I’ve argued (ad nauseam) that property-owning democracy is bad because it is unworkable and unjust. I shall now argue that it is authoritarian as well. But before I begin, what do I mean by authoritarian?
The authoritarian, in Jerry Gaus’s terms, is one who
… demands that others must do as he instructs because he has access to the moral truth; another admits that she has no access to any moral truth, but nevertheless employs morality as a way to express … her own view of what others must do. But what if reasonable moral persons deny the purported truth or are unimpressed by the expressive act? And what if, in spite of that denial, one goes ahead and makes demands, blames, punishes, is indignant, and so on at their refusal to comply? (xv)
The problem with authoritarians is that they “do not respect the moral equality of their fellows.” On the later Rawls’s view, someone who insists on coercing based on her own reasons when she knows others have considered reasons to reject her view is “sectarian” but the claim is similar.
So if an authoritarian is one who insists on her own authority over others without justification, then a political view is authoritarian when it cannot be imposed without a justification that treats the imposer and impose as free and equal. My contention is that property-owning democracy is authoritarian in this sense: only an authoritarian can in full knowledge of the diversity of reasonable views of members of the public impose the institutions characteristic of property-owning democracy on others.
I. Reasonable Pluralism Means Property-Owning Democracy is Authoritarian
Property-owning democracy is authoritarian because under contemporary social conditions, that is, conditions of reasonable pluralism, some highly informed and rational persons have decisive reason to reject it. Thus, when Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson insist that private capital owners be regulated and expropriated when a range of reasonable comprehensive doctrines affirm the permissibility of owning and operating capital beyond these limits, they are being authoritarian.
Now, it may be that ultimate justice requires property-owning democracy. Even so, it cannot rightfully and respectfully imposed on others.
To demonstrate the conclusion, I need to vindicate two claims: (i) that property-owning democracy requires a great deal of coercion and (ii) that some reasonable people have decisive reason to reject that coercion. This isn’t hard.
II. Property-Owning Democracy Requires Enormous Coercion
O’Neill and Williamson, I think, deny that property-owning democracy requires a great deal of coercion because they think it is a core part of our shared ideas that property-owning democracy is a requirement of justice (see their claims in my previous posts). Thus, once we have property-owning democracy, people will largely consent to it.
Fortunately, I have already shown that property-owning democracy requires a great deal of coercion in my post demonstrating that property-owning democracy is unworkable. The implementation of property-owning democracy will not be in a nice equilibrium, as Williamson has claimed, but rather will require constant monitoring and redistribution.
III. Some Reasonable People Have Decisive Reason to Reject Such Coercion
Some reasonable people have decisive reason to reject property-owning democracy because they have reason to reject the additional coercion required to distinguish property-owning democracy from welfare-state capitalism.
To demonstrate, I will isolate two groups of reasonable people who have decisive reason to reject the coercion characteristic of property-owning democracy: classical liberals and center-right welfare-statists. Let’s start with classical liberals.
I’ve argued in a previous post that Rawls has no good reason to dismiss libertarian members of the public as unreasonable (since they can easily acknowledge a special role for the basic structure). If that post is correct, then libertarians can be reasonable, and if so, then they have defeaters for property-owning democracy. But is that it?
No, due to the following reply: presumably Rawlsians like O’Neill and Williamson have decisive reason to reject the coercion required to impose libertarian institutions on themselves and other Rawlsians. So it appears that all these reasonable people’s rational commitments might cancel each other out and leave us with no set of institutions that can be publicly justified to all.
IV. Reasonable People Will Endorse the Sub-Optimal
It is the project of Jerry Gaus’s recent book, The Order of Public Reason, to argue that the set of publicly justifiable political institutions is not empty but rather contains multiple members. I can’t review that project here, but if you would like to do so, you can read the book or review the reading group I ran some years ago over at the Public Reason blog.
But I can try to sum up the idea. The public reason liberal claims that coercion is only permitted when each person has sufficient reason of her own to endorse the coercion in question. But one can endorse what one regards as sub-optimal. If, as Gaus contends, our commitment to public justification really is a critical component of our “social morality” then we are all hesitant to blame people for not complying with norms that they can see no reason on careful reflection to reject. That is, respecting persons as free and equal means that we can’t insist that people always comply with the moral and political norms we think best. Consequently, we must be prepared to accept norms that we find beneficial and just, though not best or most just.
In this way, we can see that each reasonable person, regardless of her view, will have a ranking of norms where various alternative norms for regulating some practice or state of affairs are ranked in accord with what each person has more reason to endorse. X is preferred to Y just when an individual has more reason to endorse X than Y, that is, X is better than Y given her evaluative standards (which are quite a bit more complex than her self-interested preferences; her evaluative standards include her moral commitments as well). So while each of us may have a most preferred set of norms, we will include in our ranking norms that are less than fully acceptable before we reject the imposition of any norm at all.
