Monday, June 28, 2010

John Locke: Second Treatise of Government

This post will contain all of the posts PJ and I put up in our discussion of John Locke's Second Treatise of Government. The division into parts is arbitrary.

Part I
Part II

Part III
Part IV

John Locke: Second Treatise of Govt. (II)

Continuing with Locke, we consider the topic Of Slavery: "freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it... not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man." (Princeton Readings p. 250)

Two points are crucial here. First, the sovereign, or the legislative power is not set apart from the people; the laws apply to "every one of that society." Second, the legislative power is bound by the law. As yet, its unclear how this would work, but the general idea is clear; the ruling power must answer to something outside of himself. As the Lockean inspired Jefferson was to later say of the men who governed the United States: "bind [them] down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

Locke also provides an intriguing defense against voluntary slavery: "No body can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it." (p. 250)

We then come to Locke's defense of private property. Although he quotes the Bible to add to his argument, he notes that both reason and revelation must credit his view: "men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their subsistence." (p. 250) This isn't very controversial. The contrary assertion is an absurdity which would quickly end human existence.

Locke's invaluable contribution comes shortly thereafter: "Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others." (p. 251)

Two points here. First, something becomes a man's property when he has "mixed his labor" with it. Thus Columbus cannot stick a Spanish flag into San Salvador and claim the entire island for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. But if his crew builds a hut on land which has not been touched by the natives, they may claim that property. Similarly, if the natives have cleared the land, they have "mixed their labor" with it, and Columbus can't go building a hut without permission. With this comes disputes; but if it's obvious how private property causes problems, it should also be clear that Locke's provisions makes settling these disputes possible.

Second, Locke gives no evidence to back up his claim that the earth, and all creatures, is common to all men. Certainly there are Biblical texts that one could quote to this effect, but this seems less consistent with the rest of Locke's thought. Rather than positing a primitive communism--which, though theologically sound, seems unnecessary for Locke's theory--one could argue that no ones owns any property until labor has been mixed with it. Indeed, at times Locke seems to argue against his first point. If everything is held in common, must we attain permission from everyone before appropriating a resource? Obviously this is, at a minimum, absurdly impractical.

Later theorists, like Murray Rothbard, were to make property rights absolute, but Locke believed--like Thomas--that they were conditional. "The same law of nature, that does by this means give us property, does also bound that property too. God has given us all things richly... But how far has he given it us? To enjoy. As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his Labour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others."

Locke runs into problems here. It's very reasonable to bound property by something; it's another matter entirely to determine how this is to be done. It's a bit unfair to expect Locke to have solved this conundrum himself, but it's worth pointing out lines for further development.

Another possible objection to Locke's idea of property rights is that, as my roommate put it, everything is already owned. If we are limiting everything to land, this is very near true. Locke realizes this to an extent. Hence he emphasizes the need for open land, mentioning colonial America as an example. And yet, while the earth is undoubtedly more crowded than it was in Locke's day, this doesn't invalidate property rights. The difficulty of holding everything in common is not lessened because there are more than six billion people--it is compounded. Further, we should remember that land is but one type of property.

Locke engages in a bit of monetary crankiness. It was only the invention of money which caused man to desire to get more property than he could reasonably use. Later in this section, he writes, "Thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as money was any where known. Find out something that hath the use and value of money amongst his neighbours, you shall see the same man will begin presently to enlarge his possessions." (p. 257) Locke's concern about greedy landowners is admirable, but we should note that money has contributed much to human happiness as well. It has enabled man to move beyond a simple barter economy, which leads to specialization, enriching society in the process--as Adam Smith and others were to show.

He argues--rightly--that gold and silver only have value because men believe they do. Given that the world has abandoned sound money for fiat currency, Locke's statement is prescient.

He also anticipates the labor theory of value: "Nor is it so strange, as perhaps before consideration it may appear, that the property of labour should be able to over-balance the community of land: for it is labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing; and let any one consider what the difference is between an acre of land planted with tobacco or sugar, sown with wheat or barley, and an acre of the same land lying in common, without any husbandry upon it, and he will find, that the improvement of labour makes the far greater part of the value." (p. 255) Yet the labor only has value because the sugar, or whatever other product is being cultivated to be consumed or sold, has value. Farmer Locke can plant weeds all day without increasing the value of the land substantially. Again, we musn't blame Locke here, even if the labor theory of value is wrong headed. It is nonetheless interesting to note where we may trace ideas.

I've gone and written too much on property rights. Feel free to add on, otherwise I'll try to put something together on the next few sections during the coming week.

Friday, June 25, 2010

John Locke: Second Treatise of Govt.

