Sunday, April 22, 2012

Anarchy Without Adjectives: Don't Wanna Be Owned By Myself

This is the second post in a series explicating my objections to a presentation, "Anarchy without Adjectives," which I attended last Tuesday. For this post to make sense, you will probably want to read the previous post wherein I outline the content of the presentation, and present some of the problems I see with the notion of justified ownership that the speaker put forth. Today I continue with an assault on the fundamental assumption of initial argument, that we each own ourselves.

Although the speaker noted that many people simply accept this assumption from the get go, for those less inclined to agree that we obviously own ourself he presented an argument by elimination. His argument went as follows: suppose someone else were to own you. Why, then you would be obliged to ask their permission before taking any action, as you would be using their property. Alternatively assume that each person owned equal share in every other person. In this case you would have an even harder time getting anything done, as you would have to ask every other person on the Earth, or perhaps simply a majority of them, for permission before enacting a course of action. Personally, I find these arguments compelling, and agree that no other person ought to have ownership over myself. But does that imply that I own myself? Indeed, what does it even mean to talk about owning one's self?

To answer these questions, let us consider the conclusion of the presenter's argument, that individuals should not have limitations placed upon what they do with their property. In order to reach this conclusion, we must accept that self ownership means that individuals should not have limitations placed upon what they do. However, very few world views hold that individual should act without limitation, and here I regret that I have not studied Nietzsche's philosophy more. Most tellingly, even the presenter's argument placed limits on what individuals should do, namely, individuals should not infringe upon the ability of others to utilize their property however they see fit.

If I truly own myself, from whence does this caveat arise? During the presentation the speaker asserted that ethics was more than a matter of preference, a point I, as an ethicist, find rather attractive, so I shall not argue it, although I am not sure that it is true. However, if it is true then the speaker must posit some moral obligation on us forbidding our interference with the property of others. If the source of said obligation cannot be discerned, then it seems reasonable to expect that it may present further restrictions upon our actions.

What I mean is the following: if something obliges us to let others do what the will with their property, now with the caveat that this extends only as far as others follow this same principle of non-interference, then what is to say that this something, shall we call it ethics, respect, or politeness, further obliges us to provide for the health of those about us, insofar as it does not infringe upon our ability to provide for our own health? Indeed, as long as this obligation stems from an unspecified source, one has no hope of nailing down what other obligations we may or may not have.

This seems to leave two options if one wishes to salvage this line of argument. One might discern the origin of our obligation to let others do what they will with their property, then outline whatever auxiliary obligations this original cause also entails. Or one might simply give up on the obligation to let others do what they will with their property entirely, but this seems to lead to one of the nastier forms of anarchy, wherein might makes right and people do entirely as they will if no one is able and inclined to stop them. I think either case highlights the difficulties inherent in making atomizing statements like, "everyone should be free to do with their property as they will," in a world where we are all so fundamentally interconnected. This, to me, is the foundational flaw with all reasoning in this vein, our actions cannot be considered in a vacuum, they will inevitably have repercussions on others, so giving one individual sovereignty must necessarily diminish the sovereignty of others.

Since the school week begins again tomorrow, it is not clear when I shall continue with my response, but rest assured, I have more thoughts on this topic to present for your scrutiny.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Anarchy Without Adjectives: Unjustified Justification

On Tuesday I attended a talk about "Anarchy without Adjectives," hosted by the local chapter of Students for Liberty, instead of going to the beginner swing lesson. A little out of my current character, perhaps, but one's mind, body, and soul all need stimulation, and I've been dancing a lot anyway; plus, I have a passing fondness for the political ideals of anarchy, so I thought it would be a worthwhile expenditure of time. Although I disagreed with most of the talk, I think it inspired some interesting points of thought, and I wanted to put them here in an attempt to further work them out. I shall try to keep everything accessible to the amateur philosopher; which is what all of us are, right? If something doesn't make sense, please feel free to ask for clarification, I abhor communication failures on my part, and I sincerely love it when people respond to points or make me aware of weaknesses in my reasoning, it is how I grow as a thinker.

