Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Property Rights and the Very Badly Off

Tibor R. Machan

Is it reasonable to always demand respect for property rights? This is the question raised by some critics of the (Lockean) idea that human beings have the unalienable right to their lives, liberty and property which may never be subject to violation within the legal system of a free society. Some claim that it is unreasonable to demand this of those in dire straits, the extremely poor, who would only manage to survive and flourish by violating these rights of the well off. Thus, the argue, the welfare state in which laws are passed that permit taxing the well to do so as to provide for those in dire straits is just.

Of course, most of the welfare obtained via taxation doesn’t serve to benefit people in dire straits but owners of sizable business firms that seek support in times of economic downturns. The welfare state tends to support those afraid of competition from foreign industry and farmers, not unwed mothers who cannot find work by which to support their children. But some of the recipients of welfare are in dire straits, through no evident fault of their own. And, the argument goes, it would be unreasonable to demand of such people to refrain from taking from the well to do what they need.

As I have argued, since some of what those in dire need require would be the result of the labors of other people, this implies that it is unreasonable to demand of those in dire straits to abstain from coercing productive people to labor for them, to part with what they have produced, to even give up parts of their bodies if they can do without those parts. But that cannot be right—how could it be unreasonable to demand that people not be forced to labor for others? Does not forced labor violate the rights of those who are its victim? If one also adds that those in dire straits may very well have ample opportunity to obtain what they need by offering to work for the well off, to engage in innovation, enterprise and other efforts that can peacefully secure for them what they need to survive and flourish, the case that they may coerce others to work for them loses even the emotional appeal that at first inspection it possesses.

The most that this kind of reasoning advanced in support of the welfare state establishes, then, is that those who are well off ought to be generous toward the very needy, that in emergencies those who can should lend a hand to those who are genuinely helpless. Indeed, that is what the virtue of generosity amounts to: it inclines decent persons, ones of good character, to come to the aid of deserving but badly off people. That would be the civilized solution rather than one that resorts of coercive means and treats those well off as unwilling tools or instruments of the badly off, not as people who are ends in themselves and must give their consent whenever they are utilized by others, even the very hard up among us.

There can, of course, be circumstances so unruly, so desperate and catastrophic that reasonable conduct is impossible, something that Locke himself realized, referring to them as ones where “politics in not possible.” In such cases the world is so topsy-turvy that the principles of civilized behavior cannot reasonably be expected to be followed.

What does not follow from this is that the legal system of a society must be adjusted so as to accommodate emergencies, to require of well enough off citizens to be constant Good Samaritans. As the saying goes, “Hard cases make bad law.” One does not demand that a system of law change because of certain dire circumstances, especially since it would imply that some people get to place the rest under legal obligation to perform service that should come from good will, not at the point of a gun.

In a recent issue of Science News, the magazines that reports much of the path breaking scientific research around the globe, one short item noted that the degree of charity and philanthropy in societies with substantial free, unregimented markets is much greater than in top down planned societies. So not only it coercive welfare unjust but it seems to discourage good will among citizens. And it is mostly such good will that takes the best care of the truly needy among us!

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