order to win.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                Heh. Calvinball.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                To say that something is a human creation — and thus that it’s not really worth what we think it is — strikes me as a colossal act of question-begging.

                I don’t know what statements above it this is directed at, but I know it can’t be any of mine. I don’t think that the human-conventional nature of property rights makes them any less valuable than if they had some other nature, and nothing I wrote can be interpreted to have suggested that is does. Indeed, I think the opposite is true. That they are conventions based in the way humans actually relate (and coordinate expectations about relations) in society is what makes them valuable to us. If they were more absolute or immanent, they’d probably be less easily coordinated among their holders and thus less valuable to us as individuals and as societies.Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Chris says:

              You don’t think a lot of people go around with ideas of rights in their heads that envisions kinds of things that really are unreal? Who would deny that rights are conventional at all, or at least assert that there are categories of rights that are basically transcendental, even supernatural? Sure, there are legal rights which are conventions, and sure society might acknowledge certain rights beyond that through convention as well, but there are further rights beyond that that inhere in individuals about which there aren’t any conventions, or that exist whether there are conventions that they exist or not?

              Certainly rights are real where they reflect real social conventions. But lots of people think rights are something more than that (which, hell they might be…), something that, if we all agree that what rights are are real conventions among real people, we’d therefore agree these other things they think rights are is… imaginary?

              I’ve certainly encountered these kinds of beliefs about rights before; hell, I held them at one time.Report

              • Roger in reply to Michael Drew says:

                I have been arguing something similar to Michael’s point here. Property rights are useful conventions. Indeed they are so useful that they are best viewed or imagined as beyond convention.

                This applies to morality as well. Morals don’t exist out there objectively either. However, they are more effective when viewed this way.Report

              • Chris in reply to Roger says:

                I actually think it’s better to view both rights and morals as conventions rather than as divine commandments or objective facts about the world independent of human minds, institutions, and cultures. The problem with divine commands and facts of nature is that they are immutable, and so when a right or a value ceases to work the way it’s supposed to, it becomes difficult if not impossible to get people to even talk about altering or doing away with it.Report

              • Kim in reply to Chris says:

                Yeah, this is exactly what I’d have said. except you put it better.Report

              • Chris in reply to Michael Drew says:

                There’s a difference between saying that certain conceptions of rights are mistaken, and don’t map onto rights as they actually exist in the world, and saying that the rights themselves are imaginary. In fact, for us to be able to say that those conceptions of rights are mistaken, we pretty much have to admit that the rights themselves aren’t imaginary.Report

              • Roger in reply to Chris says:

                I like this comment, Chris. Damn good point.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Chris says:

                Okay, well, if you were still responding to the OP, that’s fair enough. The threading suggested, however, that you were responding to what I said, which was specifically that there are (not uncommon) conceptions of rights that have them as things that are indeed (IMO) imaginary.

                For some ideas about what rights, including property rights, are (and not particularly uncommon ones), “imaginary” is not a less accurate descriptor of that kind of thing than “conventional.”Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                …And your response was a pointed “I don’t think that’s true,” pretty clearly directed at that statement. There may be a world of difference between saying that and saying something else that’s not true, but that *is* what I said.Report

              • Chris in reply to Michael Drew says:

                Ah, OK. I see what you’re saying.Report

              • Jonathan McLeod in reply to Chris says:

                I’m not sure I can agree with this… though I also don’t want to get to far into the weeds on the use of the word “imaginary”.

                However, this sentence sticks out:

                “In fact, for us to be able to say that those conceptions of rights are mistaken, we pretty much have to admit that the rights themselves aren’t imaginary.”

                I would write:

                “In fact, for us to be able to say that those conceptions of rights are mistaken, we pretty much have to admit that the rights themselves aren’t imaginary.”Report

              • Chris in reply to Jonathan McLeod says:

                I can accept that correction.

                There’s one case in which “mistaken” doesn’t require something unimaginary to compare it to, and that’s when the mistake is the belief that rights aren’t imaginary.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Chris says:

          The subject of property rights is complex, since they are both real and imaginary.Report

    • “But if you’re going to insist on “imaginary,” very well then — I imagine that I, and not you, are the owner of your stuff.”

      Isn’t this the claim of the Idle No More movement – that others have just decided that they own land that belongs to them (very roughly speaking)?Report

  11. Sam says:

    Does every human being have a right to own property?Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

      Absent a context, the question is meaningless. If she’s the only human being around, she can “own” the whole planet.

      Property ownership conceptually exists to enable more than one person to avoid arguing over who owns what with clubs. They argue over it with lawyers, instead. Like Jason says above, it’s a marginal improvement, but it’s still an improvement.Report

      • Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        A vast marginal improvement, at least absent regulatory bloat. A consistent and relatively simple rule of law has proven to be incomprehensible better than feudalism and other versions of static or mobile banditry.Report

      • Sam in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        I don’t know who “she” is – my question remains: does every human being have a right to own property? It seems to me like a relatively easy yes or no question.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to Sam says:

          If you accept that the right to property is a natural right, then yes. (Lots – and lots! – of people reject that rights are naturally inhering properties.)

          If you accept that rights are constructed – political, say – then not everyone has a right to property as a matter of fact, because there may be some people to whom that constructed right is not accorded.

          On either view, the ability of an individual to express a right to property (that is, to actually legitimately own or possess property) is based on a convention: that if conditions A thru N are satisfied by individual X wrt to property P (sorry for the technical language, my F-K score is going thru the roof!), then that person has a legitimate claim against others in defense of retaining possession/ownership.

          Power concepts are not excluded from determining ownership and/or legitimacy. Neither is arbitrariness. But neither of those things undermines the utility and force of the convention, independently of whether rights are constructed or natural. You’re argument seems to be that the protections accorded by the convention is never extended to individuals outside the “majoritarian power structure” – a term which really needs to be explicated, it seems to me, since the way you’re using it begs all the justificatory questions as well as appearing to be descriptively false.Report

          • Sam in reply to Stillwater says:

            Acknowledging that we’re playing a game rife with imbalance helps immeasurably. Once we make it clear that these “rights” only really apply to some people, and not to all people universally, then we can better understand the very specific ways that they simultaneously benefit some while punishing others.

