December 23, 2011

jgreendc asked: Regarding your reply to my post on the Enlightenment, when you mention "Founders," should I take it that you are referencing my invocation of Smith, Locke, and Paine? Initially the comment threw me for quite a loop. I don't want to proceed with a false assumption. ---- Also, I am unsure how to respond to the first part of your discussion on property rights. My wanting to defend property would have nothing to do with others getting property. It is defense of the status quo that matters here.

I have several concerns with your critique of my piece.

First, while property is understood to be a natural right by early rights theorists, it is not an absolute one, any more than speech or religion or, indeed, life. I cannot build a mine or a strip club in my back yard any more than I can yell fire in a crowded theater (when no fire is present) or randomly swing my arms such that I smash my fists into your nose. You are subject to the draft if your nation calls, and in Nebraska if you commit certain crimes the state claims the right to kill you. (Something the state of Illinois does not claim.) There are limits on rights that society has generally agreed to, and while defining and redefining those limits is a robust and important part of our political life, the fact that there are limits does not mean that we are locked in a struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of unfreedom. Rather, it means we as human beings are trying to figure out how to live together as best we can in a complex mix of freedom, security, social dignity and other concerns.

This is why I object to claims that the Democrats are anti-liberty when it comes to property, while Republicans are pro-liberty. As it happens, both the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States are pro-capitalist, pro-property parties. They differ on details of how best to balance the rights of property owners and society’s needs to provide various services to the community, as well as what services ought to be provided, but the notion that Democrats hate property is simply nonsense.

Second, I am concerned that “property” seems to be the be all and end all in your thinking. But as is implicit in the answer I just offered, property is one of a set of rights, and the pursuit of one right can conflict with another. I can, for example, make a property argument that I have the right to own a person—indeed, lots of Americans have made that argument in their day. More, I can make a contract argument that if you, as a copus mentis person, contract yourself to be my property, the state has no business interfering with this arrangement. But I am wrong—liberty trumps property in this case, and the state has the right to outlaw some contracts a priori. Likewise, Ron and Rand Paul’s objections notwithstanding, if your business uses public services like water and sewage and offers products to the public for sale, it seems entirely reasonable to require that the whole of the public that is subsidizing those services through taxes should have the opportunity to enjoy the goods and services your business provides, assuming a person can afford them. (And yes, I would apply the same logic to gender biased private clubs, etc., if they use public services in their operations—which we currently exempt.) Property is not the “king of all rights,” trumping everything that comes before it. And, again, the Democrats are not collectivizers looking to destroy all property, whatever the fevered rhetoric of this campaign suggests.

Third, the notion of defending the status quo is remarkably slippery. I don’t know how old you are, but can offer a rough guess: a year or two either side of 20. Which makes your birthday roughly 1991. Or, put another way: 6 years before Google was INVENTED. I got my first email address AFTER I STARTED TEACHING FULL TIME IN 1990. I went to college with no mobile phones and no personal computers.

Put another way, whose “order” is to be defended? The current one? The one of my 20s? The one of your eventual children’s 20s? The agrarian, pre-industrial order or of Locke, Smith and Paine? Society evolves. It’s why you didn’t get a smallpox vaccination and I did. It’s why you have never spent a day of your life afraid of the Soviet Union—heck, perhaps never even with the EXISTENCE of the Soviet Union—while I did. Is all change good? No. But the notion one can freeze things as they are, and that that counts as “conservative,” is just misbegotten.

Fourth, the broader point of my post was about the notion of what counts as evidence. In the post-Enlightenment world, questions of an empirical nature are generally understood to be answered by things like the scientific study of the empirical world. As I understand the objections to things like genetically modified food, for example, they are science-based: opponents believe that the science that is used to legitimate or OK GM food is bad: it’s paid for by the food industry; it deemphasizes certain risks while over-playing potential benefits; GM foods have broader harms across the food chain than current research tests for. Please note that I have no idea whether or not this is true; this is just my understanding of the nature of critics’ point of view. They are using science to undermine science, which in an Enlightenment universe is an appropriate thing to do. They may well be wrong, but hypothetically, that will be answered by the science.

What it will not be answered by is an appeal to God, or a claim not that the science is bad, but that there is a vast international conspiracy to misrepresent what’s really happening in the world—a conspiracy that bobble-headed tax-and-spenders in government are happy to indulge simply because they like spending tax money to no effect. Such claims are anti-Enlightenment, and while there are certainly Democrats who make such appeals, on balance such appeals are more common among Republicans. Which is, and will continue to be, a problem for the party.

Which, of course, is precisely the kind of empirical claim that can be answered in time. Empirically. The way the Enlightenment teaches.

  1. politicalprof posted this