Saturday, November 8, 2008

Is Capitalism to blame?

First, let's establish what laissez-faire capitalism is. Broadly defined, it is an economic system based on private ownership and control over of the means of production. Under laissez-faire capitalism, government activity is restricted to the protection of the individual's rights against fraud, theft and the initiation of physical force.

--Walter Williams, "Capitalism and the Finanacial Crisis"

How can anyone claim that we have tried laissez-faire and it has failed when, as pointed out by Dr. George Resiman,

1) Government spending in the United States currently equals more than forty percent of national income...

2) There are presently fifteen federal cabinet departments, nine of which exist for the very purpose of respectively interfering with...the economic freedom of the individual...

3) The economic interference of today’s cabinet departments is reinforced and amplified by more than one hundred federal agencies and commissions, the most well-known of which include, besides the IRS, the FRB and FDIC, the FBI and CIA, the EPA, FDA, SEC, CFTC, NLRB, FTC, FCC, FERC, FEMA, FAA, CAA, INS, OHSA,CPSC, NHTSA, EEOC, BATF, DEA, NIH, and NASA...

4) To complete this catalog of government interference and its trampling of any vestige of laissez faire, as of the end of 2007, the last full year for which data are available, the Federal Register contained fully seventy-three thousand pages of detailed government regulations...

5) And, of course, to all of this must be added the further massive apparatus of laws, departments, agencies, and regulations at the state and local level...

(emphases are mine)

In a system of laissez-faire capitalism, government would be prohibited from many of the activities it now not only participates in, but effectively controls. We have never had laissez-faire capitalism, although we were much closer during the explosively productive period of the late 19th century.

Advocates of government management of the economy mistakenly interpret the lack of government regulation and planning as lack of planning and regulation in general. But as Dr. Williams points out:

It is incorrect to say that laissez-faire or free markets are unregulated. There is ruthless regulation, but it's not by government.

The free market coordinates the plans of countless individual planners, implementing its regulatory mechanism through profit and loss, rewarding those who most efficiently provide the goods and services that others demand. Force and fraud are violations of individual rights and are appropriately excluded and punishable by law. All honest, voluntary exchanges are permitted. Government's role is limited to protecting life, liberty and property, and to overseeing strict equality before the law. The free choices of free individuals provide all the regulation which is necessary and morally justifiable.

In a different article, Dr. Williams points out:

Americans demand that Congress spend trillions of dollars on farm subsidies, business bailouts, education subsidies, Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs and other elements of a welfare state. The problem is that Congress produces nothing. Whatever Congress wishes to give, it has to first take other people's money. Thus, at the root of the welfare state is the immorality of intimidation, threats and coercion backed up with the threat of violence by the agents of the U.S. Congress. In order for Congress to do what some Americans deem as good, it must first do evil. It must do that which if done privately would mean a jail sentence; namely, take the property of one American to give to another.

Judy Shelton, another defender of capitalism, aptly reminds us:

With freedom comes choice; with choice comes responsibility. What is true within one's own life and one's own community should be true for the world at large. Integrity matters, competence counts, and earnest effort finds its reward. The Latin root of the word "credit" -- credere -- means "to believe." There is no better starting point for restoring morality to capitalism.

Or restoring us to the morality which is capitalism.

Free trade. Not government coercion.
Honest trade. Not political corruption.
Personal accountability. Not government bailouts.
Punishment of fraud. Not protection from errors.
Individual rights. Not special interests.

I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple. Were we directed from Washington when to sow, when to reap, we should soon want bread. -- Thomas Jefferson

We need to get back to limited government and individual freedom.
Not just because it works, but because it is right.



Anonymous said...

I read Reisman's article, actually two of them. In the one article he decries the existence of numerous government agencies. Some of them may indeed need restructuring to improve efficiencies or redefine their missions to be consistent with modern social and commercial conditions. However, getting rid of them would be tantamount to our government abdicating its protection mandate. The passage regarding the relationship between freedom of choice and responsibility is right on the money. The problem is that human nature being what it is, many take the freedom of choice and leave the responsibility to others. That is why we (the people) need a mechanism to regulate commercial activities to minimize the deleterious effects of some participants actions.