            (I struggle though with that idea that rights work in this fashion. There ought to be another word; Kuznicki’s “conventions” sounds good to me, but I’m not sure he meant it in that fashion.)Report

            • Sam in reply to Sam says:

              To clarify – I struggle with the idea that the word “right” is applicable when it doesn’t apply universally.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Sam says:

                In which case there is no such thing as a right, and we need to stop using the word entirely. But then we’ll need to go back and rewrite all those references to constitutional rights in American jurisprudence.

                Or perhaps we could just not be an absolutist about meaning–as though the word “rights” somehow has a more inherent, objective, and immutable meaning than the concept it represents.Report

              • Sam in reply to James Hanley says:

                Not being absolutist about its meaning is how you get the disconnect between “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and “hey, owning people is totally cool,” to offer but one high-profile example.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Sam says:

                I don’t think that follows at all. But in general, if your complaint is that language is not always perfectly clear, with no possibility of confusion about meaning, then you’re tilting at windmills. It’s a fairly obvious reality, and it’s worth noting whenever people try to get too absolutist about meanings, and that’s about it. But responding to the inevitable fact of linguistic imprecision by insisting upon absolutist definitions really kind of misses the point of imprecision being an inevitable fact.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to James Hanley says:

                Do you think that the people who wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” actually believed it? Or were they just talking shit because it sounded good at the time? My guess is the latter, given what we later see them create. Insisting that the words don’t matter right until you decide that they do is ridiculous. Either the words themselves stand or they don’t. I argue that they don’t, that rights are ridiculous, that we exist within a society rigged politically to benefit a few at the expense of the many, that might (and majority) make right, and your position is to tell me I’m wrong, and then argue for upholding the institutions and understandings that render our society as I described it.

                Maybe we’re not even fighting.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Do you think that the people who wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” actually believed it? Or were they just talking shit because it sounded good at the time? My guess is the latter, given what we later see them create.

                Ah, I see. Nobody can ever be inconsistent without it being purposeful; without them knowing consciously that they’re spewing shit. Nobody can ever simply be blind to some of the implications of their beliefs, and how their different beliefs have some deep contradictions. Cognitive dissonance does not exist.

                I look forward to your demonstration of the perfect Platonic congruity of everything you believe, keeping in mind that your real audience is not the members of today’s society who generally share your beliefs, but generations centuries hence who may have a broader perspective, and less personal subjectivity about the matter.

                Meanwhile, I’ll build a time-machine so I can go to the future and see how you do. That will have the benefit of enabling me to advise you on where the future is critiquing you.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to James Hanley says:

                You’re right James. How were they to know that “all men are created equal” comes into conflict with slavery? They were just men after all, not gods, not omniscient beings capable of seeing the what they were whipping in front of them.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Well, Sam, that’s a hefty wad of moral superiority you’re packing there. And if you were alive back then, instead of being just one more of those immoral, purposely dishonest, folks who were a product of their times, you would have been one of the very few who stood out as being an intellectual uberman–a man who intellectually strides above and beyond the culture that produced him.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to James Hanley says:

                What a great way to forgive every imaginable failing of our forefathers. “They just didn’t know any better guys! All they knew was owning black human beings! It’s not their fault.” I would hope that future generations would drag my name through the mud if they learn that I was responsible for something as grotesque as slavery.Report

              • trumwill mobile in reply to James Hanley says:

                Sam, do you eat meat? Support abortion rights? Supportthe eexistence of prisons? Of medicating the mentally ill? Any or all ofthese tThese are subject to review and extreme moral condemnation hundreds of years from now. Self-evident morality changes over time. It strikes me as utterly foolish that anybody really has the view of the apex of human morality right here and right now to the point that we can unequivocally condemn yesterday and be the least bit confident that we are not doing things equally grotesque to future generations.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to James Hanley says:

                If that ends up being the case then, commence the dragging. I’m not going to excuse slavery though because people then “didn’t know any better.”Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                All they knew was owning black human beings!

                Did they in fact know this? Did they in fact know, in the way we know, that Africans were as fully human as themselves?

                I’m truly appalled at the moralism and anti-intellectualism of your arguments. You have no interest in trying to understand people from a different time. But of course it’s a lot less mental work, and a lot more emotionally satisfying, to just resort to moral condemnation.

                But, hey, it’s damned good to know that you’re so morally superior to people of past generations that unlike them you would not have been hampered by any of the blinders of your culture, as they were. I’m honored to know such a superior being.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                @James: yes they damned well did know. And how can we say this for certain? The slave dealers were wealthy men but they were not accepted into polite company.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to James Hanley says:

                You’re right James: I don’t respect people that owned other people. Sorry. I’ll update my CV to note this particular failing of mine.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Sam, you think I’m excusing slavery? Screw you, you moralistic douche.Report

              • Sam, it just strikes me as supremely arrogant to believe that of course you would have looked at the 18th century with 20th century eyes. And a 20th century sense of morality. That the cognitive dissonance that exists within cultures is for, you know, other people and you are above all that.

                Societal crimes and abhorrences exist precisely because people are not above all that. Not because we are intrinsically better individuals today than we were back then. Mostly, we have better moral contexts with better views of right and wrong.

                Or alternately. if you freely admit that your views would have been as blinkered as theirs, it then falls somewhere between useless and hypocritical. Blaming someone in the 18th century for thinking like someone in the 18th century is like blaming a dog for thinking like a dog. If I were a dog, I’d probably think like one. If I were raised in the 18th century, I’d probably think like that.

                (The “you” is not specifically you, Sam, but rather the purveyors of that particular viewpoint.)Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to James Hanley says:

                The act? No.

                You have no interest in trying to understand people from a different time.

                The people involved? Yes. You’re saying that I’m a moralizing asshole for criticizing the people that owned slaves and then arguing that they simply didn’t know any better and then arguing that because they didn’t know any better, I can’t criticize them from my lofty perch of knowing better. I disagree.

