• Plawler
  • A fascinating,refreshing, and thought-provoking essay.  Years ago I read “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and realized what a bum rap Adam Smith got. Not just modern Liberals but libertarians as well (though in different ways) have distorted his views.

    Sharon Presley

  • Matt and John, great essay. 

    I would just add to your final sentences, not only were Locke and Smith “writing before social justice had been adequately defined,” but they were also writing before the concept of money had been adequately defined. (For example, see A. John Simmons, “The Lockean Theory of Rights,” section 5.5 “Money,” pgs. 298-306)

    So, part of our challenge as participants in a modern global economy is to project or extrapolate how Locke and Smith would have theorized if immersed in our highly monetized culture.

    This is why I often interject the views of Henry George, who, according to Milton Friedman lived in one of the most promising eras of the past 2000 years, and whose views can help because he began the process of precisely defining words like capital, wealth, wages, currencies, hybrid currencies, actual wealth, relative wealth, exchange value, etc.

    It’s just too bad George died in 1897, just when U.S. income tax law evolution began. This complicates our task because we’re also forced to extrapolate how George would have reacted to the two forms of income taxation that began after 1913: (1) taxes on income derived from property sources (the one engendered by George’s philosophy), and (2) taxes on income not derived from property (the one that presently benefits banksters when we use their privately-issued currencies).

  • Mark Brady

    “This, then, is the gold standard of contemporary theorizing about social
    justice. The great historical defenders of commercial society such as
    Locke and Smith were all writing before social justice had been
    adequately defined. But seeing the theory of social justice now at hand,
    Locke and Smith would not hesitate to send out their free market
    institutions to battle the socialists and welfare statists for that
    crown. Inspired by their example, today’s bleeding heart libertarians
    stand ready to pick up their historical standard, and to carry it forth.
    Property rights, limited government, and social justice. Why not?”

    Why do Matt and John believe that “social justice” has now been adequately defined?

  • 3cantuna

    Anglophiles!  hahhaa. What about the French and German Liberal traditions?  Ralph Raico call your office.  The late Spanish Scholastics? 
    If we are dealing with history– then Tomasi’s and Zwo’s task of proving neos like Hayek and Friedman as the proper heirs to the libertarian mantle is still problematic on many fronts.

    There were pre-War libertarians with concern for the working poor that did not believe state intervention was the answer. E.g. Lysander Spooner wrote a letter to President Cleveland urging him to destroy the monopoly on money so that ‘free labor could compete with free labor for mutual benefit’ instead of ‘being subject to the forced pauperism of monopolist control’.

    Anyway, Mises completed his first major treatise, Theory of Money and Credit, in 1912.  Before the World War in Two Parts.  Rather than sticking him in a ‘Mises, Rothbard, Rand’ post war camp, it would be more historically correct to place him in the pre-war Liberalism category.  Mises even perceived himself as carrying on the liberal tradition. So what really differentiates him from the ‘bunch of socialists’ in the Mont Pelerin Society? His restatement of, correction of, and addition to, the economic thinking that has accompanied the development of liberalism over the centuries.

    There must be a definite relationship between Hayek’s modification, and Friedman’s rejection, of Mises’s core aprioristic idea on economic calculation (and the necessity of private property) and his pro-Mill interventionist stances. 

    Maybe most important to understand from a historical standpoint is that the classic liberal tradition is marked more by breaking with the past than conserving it. Tomasi and Zwo might be taking a conservative turn and damaging the liberal tradition by trying to freeze it in the Mill type halfwayism that Rothbard sought to overcome.  The thing is, I am sure they are familiar with Bastiat and Molinari, radical 19th century libertarians, that you will find more compatibility in Rothbard than the Neos.  Will they deny this strain of ‘tradition’? 

  • 3cantuna

    Further, to assert that Mises was absolutist on property, as Tomasi and Zwolinski do, is to ignore the fact that Mises supported political democracy.

    • j_m_h

      Since Mises also expected a rather limited government I don’t see the the latter refutes the former.

      Still, from what I’ve heard about his personality I would be surprised that one cannot find support in his writings that Mises lacks a heart that has blood.

      • 3cantuna

        Mises one-upped Keith Richards, rumour has it. Whereas the Rolling Stones’ guitar man had periodic blood transfusions from children, Mises, lacking blood altogether, had to have a constant supply of newborn infusions. Hence his pro-big business angle– if you get the drift.