Dr. Williams's assertion that free markets are regulated is laughable. Granted, players suffer consequences of their actions due to market conditions, and this does limit the specturm of their actions, but that is not regulation. Free markets offer as much regulation as a wild river; for the most part the river stays within its banks, but every now and then there is a flood. Now, a river whose flow is regulated with dams reduces the number of excursions beyond the norm. This is the sort of thing regulation of markets is designed to stop.

In Reisman's other article, accessed via a link at this site, he goes through a thought experiment regarding a $1,000 tax cut to business versus a $1,000 tax cut to workers. He attempts to make the case that the worker is better off because the business's $1,000 will create jobs. I can't argue with the idealized execution of this scenario. However, there are a lot of companies that are at the 'cash cow' stage of their cycle and will just pass the $1,000on to stockholders. Additionally, in the current environment jobs may be created over seas. Finally, some businesses operate in industries that are at or beyond capacity, in which case the businesses will add the $1,000 to their capital without creating jobs.

If creating jobs is the intent, then, it seems to me keeping the taxes constant and offering a tax deduction or credit for those companies creating jobs in the US would be a more focused, cheaper way to accomplish the goal.

Burgess Laughlin said...

> "However, getting rid of them would be tantamount to our government abdicating its protection mandate."

Exactly what do you think is the "protection mandate" of a government? From where does it come? More broadly, in the context of what morality does it arise?

> ". . . human nature being what it is, many take the freedom of choice and leave the responsibility to others."

This is a very confusing formulation. If doing X is human nature--that is, the nature of all humans--then why wouldn't all do as you suggest, rather than "many"?

Or are you suggesting that some individuals are human (those you want to apply regulatory coercion to) and others (you) are superhuman and intrinsically (automatically, innately) worthy of regulating the lives of others?

poor boomer said...

The real test for those who preach limited government and individual freedom comes when a developer wants to build affordable housing in your neighborhood.

That's when many "capitalists" exhibit a NIMBY mindset.

For some reason I haven't seen laissez-fair icons take on and engage this issue.

Beth said...

Capitalism – the social system based on the private ownership of the means of production. It is individual rights as applied to the realm of production and trade.

You are correct in placing quote marks around "capitalists" as many who call themselves capitalists would not fit my definition.

There are private ways to handle what is now done by zoning laws, but in general, if you purchase a piece of land on which the seller has not placed conditions, you may build affordable housing. Even a shack.

poor boomer said...

Alas, you have precisely reached my contention: the purpose of zoning is to impose prior constraint on those who would exercise their property rights in a way not consonant with the desire of government.

It is much easier to gain government approval for a single-family development than for apartments or worse, a trailer park.

I lived in a town where a developer wanted to build midrange apartments on a large vacant parcel. A woman who had just arrived organized her neighbors successfully to block it.

Not only did the neighbors succeed in stopping that development, they went a step further and had the land downzoned to prevent the next developer from seeking to build apartments.

The developer sued the city, the lawsuit dragged on for years and was eventually settled out of court: the developer got $200K (and thereby recovered some of his sunk costs), the developer went away the homeowners were happy, the politicians were happy, and renters got screwed.

Beth said...

poor boomer,

RE: "Alas, you have precisely reached my contention: the purpose of zoning is to impose prior constraint on those who would exercise their property rights in a way not consonant with the desire of government."

I am confused on whether you think we agree here or not.

I do not agree with government zoning as it politicizes the use of private property. I do believe a property owner may sell a piece of property with contractual restrictions on the purchaser. The purchaser may agree to the restrictions and buy, or refuse the restrictions and go elsewhere. The use of a piece of land may be restricted...the difference is in how the restrictions are placed: through voluntary contract of political coercion.

poor boomer said...

Yes, I strongly agree with you, alas, my use of 'alas' rendered my comment unclear (grin).

poor boomer said...

p.s. I often use the developer story above to show a constitutional flaw which has engendered a propertyist culture.

The Founders, being themselves property owners and propertyists, excluded non-owners from participation, thereby ensuring the establishment of protections for property owners and the lack thereof for non-owners.