                But I never accused you of excusing slavery.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to James Hanley says:

                Because I have no idea how to substantively respond to what it appears that I’m being asked to do here, I will remain quiet.Report

              • Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

                If it was me, I’d apologize and try to clarify. Then again, I /know/ i’m a bad communicator.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to James Hanley says:


                I don’t believe anybody here is owed an apology.Report

              • Mr. Blue in reply to James Hanley says:

                The sort of moral condemnation here comes across mostly to me as a cheap form of self-gratification. There is no limit to the number of ways I can look back at time and space and think “Well, I’m better than those guys.” And to pretend that it doesn’t actually matter that I was born into the value system that I was born into. That, if I were born of Stalinists, I wouldn’t be a Stalinist. Or if I was born into a world where slavery was considered a norm, that I wouldn’t also consider it a norm.

                I was twelve when I had “the moment.” That is, when I realized that the history I was being taught in school was missing key elements and that the things I was learning in Sunday School were not true. I think most people have “the moment” where they think they are the first person to really question everything they’ve been taught.

                I look at that as something to grow out of. My view of the world became no less simplistic as it was when I was an automaton to the American Mythology. I’d really only changed the parameters of my reflexive sense of right and wrong. I was only changing which people I gave a benefit of the doubt to (communists, Muslims) and which groups were just super-duper wrong.

                I sometimes find that a lot of people stayed exactly where I was when they were twelve.

                It’s not that slavery becomes okay, or that sharia becomes okay. It’s more like the people who believe it within the context of cultures that believe it have picked up a social disease. Some people, thank gawd, are or become immune to it. That’s how social progress happens because their immunity then spreads. I think a better way to judge people is in the context of their culture, whether looking abroad today or at ourselves in the past.

                That’s not as easy as pretending that we’d totally be one of the people that are immune. It’s also discomforting, to think that we would have been one of the evil ones save for the benign circumstance of the time and place of our birth.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to James Hanley says:

                There were people in the 18th Century who believed that slavery is wrong. (Obviously: it’s not like it was first proposed at some ethicist’s conference in 1807.) Some of them were even slaveholders at the time they realized this, and as a consequence they freed their slaves. In don’t think there’s anything wrong with remarking on the fact that the guy who wrote

                We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

                wasn’t one.Report

              • trumwill mobile in reply to James Hanley says:

                Mike, that’s absolutely true. But not, I don’t think, as a precursor to the argument that he was obviously lying his ass off when he wrote that. I think it’s more indicative of a blind spot he had, or a failure to recognize the full ramifications of what he wrote. And the fact that his blind spot was shared by so many (though as you point out nor all) to be extremely relevant in our judgements.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


                The hell you didn’t.

                I’m not going to excuse slavery though because people then “didn’t know any better.”

                I’m not asking for an apology, though, and I wouldn’t value one if it were forthcoming.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to James Hanley says:

                Or (and I find this far more likely) the blind spot was either non-existent or self-imposed. Without his slaves, Jefferson would have been living in real, as opposed to genteel, poverty, and he wasn’t going to go there, high-minded ideals be damned.

                Slavery wasn’t just false opinions about the humanity of black people. It was an economic system, highly rewarding to the people on top, which required that human beings be viewed purely as property, with their master granted all the “natural rights” of property owner. Read the secession declarations: the main theme, repeated over and over, is that the northern states had failed in their duty to respect southern property, that is, not returned escaped slaves. Take away the horror of what sort of property they meant, and it’s not so different from complaints about taxation without representation. In both cases, it’s about the confiscation of rightfully owned property.

                Which brings up back to the post’s main topic about the imaginary or conventional nature of property. To what extent can ideas about property be the disinterested result of philosophical discussion, and to what extent do they always have a large admixture of self-interest?Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                @James: absolutely nobody here, least of all you, is making any defence of slavery. Nor do I think anyone is really accusing you of such. It’s understandable that you’d be offended by such an accusation, but really, allow me to attempt to mollify your outrage, however justified it might be.

                We know what Plato and Socrates had to say about slavery. There’s Meno’s slave, learning a bit of geometry. Socrates glibly asserts the boy remembered the principle from some past life. Plato says justice is the superior ruling over the inferior. Aristotle justifies slavery along the same lines. Aquinas justifies it, saying children are the property of their fathers and slaves also to their masters.

                Along the line, somewhere, people stopped belonging to other people as a matter of principle. Slavery was justified, was justified from the Greeks, from the Bible — if anyone rose up to oppose slavery, they did so with very little historical or theological justification. They stood alone, the early abolitionists. If we’ve rejected the justifications for slavery, they are still there. People are still reading Plato and Socrates and the Bible. Slavery was written into the Constitution in the 3/5 Compromise.

                The larger point is: who wasn’t justifying slavery? And when slavery was finally seen as unjust, where did those arguments go?Report

              • Mike, if I was in an economy that seemed to rest on a blindspot, the chances increase exponentially that I would have that blindspot. One of the reason I think the context is important here is that it’s much easier for us to see things clearly because we don’t live in an economy that is reliant on such things.

                That’s not to render the criticism wrong. A system that relies on slavery is a system that needs to be brought down. Just that it’s easier for us to see it now. Some saw it then, but a whole lot didn’t. They had a lot of incentive not to. And I don’t doubt for a moment that we have a lot of incentive to overlook a lot of evil in the modern world.Report

              • Murali in reply to James Hanley says:

                Blaise, do you have access to or know of any paper or something that says what you just said just now? I want to express something similar, but don’t just want to quote BlaiseP on the internet. And I’m uncomfortable saying this without attribution.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                Plato: Gorgias
                St Augustine: Summa Theologica, Questions 32, 52 and 65 , especially 52
                St Augustine: City of God, Book 19, Title 15
                Aquinas: Summa Contra Gentiles, Chapter 112Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to James Hanley says:


                The slavery point is pretty obvious.

                Now, what are we not seeing about our currently accepted definitions of property because of our shared blindspots? That’s the hard one.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


                Thanks, but I’m not actually taking it personally. I don’t think Sam intended to accuse me of defending slavery; I just think he’s not recognizing that his argument necessarily–as a matter of inexorable logic–works that way.

