An Essay on Property (Part One)

One key issue which has divided the traditional conservative/classical liberal position from that of the socialist/left liberal position is the matter of property.  In its extreme, it sets the anarcho-capitalist, who tends to see property as one of the defining features of a just society, against the traditional anarchist who, in Proudhoun’s words, exclaim that “Property is Theft.”  In any event, property is one of the most important and, I would argue, least understood, ideas in political thought.  Neither those who defend the idea of private property nor those who support wide scale socialization have thought through what it means.  This essay is an effort to do just that.

Starting from the most traditional sources of libertarian thought sends us back to two of the most important names in modern philosophy, John Locke and Rene Descartes.  From Locke we take the phrase “life, liberty and property,” one which supposedly defines the “natural,” “self-evident” and “God given” rights of man.  If Locke’s phrasing sounds familiar, it is probably because the terms are lifted (almost) verbatim in the Declaration of Independence.   Less acknowledged is the general influence of Descartes, whose philosophy is both rationalist in arguing from first principles and individualist in its metaphysics, essentially placing the individual consciousness at the center of Western thought.  This is not a universal notion but one which mostly holds sway in the United States and is particularly important to libertarianism with its focus on individual rights and responsibilities.

Another key feature of this approach, and one frequently misunderstood, is that “rights” in this context are best understood as “negative rights,” essentially the right to be left alone.  The rights to life, liberty and property do not entitle the individual to any positive good nor does it provide any obligation to supply those goods to others.   It would be just as easy (and accurate) to define these rights as responsibilities.  As both individuals or as groups of individuals  (governments,) it is our responsibility to respect other individuals, which is to say, respect their rights.

Again, there is fairly general agreement within Western society in respecting the rights to Life and Liberty.  In the simplest terms, that means we believe it is wrong to kill and wrong to restrain or control others.  There are points on which we disagree of course.  While most all may agree on a right to Life, on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and war, there is much dispute.  And while most all may agree on a right to Liberty, on issues like contract law, minimum wage, self harm and addiction, and criminal justice, there is also much dispute.  These are worthwhile topics for discussion but I regard them as tangential to the general acceptance of the underlying principles.  

That brings us to the third of Locke’s triumvirate of rights and the one which is the topic of this essay: property.  In its simplest form it might be characterized as to right to obtain and keep our “stuff,” whatever that might mean,  and it imposes the responsibility of respecting the “stuff” of others.  In other words it says that it is wrong to steal or to take what does not belong to you.  And, while putting it in those terms makes it sound entirely uncontroversial, in practice it is a very different story.

As an example we might return to Locke and his relationship to the Declaration of Independence.  We note that, although an early draft of that document used the words “life, liberty and property,” the final draft omits property in favor of “the pursuit of happiness.”  It is  interesting that the Founding Fathers made that choice and I think suggests that they were aware that the right to property might not be as universally accepted.  

I am going to conclude part one of this essay with a short (and unsatisfactory) definition of property.  In part two I will try and flesh it out in more detail. So here we go.  Property has a few key chacteristics.  First and foremost, in order for something to be defined as property, it must be a  (relatively) scarce resource.  Second,  it must be divisible in a meaningful way.  Third, it must be a tangible good.  Again, these are intentionally vague, but still somewhat controversial.  I urge you to think through this definition and see if you can improve on it in some way.  In a few days I will do the same.

As always, thanks for reading.  Like, subscribe, follow, share and feel free to join the discussion.  Until next time, have a great week!

Dumb Things Libertarians Do

Well, it is time to turn the tables and admit at least some of the dumb things that we Libertarians do.  I say “some” because I doubt I have the bandwidth to list them all.  As with my posts on Democrats and Republicans, much of these dumb things aren’t really about what we, as Libertarians believe, but about the tactical mistakes we make.

As is common with any genuinely radical and ideological political party, Libertarians have a tendency to expend too much energy fighting among themselves over who is pure enough and consistent enough to be a real libertarian.  Unlike Democrats and Republicans who mostly welcome a wide spectrum of different views, we seem determined to alienate as many potential voters as possible, even if they generally support our views.  Fighting that tendency is, after all, the mission of this blog.