That's why property owners are entitled to just compensation when government takes from them, while renters are entitled to squat.

Anonymous said...

Burgess, the attempts by you and Beth to establish that selfishness is virtue (a la Ayn Rand) is getting tiresome.

The beauty of the American form of government that you seem to hate is that the government is us; not perfectly so, but more perfectly than any other government. Your arguments focus implicitly on a totalitarian form of government, which is not what we have in this country. The wisdom of the Constitution is that it established a government that is flexible enough that it can change with the times to keep providing for the needs of the governed as they themselves determine.

to answer your question, we the people have given the government of we the people the mandate to protect we the people. Ours is the first government. To quote: "We the people of the United States, In order to form a more perfect Union, Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Again in Article I, Section 8, "The Congress shall have the power ... to pay the Debt and provide for the general Welfare of the United States;..." In the closing of Section 8, which lists explicit powers of Congress, the power to enact laws necessary for carrying out its duties is vested in Congress: "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Those passages establish the Power of the Government to establish agencies to provide for the protection and general welfare. Further, the moral basis for doing so stems from Enlightenment philosophy which broke with the assumed mandate from (the Christian) God from which Kings derived their legitimacy and placed the source of government's legitimacy with the governed. Evidence of this and of the power of we the people to establish agencies to serve as sentries to guard our rights to quiet enjoyment of our properties is found in the Declaration of Independenc: "That to secure these rights, Governements are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as th them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Burgess, I think you can do better than your argument regarding human nature. As it is, I would give that argument a C+ if posed by a ninth grader. To answer your question, you would be absolutely right if humans were robots. However, we are talking about humans and specifically about our tendency toward selfishness. As individuals we control that urge to a greater or lesser extent, and some even attempt to elevate selfishness to the status of virtue.

I'll address your juxtaposition of human versus superhuman and Beth's argument that everyone should be "free" to do as they please with their property here. Burgess your argument applies to a totalitarian government and would be on the mark if that was our form of government. But it isn't. We the people, a group of individuals seeking to protect our safety and property rights, have banded together in what you refer to as "the government," in a manner suggesting that it is "other" as opposed to "us," to establish laws to realize that protection. These laws are enforced by agencies and local government jurisdictions in the form of pollution standards, product safety standards, and zoning laws. As far as having the license (or as Beth attempts to cast it, 'having the freedom') to do as you please with your property, the arguments fall short. You and Beth assert that individuals have rights. Beth has asserted that collections of individuals, but not collectives themselves, have rights. As individuals most of us are happy to not have to expend the energy of constant vigilance against actions of our neighbors that would infringe our right to quiet enjoyment of our property. Rather than reacting to the loss inflicted by a neighbor's activity, we the people have established laws, by neighborhood, by county, by town, by city, by state, by nation to deter other from doing that which we perceive would harm us. For example, most of us would agree that we are happy not to have to sue our neighbors for loss of property value should our neighbor decide to open a brothel in the house next door to ours, and are happy to have zoning that prohibits this. This protects the rights of all those living in the neighborhood to quiet enjoyment and it is more efficient than constant law suits or gun battles to protect our rights against others whose "rights" infringe on ours.

Beth, I doubt you would be so sanguine about the activity of one of your neighbors if it caused you to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in property value. By your account, though, you would be fine with suffering the loss, if, say, someone came into your neighborhood and bought up all the properties contiguous with yours and set up a manufacturing plant that spewed noxious fumes and reduced the value of your property to nothing the instant the intent of doing so was made public.

I don't believe you.

To those who would do away with all the agencies that protect our safety, I can only say that should that come about I hope it is you and your loved ones who make the sacrifice of suffering death or injury to alert the rest of us to avoid the products of services that are dangerous. And I thank you for your altruistic willingness to do so.

Beth said...


The beauty of the American form of government that you seem to hate is that the government is us; not perfectly so, but more perfectly than any other government.