Locke shares many assumptions with Hobbes, yet was obviously alarmed by his absolutist conclusions. Our selection opens with restatement of a distinction dating back to Aristotle (itself, perhaps, an implicit response to Plato's absolutism). The distinction is between the political and the private, between the polis and the oikos (household). In familial and economic relations, one party may rule another absolutely, as, for instance, parents over young children. (The examples Aristotle and Locke actually give make this way of drawing the distinction appear rather contentious, e.g., master over slave, husband over wife...) Political power, in any case, refers to a different kind of relationship. His definition: "a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in execution of such laws, and in defense of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good" (243). He will proceed to argue, however, that this power is always conditional on the government acting according to the trust with which the people endow it (e.g. 275). Indeed, there is a passage at p.250 in which he cleverly turns Hobbes' own assumptions against him. Beginning, as Hobbes does, from the conviction that our passion for self-preservation is the most powerful motivating force in our lives, it is manifestly irrational to place oneself unconditionally under the authority of a potentially arbitrary sovereign.

Like Hobbes, Locke grounds his political theory by appeal to a state of nature. Yet he paints a decidedly rosier picture of this state. We are all equal, he says, not in our ability each to kill the other, but in the free use of the same set of human faculties. He appeals here to the religious conviction that God put us here to prosper, and we ought not to interfere with his intention (244-5). There are also operative assumptions of natural abundance and sociability. The natural law that follows from this description is that "being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions" (244). Furthermore, in the state of nature, everyone has the right to enforce this law, punishing offenses proportionally to the degree of transgression (245). He introduces civil government as the proper remedy for the "inconveniences" that arise from the difficulties of judging cases in which we are a party (246). I don't have an OED to-hand, but, compared with what we saw in Hobbes, the language of "inconveniences" is to me strikingly mild (though Locke does acknowledge that this inconvenience might result in quite a bit of violence at p.249).

There is unfortunately little argument in these opening passages to persuade us to accept this picture rather than that of Hobbes. How does he respond to the charge that we are, by natural disposition, inclined toward quarrel, that our interest in gain, safety, and reputation set us continually at odds with one another (Hobbes 208)? I believe that it is Locke's discussion of property that is supposed to help make his view plausible to us.

I am going to stop here for the moment. Perhaps you want to cover his view on property? Or just respond to whatever struck you in the text or the above. I will try to be better about keeping up with this...

Cheers, PJ

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Angry tea partiers

PJ sent me a link to a piece by J.M. Bernstein about the tea party movement. The title, "The Very Angry Tea Party," gives an idea as to his take. The central flaw with his article, as with many similar articles written on this subject, is that it assumes that the tea partiers must have something which unites them. In a sense this is true; every movement must have some common thread or it will divide into two or more movements. But, so far as I can tell, the only thing that unites the tea party is a sometimes vague and often contradictory notion that government has gotten too big and must be reduced in size. There is certainly anger, but Bernstein downplays the extent to which this may be justified, while at the same time he sees little else in the movement. This is a mistake because, whether or not we support its goals--which remain ill defined--we would do well to understand it.

As readers of the blog well know, I'm an ardent supporter of Ron Paul. As a result, I've been aware of the tea party movement for a very long time. Like the snobbish indie rocker, I was into tea parties before they were cool--only I was never really into them. I supported Paul's campaign to educate the American people about the importance of liberty, sound money and a humble foreign policy, but meet up groups and political rallies aren't my cup of--well, you know. I prefer to read economic treatises and bore my friends with discussions of Austrian business cycle theory.

Two things surprised me about the tea party: first, that they became a big deal; second, that the movement has staying power. Somewhere between the first and the second surprise something happened: the establishment caught on and tried to join the movement. Suddenly, Sean Hannity was pimping for the partiers. This helped raise visibility, but it hurt the movement in the long run. Sean does a grand job of firing up the base about the evil of the democratic party, which is a laudable goal. But he's AWOL when it comes to abuses on behalf of his beloved republicans. He might say some nasty things about Arlen Specter, but Bush can grow government as much as he wants without earning a rebuke from Sean. In other words, Hannity is a partisan hack.

Hannity's tea party is sometimes the one Bernstein discusses:

When it comes to the Tea Party’s concrete policy proposals, things get fuzzier and more contradictory: keep the government out of health care, but leave Medicare alone; balance the budget, but don’t raise taxes; let individuals take care of themselves, but leave Social Security alone.

It's fair to point out the contradictions here because they're rather noticeable. On the other hand, it's nothing new, either. As I once wrote: "[T]he folly of conservatism lies in its defensive nature; it can mitigate the damage done by the forces of liberalism, but it can never prevent their longterm success." Hannity's tea party is fighting against things he will be supporting in twenty years.

