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.


Brad said...

Okay: Let me start by saying that I agree with MUCH more than I disagree here in your analysis, but then I am not an anarchist.
I agree that the problem of determining "use" of property is of great interest: the Rothbardians take a rather non-subjectivist approach to this problem: very "creation" focused, and very "defensible" focused. Thus, if you are not actively building stuff with your property, you do not really "own" it. And of course, if you are not able to protect it, well, clearly you didn't care that much.
Going off that, we get to the skateboard question. One has to start this one with a utilitarian thought: what impact will property rights distribution (ala Coase) have on social utility? If we determine that not owning skateboards, much like not owning water, is the most effective method (or, as I would prefer, we evolve a system that has non-ownership of skateboards) then SHOULD we feel bad for not having property?
My first response is: there is a reason why Brandly was so hard to pin down on property reclamation: there is a libertarian school of thought, and you will have to excuse the fact that I do not have the materials at hand necessary to identify the creator of it, that argues that one does NOT have a right to take something from others, even if they took it from you. But even this did not make a society where people freely shared things.
Next: in an anarchistic world, I see no reason that societies with differing property rights distributions will not be able to coexist: there will be issues at borders, but there is no reason we cannot settle this in a conservative fashion (try to trace who had "possession" or "communal ownership" first, and return it to them) or even solve it by use of private judiciaries.
Finally, on the skateboard example, I would propose a evolutionary feedback mechanism that will help solve this: societies that have ineffective (taken in the Darwinian, and rather cruel, understanding) property distributions will simply be beaten out by others. People are evil, and unless a society has the necessary "hardness" to deal with this fact, it may have trouble existing. This is my concern with any system that is overly exiting or rationalistic: it probably has a few weaknesses that might impinge on its overall ability to function in the long term.

So, to try to come full circle, I propose that Brandly was very weak on property allocation (I think most everyone is; we clearly have not solved this question in any effective manner, seeing the failure of claiming the artic, the moon, and dividing the USSR, even though it is the 20th/21st century) BUT we can have a legitimate discussion once those rights are allocated in some way (some definition of utility; I am not against using Sen's terms). My opinion is that any rationally designed anarchistic system loses a great deal of the evolved knowledge (think Buchanan, some Hayek) we have in today's government-directed society (externalities come to mind) and I would worry that we would see an overall decrease in utility in any society explicitly created. If you can evolve your way to an anarchist future, then I propose a careful comparison between your preferred property distribution and human tendencies (nature is perhaps too strong a word). Then we can talk about what skateboard distribution methods will actually do to the betterment of mankind.

Kenny said...

I am not sure that I understand your differentiation between rationally designed and evolved societies. Is not each new societal permutation a mixture of the two, designed to overcome the failings of the current society, but as such, an evolution of the current society? For example, the founders designed the United States in many way, but they things they felt necessary to design it to do reflect the parts of English society with which they were dissatisfied, and thus formed their point of departure.

Thank you for your cautions about the difficulties of assigning property. I think I may have oversimplified things in my next post if I had not had this warning.