                If my “moralistic douche” response isn’t to anyone’s taste, take Wil or Mr. Blue’s argument instead. They’re making the same point I am, just with more generosity than I’m inclined to extend to any moralist of any ideological stripe. A pox on them all.Report

              • Murali in reply to James Hanley says:

                Thanks Blaise!Report

              • Sam in reply to James Hanley says:


                Let me be clear: you can disagree with the institution of slavery while believing that those who practiced it were raised within it being a cultural value and thus deserve a bit of consideration. I, however, do not do engage in that sort of thinking. I expect adults to think critically about their actions. Maybe that is unfair. Maybe it isn’t. I certainly know I’ve run into significant trouble when it is revealed that abusive parents were themselves abused; how can you blame a person for doing the only thing they know how to do?

                And yet, I see no reason to waste what little time I have on this planet extending any sort of olive branch to long-dead slaveholders, whether they’re the worst of the worst or the most famous of Founding Fathers, especially in the latter case. Those are people held up as demigods in our modern political environment, despite the fact that they owned human beings, not in a culture that thoroughly embraced slavery, but in one that had social strains that recognized slavery as a significant problem. Needless to say, this isn’t about me wondering what I would have done if I was alive in the 18th century; I wasn’t alive in the 18th century. Nowhere did I argue that “I would have done X if I was alive in the 18th century.” Nowhere did I argue that I would have been a shining moral beacon on a hill had it been me then because I don’t care about the hypothetical me living 300 years ago.

                I said, in the clearest possible terms, that I wouldn’t be excusing slavery simply because the people who engaged in it didn’t know any better; would it have helped if I said I wouldn’t be excusing slaveholders (or perhaps, those who engaged in slavery) simply because they didn’t know any better? I wasn’t modifying your position or what you were doing in other words; I wasn’t writing “JH supports slavery.” Had that been my intended message, I assure you I would have simply written that, as it would have saved us both considerable time. But I didn’t, because that isn’t what I was doing; I was explaining what I was doing. That comment was about me passing judgement from a position of modern understanding, something I consider reasonable given that everybody everywhere does this, has always done this, and will always do this.

                So if you can find it in your heart to split a gossamer line between slavery itself and those who engaged in it, fine. I have neither the time nor the energy nor the intellectual capability (apparently) to spend my time doing the same. And if this means there is no common ground between us then so be it.

                As for the “moralistic douche” and the pox-wishing: does this mean I won’t be getting a Christmas Card this year?Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


                If you want to avoid any in-depth analysis, any attempt at a deeper understanding, because you don’t engage in that kind of thinking, that’s your choice. The beauty of moralism is it makes that kind of anti-intellectualism seem justified, and allows us to rest lazily in the smug assurance of our moral superiority.

                The whole bit about not caring what you would have done had you been alive 300 years ago because you weren’t alive 300 years ago? Pure anti-intellectualism. The phrase “walk a mile in their shoes,” means, “you can’t really understand someone unless you try to put yourself in their place.” So when you say you don’t want to try to put yourself in someone else’s place, you’re saying you don’t want to understand.

                So in combination, you steadfastly insist on remaining ignorant, but feel justified in engaging in sweeping condemnations of others. The superiority of moralistic ignorance is not an impressive feat. Any lazy and self-righteous person can manage that. You’re Holden Caulfield, but I’d imagined you were a bit too grown up for that role.Report

              • Sam in reply to James Hanley says:


                Perhaps you can shed some light on this deeper understanding that you possess and that I (foolishly) do not. I do understand that slavery was a huge economic advantage for those engaged in it, so there was definitely the having huge piles of money aspect of things. I know that various religious authorities managed to find moralistic justifications for slavery. I know that various scientists found mechanisms to approve and justify of slavery’s occurrence. So what we then have is the cultural bedrock of a scenario in which slavery isn’t viewed as a bad thing, but as a good thing (except, I suppose, by those who were actually enslaved).

                My cynicism though dictates that I see that situation for what it almost certainly was: a (very successful) money making scheme that figured out ways to both dismiss and absorb moral concerns. It is thus my contention that the people involved knew EXACTLY what they were doing. Which is why I feel no guilt when I judge them for their participation.

                Which part of that do you disagree with? Do you think they really didn’t know any better? Do you think they really didn’t understand that the people being whipped were, yknow, people? Do you think that society was monolithic in its embrace of slavery?

                And finally: when can we judge the horrors of the past? Or can we simply not do so for risk of this moralism which you so despise?Report

              • rexknobus in reply to Sam says:

                Sam — well, I don’t think it’s fair to categorize the slaveholders’ meaning as “hey, owning people is totally cool.” A more fair, and thus easier to understand, formulation would be, “hey, owning sub-humans or a lesser grade of humans, or perhaps a rather human-like animal is cool.” (Perhaps Julius Caesar would have added the category of “subjugated humans”).

                I am not coming down on the side of slaveholders, but I am coming down on the side of understanding the situation in a clear way.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to rexknobus says:

                Sorry, rex, Sam has made it clear. If you even make an attempt to understand how somebody way back when might have understood the world differently than we do now, you are expressing your unequivocal and absolute moral support for their beliefs and subsequent actions.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to rexknobus says:


                I never said anything like that. More importantly, you KNOW I never said anything like that.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to rexknobus says:

                A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but I do think that’s the position you took. You equated understanding the imperfect understandings, the ignorance and blind spots of slaveholders, with “excusing” slavery.

                And since you were unwilling to follow my approach, because you won’t “excuse” slavery, then by logical inference my following of that approach means I was “excusing” slavery.

                You’re a moralist, and I despise moralism. I think if we have that out in the clear, open, and understood, we can recognize that probably we have nothing constructive to say to each other.Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to rexknobus says:

                I never said anything like that. More importantly, you KNOW I never said anything like that.

                Oh. Did someone willfully mischaracterize something you said rather than addressing the argument you actually made? That must be awful!Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to rexknobus says:

                Hey, I know. Let’s go out of our way to artificially extend this wonderful moment of exceptional awesomeness on all sides that truly stands out as an apex of all that The League has ever been or can over hope to be. Don’t let this moment die! I’m not ready to move on from it yet; it was too magical, and the rest of my life is so bleak.Report

            • Stillwater in reply to Sam says:

              I think “conventions” is not the correct way to think about it, myself, and I’ll happily accept Jason’s rebuttal as to why I’m wrong. I think it’s a subtle enough point that people can disagree on that.

