January 23, 2013


A while back I wrote to Kevin of The Smallest Minority & he saw fit to publish the main body of our correspondence on that occasion (which was real nice of him; he even asked if it was okey dokey). Cause blog fodder ain't always easy to come by I'm going to re-post it here, with a few more thoughts.

Heinlein can be said to argue that morals exist to enhance our chances for survival. If so then I'd say that Rights exist to further our growth. After all you can survive without Rights, but growth would be extremely difficult. & by growth I mean intellectual, spiritual, emotional growth. Slaves can get tall & gain weight & live for a long time, but to grow into what man is capable of being Rights are necessary.

Here's what I've been able to piece together over the millennia decades...

Natural Rights (God Given, Vishnu Given, etc...) are simply Property Rights. They're existence is akin to the laws of gravity – they're there and constant you just have to figure out how to define them - after you discover they exists. But unlike Newton's laws, Property Rights are only applicable when dealing with other humans (or sentient, sapient beings in case E.T. ever drops by).

When you're typing out a few paragraphs or an article for submission to a magazine, Newton's laws are irrelevant. When figuring out where to place a semi-colon you don’t refer to the rate of speed of a freefalling object; it simply does not matter. Similarly grammatical rules won't gain you a foot of altitude if you're flying a plane sans an engine. Well, Property Rights, that is to say Natural Rights, are like that. They're not in place so we can write better structured essays, or keep a plane gliding to a relatively safe landing – they exist solely as a way out of the Hobbesian eternal perpetual war-against-all that mankind would otherwise succumb to. A mountain slides down on ya, Tort law won’t help you recover damages, neither will an appeal to Natural Law prevent said landslide from giving one a vigorous full-body deep tissue massage. Heinlein's old allegory about there being no Right to life because the sea can drown you without recourse is misplaced – like saying there's no such thing as lift since it won't prevent you from having a triple run on sentence.

What they will do, and were designed to do, is give an individual an opportunity to become more than a mere sustenance farmer, or hunter-gatherer (though I always thought hunter-gatherers were under-rated – hunting and fishing all day? Every day? Sounds better than a cubicle migration lifestyle to me – though coming by hushpuppies or what y'all call sweet tea would be tricky). In theory, and as much as its been tried in practice, the more a culture (society, civilization, etc..) respects Property Rights the more prosperous the individuals in that society can be, hence the more prosperous that society can be.

America is a good example. We've never been perfect, and I'll bitch and rant for eons about how a lot of things are unjust and immoral here, but relatively no country on earth has had a wider or more prolonged respect for Property Rights (though that's winding down as we type). The 19th century, and early 20th century weren't ideal, but the rate of growth, expansion and our ascendance as a world power can be viewed as a consequence of relatively broad respect for property rights. We had the freedom to build railroads, so we did. (of course by "we" I don't mean the feds). With those railroads we had the ability to pursue commerce on a scale never really done before. But as important as the speed of rail, we had the freedom to engage in commerce without the fear of the feds "nationalizing" our sugar beet farms, or "appropriating" our grazing land to set up wind farms.

Other nations did well to varying degrees in the same time period. But not to the extent we did. Certainly not with the longevity we did. Even with the steady encroachment on Property Rights that the feds undertook in the beginning of the 20th century (which sadly continues today) we had enough of them there Property Rights to keep us afloat despite the infringement of same.

So that "American Exceptionalism" that everyone keeps whispering about wasn't because of some genetic trait or DNA strand that we all just had – it was simply that the government A: afforded some protection of Property Rights (actually a great deal compared with the rest of the world) and B: largely kept off our backs. Again it's relative and by no means was it ever laissez faire or perfect, but for the most part governments had a 3 martini lunch (as opposed to now where governments seem to be alumni of Betty Ford).

But what specifically are Property Rights? Locke had it – at least the beginnings of it - and also unknowingly began to answer the query "What is morality?"

Property begins with your self. Your mind and body are yours and no one else's. You can rent them out, but you can never actually transfer ownership – not while living at least. Through force you can be enslaved (so long as you value life above freedom at least) but this is not natural – it's a perversion (much like N'Sync). Like any Natural law (Newtonian Gravity, Relativity, that one about not swimming 30 minutes after you eat, etc.) they can be physically violated but not without consequence. When you try to break any part of the law of Gravity the consequences are usually immediate. With Natural Law it's more a delayed comeuppance. But Natural laws were meant to have a long term effect (think decades), whereas Gravity has a short term (though constant) effect (think seconds – very scary seconds).

So you own your body and your mind and they're non-transferable. That means you also own the products of your body and mind; your thoughts, ideas, actions all belong to you. Those however you can rent out and in some cases sell outright. But here's the thing – it has to be consensual. At this point The Right to Contract kicks in.

The Right to Contract is a necessary derivative of Property Rights. In essence it just holds that you can exchange anything you possess (except your mind & body) for anything you wish to possess as long as both parties freely agree to such trade.

As an aside there, are four ways in which humans interact with each other to exchange goods and/or services; Trade, Manipulation (which would include fraud and deceit) Coercion and Force. The last 3 are, to use the technical term, bad. They're bad because they violate that whole Contract law thingy, and pragmatically they have less than cool consequences for all concerned somewhere down the road. Without some means of arbitration, such as a tort system centered on Contract Law and Property Rights, the latter 3 are the most convenient means of exchange, and severely stunt any society's growth, unless you think a feudal-esque system or warlords or Mafioso are somehow growth.

