Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Slavery & Property—Communal vs. Individual

Tibor R. Machan

Almost all modern liberals—the more or less Leftists—in the world would
declare themselves foes of slavery. They would insist that they are
enemies, as well, of discrimination against any group whereby the rights
of members of that group are systematically violated. In this respect
modern liberals line up with classical liberals and most American
conservatives in their support of individual liberty and rights.

Where modern liberals falter is in their refusal to recognize that
individual liberties and rights are virtually meaningless if one does not
have the right to property, to freely obtain, hold, and trade goods and
services. If another person may not own me, what good is this if my assets
and earnings may be taken from me without my permission? Say I am a very
talented musician and other people value what I might do with this talent.
If they may coerce me into producing music for them, in what sense am I
not a slave? If I do produce my music and earn income from this, but
others may take these earnings from me, again in what sense am I free?

Yet in contemporary academic moral, political, and legal circles there is
a very influential movement arguing exactly this: one’s assets and one’s
earnings belong to society, not to oneself. Such thinkers as Professors
Liam Murphy, Thomas Nagel, Cass Sunstein, Stephen Holmes and many others
believe that when government taxes us, it merely retakes what belongs to
it and we have nothing to complain about. Private property rights do not
exist. (Murphy and Nagel lay all this out in The Myth of Ownership, a book
prominently published by Oxford University Press in 2002, and Sunstein and
Holmes advance their similar idea in The Cost of Rights, published in 1999
by another prestigious house, W. W. Norton. And the very famous late
Harvard philosophy professor John Rawls argued, in his A Theory of Justice
[Harvard University Press, 1971], that since one does not always deserve
one’s assets and belongings, these may be redistributed to others with
moral and legal impunity!)

That this is a rank reactionary idea should be very
clear to anyone who has some notion of the political theory of feudalism
which had maintained that the king owns everything, even most of the
people, within the realm he rules. It is also the thesis of Communism,
whereby the people as a whole own everything—one reason why East German
border guards saw nothing wrong with murdering citizens of that country
who tried to escape by climbing over the Berlin Wall; after all, they were
thieves who were stealing the labor power of the society!

Given how enthusiastic modern Liberals are about raising taxation so they
can distribute the resulting revenue as they deem proper, why do they get
away with the ruse of being fierce opponents of slavery, of unjust
discrimination? How did these people manage to intimidate their political
opponents and much of the public with their holier than thou attitude, as
if it those who resist taxation, who want to give the money taken from
people back to those people, as the bad guys?

The reason is that while these “democratic liberals” oppose individual
slavery—an individual master owning slaves—they see nothing wrong with
collective slavery. The community, for most communitarians—led by the
likes of the Canadian Charles Taylor and the American Amitai Etzioni—has
the just authority to confiscated the assets and earnings of its members
and do with them as “the community” will. (This, of course, means that
some individuals in the community will have such authority!) That is to
say, collective slavery is fine with these folks, at least up to some
arbitrary point. Like the East Germany communists, these communitarians
believe that people belong to the community—not in the sense of
voluntarily belonging to a club from which one may withdraw but in the
sense in which my arm belongs to me.

On the way toward defending this collectivist idea of slavery, these
political and legal theorists argue voraciously that individualism is evil
by promoting the pitting of all human beings against one another, and of
pretending that human individuals are able to flourish without their
fellows, without cooperating with others. Of course, no individualist has
ever argued this. What individualists have argued, for the most part, is
that to secure the cooperation of human beings, one must ask for but never
conscript it. Individualists see people as sovereign agents,
self-governors, who do, however, often benefit from the cooperation of
others. They do not believe, however, that these others may be enslaved,
either by other individuals or by the society.

The idea that property should be collectively owned is
in fact the main step toward endorsing slavery. That’s really quite elementary.

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