I don’t know how you can extrapolate from my arguments that I hate our system of government. I would most definitely agree it is the best system in existence. To see its imperfections, however, is not to hate it.
I also think we have drifted away from the original intent, and that much of that drifting has not been an improvement. I am unaware of any work that reasonably defends the proposition that the Constitution was written to institute unlimited majority rule, or that the Founders thought democracy so defined was desirable.

“The wisdom of the Constitution is that it established a government that is flexible enough that it can change with the times to keep providing for the needs of the governed as they themselves determine.” and your quotes of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

The Constitution also includes instructions on just how those changes must occur, and identifies the limits within which a government may properly operate (which I would argue is the defense of individual rights: life, liberty and property.) Disagreement on how to interpret both the mechanisms of change and just what the proper limits of government action are have been present from the beginning. You point to 2 key spots where disagreement has been intense: “necessary and proper” and “general Welfare.” The first place that I am aware of this debate taking place was in Washington’s cabinet between Jefferson and Hamilton (with Madison chining in) over whether or not a National Bank was constitutional. The debate has been with us from the beginning.

I don’t’ think simply pointing to those passages in the Constitution is an argument one way or the other. Just what does the “general Welfare” refer to? What is “general” and what is instead a “special interest” which violates “equality under the law”?

Just what is “necessary” and “proper” and how do you defend your proposition? these are key areas of controversy that simple quotes do not address. You are spot on though in pointing to them as places where our interpretations will most like diverge, but the answers are not obvious and must be made explicit.

“consent of the governed”

This is another area where reasonable people can disagree. By living in this country, we give our tacit consent to governance. But just what do we “consent” to? I think John Locke makes an excellent argument that we can not delegate to a government a power we do not have ourselves. This seems a very reasonable starting point, a good way to limit the power of “the people” (which indeed is us.) If we as individuals do not have a right to forcefully take the property of our neighbor, I see no way to justify the same action just because I can find a critical number of my fellow citizens to vote otherwise.

“As individuals most of us are happy to not have to expend the energy of constant vigilance against actions of our neighbors that would infringe our right to quiet enjoyment of our property. Rather than reacting to the loss inflicted by a neighbor's activity, we the people have established laws, by neighborhood, by county, by town, by city, by state, by nation to deter other from doing that which we perceive would harm us.”

I think the place we disagree here has more to do with how to objectively define harm and what is the best method for instituting ways to protect one’s property and property value. I would not want “constant law suits” and I don’t’ think there is anything in what I have said that would imply that I think “gun battles” are acceptable. And no, I would not be sanguine about loosing “hundreds of thousands of dollars in property value,” but neither am I sanguine about loosing property rights. The key is looking for ways that can preserve both. This is a huge area that involves developing rigorous definitions of “property rights,” “harm” “public vs. private” and others. I can’t pretend to be able to come up with all the legal details here. I just want to make the argument that the starting point is an individual’s right to his own life and only his own life, and that any proper way of addressing these issues must be consistent with that. I think that our current system has many laws and regulations which go beyond the proper limits and can be improved upon.

Anonymous, I am not always sure how to interpret the tone of your comments. Written communication is limiting in that way. Most of the time, I get the sense that a respectful exchange of ideas is occurring. Other times, I get a sense of condescension, or resentment, or even anger. Maybe it’s just irritation because you find my arguments “tiresome.” Maybe you find my comments condescending, resentful or angry and you are responding in kind. (Let em know if that’s the case and I will try to be more careful.) Maybe I am oversensitive.
Just checking in.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is tiresome dealing with what appears to be dogged determination to rationalize selfishness (self interest). Burgess has the knack for focusing on peripheral aspects of an argument then making what I consider juvenile, tedious attempts to attack it. I mean, really, if X is a property of humans... Does this guy live in isolation, thinking that humans are some sort of inanimate objects that behave uniformly? His snotty personal attack implying that I might think I reserve to myself the right to regulate others' lives was not appreciated. By the way, Burgess, it's not the protection mandate of "a" government, it's the protection mandate of "our" government. It includes military conflict, and whatever else we decide, given the (intended) vagueness in the Constitution.

