Friday, August 28, 2009

They're not 'libertarians'

As G.A. Cohen explains:
"Anarchy, State and Utopia is routinely characterized as libertarian, an epithet which suggests that liberty enjoys unrivaled pride of place in Nozick's political philosophy. But that suggestion is at best misleading. For the primary commitment of his philosophy is not to liberty but to self-ownership."
And self-ownership is different from freedom. The former basically boils down to a reverence for private property, not freedom as such.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that most libertarians do hang their hat on an unswerving attachment to the sanctity of private property, they are nonetheless "promiscuous in their use of the rhetoric of freedom."

But Cohen's point is that we should not let them get away with this swindle. Nor should we go along with their desire to be called 'libertarians'.

Why should we assume there is an intrinsic link between private property and freedom? 'Libertarians' often defend their advocacy of private property on the basis of freedom, but then also explain what they mean by freedom by simply rattling off a list of platitudes about the sanctity of private property. In other words, 'libertarians' "present themselves as defenders of unqualified private property and as unswerving opponents of all restrictions on individual freedom", but it's unclear that they can coherently be both.

Here's why. Cohen points out that only anarchists can claims to be "unswerving opponents of all restrictions on individual freedom". This is because "if the state prevents me from doing something that I want to do, then it places a restriction on my freedom". Notice that neither 'libertarians' nor socialists (like Cohen) are anarchists. Notice also that we are assuming, for the sake of argument, a narrow conception of 'negative freedom' friendly to the 'libertarian' position, where freedom is just being able to do what you want without external interference.

Imagine the following scenario. Say I want to "pitch a tent in your large back garden", "and if I try to do the thing that I want to do, the chances are that the state will intervene on your behalf and when it does, I shall suffer a constraint on my freedom. The same goes for all unpermitted uses of a piece of private property by those who do not own it, and there are always those who do not own it, since 'private ownership by one person presupposes non-ownership on the part of other persons'." But since the 'libertarian'-favored 'free market' rests on private property, it therefore rests on a restriction of freedom, in the narrow sense specified above.

Thus they can hardly complain that " a socialist dispensation restricts freedom, by contrast, with the dispensation they themselves favor". The difference between their view and that of socialists is not as easy as "they restrict freedom and we don't".

"Libertarians" want to say that they prescribe a system in which there is maximal freedom to do whatever one wants, consistent with a set of maximal freedoms for everyone else. In other words they'd like to say that "we support unrestricted individual freedom except where that freedom limits someone else's freedom". But this is plainly not their view. Their view is that maximal individual freedom is allowed only as long as it doesn't coerce other people or interfere with the institution of private property. But private property limits the freedom of those people who don't own something, as in the case of pitching a tent above. Private property creates freedom for some at the same time that it limits freedom for others. "Libertarians" want to say here that this limit on others freedom is just or right, and there are arguments worth considering that try to show that this is the case. But if that is what they really think, they ought to say that at the onset instead of giving us disingenuous claims about why they, and not others , are the privileged defenders of 'maximal freedom' (in short, they're not really 'libertarians', they ought to call themselves something else).

I'd like to say a bit more about why private property restricts the freedom of some at the same time that it provides freedom for others, or why the amount of one's holdings of private property in capitalism correlates positively with the extent to which one is free.

Those on the Right, e.g. 'libertarians', will reject this. They will say that 'people are free to do however they please, and if they lack resources of money then they lack not freedom but just that: resources or money'. Or those on the Right might respond that lack of money might mean 'lack of ability', but not therefore 'lack of freedom'. As it is sometimes put: "lack of money puts limits on what people can do with their freedom."

But as Cohen points out, this view rests on a reified account of money.
Money is not an object, but part of a complex network of social relations of constraints. And in capitalism lack of money means lack of freedom full stop. Perhaps, as 'libertarians' would want to say, certain people's freedom is restricted justly in capitalism (e.g. since they didn't work as hard, or they didn't obtain something via market transactions, or whatever). But notice that in saying why it is just that certain people's freedoms are limited by property, 'libertarians' are already admitting that they lied when they said they, above all else, value individual liberty. For these folks, private property trumps unfettered liberty.