In any event, you own your labor and your creativity, but you can exchange those for other goods or services through Contract. What you receive in exchange for your creativity and/or labor becomes your Property just as surely as your labor and creativity were your Property. No one can justly or morally take them away from you, though they can be taken unjustly or immorally. Remember, Property Rights are Natural Laws but not Physical Laws. Violating them has negative consequences but not necessarily immediate consequences.

Here’s where you and to some extent I spent our focus for so long (at least when I was writing). It is essential as well as a natural offshoot of Property Rights to be able to protect said property from unjust taking. In other words, this is where Self-Defense comes into play. Also this is where owning property appropriate for Self Defense emerges. After all, what security does one have in Property Rights if the thief or thug or congressman (but I repeat myself) can walk in unmolested and waltz out with your property that you acquired through an exchange of your labor and/or creativity?

By most accounts we're a heavily armed society. It's arguable that we have the most liberal self defense laws of any developed nation. That means we have the strongest protection of Property Rights of any nation extant. It's not as strong as I'd prefer, but that relative thing puts us miles above damn near anywhere else on the whole.

Now this is not to say that societies that do not value Property Rights cannot be prosperous to some extent. It's just that such prosperity will be short lived (and in societies short lived isn't a matter of years, more like decades or centuries).

So Ownership of Self, Contract and Defense comprise the three tenets of Property Rights. You'll note (cause I know you're sharp like that) that the consensual nature of Contract (under a properly viewed Property Rights system) negates "free health care" or "free widescreen TVs." In fact looking at this thing like it should be looked at (that is to say, not making exceptions for every whim 51% of the people want) a correct view of Property Rights would hold that permits for individual activity, income taxes, value added taxes, estate taxes (in fact all but the most modest of sales taxes, and even those are iffy), subsidized anything (Social Security, Medicaid, Obamacare, Educational Grants, etc) mandates (Obamacare, conscription, servitude, slavery) are not just bad ideas for long term growth, but immoral.

Touching on morality, that too centers around Property Rights. If it violates Property Rights it's immoral. If it sustains Property Rights it's moral. Everything else is amoral, as morals should be based on consensual activity as no other objective standard, including religious or social mores, can consistently define what and why moral activity is or isn't.

But because of the limiting nature of Property Rights when it comes to collective action there's more of a chance that a boy band will end up in Valhalla than a government of any longevity will keep its Mitts (or Mitt depending on the outcome of that lever pulling fiasco in November) off of Property Rights. It simply limits collective power too much, and all politicians (or at least the overwhelming majority) crave power above all else.

Blame Rousseau and the Pragmatists. Yes, no Right can be respected to any meaningful degree if a majority disregards it. Or as has been said a Right is simply what a majority says it is. Pragmatically at least.

Some time back our military thought it should officially frown upon smoking whilst in flight. So they stopped designing aircraft with cigarette lighters in them. Instead what occupied that little slot was called a "spot heater." As you probably guessed, the "spot heater" had an uncanny resemblance to the cigarette lighter of olden days. In fact it functioned in an exactly identical manner. Lo and behold our service men did not use it to heat Spot (dogs being cumbersome in a cockpit and all), but to light cigarettes and even cigars. But everyone called it a "spot heater."

Similarly calling health care a Right does not make it so. It's just a more polite name for "medical slavery." That is the flaw of Rousseau and the Pragmatists; they feel that by using force (a majority vote is simply authorization to use force to impose the majority’s will) and words which do not mean what they think they mean they can create Rights. But this is fallacy, and the consequences, though not immediate, are dire.

A Right can be reasoned, not as a whim of an electorate, but as a principle upon which something else depends. With Property Rights, their purpose is to enable an individual, and thereby a society, to develop in the best way possible. Take them away completely and you'll perhaps see how I define "best way possible."

If you did not have ownership of what you traded your labor and creativity for, if anyone or specific someones could stroll in and remove your DVD player consequence free, then who would bother designing let alone marketing an iPod? A person would put forth just enough effort to exist and a little extra, but why bust your ass when it profits someone else but not yourself?

Rousseau, Marx & Engels, Keynes – they all form a line in which Property Rights are disregarded or in some cases outright negated. The results of their philosophy are all around us. While temporary prosperity may be argued for some tenets of their faith, overall and in the long run the consequences of their actions catch up to them, and getting spanked is inevitable.

That’s probably enough rambling and hopefully you see my points. But at this stage if you do agree with my reasoning and hold that Property Rights, as I inadequately explained them, are the most important basis of any society that deigns to be free, you'll feel that pang that a person feels when he realizes four months later that the night he was drinking beer with the prettiest girl he ever saw he could have said one or two things differently and she'd have fallen for him instead of hooking up with that jerk who picked on you in High School cause you had better grades and less detentions than he did.

In other words I think the only thing that can turn this country around now is to have a strong reinforcement of existing Property Rights by the government (at sword point if necessary) along with an expansion of, or more correctly an acknowledgement of and respect for, what Property Rights truly are. Those odds are about as good as Thor patting Ricky Martin on the back and saying "Well met, hale fellow; we've awaited thee."

Cheery thoughts, aren't they?

Posted by Publicola at January 23, 2013 08:54 AM | TrackBack
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