Today was the first day of the V Austrian Congress, organized by the Juan the Mariana Institute. All the presentations were very interesting, especially since they were given from perspectives that a lot of American libertarians oftentimes do not really hear about. For instance, two of the lecturers were from South America, and one of them (Aparicio Caicedo) actually discussed to some lengths efforts to promote ‘liberalism’ (libertarianism) in Ecuador. Another lecture, given by Juan Pina, discussed liberalism in Europe and the need for a political presence. It is Pina’s lecture that I realized the “fatal conceit” that plagues libertarianism.
One of the themes was the “rationalism” of libertarianism versus the “emotionalism” of the populist politics of, broadly, right- and left-wing political parties. This seemed to also fit in with some of the other lectures, given that some of them were on how to spread the ‘liberal’ (libertarian) message. To a libertarian, this “rationalism” versus” emotionalism” makes sense, because naturally you think your beliefs and ideals are right and logical. Therefore, anybody who holds ideals exclusive to yours must be illogical, or at least must have made some logical error. That they do not come around to your point of view must mean that there must be some element other than logic at play: emotion (admittedly, this is better than factors highlighted by others, including stupidity).
This point of view, though, is arrogant. I am not sure that a political strategy that holds that the masses can only be converted through emotion will succeed, because it has an inherent assumption of a division of intelligence. Politics must be transmitted from intellectuals to the masses through populist communication, suggesting that there is something fundamentally non-intellectual or wrong about those who you are trying to curry support from. Some might find what I am writing exaggerated, but I think that the implications of the “populist” libertarian approach are the ones I am highlighting.
What some people categorize as “populism” should not be assumed to be a group of ideals based on emotion. Instead, it ought to be recognized that different individuals have unique values, and that they oftentimes attach themselves politically to those who address these values. That libertarianism has failed to be found relevant by most of the population is not a problem of rationalism versus emotionalism, but that libertarianism has not been generally understood as a political paradigm that is in the interest of those who have not adopted it. The task of the libertarian interested in this kind of endeavor should communicate how libertarianism addresses relevant values better than other political ideologies. That is, the interested libertarian has to argumentatively prove the worth of ‘liberal’ politics.
Guest blogger Rajiv Shah discusses what he perceives to be weaknesses in the libertarian justification of property, over at The Social Rationalist. I have two comments — general in nature — to make on the discussion:
1) It is not just the nature of property rights that allows an individual to exclude all other individuals from use of a certain “object” (or whatever it may be), which we will call property. This exclusion radiates from the nature of the object in question. It is scarce and material, and use of it precludes the use of it by others (for as long as you are using it). The way I see it (and, I am sure others) is that property rights were historically developed by society to deal with the problem of scarcity and excludibility without conflict. Alternatively, property rights were developed and enforced by the strong, to exclude the weaker.
2) Why try to give moral legitimacy to something that developed from historical circumstance? In other words, why approach the topic of property from a moral perspective? Why not accept it as a historical (or sociological) occurrence? Alternatively, why not accept the historical context of property rights, and then justify it morally with this history in mind?
Gene Callahan weighs in with a short comment here, and I know he has discussed this topic before. I believe that blogger “Unlearning Economics” has also blogged about historical cases where the emergence of property rights and the beginning of industrialization did not occur “naturally” — instead, it was a state sponsored phenomenon, where property was split and enforced by the State. I think both Callahan and Unlearning Economics make points that hold a lot of merit.
However, I think it is erroneous to to look at these historical examples and then conclude that all property rights must be theft (that no property could have come into existence through peaceful collaboration — and that prior to the 16th or 17th centuries there was no such thing as property). I know Callahan would object to this criticism, because I am looking at only one short post and not the entire range of writing he has done on the subject, but someone looking at his most recent post (of limited scope) might derive these incorrect conclusions.
One such person is Daniel Kuehn. Theft and coercion are two different things. You can steal property and coerce someone to drop their claims on what you now consider your property, or you can peacefully divide property and then coerce people by protecting your property from other peoples’ future claims. For example, say I buy a gold necklace and someone comes by and snatches it. I decide to follow him and beat him up so that I can reclaim my gold necklace. I did coerce him (although he initiated the quarrel), but I do not think you can argue that I preformed an act of theft.
Anyways, back to my original point, there are many historical case in which property rights were derived through theft (even state-sponsored), but this does not mean that all property rights were derived in this fashion or that without these historical instances property rights would not have emerged (even if at some later date) amongst peaceful people.
My foray into group dynamics and social theory is recent, so I am not well grounded in the literature that may already exist on the topic. Sociology and group dynamics, nevertheless, are topics I am interested in, especially as they relate to the market and anarchic society. There are people who are ahead in the game, and one of them is Ankur Chawla. Yesterday, on the Students for Liberty blog, Ankur posted on this exact topic: “Towards Libertarian Social Theory.” Ankur gives an introductory case to why libertarians should not reject group politics and should instead embrace it and integrate it into a broader libertarian social theory.
I realize that this post is going to be all over the place since I do not have a clear thesis in mind. This post is to a great extent an exploratory tool that I am using to clear my own thoughts on the topics. I also realize that I might conflate terms; I am not an expert and I really do not have a formal education on the topic, so please interpret me charitably. Continue reading