  • j_m_h

    Great opener. I think it really lays the ground for the direction of libertarian political discussion for the 21st century.

  • 3cantuna

    The charge of  ‘property absolutist’  should be seen in context of the labeler’s statist absolutism, especially when it is dressed in drag, aka ‘minarchism’.

  • I personally don’t see how libertarians can have a reasonable debate with anarchists or minarchists unless we first determine who enforces property rights. 

    If not a state or some reasonable facsimile to enforce boundaries and punish trespassers, then who will do it? Do some so-called “libertarian anarchists” (an oxymoron in my opinion) really believe property rights enforce themselves, naturally? That because we really want property rights, or that property rights seem like a good idea, that they have some independent moral force of their own?

    • 3cantuna

      Libertarian anarchists believe force may be resorted to in protecting private property.  Your question is like  “Who will pick the cotton?” coming from defenders of slavery.  Why would it be reasonable to vehemently plead for competition in the provision of, say, food, but not courts and security?  Private security workers outnumber police already, I believe.  And they are a whole lot more accountable than the government monopoly goons.

      At any rate, it is true that one can be an anarchist and not a libertarian. But I suspect that one cannot be fully libertarian without recognizing the moral and economic futility in the state idea. Further, it is a whole lot safer dealing with mistaken, hateful or criminal minds in a private propertarian environment than a statist one. For where else do the worst kind of people gravitate to but the state form of government?

      The question of state v. anarchy is not one of property, to be or not to be. Rather, it is of who shall own who and what. Where is the just and logical locus of property? The state form of government still means a particular kind of property– forced ownership of one human being over another.  How else does one explain taxation, conscription, central banking?

      • Damien S.

         “Why would it be reasonable to vehemently plead for competition in the provision of, say, food, but not courts and security? ”

        Because we have a word for competition in the provision of courts and security.  It’s “war”.

        The question of state vs. anarchy is one of power and accountability as much as anything else, and as such is too complicated to be rendered down into “state vs. anarchy”, since there are many forms of both.  In modern democracies, power is split among the rich and corporations, the bureaucratic mechanisms of modern representative government, and the voters.  The rich influence government and the voters, government can help or hinder the rich or the voters, and the voters can change the government.  It’s not perfect, but it demonstrably works.

        Anarcho-capitalists want to tear that down and leave the rich basically unchecked, with nothing but faith to suggest that it’d be stable or even prosperous.

        Not just taxation, but central banking too is “forced ownership” of human beings now?

      • Your last paragraph confirms what I think is really going on with anarchists, which is that they don’t necessarily object to the state in its appropriate role as protector of a natural person’s property [FN], nor in the state’s legitimate role as “guardian of the commons,” and maybe not even in a state which may engage in reasonable property redistribution for those who are truly unable to work or care for themselves. 

        Rather, so-called “anarchists” seem to really be objecting to a state that is improperly influenced by private interests (usually represented by privately owned artificial/legal/corporate “persons”), which is a state I don’t want either.

        My point is that libertarians need to be very careful, and even tedious, about distinguishing proper from improper influences on state power, and generally be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. 

        Let’s first reject or weed out subtle inappropriate uses of the government’s power by private interests, particularly in the major area of central banking and who controls the issuance of money (property rights), and with particular forms of taxation that interrupt the legitimate flow of government redistribution powers and divert it to private shareholder pockets.

        [FN] I use the word “property” in the real Lockean sense of the word, not in the contrived, biased Lockean sense that seeks to justify near unlimited property rights for certain individuals, private corporate power structures, “shadow banks,” etc.  Also, by the use of the phrase “natural person” I mean to exclude corporations and other legal persons.

        • shemsky

          Rick, the reason I object to the state is because it entails compulsory membership and support. Which is why I don’t believe that an institution like the state can ever be limited to the protection of an individual’s property rights. If a state did not entail compulsory membership and support, then it would be on an equal footing with anarchism. It could be judged solely on what it did, and not on what it is.

          • ” … the reason I object to the state is because it entails compulsory membership … ”

            Yes, it does, and as Damien S. states above, our only choice is to accept the membership (which is actually two memberships, federal and state) or leave the country. And frankly, no matter what country you go to, so long as it has a monetary system, you’ll be required to live by the property rights hierarchy dictated by that system, whether or not the relationship is spelled out in a constitution.

            But what I’m trying to say is that I really don’t think you’re objecting to the compulsory membership created by the U.S. Constitution, because it’s one of the best compacts in human history. 

