Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Must liberals believe in fairy-tales? Dan Klein seems to think so.

This month's Cato Unbound, centered on Daniel Klein's essay "Against Overlordship", is rather painful to read. The participants began by talking past one another, but that aside, the content verges on the ridiculous.

I could spend a post on social-democrat Matthias Matthijs's seeming naiveté and descent into vulgarity. He writes of compulsory health-insurance in the abstract without any regard for what happened on the ground.

To Matthijs, "social democrats do not believe that you can be truly free – that is, capable of making rational and truly independent choices — without basic health considerations taken out of the picture. Social democrats are the true believers in liberty, real liberty, not the rather thin or limited kind most libertarians advocate. The social democratic concept of liberty is not encumbered by things we cannot control, like pre-existing health conditions or the financial resources of our parents." Forget that this would mean that social democrats do not make a distinction between liberty and capability, but the alternative is unclear. Is Matthijs (or Matthijs's hypothetical social democrat) proposing that humans cease being human and become disease-free? Is "liberty" contingent on being a new disease-free species? We all know that socialized medicine doesn't take away people's pre-existing health conditions, nor does it remove health considerations from the other choices we make in life. For Matthijs to claim otherwise is simply stupid.

It is as though Dworkin never wrote about "Justice in the Distribution of Health Care". Even to a leftist like Dworkin--and one who abuses vail of ignorance arguments--it was evident that the demand for health care, especially at the end of life, is infinite, and a socialized system must balance demand for this good against demand for others. Social democracy, then, does not remove health concerns so that people are somehow more free. It merely moves the choices about balancing away from the individual and towards his supposed betters. Why should the individual _not_ have to take into account his desire for future health care when making educational, business, or other decisions? How is that individual more free if that decision is instead put in the hands of others? That is how social democracy (a form of socialism) works. It is not a magical "abundance button". The individual will get sick, and will not receive infinite treatment. End of story.

Beyond that, Matthijs, even when asked about concretes, fails to acknowledge what Obama and the Democrats did. It is not just a forced purchase of insurance. Obama and the Democrats banned actuarially fair insurance pricing and required "insurance" to be issued for certainties. The bill passed earlier this year did not merely require that actuarially fair insurance policies (with or without riders) be issued to people with pre-existing conditions. It required that risk not play any role whatsoever in determination of the cost of an insurance policy. Perhaps this is what Matthijs (or his hypothetical social democrat) had in mind above. The individual need not worry about the costs of his actions: the "insurance" rates--and "insurance" is only a euphemism now--will be the same.

But it is lead essayist Dan Klein who is the most frustrating, and the most vulgar. Hang out around dilettante libertarians enough and you'll hear someone say (usually in different words) that the state being sovereign, the law being *gasp* changeable, or there being any law whatsoever means you don't "really own" your property, that the state or someone else owns it. This is Klein's position, too.

The left may continue: “There are no natural property rights. Property is a set of permissions, a bundle of rights, determined by the government and delegated to you by the government. When a rearrangement of the bundles would be good, that’s what the government should do. ‘Your’ property rights are simply whatever permissions result from the process.”

Let’s enter into that way of thinking, follow through on it, and surface its presuppositions.

Although they may not be fully conscious of it, progressives and social democrats are saying that everything is owned by the state. Or, perhaps, that the substructure upon which topsoil, buildings, and other things sit is owned by the state. Either way, simply by being in the United States, you voluntarily agree to all government rules.

Does Klein not understand that ownership is not and never has been the same thing as sovereignty? If he is correct about ownership than nobody except despots have ever owned anything.

It gets worse. Later in the essay he writes positively about natural rights, including a natural right to property. How much more stupid can an educated man get, than to presume that property rights--influenced strongly by the English common law--are somehow "natural", or at least a natural substrate to which government has made un-natural modifications. Not only is the history of property in our legal tradition fairly well documented--that something is old does not mean that it is natural--Elinor Ostrom and many others have also made careers studying how different socities meet their respective needs with different property rights. Why Klein's ideal is "natural" but the property rights systems of e.g. American Indians, Inuit, Somalis, and many others is by implication not "natural" is left a mystery.

In light of history, comparative studies, and even the sort of theoretical work done by Cato Unbound participant David Friedman, the "natural rights" approach is intellectually untenable. Indeed it is so ridiculous, involves so much begging the question, that it is shameful. There is no alternative to viewing property rights as transferable bundles of rights whose nature depends on law and social custom. This is simply the result of serious study of what property rights are and have been. Yet Klein, in his stridence, insists that we should see property rights as "natural". It is though he is saying to libertarians that it would be better if we acted as though we were either stupid or ignorant or both, that false advocacy of nonsense on stilts is necessary and that embracing the modern understanding of property (as e.g. Richard Epstein has done) means somehow that we will magically stop owning things and surrender our liberty.

Klein's objection to the "bundle of rights" approach seems to be that property rights can change if the law changes. Why does Klein not argue that the law should never change? This is a corner into which many "libertarians" of the Randist or Rothbardist (or "non-initiation of force") variety--the sort who think that there are closed systems that give all the answers--paint themselves. If you ever want to see one squirm, pin him down on this question: given what he argues, then should the law and thus property rights never change? Bring up interesting hypotheticals and historical problems. If Coasean bargaining is the excuse, pin him down on transaction costs, endowment effects, and other non-satisfaction of the premises of the Coase Theorem. Watch the lols ensue.

Before Will Wilkinson was purged from Cato, this vulgar nonsense would never have made it into Cato Unbound. What is certainly of no use to the cause of liberty is for Dan Klein to insist on a position best left to teenaged Rothbardites and get schooled by a social democrat. His essay makes it appear as though liberalism (libertarianism) depends on belief in fairy tales like natural property rights. That is not so.