Monday, December 05, 2011

Are Societies Owned?

Tibor R. Machan

Libertarians tend to view taxation as unjustified. It is something associated with statism, a kind of coercive institution that expropriates resources from members of society rather than securing the resources voluntarily. Statists, however, criticize the libertarian view, claiming that in a way taxation is voluntary, only apparently not so. Such defenders of statism as Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, in their book The Myth of Ownership,[1] have made this case and they have done so along lines worth some attention here.

Assume you wish to sell antiques, so you rent space in a building owned by someone and agree that whenever you make a sale, some of what you fetch goes to the owner. Craig Duncan claims this is analogous to the nature of taxation. The country is like the building. “The building’s owner … charges vendors a percentage of their sales intake—say, 20 percent—as payment for the opportunity to sell from one of the building’s stalls…. The owner is not stealing [the vendor’s] money when he demands this sum from [the vendor].”[2] According to Duncan it is by comparison to this kind of situation that taxation ought to be understood, not, as I and other libertarians argue, as extortion by some members of society (the government) of the rest who live and work there or, as Nozick claimed, as something on par with forced labor.[3]

But the analogy is a bad one. No one owns a free society. No one who lives in a free society is provided with the opportunity to strike up a deal with some owner of that society or to choose, from among different owners of societies, in which he or she might live and work.

Instead, people would be born into a free society where others, including their parents, relatives, or guardians, own homes, places of work and so on. Other people—the government—would not have the authority to coerce them into paying them “taxes” and to put them in jail if they refuse to pay up, with no chance of bargaining about the percentage, of whether to pay a flat fee (whether they win or lose in their various commercial endeavors), a percentage of some possible take and so forth.

All of these latter options are, however, possible when an antique seller rents a stall from someone who owns a building where customers may seek out vendors. But free societies, unlike the place where an antique vendor may or may not rent a stall, are not anyone’s property.

Professor Duncan does, however, correctly describe societies that are not free. In a feudal system, for example, the king or tsar or other monarch owns the society. In a dictatorship the dictator is the owner. In fascist societies the leader in effect owns the society. And in democracies that aren’t governed by a constitution that protects individual rights the majority owns the society. These owners then charge a rent from those they permit to live and work on their property.

That kind of system is, indeed, the natural home of the institution of taxation. Such societies are also the natural home of serfdom, where others than those who own it live and work only when permitted to do so. They have no rights other than those granted at the discretion of the owners. Both serfdom and taxation arise naturally in societies that are owned by someone.

In free societies, however, no one owns the society. Individual citizens may or may not own all kinds of things in such free societies—land, apartments, family homes, farms, factories, and innumerable other items that may be found before human beings have expropriated them from the wilds or what has been produced by or traded back and forth among the free citizenry.

Of course, in complex, developed free societies the citizenry will most likely have instituted a legal order or government, based on the principles of freedom—individual rights to life, liberty and property, for example. And they will probably have instituted some means by which those administering such a system will be paid for their work—user fees, shares of wealth owned, a flat sum, or something more novel and unheard of (e.g., contract fees). Citizens can come together, roughly along lines of how the original American colonists came together, and establish a legal order or government that will be empowered, without violating anyone’s rights, to provide for a clear definition, elaboration, and defense of everyone’s rights. Then, once such a group of citizens has come together and instituted a government with just powers—powers that do not violate but protect individual rights—the proper funding of the work of such a government can be spelled out.

What is crucial here is that such funding must occur voluntarily, namely, as the kind of funding that does not violate anyone’s rights. Unlike the case Professor Duncan gives us, where someone has prior ownership over the various items in society that can be owned, in a free society ownership is achieved through various types of free action. This includes coming upon something unowned and appropriating it—land, trees, lakes, whatever—or being given in trade various things by others or, again, being born into the world with various assets or attributes that may well be used to create wealth through production, use or exchange.

A truly free society, then, does not belong to anyone but is a region wherein individuals are free to come to own things. It is one within which those who live there are free to embark on actions that involve, among other things, the acquisition of property. That is part of being free, not being coerced by others to give up what one has peacefully acquired, not be prohibited by others from embarking on various actions, including peaceful acquisition (including production and trade).

In short, a free society is based on principles of individual rights, not on having gained permission from prior owners of the society on analogy with how a renter of a stall in an antique mall comes into possession of that stall. In free societies ownership is a right everyone has by his or her nature as a human being and it isn’t granted as a privilege by a prior owner, ad infinitum.
[1] Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership (London: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] Craig Duncan & Tibor R. Machan, Libertarianism, For and Against (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 46.

[3] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).
Needing Doesn’t Justify Stealing

Tibor R. Machan

What one needs depends on one’s goals. And much of the time what one needs to pursue various goals is produced by other people, including some rather important stuff or services. Nonetheless, among genuine free men and women whatever it is that one needs may only be obtained voluntarily, not by coercion. Even if the need is great.

Yes, now and then one’s needs can be urgent and great, as when one must get the services of a surgeon lest one lose the use of a limb. Yet, one isn’t by any stretch of the imagination authorized, morally, and should not be legally, to conscript those who can provide the necessary service. That would make slaves of those professionals! And no one is justified in enslaving anyone, however urgent one’s needs may be.

One would think these are elementary matters in a society that has experienced slavery or involuntary servitude and finally abolished it. But no. I recently objected to the first class mail monopoly that the US Postal Service enjoys, as a Constitutional grant in fact, and someone commented that people often need first class mail, so surely it must be provided to them.

Doesn’t follow at all. We often need things quite badly that others can supply but they and their labor doesn’t belong to us so we must obtain them voluntarily. And that has proven to be a very workable arrangement, much more so than have coercive alternatives. Why then do people often support the idea that it is OK to conscript other people’s work?