Curiously enough, the same people who threaten to purge one another because they aren’t the right sort of libertarian are often all too willing to kiss up to Democrats and Republicans who smile in our direction.  And I am not talking about the likes of Ron or Rand Paul who, whether you agree with them on every issue or not, have certainly earned the right to be called libertarian.  No, I refer to those among us who, at various times, have decided that people like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Ted Cruz or even Donald Trump are worthy of Libertarian support.  We seem especially fond of certain Republicans who pay lip service to the principles of limited government.  Sadly, it is usually little more than that.  Building coalitions of like minded people is always worthwhile.  Selling out to the right (or left) wing is not.  

Another mistake we Libertarians make is to assume that everyone will agree with us if only we share our airtight arguments with them.  It isn’t about having a dialogue with people but about imparting our special wisdom.  Is it any wonder that we are sometimes just about as welcome as the Jehovah’s Witnesses?  While there is nothing wrong with sharing your beliefs and helping others to understand why you believe what you do,  believing that the best way to deal with a conflicting point of view is to “educate” your opponent is just this side of stupid.  No one wants to be treated that way.

Another habit that we have that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth is what appears to be relentless negativity.  While we are absolutely correct to point out the ways in which government action distorts the market, violates individual rights and fails to achieve its stated purpose, simply saying “no” over and over without offering any alternative will get us nowhere.  In addition to opposing compulsory  (government) solutions to a problem, we need to focus more energy on finding voluntary  (private) solutions that people can support.  This is an enormous opportunity for future students of liberty.

Finally, in much the same way that we simply dismiss our political opponents or their legitimate concerns, many of us are more than happy to be back seat drivers and Monday morning quarterbacks  (and, apparently, excessive users of metaphors.)  What I mean is that many of the most capable and articulate among us are hesitant to invest the time and energy it takes to effect change.  Organizing, communicating and getting involved at the local level are probably the best way to create change but too many of us simply don’t have the time and patience to do those things.  We want to run before we have even learned to crawl.  No wonder people don’t take us seriously.

As I mentioned at the start, this list only scratches the surface of all the dumb things we Libertarians  (and libertarians) do.  When you are starting from the bottom, you don’t have the luxury of making stupid mistakes.  Hopefully we can all do a better job avoiding some of the most egregious ones.

Still not sure if I am ready to start my series on the nature of property just yet as I am still working out some of the details of how I am going to pull it together, so we may still be a few weeks off.  I do want to thank all you have taken the time to read this.  We have had a number of new readers lately and I appreciate you.  Please continue to follow along and I will do my best to provide insights into the world of politics.  Have a great week!

Quickie!

A few thoughts on the Ttump budget.  Of course it is awful, wasting money on an already excessive defense budget and continuing to plunge the nation farther into debt.

But, of course, the mainstream media story is that the budget eliminates federal funding for PBS and for a community block grant program that helps provide funding for Meals on Wheels.

As to PBS, I am a big fan of a number of their programs and hope to see the network thrive and prosper.  No reason that it can’t.  As even the PBS press releases admit, federal funding is less than half a billion dollars and amounts to about $1.35 per person.  If a national broadcaster that is known to all Americans and enjoyed by a significant number cannot figure out how to raise that amount through voluntary donations and corporate sponsorship, perhaps it deserves to be replaced by an organization that can. 

As to Meals on Wheels, it would appear to be exactly the kind of person to person charitable organization I believe is most effective.  It should have no problem remaining that way.  Government funding represents just over 3% of their budget.  Again, if they can’t replace that funding from voluntary sources, I will bet there is some like minded group that can.

We have got to stop believing that the only way we can fund worthwhile organizations in this country is through government money.  If we were rolling in the dough, that might be one thing.  But we aren’t.  We are broke.  Skip a latte or a Happy Meal.  That is enough to fund more than your share of two worthwhile organisations.

Back soon with more moderately hard hitting blasphemy.  Thanks for reading and have a great week!

Dumb things Democrats do

As promised, we now return the favor and give the business to our good friends on the left.