Now, Beth, you make some very good points. Beth, let's be fair. You repeatedly make assertions suggesting that the way we govern ourselves is immoral because it bars individuals from doing as they please, forcing them to be team players by requiring that they pay taxes, observe regulations, etc. Your comments convey a sense of disdain for measures that don't allow you to do as you please.

Your profile reveals that you have chickens, and the photos suggest rather cramped quarters for keeping barn yard animals; have you ever had disagreements with your neighbors over the animals you keep? Were your neighbors whose quiet enjoyment of their property might be affected by the smell or noise associated with keeping chickens and perhaps the occasional rooster consulted before you embarked on your barn yard adventure? This is a case in which personal conscience or simple neighborly consideration might guide one's actions. Hopefully you did consult your neighbors, but others may not be so considerate, which is why we have zoning.

Re: unlimited majority rule. Our government was designed to inhibit exactly that. That is why it was established as a Republic. That is why the rules governing the Senate are different from those governing the House. That is also why the Senate provides for unlimited debate--to avoid tyranny of the majority. Heck, even the electoral college is set up to hamper simple majority rule. I don't know of any majority rule decisions our government has made; can you furnish one?

Re: "the wisdom..."
let's take the central bank. Our forebears argued the Constitutionality of a central bank, and we may, too. However, we have one. Suppose we get rid of it. What would the consequences be? I think that given the fact that all the major nations in the world have central banks, we would be at a disadvantage by not having one. More broadly, is there an example of an unregulated free market that has worked well? Another way to look at this question is to ask why were regulations enacted in the first place? Take the EPA, FDA, OSHA, the agency that inspects mines, etc. The FDA, for example, was founded after a well meaning drug company (the Massengil Company(sp?)) distributed a drug that was accidentally produced with an impurity that killed a few people. Did the Massengil Company infringe on the rights of those individuals? I think so. Should we, as a people, just say, 'Oh, well, let the buyer beware,' and let it happen again? I don't think so. Better we establish an agency to monitor the situation so each of us doesn't have to. Not to mention the fact that not all of us have the intellectual or financial means to protect ourselves; in which case those of us who do have an obligation to protect those who don't, if we believe that each life is sacred. And that responsibility can't be left to independent organizations because they would soon be corrupted by the industry they are attempting to monitor. Even with government this is true: witness the fact that Bush appointed mining company insiders to head up the mining inspection operations, that is after gutting its budget for inspecting.

I'll bet each and every agency that Reisman wants to eliminate has a similar history. Eliminating them would certainly save a lot of tax dollars and make it easier for businesses to thrive. I'm all for it as long as Reisman and his lot volunteer to be the guinea pigs. They could be the first ones to find out that a purported cancer treatment is no more than a placebo, etc.

Re: the consent of the governed...
I've only read parts of Locke. Your example gets into the various definitions of ethical behavior (absolute, utilitarian, etc.). You evidently don't believe in the Constitutional provision for eminent domain. In an extreme case, suppose a rancher has control of a water source without which a whole town will die. Does he have the right to keep it to himself based on the fact that it is his property? In a less extreme case based on real history, does the government have the right to take land from farmers to build an interstate highway system intended for national defense? Your argument implies that since his neighbor doesn't have the right to take his land, we the people don't either, even though failure to do so puts us all in jeopardy. On the other hand, a recent case that went before the Supreme Court provided that the city of Groton (I think) Connecticut could boot long time residents off their land so Pfizer could build a large office complex that would produce a better tax base for the city. I support the former case, but decry the latter. The residents in the latter case should have been enticed by enhanced monetary offers they couldn't refuse, or maybe given a percentage of the deal. My only issue is fair compensation, which, I have to admit, seems to be rare.

Re: "as individuals most of us..." You never addressed what you would do in the hypothetical case. Noxious fumes may be depriving you of life and certainly of liberty to quiet enjoyment of your property. So too with factories spewing out acid gases that destroy the environment. And those guys aren't likely to stop just because you ask them. The bottom line is that every individual is not going to be happy about any decision, and those who aren't are probably going to cry about their individual property rights being violated, ignoring the rights of the many others. In the end I think the rights of many to life, liberty and property trumps the right of one to life, liberty and property. Further, the notion that we can leave individual actions to up to the conscience of the actors runs counter to reality. Think about this in terms of the global warming debate. Science aside, do we the people have the right to stop a manufacturer from discharging harmful substances into our environment? If not, then there is not reason to do the science. If so, then we just need to come to agreement on the science and how to proceed.

