Saturday, 24 July 2010

Final Response On The Turton Thread

This is my comment, which had to be split into three parts (due to Blogger's restriction on the number of characters which can be posted on a comment thread) and which I've left over at Turton's place. I repost it here just in case it doesn't go through for some reason or if I messed it up somehow...

OK then as a preliminary, let me say now that I expect nothing less than at the end of this discussion I be told I’m an evil zombie slave of Reagan and I should go fuck myself – really, you’d be letting yourselves down to actually allow this to end on anything resembling a pleasant note. I realize political vocabulary among westerners in Taiwan doesn’t usually include the word “freedom” without it being chained to its’ phrasal overlord “democracy” – in Uzi 9mm cadences – so of course I’ll be disappointed not to receive the “zombie-Regan-slave”, “Thatcher-muncher”, high-brow low blow treatment. Really, it’d be like nobody cared if that didn’t happen.

Right then, you can slur all you like about how the morality from which private property rights are derived is so “asocial”, “ahistorical” and “atomized” etc but it is actually little more than the basic algebra of human cognition – the ability to handle abstract concepts. Now you might like to have the derivation illustrated for you with sociohistorical apples and oranges, Jacks and Jills ad absurdum, but I’m far too easily bored for that, so I’m gonna atomize my way through here some more…

The political right to private property is a consequence of morality – a morality arising from the ontological recognition that human beings are individuals first, with membership of society not denied, but located in a way distant second place. That’s the chief alternator at work here which has allowed for the terrific acceleration of technological progress – and with it vast improvements to our individual chances of survival – over the last few centuries since the Enlightenment, despite the hindrances of the State.

Now, let’s get our hands dirty and open up that “alternator” metaphor:

A human being’s exercise of both complete authority and commensurate responsibility over her actions in a social context (i.e. one containing other people) – that is a political right. Its’ recognition as such turns on the more basic understanding that human beings do not have wings, fangs, claws or spin webs out of their nostrils with which to catch insects. As human beings, the form and method for our survival bestowed upon us by Nature is our capacity for reason – which, since we are biologically segregated into individual bodies – can only therefore be a capacity of particular individuals with the consequence that some individuals apply this capacity to the problem of staying alive quite well while others do so less well. This fact alone however does not permit the arrogation of force by some individuals (government, or if you prefer – big business in collusion with government) in order to constrain and direct the actions of others. Such a move is a direct violation of the natural endowment of a human being – her reason and the capacity it gives her for directing her own life on her own two feet.

There are two caveats to be recognized however: the first is that this capacity for reason is simply that – it offers no guarantee of success for it is fallible. The second is that it doesn’t work automatically – each human being must deliberately try to think if they are to survive.

Now when the moral sanction to bear full authority over one’s property is recognized (primarily by other people both within and even without the community, and secondarily by the State) there then arises a potent possibility for exchange limited only by the interests, appetites and requirements of those other individuals. This limitation may act as a spur either for the production of new values – principally technologies, but also other goods and artifacts (foods, medicines etc) – or it may act as a spur to the imposition of force by some people over others in order to satiate values (principally the power of predation over other people’s lives) which may otherwise have gone unsated. This is the perpetual choice of human civilization; do we take our individualism straight or do we allow others to dilute it for us with little frozen blocks of what used to be somebody else’s values?

To the extent that the individual nature of political rights and the social institutions (chiefly, the market) implied by these rights is both recognized and respected by the State and not routinely violated day-in-day-out, we should expect to see a progressive easing of the task of survival and a multiplication of the possibilities for human advancement as the effects of free market activity by myriad individuals first accumulate (e.g. saving and investment in capital) and then filter back down into generalized conditions of material and social improvement (increased productivity). At least that is how my “alternator metaphor” works when it is fitted to the fully functioning engine of a predominantly individualist culture. Conversely, to the extent that the individual nature of rights is routinely abused by the State and violated day-in-day-out, then we should expect to see the opposite effect – of the increasing difficulty of the task of survival for many people (e.g. higher prices driven up by inflation necessitated by State spending and thus lower savings and capital investment) and the multiplication of crime and other social problems (higher unemployment and greater welfare-warfare dependency). That is how my alternator metaphor looks when it is hooked up to a commie engine that barely functions at all. In empirical reality of course, our current modern economies lie at various points on that vast expanse of grey between the binary poles of libertarian nirvana and totalitarian hell; ours are societies of mixed premises, and therefore mixed results.

That’s the basics behind my “atomized” morality of private property. Now to a couple of specifics I was challenged on:

When Turton speaks of “massive government efficiencies” he necessarily takes the perspective either of government itself, the big business bastards who benefit or of the archimedean economist content to consider mere aggregate numbers whilst conveniently ignoring who got fucked over in some “expropriation” stunt (unless perhaps it involves him or his mother or his best mate of course). It may be more efficient for everyone else (but always according to somebody’s point of view elevated above being merely a point of view – that’s your “national interest/collective good” jazz kids) for the government to bypass the necessary respect to your right to property and simply “expropriate” your land out of your ass to build a railway, a road, or a science park. I submit however, that such an understanding of “efficiency” is simply a collectivist sop intended to rob the people of their conceptual apprehension of what should properly be considered a crime.

I was also asked about externalities (pollution and so forth – sometimes referred to as 3rd party damages) but it seems to me that the answer is obvious; a more thoroughly and impartially applied recognition of individual property rights in tort law which would require potential developers to consider the possible external costs of whatever business they are interested to set up. The classic Mises reference for that is Human Action, Chapter 23, section 6 p 654 – I have my own copy open before me right now, but anyone interested can find an online version here. There are lots of other good discussions of the externality problem easily found elsewhere (Rothbard is usually pretty good on this).

The chief dangers to human progress have always come from the State – aside from the obvious examples of Communist China, the USSR and two World Wars – even the examples of colonial exploitation to which Turton refers in his outrageous contention that they somehow refute the moral nature of private property – even those injustices were largely made possible by the use/abuse of State power with the British Raj imposing horribly unjust taxes on the Indian population during a time of famine, and the American Democratic Party (oh yes!) organizing to prevent black people having the freedom to own firearms – arms which would have gone a long way to discouraging the predations of racist lynch mobs. It is the actions of the people in his historical examples, not their lying words, that are important – and I would ask that you, Turton, disown the insinuation that a person who argues for the moral defence of property rights is probably therefore a rootless colonial exploiter looking to obtain the power of the State for his own nefarious purposes. It is an insinuation that because I argue for X, I must therefore be a liar and secretly be lusting after Y, or that if I say “up”, I really mean “down” or when I say “Orwellian” I really meant to tag it as a “Turton-boggle”.

The social democratic position held by Turton and friends is to take that alternator metaphor I described earlier and to connect it up to an engine in which the opposed forces of individualist rights and the force of the State are forced into in an unstable, and I would add unsustainable, balance inadequately lubricated by the mechanisms of democracy. I realize my position may seem “extreme” but that is increasingly becoming a word for the conceptually retarded. Turton’s position has of course the appearance of the “golden mean” – somewhere “sensible” between two insane poles, but this is a mirage sustained only by your, dear readers, reluctance to think your way through these matters. Please do so.

Now, I think I’ve said enough – let the trashing commence. I won’t be back whatever else may be said (I have far better things to do than explain shit like this that should be more or less already appreciated by most people). Anyone who wants to continue the discussion – civilly – may do so over at my blog.

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