The way that Cohen makes the point that money restricts freedom is brilliant:
"To see this, imagine a society without money, in which courses of action available to people, courses they are free to follow without interference, are laid down by the law. The law says what each person may or may not do... and each person is issued with a set of tickets detailing what she is allowed to do. So I may have a ticket saying I am free to plough this piece of land, another saying that I am free to go to the opera, while you have different tickets, with different freedoms inscribed on them.

Imagine, now, that the structure of options written on the tickets is more complex. Each ticket lays out a disjunction of conjunctions of courses of actions that I may perform (I may do A and B and C OR B and C and D OR E and F and A, and so on). If I try to do something not licensed by my tickets or ticket, armed force intervenes....these tickets say what my freedoms (and my unfreedoms) are.

But a sum of money is nothing but a highly generalized form of such a ticket. A sum of money is a license to perform a disjunction of conjunctions of actions -actions, like, for example, visiting one's sister in Bristol, or taking home the sweater on the counter at Selfridge's.

Suppose that someone is too poor to visit her sister in Bristol. She cannot save, from week to week, enough to buy her way there. Then, as far as her freedom is concerned, this is equivalent to a 'trip to Bristol' not being written on someone's ticket in the imagined non-monetary economy. The woman I descirbed has the capacity to go to Bristol (she can board the train, etc.). But she willl be physically prevented from doing so, or physically ejected from the train... the only way that she will not be prevented from getting and using such things is by offering money to them... thus to have money is to have freedom."
The upshot of this is that 'libertarians' cannot simply fall back on an assumed link between private property and freedom. Money restricts freedom. And they will want to say that it restricts freedom justly, perhaps because of some story they will tell about natural rights or self-ownership. I do not claim to have shown in the above that they can't actually accomplish the task of showing why its good, or why we must limit freedom in certain cases in order to protect the institution of private property. I think there good reasons to think they can't, but that's another issue.

But having the discussion about whether or not restricting freedom in order to preserve private property is just, is a much more productive and interesting conversation than merely allowing 'libertarians' to rattle off their own advertisements claiming that they are the #1 dentist-recommended defenders of freedom.

17 comments:

Toolbit said...

Dear G.A. Cohen,

I think you've got a good point. Libertarianism, like other political associations, has a somewhat misleading label. Perhaps a better way to delineate libertarian freedom is to say they advocate for negative, not positive, liberty. This negative liberty extends as far as the rights of others are not infringed upon, so a person ought to be free to do them. This liberty is not positive, however: it will not come at the purchase of another's property (e.g., taxes).

You ask a thought-provoking question: Why the link between property and freedom? My answer would be that we have a construct within civilization that when a person mixes their effort and/or time with an object, they obtain either part or whole ownership. For instance, no one "owns" electrons, but in my construction of these sentences, I "own" (via societal construct) these words, in a manner of speaking. I don't own the English language or this website, but I have obtained a kind of ownership of a piece of computer coding by organizing these things in a certain way.

Likewise, many forms of human endeavor are protected by society by the concept of ownership, and that ownership is a kind of extension of the person, since it was their endeavoring that created it. A libertarian, therefore, believes that to impose certain rules upon a person's property (e.g., accrued wealth, their speech, actions that don't violate another person's rights), you have by extension violated them. So for instance, when a car is stolen, you have not merely taken a prized object, or even a wealth and lifestyle-producing tool, but you have in a sense stolen part of the human endeavoring that could purchase the car. You haven't just stolen a car, you've stolen the x number of hours of the person's life and endeavoring in which to make it theirs.

So in the case of the train ticket, formerly, there was nothing to be owned. There was iron ore and wood and so forth, but prior to the train being built by engineers and construction workers and so on, there was nothing to be acquired. Now that the people who contributed to the building of the railroad, including, say, the investors who financed it, they now have created an object that has acquired a trait--that of property right. So, someone (or someones) have traded their endeavoring for the ownership of the train, without which it would probably not have been built. What a ticket holder does is, in effect, rent a portion of the train temporarily from the owner of the train.

If society were to just allow anyone to ride without respect to the rights of the owner/s, you have now violated the endeavoring (time and effort) of those who created it.