Democrats like to pretend that the solution to all budget issues is to simply tax “the rich”  Neglecting the fact that almost all taxes are already paid by the wealthiest Americans, it simply isn’t true.  You could confiscate every dime made by the wealthiest and not even come close to balancing the budget.  

When Democrats complain about the abuse of power by police and politicians, it rings rather hollow.  After all, these are the same people who frequently wish to use the government to regulate inappropriate speech on college campuses or continue a drug war whose effects fall disproportionately on the very minorities they purport to defend. A government powerful enough to micromanage inappropriate behavior is a government powerful enough to micromanage all behavior.

Once upon a time, Democrats consistently opposed foreign intervention unless it was absolutely necessary.  Now it appears that only Republican intervention is wrong.  The last two Democrat Presidents pretty much got a pass.

While the desire to be inclusive is understandable, Democrats sometimes appear to bend over backwards in favor of immigrants and minority groups.  In the end, it shouldn’t be about favoring any particular group but, rather, being sure to treat all individuals equally.

While mouthing a commitment to democratic principles, Democrats consistently support the very undemocratic regulatory state.  If individual behavior needs to be regulated, then have the intestinal fortitude to pass specific legislation to do so.  Vague laws that pass the buck to unelected officials hardly represent the democratic ideal.

Along those same lines, while it might not be surprising that Republicans, who typically favor conservatism and tradition, might oppose opening up the political process to alternative parties and perspectives, it is often Democrats who are most vehement in opposing such alternatives.  Even the party’s own nomination process is designed to favor the establishment over alternative viewpoints.

Well, just to be delightfully fair and balanced, next time I will discuss the dumb things Libertarians do.  It will be difficult to fit it all into just one post but I will do my best.  Until then, have a great week!

Dumb Things Republicans Do

Back from vacation with a multipart series on the stupid things partisans of all stripes do.  And we start with the proverbial party in power, the Republicans.

Always claiming to be fiscally conservative, Republicans regularly propose cutting or eliminating domestic programs which, relatively speaking cost very little, while exempting or proposing to increase spending on the military and foreign adventures.  Whether you approve of food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies or transportation projects, at least these programs benefit individuals and communities that may be struggling.  If you wanted people to think you were a heartless political party, beholden to large corporate interests, you could hardly do better than to target these programs FIRST, which is, inevitably, what Republicans do.

On the other hand, Republicans also sell their version of limited government as a panacea for all.  They inevitably try to argue that some particular version of tax cuts and regulatory reform is going to fix all the problems those damned Democrats have created.  There are ultimately no hard choices that have to be made.  We will just clean up Washington, do away with waste and fraud, and get government to start subsidizing the right things.  Then there will be peace and pizza for everyone.  If you wanted to pretty much guarantee that spending would continue unabated, that deficits would continue to grow and that the difficult budget choices would never come up, you could hardly do better.

And then there is that whole problem of saying patently absurd things.  Inevitably a Republican somewhere today made a blatantly racist or sexist remark about something.  Some of this is because, frankly, the poor bastards are getting stuck with the reactionary fringe because they obviously aren’t going to be Democrats.  But a political party that cared about more than just winning elections would weed these people out.  Instead, it often looks like they are being courted.  If you wanted to pretty much guarantee that your critics would accuse you of being culturally stuck in the 19th century, you could hardly do better.

Finally, Republicans are far too devoted to what I will call the National Religion.  They are obsessed with flags and pledges and salutes and a kind of military protocol that makes a great many people uneasy.  It isn’t so much that these symbols are bad but that they have come to take on a life of their own.   The flag as a physical object is meaningless.  What we need to be devoted to are the principles that the flag represents.  Hell, that part of Republican folklore goes all the way back to Lincoln.  In any case, if you wanted people to believe that you were an authoritarian political party with an unhealthy obsession with law and order and the military, you could hardly do better than the modern Republican party has done.

Well, I am sure my pinko commie friends enjoyed that particular rant but I wouldn’t get too comfortable because, next time around, we are going to be skewering the Democrats and the dumb things that they do.  Until then, thanks for reading and have a great week!