            What I think you object to, and I do as well, is the central bank takeover of the U.S. Congress, which hugely affects our property rights (because that’s where our money comes from) and precludes us from using the federal government’s power in the way it was intended to be used, i.e., as protector of our self-ownership rights.

            A great explanation of our dual federal/state contractual membership is contained at about 1:07:00 into this LearnLiberty video entitle “Property Rights in the 21st Century” by Tim Sandefur of the Pacific Legal Foundation: http://www.learnliberty.org/content/property-rights-21st-century

          • shemsky

            Well, I think that what you’re trying to say, Rick, is that you just can’t believe than anyone would object to the compulsory membership created by the U.S. Constitution, because you feel that it’s one of the best compacts in human history. Wrong. I object.

          • Well, yeah, the main reason I said that is because to my knowledge nowhere in history will you find a fully-public “people owned” money-issuer, which is what the U.S. Treasury Department is (but as I’ve said, the privately-owned Federal Reserve corporation is presently overshadowing Treasury-Direct currencies, mainly because of our ignorance about the nature of money and its intimate relation to property rights).

            And again, unless you’ve figured a way to live without the use of money, you’re a member, not only of your state/local governments, but the federal one.

            This dual “compulsory membership” is the result of a major correction to the Articles of Confederation, which proved to be an ineffective loose legal pact among the states. The U.S. Constitution corrected this deficiency by creating a direct legal relationship (“membership”) between the new federal government and the individual citizen. 

            In Federalist #15, Madison states: “The great and radical vice in the construction of the existing Confederation is in the principle of legislation for states or governments in their corporate capacities  and as contradistinguished from the individuals of whom they consist. … we must extend the authority of the union to the persons of the citizens, the only proper objects of government.”
            So, maybe you can see why I’m always asking in this blog if people think property rights are “positive” and can stand on their own naturally (which seems to be what many anarchists believe), or whether property rights exist “negatively,” i.e., simply by having a government  force that will prevent and/or punish trespass.

          • 3cantuna

            1) Money develops without coercion. That’s both history and theory. Whether it is gold, cows or cigarettes in a prison camp…No USA sovereignty/lethality needed. 

            2) Madison, in #10, wanted competing interests to cancel each other out so no single interest could gain tyrannical dominance. He, like Hobbes, failed to apply this good idea of competition to the government itself.

            3) Force is more accountable under peaceful competition– aka the market. It is illogical to wish for the supreme antimarket institution– the state– to enforce legitimate property rights. Cui bono?     

          • 1) If money is issued as debt, then the lender/issuer wants his money back, with interest, and will typically enlist gov’t to assist in the collection effort. Only if money if is neutral (i.e., fully owned publicly) can “money develop without coercion.”

            2) Where in Federalist #10 are you referring to? If you’re referring to passages that might support so-called “free banking,” my understanding is that Jefferson and Madison both expected state incorporated banks to issue competing paper currencies that would “cancel each other out,” but at all times the state banks were to be using the new federal coin as base money for the paper notes. The state-bank-issued money had no independent power of its own. In any event, competing state bank currencies did NOT work to “cancel each other out.” Slavery was much more entrenched than the framers estimated and state banks (especially in the South) refused to honor Constitutional restrictions on money issuance. Hence, federal take over of the banking system after the Civil War.

            3) That sounds like anarcho-capitalism, which ultimately results in chaos and worker abuse, not “peaceful competition.”  Also, the state is not enforcing positive property rights, only punishing trespassers where clear property boundaries have been pre-established through purposeful labor. The problem today is that no one is properly claiming a property right in their labor, and the federal gov’t cannot block trespassers if it doesn’t know where the property’s boundaries are.

          • 3cantuna

            1) I am not sure we agree on a definition of money as a medium of exchange.

            2) I was referring to Madison’s plea for a Constitutional Union over the Articles;  a Republic over direct democracy; a larger republic over smaller.  Banking and slavery was not the main subject. From #10: “Does it consist in the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest? In an equal degree does the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security.”

            3) How is your state system working for you? Me thinks you doth protest too much.

          • Regarding #2, we’ll have to disagree for now. Stripping the individual states of their money creation powers (so they couldn’t “oppress the rest”) was one of the main goals of the U.S. Constitution in my view, but after ratification many slaveholding states wouldn’t honor their agreement to do that.

          • Regarding #3, I know it seems like a long shot right now, but ultimately the IRS and the Treasury Department must recognize its Constitutional duty to protect a property right in our labor against the banking system and employers (or the entire U.S. experiment fails).