Maybe one reason is the regrettable precedent of taxation. For a while even in the USA, a supposedly shining example of a polity of human liberty, the military draft was legally accepted, tolerated. And of course for centuries on end coercion was routinely used by the powerful to obtain what the less powerful produced. Today it is quite common to have major political and academic figures chiming in favoring robbing the rich because, well, they have what others want from them. The idea that it belongs to them and thus must be obtained without resort to the violation of their basic rights doesn’t even come up. It’s just wished away, silently, as if it should be forgotten in the face of the needs of others. But then, of course, at one time these needs were used to justify chattel slavery and servitude to the ruler. It is not an accident that the Southern social theorist George Fitzhugh considered and favored slavery as a quintessentially socialist institution.

But just because an older generation got wise about these matters it doesn’t follow that we inherited this wisdom. Many of us are perfectly willing to forget what we should have learned from history, including that no matter how precious our goals may be, conscripting others to serve them is morally and should be legally prohibited. So the president of the USA, shamefully, is advocating robbing the rich so as to help him carry on with public policies that he prefers but cannot find sufficient support for.

At this point, of course, it isn’t very simple to sell the public on the idea that the rich must become slaves, so various theories are rolled out that maintain that the rich owe it to us, so taking it from them is just fine. That is the thesis candidate Elizabeth Warren was airing when she was campaigning for a Massachusetts Senate seat. And she wasn’t the only one. Such thinkers as NYU professors Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy, Harvard Law School’s Cass Sunstein, and others have been making some amazingly spurious arguments that support the notion that all wealth really belongs to the government instead of individual citizens. Sunstein has also been peddling the incredible idea that all rights are grants from government, an idea directly opposed to the American tradition of individual rights (developed mainly by John Locke). Nagel and Murphy wrote a little volume The Myth of Ownership, for (of course) Oxford University Press back in 2002, which would, if it had any merit, clear the way to the government taking from us whatever it wants.

You need to realize, though, that government is nothing more than some people who are hired by others for specific, limited purposes; indeed their proper purpose is to protect or secure the rights of the citizenry, their natural rights! But that is, sadly, still an unfamiliar idea in many circles that stick to the reactionary notion that you and I and our belongings aren’t really ours but were granted to us provisionally by those other people, the government. How they came to have such authority is of course a complete myth. Let’s get past it already and carry on with the American revolutionary idea that citizens are the sovereigns, not the state.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Scientism versus Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

The steady but slow march toward liberty has for some time come up against the appeal of scientism. This is the idea that everything in nature behaves just like matter-in-motion. So people, too, move only when moved by stuff around--or within--them, never on their own initiative. (The only but sadly unacknowledged exception is the scientists who advocate scientism.)

No sooner did philosophers make room for the idea of self-causation, the idea that some (few) things in nature are capable of causing their own movement (have the capacity for initiative, to be first causes), social scientists vetoed it since it appeared to them to exclude the scientific method in their study of human behavior. So what took the place of initiative was mechanical motion. We do what we do because we are forced by our environment or hard wiring to do it.

In political morality and political philosophy the implications turned out to be devastating. The very thing that makes people different in the world, namely, their capacity to take the initiative, was slowly eliminated, denied. Never mind that the denying itself exhibits such initiative. That went unnoticed. Instead the urgency to make people subject to the machinations of social science and technology lead many thinkers to declare people just complicated machines, complex billiard balls being pushed around by the cue ball (that’s under the control of the technocrats, no one else).

This urgency also led to the re-empowerment of governments. They use to get their warrant for using power over us mainly from divine authority; but then science took its place. The small gain made in support of human freedom, the liberty of ordinary men and women to govern themselves, was this way quickly undermined (except, of course, for the rulers who claimed for themselves the very liberty they denied to the rest of us).

Sure, for a bit the ideas of human liberty and sovereignty triumphed but not for long. The champions of the nanny state, welfare state, fascism, socialism, communism and such all preferred it if human beings could be regarded as passive and in need of being pushed around. (Just think of the Keynesian stimulus device that is advocated as the way to make us all go to work! Never mind entrepreneurship!)

Is the philosophical base of this reductionism and scientism sound? Well, it is certainly not consistent with the belief that government officials have the capacity to get us all moving. They are people, after all, so how come they have this capacity but the rest of us don’t? So then where is the problem?

Let me drag out once again one of my favorite observations from a psychologist, Professor Bannister of the UK, who noted that “... the psychologist cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.” In Borger & Cioffi/Bannister, eds., Explanation in the Behavioural Sciences (Cambridge UP, 1970), p. 417. But, unfortunately, noting this is not enough. How would we be capable of being first causes in nature, of taking the initiative and thus for doing without the prompters that statists so eagerly volunteer to be? Wouldn’t that be odd?

The problem lies with the widely embraced but impoverished idea of causation. As if all causes were of the same type, mechanical, the kind witnessed on the pool table. But this makes no room for the kind of causation evident in biology, psychology, economics, ethics and politics where individual entities, in this case people, produce things and make things happen. That kind of causation is every bit as much part of the natural world as is the limited, mechanical kind.

If one remembers that things have the causal capacities their nature makes possible and then also recalls that our causal capacity is based on the kind of consciousness we have, a faculty that doesn’t work automatically but needs to be put into gear by the individual person, then the mystery of sovereignty and initiative can begin to be solved.

We are indeed in need of freedom from interference so we can live our lives productively and creatively. The full story is a pretty complex one but this is the gist of it. Unless it is understood and integrated with our private and public affairs and policies, we are going to have a mismanaged society all around us.