              The way I think about it is that the convention is what gives rights efficacy, independently of our philosophical analysis and justification of rights themselves. If I’m a natural rights guy, my argument is that political rights are justified a priori by natural rights. If I’m a constructed rights guy, my argument is political rights are justified a posteriori by utility and pragmatics. In either case, tho, the functional expression of a right depends on the conventionally agreed upon conditions under which property rights are accorded in actual practice. Those conditions are subject to dispute by individuals in differing contexts for various reasons. Usually, we let courts and lawyers determine the resolution to those disputes. But that practice has legitimacy only in virtue of being a generally agreed upon convention.Report

        • rexknobus in reply to Sam says:

          well, then the easy answer is “no.” Felons are denied the right to ownership of many things, guns, etc. Felon = human being.

          As posited the question only needed one negative example to reach “no.” Mission accomplished.Report

    • Roger in reply to Sam says:

      A highly effective and widespread social convention is to provide universal rules which allow all adults to acquire, own and sell appropriate classes of property.Report

  12. Wardsmith says:

    To all the “white man racists” comments above, I give you one piece of evidence: Ireland. My ancestors owned a lot of property there. It was stolen by the English. Both sides were white. This isn’t just a white man on Indian thing. Whites, blacks, Asians and brown people of every flavor have had land taken from them. At the end of the day, you either put up (land defense) or shut up and take the consequences. All of human history is replete with conquerors taking land from vanquished societies. None of this is pleasant, especially for the losers. Some conquerors were better than others. Anyone alive today is a product of the environment that produced this world and there’s a high probability had ancestors on the conqueror side of the equation. That’s just the nature of the beast.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Wardsmith says:

      There may have been “white men are evil, colored people are good” comments above, but I haven’t seen them. But since I suspect this is in part directed to me, I’ll take a shot at responding.

      I agree that you don’t have to be white to be an oppressor, or that you can’t be oppressed and be white. I think painting white people as being inherently wicked in a way other races are not is the basically same as… well, as saying that we really need to be afraid of black men because they cant’ control their violent wilding. Clinging to and shouting out both statements makes things worse, not better in the long run.

      On the same token, I think it’s a mistake to whitewash history and claim that in the first century of it’s existence the United States made the decisions it did surrounding Indian tribes out of a desire to graciously make a better and richer life for those it displaced. For one thing, it’s just not true. But more importantly (for me anyway), it gets in the way of figuring out where to go next with tribal nations.

      Some here might scream bloody murder at this, but my own two cents is that it would be better for Native Americans to dissolve their politically useless tribal states and work toward both assimilating into US culture *and* adding as much of their own culture into ours to preserve it. It’s not my call, of course, and I’m clearly biased being a US citizen myself, but there you have it.

      But I don’t think that is remotely possible (nor is any other solution to our cultural clashes) if we insist that they accept the role of whiny, ungrateful child-killers who looked a gift horse in the mouth as we displaced and/or slaughtered them. In a similar fashion, I don’t believe we can improve white-black relations if we keep insisting that they should be grateful we enslaved their ancestors. Native Americans of African Americans might well to choose to eventually feel grateful that they live in the United States, but its never going to happen if we tell them that they imagined the atrocities that were afflicted upon their ancestors just a few generations ago.

      That I’m Irish and was raised with more than a bit of a chip on my shoulder about what the Brits did to the family actually makes me more inclined to empathize and talk honestly about what my countrymen did to their great, great grandparents, not less. After all, if some Brit told me that I should be grateful for whatever O’Kelly his ancestors killed, raped, or had land seized because my kind would have just attacked someone else anyway and besides it led to me living in the States I’d tell him to eff-ing sod off. That’s for me and my kin to decide; him telling me I should thank him would be highly offensive.Report

      • Wardsmith in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Tod, You probably missed this comment. It is pertinent to the point that multiple /white/ races were eventually driven off their lands as well. I later expanded on the concept with the comment you replied to here. I believe it is a very uncharitable interpretation of what George wrote to conclude, “whitewash history and claim that in the first century of it’s existence the United States made the decisions it did surrounding Indian tribes out of a desire to graciously make a better and richer life for those it displaced.”

        George has done an excellent job of calling bullshit on the frankly bullshit theories expounded by Crosby et al since the 70’s. We have a tendency today to think of “Indians” as if they were some monolithic entity rather than the disparate tribes and “nations” that they existed as long before whites came to this continent. The French and Indian War was exactly that, and there were Indian nations allied with the French AND the British (but mostly with the French who treated them better than the British had). Much of the hardship that followed was a spoils of war nature and tribes on the losing end of the equation lost indeed. So did French colonists by the way who had to abandon “their” land and move north to Quebec. Ultimately British loyalists would ironically follow them after the revolutionary war, likewise losing “their” land.

        History is a wonderful subject but all too often (especially since the 60’s) it has a ridiculous dollop of white man’s burden attached to it. A more thorough analysis such as George has done dispels a lot of current mythology concerning events. Yes the treatment of the various tribes was abysmal, as was the treatment of your Irish relatives and mine. The fact remains that since the Vandals pushed the Goths westward (because they were themselves being pushed by the Huns) we’ve seen lines drawn and redrawn via conquest. We don’t hear from the Picts much anymore, they might not have liked how the Celts treated them. We can cluck cluck and tsk tsk all we want but historic life was nasty brutish and short for a reason. Our ancestors still weren’t all that civilized during the founding of this nation. There were certainly voices crying in the wilderness about treatment of Indians and there were certainly those evildoers looking to capitalize on government ineptitude and bungleocracy.Report

        • MikeSchilling in reply to Wardsmith says:

          I’m confused. George insists that there was no massive Indian depopulation. The article you link to in his support concedes that there was a massive one (95%!), but questions the conventional explanation for its severity.Report

          • Wardsmith in reply to MikeSchilling says:

            Mike reading comprehension needed. He is quoting from Crosby, not necessarily “conceding” to his numbers. I readily acknowledge that David Jones is a crappy author, he wanders all over the place and isn’t clear in his contentions. However if you read the whole thing you see that A) as a psychiatrist (which he is) he /does/ contend that the virgin soil hypothesis is meant to assuage white man’s guilt (although he won’t state it in as blunt terms) and B) that 95% fatality rates from diseases is hokum. The fossil record indicates that diseases that the supposedly Eden like Indians weren’t immune to because of non-exposure is false, they had those diseases. What killed a LOT of Indians wasn’t disease but starvation. It would be as if some future anthropologists with no written record to follow discovered Auschwitz and imagined that disease caused the carnage. Disease was certainly rampant in the concentration camps but the death rate was exacerbated by the conditions.