In order to explicate my reaction to the talk, I should begin with a summary of the presentation. I shall try to do it justice. The speaker began by arguing that if a person has property, they should be the only person allowed to determine what is to be done with it as follows. We begin with the assertion that each individual owns them self, that is, each individual is the only person who can decide what they should do. Then each individual owns things that they create or harvest by their effort, or their property. The speaker concluded that this implied that we ought to do away with government, as everything a government does tends to including telling people what they must or cannot do with their self or physical property, which I believe the speaker called assaults on property.

Then the speaker rather abruptly shifted into a paean (or song of praise and exaltation) of privatization. While this seems like it ought to follow from the previous topic, as reducing governmental functions usually is accomplished through privatization of said functions, the manner in which the segue was effected made the shift seem incongruous, as I shall address later. In support of privatization and free markets he did make some very good points, such as the increased knowledge available to distributed decision making as compared to centralized decision making (in one school each student decides what they want to wear in the morning, in another, the principal tries to pick out the outfit that will make the most students the happiest, in which school do you think more students like their outfit) and the tendency of free markets to encourage efficiency.

However, in his examples of things that could be done privately he includes courts and stolen possession recovery. In specific, he gave an example wherein a person had their skateboard stolen. The private institution with whom they contracted for possession security would then catch the culprit and recover the skateboard and some restitution. Here we see that, while the evil of government which required its abolition was, ostensibly, the assault against possession, in forcing the skateboard snatcher to return the board and make restitution we have again created a system wherein assault against property is a regulatory mechanism, by which I mean we threaten to take people's stuff and freedom away to make them act how we want them to. In this vein, I feel that the speaker's talk devolved from a rather high minded stance of freedom from coercion into a laissez-faire capitalism freedom of the rich.

To be fair to the speaker, here I should note that he did specify that people ought be do what they will with justifiably obtained possessions so long as it did not infringe on the ability of others to do the same. Unfortunately, the explication of how one justifiably obtains possessions was woefully inadequate. The illustration he provided was straight out of the philosophy of John Locke, an individual setting forth into a world of unclaimed, or perhaps underutilized, resources and wresting forth the items they wish from nature through the sweat of one's own brow. Thus ownership is justified through effort. A quick historical problem with this philosophy can be attained by remembering that it was instrumental in justifying the atrocities committed against the indigenous people the Americas. The were not using their land, they were simply living on it, so when Europeans came and colonized it with their efforts they gained rightful ownership as they were using the land "better". This is simply one, historically relevant, problem with letting effort lead to ownership. For another, consider, suppose I walk through the woods every Sunday, appreciating the splendor of nature (hmmm... that sounds like a good plan actually!), does this prevent you from cutting down one of the trees in the forest to make yourself a cabin, because through the effort of my walk I use the woods for aesthetic appreciation, and your removal of the tree will impair that use?

Perhaps a more pragmatic objection arises when one attempts to locate any of these "unclaimed resources" in the world around us. Litter and garbage repositories are about the only sources of unclaimed resources that I can think of in our society. I would imagine that you are not even supposed to cut flowers in public parks (fortunately you can still find very pretty flowers discarded by the side of the road, so maybe litter is a better resource than I give it credit for being). Nevertheless, the point is that one sees that this philosophy does not, in fact, create a framework for liberty, but rather one of serfdom. Some people have put forward that they have justifiable claims to all the resources we need to support ourselves, which forces the rest of us into agreements with them as to how we are to access these resources. Or, to put it in terms with which a Marxist might be familiar, some people control the means of production and the rest of us are forced to supply them with labor in order to obtain the resources needed to reproduce our way of life.

Finally, is there any reason we settled on this particular form of justification for ownership? I think that a society could run quite successfully in which having the skill to snatch the skateboard from your neighbor's yard without harming them constituted a justifiable method of acquiring a possession. It seems to me that the speaker justified possession in the way he did to justify excess, having enough possessions to carelessly leave them strewn about, as per the now metaphorical skateboard. The apparently pathological and arbitrary, or perhaps more accurately culturally contingent, that is, seeming natural merely due to the particular make up of our own society, rather than any universal principles, method of justifying possession makes up the first of my major objections with the content of the "Anarchy without Adjectives," presentation.  The other two are in the assumption that we "own" ourselves and in the speaker's assertion that we seek restitution from the skateboard thief. In order to keep this post at a reasonable length, I shall address those concerns in a separate post at another time.