Admittedly, it's a more complicated version of freedom than anarchism, I think most can see how property is (or can be) linked to the person. This is why one of the under advertised points of libertarianism is contract enforcement. It's not as sexy as being able to smoke pot, but libertarians tend to hold contracts in high regard, for hopefully self-evident reasons.

Toolbit out.

Toolbit said...

Pink Scare,

My apologies for addressing your post to G.A. Cohen.

Cordially,
Toolbit

T said...

I'm pleased that you actually thought I was G.A. Cohen. I suppose I'll take that as a compliment.

Toolbit, I'm skeptical that you took any of the questions I posed seriously. Simply restating Isaiah Berlin's neg/pos liberty distinction doesn't actually address the point I was making about freedom and self-owernship at all. In fact, the argument assumes an impoverished 'negative' conception of freedom wherein one is free to the extent that one can do whatever one wants without interference of any kind. And I'm afraid that markets don't grant that kind of freedom. Take the case of pitching a tent on someone eles's property, etc. In this case my negative freedom is restricted (perhaps justly) by the intervention of the State. So much for the 'libertarian' complaint about State intervention; their preferred system requires tons of it in order to establish ownership relations. So the thought that freedom or liberty occupies a special place in 'libertarianism' is false.

What 'libertarians' really should say is that they don't care about freedom first and foremost, but private property. Now what you say about private property having to do with 'mixing labor' has nothing to do with reality. You've restated Locke's bizarre view about how natural resources comes to be private property, but this isn't how things actually worked out in history. Just about every single thing you own and consume was purchased from markets, and most of the materials were likely already commodified long before you were born. I suggest you read about 'primitive accumulation' or read my post about the origins of private property. I think its a romantic fantasy to say that individual holdings of private property, or the institution of private property itself, has to do with individuals 'endeavoring to create', since the majority of human history existed without this institution. Private property is a relatively new development.

I dont follow what you say about owning words.

What you say about the train is interesting. You shift between talking about the people who literally built and the capitalists who financed it and continue to seek rent from their ownership of it. Now what I hear you saying is this: its okay that the poor woman's freedom is restricted such that she can't visit her sister, since this preserves private property. But you've yet to justify that institution at all. In fact, you might think that the disconnect between the people who literally 'endeavored' and built the train track and the financiers is worth talking about. You might think there's something strange about organizing society around the ability of financing classes to seek rent from property that they've done nothing to produce or improve.

To say that the train track wouldn't have been built is false. But more importantly, if there wasn't a class of people with nothing but their labor to sell in order to subsist, the capitalist who financed the project would have had a tough time finding people to literally build it.

Look, if you think building trains, being productive, having a well-ordered society is an end in itself, you're no 'libertarian'. 'Libertarians' hold that private property, not the above, is the end in itself and that all else must be contorted to fit into the institutional structures that support the private ownership of major economic institutions by a small group of elites. If private property is only instrumentally valuable, say so. Otherwise I think 'libertarians' should be up front about fetishizing a particular aspect of capitalism to the detriment of human needs, social justice, freedom and equality.

T said...

If the bit about 'mixing labor' is true, then shouldn't the workers who built the train and the others involved in its construction have joint ownership of it, rather than, say, the moneybags who financed it?

If you think that there's something strange about the fact that ONLY the capitalist gets to seek rent from the finished train then you are beginning to ask the right questions.

The thought with the poor woman who wants to go to Bristol isn't that people should be able to go, willy nilly, on any train they please. Rather, the argument shows that lack of money means lack of freedom, full stop. 'Libertarians' often collapse freedom into private property, but private property actually restricts freedom at the same time that, perhaps, it creates freedom for others. My ownership of some thing presupposes non-ownership of everyone else. Someone is always left out with private property. And the thought is that with natural resources, basic social institutions, etc. there doesn't seem to be a good reason to make these things into private property. Especially since society isn't about individuals creating ex nihilo, but about all sorts of dense webs of interdependence. Even an exploitative system like capitalism places the powerful in a position of dependence (in a thin sense). Think what capitalists do when workers lay down their instruments and refuse to work... they scream and raise hell. Because they need the cooperation of a class of workers in order to make profits. And they need the cooperation of many others to have a coercive State aparatus that will intervene with violence to protect the institution of private property.

The point is that little of this has anything to do with freedom.

T said...