More Ramblings

Funny how things change and how they don’t.  For the past 8 years, while frequently disagreeing with President Obama’s policies and philosophy, I found myself very uncomfortable with the crude, personal attacks that suggested he was an evil man hell bent on destroying America.  Now I find myself feeling exactly the same way about Trump.  I disagree strongly with many of his policies and disapprove of many of his advisors, but I do not believe he is an evil man trying to destroy America.

I often see an internet meme (which I guess is redundant) that the government had better not mess with Social Security because that money doesn’t belong to the government.  It belongs to the workers.  Well, yeah, but that’s true of every single penny the government takes in taxes.  It all was the workers’ money before the government took it.  

Liberals like to point out how narrow minded some Christians are and how their attitudes towards women, people of color and LGBTQ individuals are just awful.  They may be right.  But those same people seem to excuse attitudes and behaviors that are as bad or worse among Muslims.  Be consistent.  Oppose the behaviors, regardless of where they originated.

It occurs to me that people who fight their way to top of any organization, big or small, public or private, have expended far too much energy doing it. Their lives have narrowed in pursuit of that goal and their basic human decency has sometimes been sacrificed when it conflicted with the what was required by the organization.  Thus, the people who are least qualified to truly “lead” others, often end up ruling over them, whether it be at the White House or the White Castle.

In a time in which we constantly hear about fake or slanted news coverage, it is important to remember that “facts” are sometimes nothing of the sort.  Much of what each of us believe to be true is a function of our underlying philosophies about life.  Much as understanding each other is difficult when one yells from one house to another, it can be equally difficult when each person is arguing from a different ideological  premise.  Until you can find a point of agreement, there is no possibility of compromise, only more discord.

Enough rambling for now.  Thanks for reading and have a great week!

Money & Debt:  A few notes on the Federal Reserve 

In my previous blog post, we talked a bit about money, debt and the banking system.  We observed that most money isn’t in the form of coins or bills but, rather, is a creation of the banking system and exists only as entries in a computer ledger.  We did not explain how the whole process is directed by our nation’s central bank, the Federal Reserve.

In principle,  the Fed is supposed to regulate the availability of money and credit, making sure that there is not so much of it that we have price inflation nor so little that we fall into a recession.  How successful it has been in achieving those goals is a topic for another day, but it is worth noting that the dollar is worth less than 5% of the value it possessed in 1913, the year the Federal Reserve came into being.

No, today’s topic is merely to briefly explain how the Fed creates money.  This is mostly done through the purchase of US Treasury Notes (bonds) in what are referred to as Open Market operations.  When the Fed purchases say $10 billion in Treasuries, it credits the bank selling the bonds with $10 billion.  Normally, the bank is required to keep 10% of that amount on hand as a reserve but can now lend out an additional  $9 billion.  And , if you remember back to last week’s post, you will recall that, through the repeated  process of loaning and depositing, that could actually result in an increase in the money supply of up to $100 billion.  Poof!  Magic!

Of course the Fed can also destroy money by selling US Treasury Notes or raising the reserve requirements.  And, in the short term, that does occur.  But, over time, the expansion of money & debt is pretty much guaranteed to continue.  But, you say, we need more money in circulation as our economy grows and develops.  That may be true.  But I would urge you to keep one thing in mind about this process and that is who most benefits from it.  

As the amount of money grows, the value tends to decline,  but that doesn’t happen immediately.  If you owned a business and, suddenly, your sales doubled, you would take that as a cue that you have a product people want and would be prompted to produce more.  But what if you came to realize that the increase in your sales was simply the result of twice as much money being available?  Your costs would quickly rise and you would have to increase your prices to account for that fact.  In time, things would, more or less, come back into balance.

But what about that first group of customers?  They made out pretty well before things came back into balance.  It is almost like they simply printed up some counterfeit bills and got full value for it.   And there’s the “gotcha!”  If we think back, those large banks and the government spent that new money at the same value as the money previously in circulation.  They did well for themselves.  But, as time went by and prices adjusted themselves, the vast majority of us had cash reserves worth less in purchasing power than before.  So who benefits?  And who gets screwed?  Well, I will let you decide.

Will probably do a couple shorter blog entries over the next week or so before I begin to discuss what I consider the most difficult problem of politics and economics:  property.  Until next time, thanks for reading and have a great week!