Re: ownership as moral right?

(no name) ((no email))
Wed, 04 Aug 1999 11:11:27 -0500

Trekking Areas has obviously done a good deal of thinking on these matters. I
won't attempt to answer all his points, but just toss in mis dos centavos.

> K.8. Nevertheless, I believe there is such a thing. I believe that all
> human beings are equally important -- you have to have some method of
> making people's preference commensurable, and while money has its
> practical advantages, it is not suitable as the foundation of an
> ethical system -- and that the common good is the only legitimate goal
> of society and government. Of course, nearly all the time, the common
> good is good for everyone.

Isaiah Berlin argues that people's preferences, values, and freedoms are
fundamentally incommensurable. You may be passionately devoted to stamp
collecting, say, and I to making sure that knowledge of how to construct
nuclear power plants doesn't atrophy out of existence. The only way to promote
the "common good" is to promote the freedom of each individual to pursue
his/her own good, and not under compunction to behave a certain way. "Nearly
all the time" devolves to slavery. This is also the theme in Hayek's The Road
To Serfdom, Friedman's Free To Choose, and others. For a good synopsis of
Berlin, see John Gray's Isaiah Berlin.

> K.11. I do not believe that the purpose of human society is to incent
> people to work harder. Is that what you believe?

Of course not. But, by Adam Smith, they do it anyway if they think they'll get
something out of the deal. Invisible hand. Old news.

> K.19. It certainly lends itself to political manipulation. But as you
> can see above, the notion of "private property" proceeds in itself to
> dangerous excesses and social turmoil. If the peasants' alternatives
> are starving to death, accepting brutal contracts that starve most of
> their children to death, or getting shot at, you can bet there's going
> to be social turmoil. (cf. post-Reconstruction American South.)

I may be wrong, but I didn't think you all were necessarily discussing
Malthusian extremes. Just inheritance taxes. Certainly there are times and
circumstances where drastic measures (like socialism ;-) has made sense.
But I think Smith and Julian Simon whip Malthus's butt most of the time.

> K.28. While your point about practically-unlimited resources is true,
> it is only true of the whole human race. It is not true for most
> individual human beings, who have extremely limited resources available
> to them, because a small minority of other individual human beings have
> locked up most of the resources.

Who are these bad people?

> K.30. Anyway, if your point is true -- and I think it is -- then there
> is no reason for anyone, ever, to have to go without, because there's
> more than enough for everyone. Establishing a social system where some
> people hold property while others starve might be a rational thing to
> do in a world of great scarcity, because the alternative could be that
> everyone starves. But in a world of unlimited wealth, everyone can
> have more than enough.

I wouldn't say unlimited, but I think there's plenty to go around. The problem
is partly one of distribution, but there's also plenty of good old fashioned
wickedness. If we ship millions of tons of food to Africa, and it either is
absconded with by tin horn rulers, or allowed to rot and feed rats on the docks
because the powers that be don't give a flip about the sanctity of the
individual with their silly positive and negative freedoms, then you can't lay
all the blame on the capitalists.

> K.41. Yes, this is a big problem. To a great extent, the government
> does not serve the common good; it serves the interests of the
> wealthy.

Serving the interests of all, wealthy or not would indeed be better.

> K.43. I tend to think that no government at all would be even worse.

I agree.

> I fail to see how giving inheritance to one's heirs deserves our
> protection.

What do you mean by "protection"? Am I to infer that you believe that my
owning anything is at the benevolence and indulgence of "the people" and their
lackey bureaucrats (actually it's the other way round)? That sounds like
racket protection. I own stuff, and I see no reason for others to walk off
with it when I'm not around anymore, especially when the "common good" that
comes on the margin of governmental spending is arguably detrimental.