            Bottom line Henige is right, you’re wrong and so are all those thousands of authors who have written books refuting him. But wait, there aren’t thousands, there aren’t hundreds there aren’t dozens there aren’t ANY! He wrote his book in the mid 90’s published in ’98 and there has been AMPLE time to rebut his findings. Where are those refutations Mike?Report

            • MikeSchilling in reply to Wardsmith says:

              Mike reading comprehension needed.

              Yes. Next time, try to read more slowly, and you’ll do better. The whole damned piece is about how to explain the epidemics, and that “virgin field for infection” isn’t good enough.

              First sentence:
              The decimation of American Indian populations that followed European arrival in the Americas was one of the most shocking demographic events of the last millennium. Indian populations declined by as much as 95 percent in the first century after the arrival of Christopher Columbus, prompting one historian to conclude that “early America was a catastrophe—a horror story, not an epic.”


              Although unprecedented in their widespread severity, virgin soil epidemics may have arisen from nothing more unique than the familiar forces of poverty, malnutrition, environmental stress, dislocation, and social disparity that cause epidemics among all other populations. Whenever historians describe the depopulation of the Americas that followed European arrival, they should acknowledge the complexity, the subtlety, and the contingency of the process. They need to replace homogeneous and ambiguous claims of no immunity with heterogeneous analyses that situate the mortality of the epidemics in specific social and environmental contexts. Only then can they overcome the widespread public and academic appeal of immunologic determinism and do justice to the crucial events of the encounter between Europeans and Americans.

              Paragraph that contains his single cite of Henige (at 53):

              Colonists, stunned by the decimation they observed, attempted to estimate the magnitude of the mortality. Daniel Gookin interviewed surviving Massachuset and estimated that 90 percent had died. Cotton Mather asserted that the “prodigious pestilence … carried away not a tenth, but nine parts of ten, (yea, ’tis said, nineteen of twenty) among them.”51 Systematic efforts to measure Indian populations began in the nineteenth century. An 1877 report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs struggled to determine whether or not American Indians were doomed to extinction.52 In the 1930s, A. L. Kroeber compiled estimates of Indian populations at the time of first contact with Europeans. He calculated a total population of 8.4 million for the western hemisphere, with only 900,000 living in North America. After World War II, Woodrow Borah, Sherburne Cook, and Henry Dobyns revisited this estimate. They argued that Kroeber ignored the disease-induced decline that occurred between European arrival in the Americas and their contact with each tribe. Estimating this loss at over 95 percent, Dobyns proposed a precontact population of 112 million for the hemisphere and 18 million for North America.53 Efforts by archaeologists and paleopathologists to resolve this debate have only narrowed the range for North America to between 2 and 12 million, and enormous problems exist with all of the estimates. With estimates of hemispheric population ranging between 8 and 112 million, estimates of total mortality range between 7 and 100 million. Die-off ratios (pre- vs. postcontact population) range between 2:1 and 50:1.54 Whatever the exact numbers, the mortality was unprecedented and overwhelming.

              I’ll repeat the money quote:

              Whatever the exact numbers, the mortality was unprecedented and overwhelming.

              So much for this being supportove of Henige’s dismissal of the level of death.Report

              • Wardsmith in reply to MikeSchilling says:

                I won’t spoonfeed you quotes, but you should peruse this one for starters: Diamond, like so many others who have ignored the complexities of depopulation in favor of the elegance of immunological determinism, provoked scarce outcry from critics. The ability of a racial theory of disease susceptibility to slip unnoticed into Diamond’s explicitly antiracist theory of history hints at how deeply embedded such theories are in the stories we tell about post-Columbian America.22 Why have assertions of no immunity been propagated so uncritically? They have many possible sources of appeal. and this:
                Perhaps the idea that Indian depopulation can be explained by the Indians’ lack of immunity took hold because it served an ideological purpose. White physicians in South Africa, for instance, used virgin soil theory to explain the prevalence of tuberculosis among African mine workers. Randall Packard has argued that “virgin soil theory appears to have been accepted more for its instrumentality than for its basis in historical fact.” By blaming the disease on biological inadequacies of Africans, the theory “provided defenders of the status quo in South Africa with a means of deflecting attention from the appalling conditions under which Africans lived and worked.”25 Historians do not share the politics of the South African physicians or use virgin soil theories as a justification for either Euroamerican hegemony or current disparities in health status between American Indians and the general population. Instead, the theories are used to explain an event long since past. But since this historic event, the depopulation of the Americas, had such profound implications and retains political currency, it should not be surprising that theories of immunological determinism in the American context also have “instrumentality,” deflecting attention away from moral and political questions.

                Admit it, you only read the opening and closing paragraphs and ignored all the middle. Meanwhile Henige’s Numbers from Nowhere remains unrefuted to this day, especially by you. There is NO FISHING WAY there were 112 million natives living here before Columbus arrived. The circular logic used by the historians to fake death rates remains defeated. Yes, a lot of Indians died for a lot of reasons (a lot of whites died at the same time for similar reasons). Pretending there were 3.77 million natives at Santa Domingo in 1492 is crap, pure and simple. There aren’t even that many there NOW! That’s where the imaginary 95% rate comes from. Work the numbers backward and the illogic of it all jumps out at you.

                Was there a high mortality rate? Very possibly, let’s look at the general record shall we? Introduction of alcohol alone accounts for massive die offs with or without disease. Hunter gatherers become drunker gatherers and not very effective ones at that. Subsistence societies have to work tremendously hard to survive through the winters (which in the little ice age became more and more severe). The most severe of the little ice age intervals coincided with native population declines on BOTH sides of the Atlantic.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Wardsmith says:

                No, I read the whole thing. Honestly, look at the quote that you picked out youeself. [1] It starts at the very first sentence by accepting the reality of depopulation while disagreeing about its cause. Also, the last sentence:

                But since this historic event, the depopulation of the Americas, had such profound implications and retains political currency, it should not be surprising that theories of immunological determinism in the American context also have “instrumentality,” deflecting attention away from moral and political questions.