Private property and effort/endeavor/etc. many times have little to do with one another: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbitrage

Toolbit said...

Pink Scare,

(I erased a huge response I had, so I will try this again but shorter. Hate it when that happens.)

First, many of the objections you had, at their heart, were rejections of capitalism itself. While I happen to be a capitalist, I doubt I have much to say on the subject that would provide for substantive debate. If you're a Marxist/socialist, I would simply say in many cases we must agree to disagree.

Second, I'm sorry to hear you're skeptical of me taking your questions seriously. I did, and tried to give you a reasonable response to the best of my abilities.

If your working definition of freedom is that we can do whatever we want without any restrictions, then yes, libertarians are not for freedom. I grant you that. What I am arguing is that libertarian policies can, in theory, provide freedom that otherwise wouldn't exist, though not by your definition. For instance, if a person always has to worry about the threat that someone will steal from them (say, steal from their pumpkin patch), they are not, in one sense, "free" to plant and harvest a pumpkin crop. A libertarian would say that by honoring someone's private property, you are in fact giving them a type of freedom. In the case of the farmer, you're giving him the freedom to raise a crop without imminent fear of theft. This is not freedom as you define it, but I think a case could be made that living in a society that protects one's property in such a fashion is in fact freedom-loving.

--

Simply restating Isaiah Berlin's neg/pos liberty distinction doesn't actually address the point I was making about freedom and self-owernship at all.

You're right. it was addressing your definition of freedom.

In fact, the argument assumes an impoverished 'negative' conception of freedom wherein one is free to the extent that one can do whatever one wants without interference of any kind.

How does it assume this? I said, "negative liberty extends as far as the rights of others are not infringed upon." Doesn't that provide an interference of some kind?

And I'm afraid that markets don't grant that kind of freedom.

Markets don't grant what kind of freedom? To do whatever one wants without interference? I would agree, markets don't grant that kind of freedom.

Take the case of pitching a tent on someone eles's property...'libertarian' complaint about State intervention

I think you may have a misunderstanding of the libertarian cause. Libertarians are not against laws or government. A common statement of the movement is that government ought to be the "night watchman of society." It's not that the government ought not to do anything, only that it is to have a limited sphere of influence. You also only have one facet of libertarianism. Freedom is an important virtue politically, but not the only one. Responsibility is another. I think you have a misunderstanding that libertarians are monomaniacal on freedom and treat it as the only political capital worth buying and investing in.

--

Toolbit said...

On the topic of mixed labor, I fail to see how commodified products negate my ability to mix my labor to either acquire an object or create something with which I can trade for other owned properties.

I suggest you read about 'primitive accumulation' or read my post about the origins of private property.

I won't go digging through your posts, but if you provide a link I may give it my perusal.

I think its a romantic fantasy to say that individual holdings of private property, or the institution of private property itself, has to do with individuals 'endeavoring to create', since the majority of human history existed without this institution. Private property is a relatively new development.

I guess I take issue with everything here, so much so that I assume we're working from two different directions. Romans had properties, Thales in the 6th century endeavored and got a return on renting olive presses. Marriage has existed for ages and this put limits on what one could do with another's wife, and you couldn't hunt in the king's forest in the Middle Ages. Are you including human prehistory? I guess I doubt you so much you've either read a completely different history or mean something other than what I construe.

--

I don't follow what you say about owning words.

I was giving an example of a property that has a kind of abstract ownership. A computer program has ownership not through its medium (e.g., a compact disc), but through a specific arrangement of data. Likewise, a book is copyrightable not because the individual words are copyrightable, but their arrangement is. I just didn't want to use the example of a car.

Toolbit said...

it's okay that the poor woman's freedom is restricted such that she can't visit her sister, since this preserves private property. But you've yet to justify that institution at all.

I wasn't trying to justify the institution. I am a capitalist, but I don't believe I have to justify it to discuss your portrayal of libertarians. I doubt I could convince you of the merits of capitalism.

--

you might think that the disconnect between the people who literally 'endeavored' and built the train track and the financiers is worth talking about.

In that case, the endeavoring of the construction worker is not for ownership of the train, but for wages. You probably see this as inherently bad; I do not.