Re: "I think that our current system has many laws and regulations which go beyond the proper limits and can be improved upon." That wouldn't surprise me, given our need to protect the first amendment rights of corporations/special interests/lobbyists. Pick an agency that Reisman wants eliminate and give an example. A good place to start would be to examine why one of those agencies (I already did FDA) was established, then find an example of where it goes too far. For example, some drug company was recently denied approval for a drug (sorry I can't recall the specifics) because it couldn't show superiority to what was already on the market. This is an overstep; the bar should be set at superiority to placebo. Going down that road sets the stage for auto manufacturers being denied the right to market their SUV because an agency deems it not superior to another company's SUV that is already on the market, and on, and on.

Back to the question of zoning, I believe the idea of zoning was to improve the quality of life for all by establishing rules that allow for commerce in a city or town without infringing on the quiet enjoyment of residents. I don't see any problem with this. Do you have a problem with it?

Re Poor boomer's dissatisfaction with lack of compensation for renters. He has a point. Renters don't deserve compensation for loss of property, as they don't own it. However, it seems some compensation for breach of lease should be available. I'm not sure it's not. Can the renter sue the landlord, who in turn is compensated by the government exercising eminent domain? Or, can the renters sue the government directly? One way around this is to grandfather in the transition. Just require the landlord to not renew leases as they expire, then compensate the landlord for lost revenue and lost property.

Beth said...

Ahhh. So many points. So little time.

First off, I have having trouble with your choice of words in paraphrasing my point of view. In choosing to summarize it as “doing as I please” you seem to equate my stance with that of hedonism and a lack of disregard for how my actions effect others. That is not at all what I have been advocating. I have repeatedly stated that moral actions are limited by the existence of the individual rights of others. My “doing as I please” can not morally include actions which initiate physical force against others (which would include fraud an demonstrable harm.)

Secondly, being a “team player” only has meaning for me if the association is voluntary. “Team player” is a feel-good term and does not seem appropriate when applied to coercive activities.

But you are right, I do have contempt for the advocacy of what I view as a violation individual rights. But I think you do too. It seems where we differ is on how to define individual rights.

RE: the central bank, the conditions which led to its formation, the consequences of doing away with it….I’m working on it. I certainly can’t address all the alphabet organizations you can list, but I think banks can serve as a case in point.

RE: pollution. This is a huge area which I will eventually get to because I think it is central to current attempts to find ways for us to peacefully coexist. But not for quite a while. It involves looking into what reasonably can and can not be assigned property rights, how to assign and enforce those rights, what is the proper stance in regards to “the commons,” how to objectively define harm and attribute cause. I spent much of last year reading on the history of property and property rights with exactly this issue in mind. However, because of the recent economic events, for right now, I want to stay focused on Say’s law and banking.

A question for you? Can you expand on the connection you see between one person’s right to his own life and his “obligation to protect” someone else’s life? I guess what I am asking for is a defense for the existence of positive rights, which seems to be part of your stance. Please correct me if I am wrong.

I will be taking a bit of a holiday to eat turkey and enjoy family and friends. I wish the same for you!

Anonymous said...

Beth, hedonism is a step beyond what I intended. However, the negative light in which you apparently see personal restrictions such as zoning suggests that you really want unfettered ability to do what you want with your property. As I said before, I'm happy to know that somebody can't purchase the property next to mine and open a brothel or bar. I'm also happy to know that there are areas in my town zoned for bars, restaurants, and such, as I like to go out and have a good time once in a while. Unfortunately, as soon as we enact zoning laws we incur and expense for writing, printing and maintaining the codes and for enforcing them. Which, of course, leads to taxes.

Regarding pollution, I haven't read Hobbes or Locke to any great extent, but, as I understand it their social and political theories start with the assumption of a "natural state." This might help with your understanding of the commons. I add these to my reading list. Unfortunately, my reading list grows exponentially and I can read only linearly.