I use Hannity to denote the faction of the tea party with which I am in least sympathy, but Palin is the actual leader. As this poll demonstrates, tea partiers are split between Ron Paul and Sarah Palin. Moreover, despite the movement they ostensibly share, supporters of one are not likely to care for the other. This is an important aspect of the movement--one which gets too little attention.

Naturally, I side with the Paul people. I do so for two main reasons. First, Paul advocates a sensible and moral foreign policy. While Palin and company want government to be small, they want defense to be huge. This is problematic because the armed forces are more dangerous to life and liberty than any other aspect of the government--of which, I hesitate to remind Palin, defense surely is a part. It's absurd, too, because the annals of history fail to recommend a single example of an empire--such as we possess--with an insignificant bureaucracy. You want a big army, you have to take the big bureaucracy.

The second reason I side with Paul is that his understanding of the nature of government is so much more complete and consistent. Human beings are capable of exchanging goods and services for mutual benefit. Such exchanges are inherently just because they are voluntary. Contrariwise, the State is force. Its subjects are not allowed to opt out voluntarily; at most, they may move to another State. Instead, they must fight in its wars, or at least pay for them. They must use its currency--which is constantly being debased so as to siphon funds to State coffers. They must give up a large percentage of their income, so as to pay for services they may or may not wish to receive. As the great Ludwig von Mises observed, "Government is essentially the negation of liberty." Hence libertarians do what we can to resist it.

In discussing this resistance, Bernstein's piece insinuates that the tea partiers may become violent:

In truth, there is nothing that the Tea Party movement wants; terrifyingly, it wants nothing. Lilla calls the Tea Party “Jacobins”; I would urge that they are nihilists. To date, the Tea Party has committed only the minor, almost atmospheric violences of propagating falsehoods, calumny and the disruption of the occasions for political speech — the last already to great and distorting effect. But if their nihilistic rage is deprived of interrupting political meetings as an outlet, where might it now go? With such rage driving the Tea Party, might we anticipate this atmospheric violence becoming actual violence, becoming what Hegel called, referring to the original Jacobins’ fantasy of total freedom, “a fury of destruction”? There is indeed something not just disturbing, but frightening, in the anger of the Tea Party.

I cannot speak for the Palin crowd, but the Paulians are not a violent bunch. Philosophically, the opposition to government stems from its opposition to force. To use the State's means against it would be to acknowledge that aggressive force has a place in society, something the libertarian rejects. Instead, we patiently bide our time, educating those among us who are open to the message of liberty. We will also be ready to offer a peaceful alternative when the State strikes out violently against those who are reluctant to abide by its might.

Bernstein has one other point that he offers which I wish to address:

My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.

This is correct, but it is also misleading. We are dependent because the government compels us to be. We use its currency, and suffer inflation because of it. We must work to pay for two senseless, losing wars. We thus have less money to feed our families, and with which we may strengthen non-compulsory institutions, none of which is more important than the family itself.

Bernstein hints that the tea party may be revolutionary. It is far more likely that it will utterly fail to do much of anything. The American people don't actually hate government. Sure, some of us do, but we're idiosyncratic. The success of Ron Paul's End the Fed notwithstanding, obsessions with monetary policy are signs that you may belong to the remnant of which Albert Jay Nock wrote. Most people will tolerate the government until it oversteps its bounds to the point where the deleterious consequences of governmental interference can no longer be ignored.

This is what we've witnessed recently, and it's a point that we must not forget. Yes, conservatives like Hannity are hypocritical for supporting the State as long as their guy was running it. But this doesn't detract from the fact that the State violates our liberties with impunity, and is patently responsible for the impoverishment of millions of Americans.

Consider what has occurred in the last three or four years. Mainstream economists, pundits and politicians insisted that the economy was doing well. The Austrian school knew better of course. When it was no longer possible to pretend that there was a problem, both major presidential candidates helped transfer billions of dollars, enough money to pay off almost every mortgage in the country, to bail out rich bankers--who then took home huge bonuses. The same buffoons who didn't recognize the housing bubble insisted that the stimulus would fix the economy. They then used meaningless metrics to prove that the recession was over. This happened while unemployment continued to climb. Meanwhile, the State picked up the slack by hiring more people to interfere in the lives of free citizens. We also found out that private sector employees are suckers, who make far less than those who work for the State.

This had the tendency to make people angry. Should we be surprised? Instead of being concerned with the anger of the tea party, I think Bernstein should ask himself why he fails to share their emotions. It's ripping him off, too.