For instance, classical liberals and property-owning democrats can all agree that it is better for us to have some regime of property rights rather than none at all. Having no authoritative system of property rights would make everyone worse off in the eyes of both groups. The question is whether each group should regard the others’ preferred institutions as worse than no norms at all governing the issues in question.
We need to clarify matters a bit. For public justification is more fine-grained than the public justification of entire legal and constitutional systems. Instead, I think it is best to understand public justification as proceeding law by law rather than by economic system by economic system. We have clear, distinctive reasons to favor some laws over others, but our reasons to endorse entire systems are much vaguer. Evaluating what we have reason to endorse makes much more sense at a more (but not maximally) fine-grained level.
Accordingly, what we must determine is whether the set of laws necessary to implement a property-owning democracy are ones that friends of markets would prefer to no law at all regulating the relevant property claims. For instance, suppose that we have a basic, unspecified scheme of property rights that allows (as Williamson and O’Neill do) the private ownership of capital in a limited range of circumstances. The law neither permits nor prohibits private capital ownership beyond the level set by property-owning democracy. Now suppose that O’Neill and Williamson propose a law requiring the coercive dispersal of capital if any individual accumulates “too much.” Would classical liberals prefer that law to no law at all dispersing privately held capital? I think the answer is probably no, depending on how the no-law situation is specified.
Alternatively, though, would O’Neill and Williamson have reason to think that a looser, classical liberal standard of capital ownership better than no law at all on the subject? I think the answer here is yes, though they would only begrudgingly accept this point. They recognize that markets can produce great wealth, and they both acknowledge that we can go a long way towards justice without the institutions that distinguish property-owning democracy from welfare-state capitalism. If so, then while classical liberal property rights in productive capital may be low on the Rawlsian ranking of capital rights configurations, classical liberal capital rights will not be ranked lower than no law at all. The classical liberal, on the other hand, would prefer a system of freedom where individuals had no legal right to capital but perhaps had strong, evolved moral conventions that would allow markets to progress OK to having the state regulate capital in all the ways required to have property-owning democracy.
So it seems that classical liberal members of the public will have decisive reason to reject property-owning democracy’s restricted set of capital rights arrangements.
V. Welfare-State Capitalists Have Reasonable Objections Too
But suppose that you’re unmoved by classical liberals (it’s clear that O’Neill and Williamson don’t, given that they barely acknowledge the existence of classical liberal arguments). So let’s turn to welfare-statists.
Obviously O’Neill and Williamson have a great deal of sympathy for welfare-state capitalism, as they both try to play down Rawls’s sharp condemnation of the welfare state in their work, despite ultimately agreeing with him. Both find his arguments for property-owning democracy problematic in their own ways as well. Would they both really be so indignant with welfare state capitalism that they would regard themselves as unjustifiably coerced? I understand how they would feel if forced into libertarian institutions, but do they really have defeaters for welfare-state capitalism rather than just reasons to think that property-owning democracy would better approximate their ideals?
If so, then it seems that even they must recognize that welfare-state capitalists are reasonable in insisting on standard redistributive mechanisms and campaign-finance reform to meet the demands of justice. And presumably there are a great many welfare-state capitalists who have sound reason not only to dislike but to reject the institutions of property-owning democracy. After all, the wide state-led dispersal of capital has only ever occurred in authoritarian nations and welfare-state capitalists are also often wary of the sorts of workplace democratic institutions required to implement property-owning democracy.
So here’s how it seems to me: given the reasonable diversity of opinion about economic justice, liberal democratic societies will likely have a great many welfare-state capitalists and classical liberals. We can discuss how these two groups sort things out with respect to public justification another day (though I agree with Gaus that a publicly justified polity tilts in the direction of the classical liberal). The point is rather that by insisting on the coercion unique to property-owning democracy, O’Neill and Williamson will have to insist that classical liberal members of the public, along with a great many welfare-statist members of the public, comply with coercion that they seem to plainly lack sufficient reason to comply with.
In sum, then, property-owning democracy can only be coercively imposed in contemporary liberal democratic societies either without public justification, thereby exercising authoritarian and disrespectful power over others, or via a dramatic attempt a persuasion not likely to sway a great many citizens of liberal democracies.
Property-owning democracy is authoritarian.
VI. The Series Endeth
Thus ends the sixth and final post in my series on property-owning democracy. It was long, I know, but I wanted to lay out a systematic refutation of a very morally and politically unattractive view, despite its many notable and reputable proponents. Contrary to Rawls and the Rawlsians, property-owning democracy is unworkable, unjust and authoritarian, as I hope should now be clear.