                He doesn’t disagree that the depopulation of the Americas is a historic event. He disagrees that it’s understood correctly.

                Can you find anything not by Henige that supports Henige? If not, ever wonder why?

                1. Funny how you call trying to support your argument “spoonfeeding”, like you have no budren at all. Does that ever work for you?Report

              • Wardsmith in reply to MikeSchilling says:

                It doesn’t work that way Shill. If you had read what I’d read you’d have come to similar conclusions but instead you only wish to score rhetorical points. Below, George had zero reading comprehension difficulty while still getting a good crack in against the author and his sources. It is one thing if I go to the RNC to get a quote that embarrasses the DNC, it is quite another if I get it from Obama. Even though Jones is a crappy author, he manages to articulate exactly what I said and what George said, that white man’s guilt had more to do with the “theory” of Indian disease depopulation than scientific reality. You can go through the damn thing with a microscope and take everything you like out of context but you’re still wrong, wrong wrong.

                It is comically ironic that the author thanks Ward Churchill, a man KNOWN to have made shit up in an article talking obliquely and politely about “historians” making shit up. Great catch George!

                And no I’m not going to fall for your prove a negative ploy. Henige had 90 pgs in his bibliography. He embarrassed the crap out of scores of historians. It is in THEIR interests to defend themselves and they haven’t done so. How blind do you have to be not to see that? Why should someone else write a book saying, “Henige was right”. Kinda hard to fill out the next 300 pages.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Wardsmith says:

                Fine. If your prejudices won’t let you understand what’s written there in black and white, there’s not much I can do. You can’t appeal to what George wrote, because he doesn’t claim that Jones’s piece supports his claims, or Henige’s. You know what? It doesn’t.

                Also, the idea that Henige’s book is so all-encompassing that no one can wither dispute it or add to it is pretty outlandish. Can you think of any other historical work that’s true of?Report

              • George Turner in reply to Wardsmith says:

                Mike, if you Google Henige’s “Numbers from Nowhere” you’ll see that it’s assigned, along with some of his other works, as reading in 400 level college courses on population studies and pre-contact classes. They don’t seem to be assigning counter points to it.

                One of the reasons is probably that it’s a tour de force against sloppy thinking, biased abuse of numbers, strained arguments, selective editing of original material to alter the meaning, and other gross abuses of historical sources.

                His other works are in a similar vein, whether questioning whether it’s possible to exactly reconstruct the route De Soto took through the American Southeast (which drew one of the very few responses from the authors he’d bitten into, and a very meek response at that), to all the bad history that flowed from the Christopher Columbus anniversary. As an example of those, one documentary cited Columbus’s own diary, yet one of the few things we do know about that document is that he didn’t write it and it’s not his diary. Others cited his ships logs as a definitive source, which is pretty amazing considering they disappeared 400 years ago and haven’t been seen since.

                Pre-contact records are virtually non-existent (aside from Maya stella recounting how many captives a king took, etc) and early-contact records are notoriously problematic because they didn’t care much about accuracy, and often not at all about useful details. They’re like basing European history or demographics on American teenager’s diary impressions during their vacation trips to Europe. Figuring out what you can and can’t determine from such records takes careful thought and care, not a broad brush that amazingly paints exactly the picture you want to paint because it’s currently in vogue.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to Wardsmith says:

                Real question: how do I Google to see how frequently a particular book is assigned in university courses, and whether books with opposing views are also assigned?Report

  13. Michael Drew says:

    In the above thread, WillT makes a very interesting claim:

    “Blaming someone in the 18th century for thinking like someone in the 18th century is like blaming a dog for thinking like a dog.”

    Now, I think all dogs think more alike than all people in the 18th century did, even all Americans, even all white Americans, even all upper-class white 18th-century Americans, or even all upper-class white 18th-century Americans living in the North or living in the South. To be such a person at that time was not, by abundant evidence, to have just one prescribed view of slavery, though it was for the most part likely to live in more or less just one prevailing overall social-moral milieu wrt to the institution (though that would be arguable as well).

    But leave that aside. I’d like to speak to this. I would concede that blaming someone in the 18th century for thinking like someone in the 18th century is not like blaming someone in the 21st century for thinking like someone in the 18th century. But (for more than just the reason in the preceding paragraph, those those realities reflect the real reasons), I don’t want to concede that blaming someone in the 18th century for thinking like someone in the 18th century is like blaming a dog for thinking like a dog. They were not dogs; they were people who openly thought hard about moral questions and came to conclusions on them – in some isolated cases conclusions not so different from the ones that prevail today. We don’t need to condemn those who made or assented to the prevailing conclusions in the same way we would condemn someone who maintained those conclusions as true today. But that doesn’t mean we need to absolve them of moral responsibility for their beliefs (and resulting actions) to the extent that we absolve, or simply don’t judge, dogs for their, well for their actions I guess. We need to be flexible enough to think in terms of an intermediate approach between those two. We certainly don’t need to refrain from saying their conclusions were wrong, and we don’t need to refrain from allowing that do affect our moral estimation of them. We don’t have to refrain from saying we don’t respect any of them who believed it was acceptable to own human beings. On the other hand, by saying that, we don’t need to be saying that they’re just as morally backward as those who do this today (and people do, or at least engage in practices that are redolent of ownership of humans – slavery). We can make an adjustment for the prevailing ideas of their time while not abandoning all moral condemnation, such condemnation (which was achieved in their own time by some of their contemporaries) being the whole basis by which we managed to move past those ideas being prevailing ones.

