Friday, February 25, 2011

A few thoughts on liberty and stealing

I got into an unexpected exchange at Political Betting a few hours ago with someone who feels that a wealthy person who suffers as a result of a progressive income tax system is no longer working for himself, but is instead a servant of the state - although, curiously, this only seems to apply when he is handing over "the majority" of his income.  I pointed out that such a person is simply being expected to make a fair contribution in exchange for the services that we all receive from the state, based on his greater ability to pay.  If he feels that he's not receiving as much 'bang for his buck' as the poorer people who pay less in absolute terms, he's clearly losing sight of just how much he actually gets back from the state - most notably the enforced adherence of the rest of the society to a system that legitimises his wealth and private property rights, and by extension the advantages he enjoys over most others.  Looked at that way, he's plainly getting the better side of the bargain in this social contract.

Fairly predictably, I was then told that the contract I was describing was nothing short of blackmail or a kind of protection racket - pay up, or your property will be stolen by the mob.  But this begs the obvious question - what actually is "private property" or "theft" if you don't have the state, and consent from the rest of society, to define and enforce it for you?  It all began to remind me of the arguments I used to regularly hear from the American "libertarians".  The punitive enforcement of the rights that happen to be most important to them - ie. the right to life, free speech and property as defined simply by being left alone to defend themselves with a gun, and to retain what they already own untouched - is regarded as an absolute moral imperative, because these are all 'natural rights'.  And yet the rights that are important to so many others - the right to life, free speech and property as defined by the right to health care and shelter that will actually keep them alive and healthy, and the right to education and a financial safety net that will give them the slightest chance of actually having a voice and owning a modest amount of property - are not only deemed illegitimate, but their realisation is actually regarded as an outrageous application of "force".  It never seems to occur to these "libertarians" that the advantages that afford them the luxury of meaningfully exercising the right to life and liberty without ever having to look beyond their 'natural rights', while others have no choice but to rely on the "force" of the state, is actually directly derived from something the state has conferred on them in the first place.

Who says massive inherited wealth is 'natural', for example?  Or the advantage of a superior education that others are denied?  You only have to look around Britain today - or just around the Cabinet table, for that matter - to see that the idea that wealth inequalities can simply be explained by how hard people work or how innately talented they are is utterly laughable.  The immense advantages that some enjoy on very dubious merit are not legitimised by nature, but by the state - and by force.  If others try to nip in and grab a small share of that wealth, or of those opportunities, they'll be stopped.  That's OK because that force has democratic legitimacy (ie. the consent of society) behind it, but it's force against the individual nonetheless, in precisely the same way that the compulsory payment of taxes required to realise other democratically legitimised rights like free health care and education is force against the individual.  The American libertarians seem to fondly imagine that the force needed to protect their property rights is trivial or non-existent in comparison to the type of force they complain of, ie. that it costs others nothing to simply respect their natural rights.  Well, that's fine until the 'natural rights' of a few consume such a fantastic portion of a society's wealth that others are squeezed out to the point of destitution, with no legal access to the minimal share of the wealth they require for a merely decent standard of living.  That strikes me as being quite a significant cost.

I've said before that in many ways I consider myself to be a libertarian, which naturally the American right-wingers are either bemused by or regard as an affectation, because liberty "can't be conditional".  But of course the truth (as they occasionally acknowledge when forced into a corner) is that liberty must by definition be conditional, otherwise it can never work - if you don't curb your own liberty by respecting the liberty of others, why should they do the same for you?  So the real principle of libertarianism is that the conditions applied ought to be the minimum necessary to preserve and further liberty.  A system that offers a theoretical right to life, free speech and private property, while all the time robbing some people - by force - of the slightest chance of ever utilising those freedoms falls well below that minimum threshold.


Also at PB this evening, a fascinating (and ultimately encouraging) article by Penddu on the forthcoming referendum in Wales on enhanced devolution.  He characterises the breadth of the No campaign in the following stark terms -

"backed by UKIP, BNP and a campaign group of disaffected Labour activists called True Wales which seems to consist of two spokesmen from Gwent and an inflatable pig" 

Not to worry, though, because Fraser Nelson manfully entered the fray on their behalf during this evening's Question Time, branding the referendum the most "boring" ever, and noting that he tended to take the view that "if you give politicians more power, you only encourage them".  Now, is it just me, or do people who call a proposed change boring, unimportant, or best of all "a distraction" usually mean that they can't actually think of a persuasive argument against it on its own terms?  (The debate on the fox-hunting ban springs to mind.)  And when they talk about not wanting "politicians" to have more power, don't they usually mean that they'd much rather if power wasn't transferred away from politicians in Westminster?


  1. The remark about giving politicians more power suggests he doesn't actually know what the referendum's about.

  2. Oh, James. You always turn me on when you destroy the right so comprehensively.

  3. Yeah, Fraser's argument didn't really stack up. I also found it amazing that the panel and some audience members found humour in the point raised by Elfyn Llwyd about taking 3 years to get legislation over sprinklers approved. Yes, it may seem like a minor issue, but that makes it all the more ridiculous that it took 3 years to get it passed.

    I can sort of see his point about giving politicians more power though, as sometimes it can seem like some politicians feel a need to do things merely to justify their existence, as well as spending money just because they have a budget to use up. I think this is more applicable for councillors rather than assembly members, though.

    But yes, boring/unimportant/a distraction, these are all ways of trying to justify not having a proper argument by saying that it would be a waste of time to even form an argument. A sign of failure.

  4. For once, I'm speechless, Ezio.

    Doug - yes, the reaction to Llwyd was extraordinary. Dimbleby (and others) seemed to be mocking him because the sprinkler example was so trivial - but that was the whole point!