--

You might think there's something strange about organizing society around the ability of financing classes to seek rent from property that they've done nothing to produce or improve.

I don't.

Toolbit said...

To say that the train track wouldn't have been built is false.

Why? If it was not financed by either financiers or the government, who would build it? There must be incentive somewhere from someone, no? The only other options I can imagine is that trains are built through altruism or slave labor.

--

'Libertarians' hold that private property, not the above, is the end in itself and that all else must be contorted to fit into the institutional structures that support the private ownership of major economic institutions by a small group of elites.

You misunderstand libertarianism. They do not see freedom as an end, or even the only means. You don't hear as much about it, but responsibility is another virtue held dear to libertarians.

To clarify, there are two broad idealogical foundations for libertarianism: the moral and the consequentialist. An example of the first would be Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman the second. The moralist would say it's actually immoral to force people to give up their property through coercion. The second would say that libertarian principles simply yield the best results (I fall into the second group). But even in the case of the first group I think you create a straw man. Even the most property-minded libertarian doesn't see freedom as the end of man -- those that do are not libertarians and are in fact fetishists. A good book on the subject would be Charles Murray's In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government.

While on the subject of social justice and the like, I would argue that libertarians are more interested in those things than you probably assume. They tend to be less disturbed by things like economic disparity, but the most thoughtful would say that, overall, the best way to deal with things like poverty is by respecting people's property. We could debate if this is actually true, but I think you may have the impression that libertarians are beholden to ideology: the ones I know simply believe individuals are better at solving most problems (big and small) than government bureaucracies.

Toolbit said...

Someone is always left out with private property.

I may have a misunderstanding of your view of government, but I would argue there will always be some left out. If all own everything in the State, then can anyone walk onto a train and tell it where to go? May any man plant any crop where he chooses? I would argue that there will always be someone calling the shots.

--

And the thought is that with natural resources, basic social institutions, etc. there doesn't seem to be a good reason to make these things into private property.

I can think of a few. :)

Especially since society isn't about individuals creating ex nihilo

I would agree, we are not gods creating the world we live in and its resources from nothing.

You make much of things being in some measure partially formed at the start. I don't believe that puts my theory in as much jeopardy as you seem to think, but I'm willing to let you make your case. Why does a world that has already created much of the world we now seek to buy, sell and use put a risk the notion that we mix our labor with the world, and that creates ownership? If I say, sell a computer program, perform heart surgery or build and sell a boat, how am I now violating the notion that I have traded by endeavoring for wages which can then be converted into purchasing power for an existing commodity that I can own?

I think only if you imagine that the only "fair" system is one where every person "starts" as the same starting line does my theory come into problems. I do not subscribe to the notion that fairness entails that some are born with advantages. Would you agree with that? Am I stating your position properly?

--

Because they need the cooperation of a class of workers in order to make profits. And they need the cooperation of many others to have a coercive State aparatus that will intervene with violence to protect the institution of private property.

That's exactly what libertarians want to stop. Libertarians are for limited (small) government -- something which you've mostly neglected but is central to libertarian thought -- because they fear a coercive State government intervening with violence.

--

I should reiterate: I think you're misunderstanding libertarianism. You've created a straw man and not properly explained where freedom falls in with their ideology.

T said...

Just one thing:

"Because they need the cooperation of a class of workers in order to make profits. And they need the cooperation of many others to have a coercive State aparatus that will intervene with violence to protect the institution of private property.

That's exactly what libertarians want to stop. Libertarians are for limited (small) government -- something which you've mostly neglected but is central to libertarian thought -- because they fear a coercive State government intervening with violence."

You really are missing the big point here: markets require a coercive state to enforce property rights. Full stop. They require a state large enough to accomplish this task. 'Libertarians' therefore REQUIRE violent state intervention to defend private property. So all of the 'libertarian' complaints against 'intervention' are really disengenuous, since they don't reject intervention as such but the right sort of intervention. Intervention means abridgment of freedom.

Now I am not an unswerving opponent of all abridgements of individual freedom and neither are you. If we were, we'd be anarchists. But anarchists cannot be capitalists, for capitalism requires frequent interventions by a coercive state AND private property ownership presupposes non-ownership by all others of that property.