          • 3cantuna

            IRS to be humane? A crocodile to go vegetarian? 

          • 3cantuna

            The idea of neutral money is as contradictory as “stable prices”.  Here is Mises:

            “With the real universe of action and unceasing change, with the economic system which cannot be rigid, neither neutrality of money nor stability of its purchasing power are compatible. A world of the kind that the necessary requirements of neutral and stable money presuppose would be a world without action.

            It is therefore neither strange nor vicious that in the frame of such a changing world money is neither neutral nor stable in purchasing power. All plans to render money neutral and stable are contradictory. Money is an element of action and consequently of change.

            Changes in the money relation, i.e., in the relation of the demand for and the supply of money, affect the exchange ratio between money on the one hand and the vendible commodities on the other hand. These changes do not affect at the same time and to the same extent the prices of the various commodities and services. They consequently affect the wealth of the various members of society in different ways.” Human Action

          • I wasn’t speaking of money as being neutral regarding its effect on the price of marketable commodities, but that for people concerned about money’s ability to hold property rights, particularly in one’s labor, the money issuer should not be prejudiced by a responsibility to produce profits for shareholders.

          • 3cantuna

            I see competition as the best regulator here. You see some kind of enlightened despotism– i.e. arguing for any kind of state controlled  money.

    • shemsky

      In an anarchist society individuals could enforce property rights by forming voluntary alliances with other like-minded individuals. Forced participation through a coercive monopoly institution such as a state is not required. We ALL have an interest in protecting ourselves from harm, but most of us recognize that we can’t do an adequate job of protecting ourselves from harm without the assistance of others. So we make appeals to others to join us, in order to serve our mutual interests. Self interest is what motivates us to cooperate with others for mutual benefit.

      • Damien S.

        “forming voluntary alliances with other like-minded individuals.”

        Aka democratic governments.

        • shemsky

          Come on, Damien. You know better than that. Democratic governments are not voluntary alliances. In a democratic government 80 individuals can use their votes to force 40 individuals to do what they want them to do, and keep the 40 from going their own way. And it’s considered legitimate.

          • Damien S.

             Mayflower Compact.  Pirate codes of the 17th century.  Homeowner associations.  Is it force if one has contracted to abide by the will of the majority?

            Most of us haven’t explicitly agreed to any such thing, but we live on property whose provenance descends from or is entangled with such associations.  You’re free to leave, you’re just not free to take the land with you.

          • shemsky

            And until we have explicitly agreed to any such things then they are not legitimate, even though they are currently being forced on us.

          • Then what reason do I have to observe the legitimacy of ANY property titles that I haven’t explicitly consented to personally? In particular, why should I respect any property regime that was instituted prior to my birth or even attainment of majority (say, age 18)?

            The point is that there seem to be a number of social “contracts” that you endorse and others that you deny. Is there any rhyme or reason to it other than “I like this; but I don’t like that.”?

          • Yes, not all contracts require explicit agreement to make them binding. For example, we often form contracts through tacit consent or ratification, i.e., through actions that show we’re in agreement and/or not objecting.

          • shemsky

            Give me a list, Rod.

          • Mark Friedman

            So, if the Homeowner’s Assoc (or whatever) provides that only men can vote and hold property, and you are a female born into this community, it is just to put you to the choice of living by these rules or leaving (at a potentialy large financial disadvantage)? I’m sotty Damien, but only a moral imbecile could actualy believe this.

  • Mark Brady

    Two questions for Matt and John: (1) Please explain what you mean by the concept of social justice; and (2) Does your concept of social justice have any room for the welfare state?

  • RKM.Moeller

    The Rawls definition of social justice is not evident. Social justice had been defined earlier as equality (of means). Thereafter, pro-capitalist authors had argued that it wasn’t so important that workers became equal to capitalists – it was much more important that they lived better than before. That’s the kind of argument Rawls tried to take into account.

    That’s well insofar. In the happy 1950s and 1960s, capitalism got public legitimacy, and indeed partly because workers lived better than before.
    On the other hand, the 1950s and 1960s were the centuries where a strong “middle class society” was formed – a change which heavily helped to make the system legitimate in the eyes of the population. Now, a strong middle class is quite irrelevant for “social justice” as defined by Rawls – but the disappearing of that middle class may have an impact on the public definition of justice and legitimacy which makes Rawls obsolete.