    We really need to be sure to develop the capacity and tendency to do do this if we want avoid falling into either complete historical anti-realism on the one side, or morally nihilism certainly with respect to history certainly, but possibly also as a result of that, in a creeping way with respect to our current world as well, on the other. I’m not actually saying that either of those aren’t valid options; we can do them. People do deny that there has been actual moral progress through history, and people also do deny that the prevailing ideas in any given age are any protection for those who held them against a full condemnation from others in later times who are more in touch with the true demands of Actual Morality. But to avoid both of those we need to not think that people of other ages are either fundamentally no different at all from us (and thus accountable to the same moral demands we hold ourselves accountable to), nor that the prevailing moral standards of their age were as fundamental to their nature as whatever the thought properties of dogs are, are fundamental to the nature of dogs. They tried to figure out what was, or could be right, or at least excusable, and largely got it wrong (and I think we agree that they actually did?). And so much the worse for them in our eyes: we don’t have to refrain from saying that. And we do the same, and whatever we’re getting wrong, so much the worse for us in the eyes of future generations who figure that out. They should say the same about us. Why shouldn’t they?Report

    • I can actually agree that my comment said way too much. Or overstated the case by a good degree. They all had, biologically, the reasoning capability to know what has become known since.

      What they did lack, however – and what we lack as well – is the ability to separate themselves from their culture. Expecting that of them is expecting a lot. Condemning them for failing to do so is condemning them for being human. In my view.

      Which isn’t to say that we should completely ignore the reality of the situation. We shouldn’t. And when someone is making a case for the infallibility of the founders, it’s more than fair (it’s necessary!) to point out that no, they weren’t gods. They were human. Members, inheritors, and contributors to a grave social illness.

      But to look at the things that they make remarkable – the system of government they set up, when they set it up – and dismiss them because of the ways in which they were unremarkable – they believed what was common belief at the time – is to expect them to be something more than the vast majority of even great humans are. Which is why I take issue with it.Report

      • Kim in reply to Will Truman says:

        “Condemning them for failing to do so is condemning them for being human. ”

        … I’m fine with condemning the lot of ’em. Including you and me.Report

      • Sam in reply to Will Truman says:


        Again, my perspective is hugely cynical, but I’d argue that what the Founding Fathers were doing was ensconcing themselves within society in such a way as to personally benefit. Their slavery was protected practice. Their electoral competition was largely limited. The threat of massive societal change was blunted through a system that made such alterations exceedingly difficult. They then get to start the process of writing the histories that culturally ensure their own omniscience and those who criticize what they created are left marginalized and voiceless.

        For all of the lofty adulation these men receive, so to should they take the brunt of the criticism for every great societal failing, because it is their system that promoted those disastrous policies and then made it difficult to change them. The treatment of native populations? The treatment of minorities? The treatment of women? The system those great men developed perpetuated those problems.

        We can say, if we’re being overly generous, that these men didn’t understand that natives and minorities and women were also human beings, but I hardly think that should buffer them from the critique, because even if they didn’t know, they designed a system that made it possible to continue treating these people as subhuman long after their humanity was known. And we can also say that the nation would have never survived had those people been treated like human beings, but that is a historical convenience which protects the powerful by making them seem heroic for having made hugely damaging decisions.

        So yes, perhaps the accepted the common belief of some at the time; they designed a political system though that protected that time’s common belief long after it wasn’t.Report

        • Will Truman in reply to Sam says:

          I don’t deny that they had it within their power to change the society to something far better. Where I take issue is with the notion that of course they should have seen things as clearly as we do. That they had incentives to see things the way they did is actually a part of my argument. Humans, even great humans, have a real capacity not to see that which it is very self-injurious to see. Combine that with living in a culture that itself didn’t broadly see it, and it becomes much more difficult to tear apart on the basis that they contributed to the institution.

          I obviously wish that they had handled things differently. I think it was possible for them to do so. I would think more highly that they did do differently. I think less highly of them than I otherwise would because they didn’t. But I don’t think that completely undermines what they did do, which was extraordinarily significant at the time.

          As far as the system being protected past the point where it was a common belief, as much as anything that is a product of the document being written when it was. That it would reflect the defect of its time is unfortunate, but anything we wrote today would reflect the defects of our time. Again: human.

          I don’t know that I would call your perspective on all of this cynical. I would be more inclined to criticize it in the other direction: it lends itself to negativity because it is so unrealistically lofty in its expectations that humans behave as something other than what they (we) are. it’s partially because I am so cynical about humanity – I have a lower base-point – that I disagree.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Sam says:

          I’m partially in agreement that the Founders “ensconc[ed] themselves within society in such a way as to personally benefit.”

          But of course they were already so ensconced, or they would not have been in a position to become Founders.

          As well, the system they created that benefited them, excepting for slavery itself, turned out to be admirably well designed for indefinite expansion to work for the benefit of those in less privileged positions as well, precisely because that “all are equal” language is a perpetual boundary demolisher.

          Finally, one can largely agree—as I do–with how they ensconced their own privilege (Madison’s Federalist 10, for example, is largely an argument that too much democracy will result in the masses taking the property of the elites), without having to conclude that they were conscious of the contradictions in their thought.

          That we can see those contradictions so readily today is not evidence that they could so easily see them. No analytical power is gained by assuming they had full understanding and consciously chose to be dishonest. If you’re ready to throw out Marx’s idea of false consciousness in toto, without saving even a scrap of it; if you’re confident the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance is wholly wrong; if you’re willing to take a stand in favor of perfect rationality against bounded rationality…then by all means stick to your claim here. But it does require assuming those other ideas are totally false, and there’s an awful lot of heavy lifting there.Report

          • There were plenty of thinkers during the Framer’s era that were well aware of the contradictions of their policies and writings and were moved to do something about it. Some others were equally very good at deluding themselves about it.

            The problem is those groups are lumped together as the quasi-Olympian pantheon of American founders, who are all sacred, except perhaps for the likes of Hamilton who all too often is regarded as the one monarchist among the clique of republicans.Report

      • What they did lack, however – and what we lack as well – is the ability to separate themselves from their culture. Expecting that of them is expecting a lot. Condemning them for failing to do so is condemning them for being human. In my view.

        The problem is that there were plenty of contemporaries who were more than capable of separating themselves from that milieu and advocating for something better.

        William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, hell even those approvingly quoted by modern conservatives like Edmund Burke or unfairly tarred as monarchists like Alexander Hamilton, all pushed back hard against the most egregious failings of those times. Abolition, anti-Imperialism, etc. weren’t something that randomly came about after the 18th century, they were very much part of the 18th century debate.

        That men like Jefferson failed so spectacularly to embrace them should be an indictment of their failures.Report