Regarding banking, I believe the Constitutional debate among the Founders was focused on the problem of usurping states' rights. At the time, I believe, each state had its own currency, a situation to which I don't think we want to return.

You apparently look at taxes as coercive. Try thinking about it this way. You voluntarily chose to live in the United States. The cost of admission is taxes and all the agencies and such supported by them. So, it's not really coercive at all. I should note that the characters in Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" had the courage of their convictions and shut down their productive activities and moved to an island obscured from the rest of society. By not doing the same your are voluntarily agreeing to pay taxes and abide by the laws and norms of our society. It would be different if the United States were a totalitarian government that prohibited your freedom to move, e.g. communist Russia at the height of the cold war. I have been wanting to point out that Ayn Rand's views are an extreme and are an understandable reaction to growing up in the USSR.

Now for your question...I have no idea what you are talking about. What is a positive right? Is there such a thing as a negative right? The obligation to protect, or the obligation to help someone in need is just an innate feeling I have. I haven't attempted to justify it on philosophical grounds any more than I would try to justify love on philosophical ground. A car goes off the road in front of you and down the embankment. You have no legal obligation to help the person, but I, personally, feel an obligation to do what I can. this sort of reaction, though, is being called into question on Mount Everest. There was a story a few months ago about climbers walking right by a dying man as they made their way to the summit. The rationale is that everyone takes the same risk and they know what the risk is. This is coupled with two other conditions. First, the question of whether the passing climber has the reserves to help the fallen climber even if he tries, and the influence of money, namely, the fact that the passing climber paid tens of thousands of dollars to get to the summit. Nobody cites this influence, though. If this doesn't help, please clarify "positive rights." Thanks. Happy Thanksgiving! I'm done for a while as well.

Beth said...


I too am glad not to have factories and brothels next to me--yet I think three are ways to accomplish this that preserves property rights.

RE: Hobbes and Locke. I have read them (not that I couldn’t get more rereading them) and they are helpful. I certainly agree with your comment on reading lists. By the way, I got Shock Doctrine out from the library (and poor boomer, Markets and Minorities came in the mail yesterday.) Thanks for reading the suggestions!

RE Founders and the National bank: the crux of the debate was on whether or not the formation of a National Bank was constitutional. The argument centered on the interpretation of "necessary and proper." It's a fascinating debate, esp. since I think Hamilton (whose conclusions I disagree with) actually had the better argument at the time. If you are interested in the primary sources, let me know.

On positive and negative rights--from your comments I thought you would know of this. The terms are not important. It's the idea of how one gets from a right to one's own life to an obligation to assist others. This obligation or duty is frequently used to justify the welfare state. My compassion and charity emerge from my valuing of other human beings, not from duty and obligation. I find that both love and helping others are intimately related to philosophy, as philosophy guides my values, which then are the source of my emotional responses to whom and what I encounter. The more explicit those values, the more intense the emotional response, and the more alive I feel.

Regarding your Everest story, what a horrifying situation. I can't imagine walking past a dying person so I could make the summit. But then, I also can't imagine choosing to do what it takes to be on Everest in the first place.

Clearly I have a hard time setting this all aside. Thank you again for your participation. You have helped me identify some places where I need to expand my understanding and prompted me toward more rigorous self-examination.

So much for which to be thankful!

Anonymous said...

You say each life is sacred. What does that mean, and why are they sacred? What does it mean to value other human beings? If you value something, don't you have an obligation or duty to maintain it or treasure it or treat it in a manner that reflects that value? Somehow or other it seems to me that the view of sacredness of each life and the value attached to them leads to a duty or obligation.

In tort law there is a concept called the "duty to care." It is the failure to meet one's duty to care, usually through recklessness or carelessness, that provides the legal basis for getting sued. It seems that in common law, dating back to the 16th or 17th century, I believe, one has a duty to behave toward fellow human beings in a manner that is not harmful.

You may be getting hung up on semantics. If you feel a consistent need to help others, that may be a duty that you feel. The alternative is that you help when you feel like it, with no good rationale for sometimes helping and sometimes not.