The point of all of this is that the rhetoric you've just used "small government", "libertarianism", "we're for freedom" and so forth... the point is we see it for what it is: political rhetoric unfairly friendly to the 'libertarian' position.

I agree with what you say about 'pumpkin patches'; the point is that while private property creates freedoms for some people, it insodoing restricts other peoples freedom. Now whether or not there is a good reason to do so is ANOTHER STORY, but at that point we'd no longer be talking about freedom, but something like justice. The upshot here is that 'libertarians' cannot just appeal to freedom when defending private property, they'll have to season their response with comments about right and justice. But talking about justice is not exactly 'libertarians' forte and if they're really just giving arguments about right or justice they ought to call themselves something other than 'libertarian' which suggests that freedom has a priviledged place in their thought.

Its like if I call myself a "freedomitarian". You get the idea.

T said...

Here's some good summer reading:

http://pink-scare.blogspot.com/2008/09/pink-scare.html

http://pink-scare.blogspot.com/2009/03/capitalism-is-not-free-market.html

http://pink-scare.blogspot.com/2008/10/free-market-as-chimera.html

Toolbit said...

You really are missing the big point here: markets require a coercive state to enforce property rights. Full stop.

If enforcement of contracts and private property and so forth is coercive, then yes, a free market is coercive. I would take issue with your definition. That's why libertarians aren't fanatically against intervention, only intervention not relatively agreed upon. All things being equal, if I agreed to take out a loan and didn't pay it back (all things being equal), I have reneged on my duties and a higher power (i.e., the State) gets involved. Libetarians aren't against that.

Again, you're creating a straw man. You're using definitions and starting from a place libertarians would disagree with.

Its like if I call myself a "freedomitarian". You get the idea.

I do get the idea. I agreed before that the name is misleading, but with a little bit of abstract thinking, not contradictory.

Toolbit out.

Toolbit said...

Perhaps a way to see it is to think of the term "democracy." Democracy means rule by the people. And yet, American Democrats aren't trying to rewrite the Constitution and make every law voted upon by the entire US population. We live in a "Representative Democracy," which means the populace votes in those who will make laws for them. So, to say "Democrats are democratic" is, in one sense, technically true, but still wrong. You can agree or disagree with the system, but I would argue that Democrats are in staying with the spirit of democracy, even if they aren't advocating for a Greek city-state government where all citizens vote on the laws. Likewise, libertarians are for "liberty," but in a more nuanced way than your working definition gives.

Toolbit out.

T said...

this is another discussion, but its again disingenuous to say that 'libertarians' are for democracy.

They actually abhor democracy. They are for capitalist markets.

Think about what libertarians say when democratic institutions (i.e 'big Government') lay their hands on 'sacrosanct property rights' or 'intervene in private enterprise', or resolve through redistributive taxation to provide health services to all.

They complain that all of these tasks are best taken care of by the private sector, by markets. They claim that democratic institutions are inefficient and get in the way of what markets can do best. This is classic Austrian economics. One can read about this from Austrian-types in the literature on 'public ignorance' in democratic theory: their view is that democracy is basically a bad idea and that market allocations are the most efficient and just.

Think about it: 'libertarians' believe that markets are the best way to determine how resources should be allocated, how decisions should be made, etc. Therefore they do not support the role of democratic institutions in accomplishing these tasks.

I'm not misrepresenting the 'libertarian' view in the slightest by adding this. This is what all of the smartest 'libertarians' argue, e.g. Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia on down to Hayek and Von Mises.

Ask yourself these questions:

-should important economic institutions be run democratically?

'libertarian' answer: no, they should be run by market forces and entitlement.

-should education be run democratically?

'lib' answer: no, it should be subject to market forces, run by a small group of private investors and treated like a commodity.

etc.

T said...

e.g.:

http://www.amazon.com/Myth-Rational-Voter-Democracies-Policies/dp/0691129428

His argument: Democracies are irrational, markets are rational. Therefore democracy is inferior to markets as a means for organizing social institutions. This is as 'libertarian' as you can get.

Toolbit said...

Pink Scare,

Okay, let's assume libertarianism isn't democratic (it would be helpful if you defined the term). This doesn't make them wrong. What makes libertarianism wrong, even if it's "anti-democratic"?

Toolbit out.