Social Justice, Libertarianism

Property-Owning Democracy is Authoritarian

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.

  • Krinein_ev

    Why doesn’t this post prove that all political economies are authoritarian?
    As far as I can tell, the bright line presented is whether or not a substantial portion of the population would prefer no government at all to the proposed arrangement.
    If that is the case, then two problems present themselves:
    First, the OP’s claim is entirely contingent on the political preferences of the population. In Scandinavia, there might be a substantial portion of the population that would feel the same way about classical liberalism. Thus authoritarianism collapses into a weaker common-sense definition such as ‘compatible with the wishes of the population governed.’
    Second, the definition of “coercion” begs the question. A Rawlsian might feel that wage labor without PoD is coercive… which then essentially collapses into a debate about the meaning of “coercion.”

    Once again, the problem of whether or not to restrict definition of “coercion” to governmental actors raises its ugly head… the perpetual problem that makes leftists suspicious of libertarian definitions of liberty.

    • Kevin Vallier

      You raise two important, serious issues worth addressing at length (and that have been addressed, but not in the most popular of venues).

      First, my claim is not contingent on the political “preferences” of the population but rather on their *reasons* as is clear on any public reason view. But you are right to grasp the implication: different political arrangements will be publicly justified for different populations in some cases. I think this is a virtue not a vice of the theory.

      Second, you are right that there is reasonable disagreement about what counts as coercive and what counts as coercion. But these disagreements can be built into the model by starting with core cases agreed to by all and then by publicly justifying (within a shared moral framework) a method of determining how to resolve disputed cases. I can elaborate if you like.

      Nothing new here. My first reply is standard, the second is explored in Chapter 8 of Gaus’s The Order of Public Reason.

      • Krinein_ev

        I’m familiar with Rawls but not Gauss, so it’s possible I’m missing something. However, presumably PoD advocates could offer publicly justifiable “reasons” for their “preferences”; and those “reasons” would include a definition of “coercion” quite different from the libertarian account.
        Imagine a polity in which 90% support PoD based on “reasons” compatible with political liberalism, along with a small minority (2%) of libertarians. Calling this system ‘authoritarian’ stretches credulity.
        Claims that this 2% get a veto requires appealing to an libertarian definition of “coercion” which begs the question mentioned in my first response.
        In modern pluralist societies, there will always be small minorities that find the existing political order fundamentally illegitimate (e.g., communists, anarchists, religion fundamentalists, alien conspiracy theorists).
        Once again, it’s hard to see how any political order can meet your strict definition of consent.

        • Kevin Vallier

          Well, its not consent I’m after, but rational justification. But in any case, you raise an additional issue, which is how to treat minorities in a publicly justified policy. I have a working paper on the subject, but in cases where the groups have views at a high degree of variance from the general population, a publicly justified polity can provide exemptions of various sorts depending on the controversy at question, from simple exemptions from specific laws to the devolution of political power to a newly formed small, affiliated but distinct new political unit.

        • Kyle Nearhood

          In my view the small minority, if they feel that the new regime will compromise fundamental rights, have a legitimate need of protection far greater than the need demonstrated by the majority who wish to implement some fundamental change in the social charter.

  • glennd1

    How do property rights differ in character than other negative rights in this regard? Isn’t any negative right coercive in the way you describe when the state enforces it via a monopoly on the use of force? If so, it would seem that by implication, my exercise of free speech creates a prison for you because the state may be asked to enforce that right? That seems kind of weird – what am I missing? Also, I wonder if you could respond without esoteric citations? This is not a fine point you are making, as you are essentially claiming that the very notion of property ownership is immoral due to its implication of a political system that enforces property ownership. So, I’d expect you could answer in broad way. Am I in error somewhere in my understanding and reasoning? Please help me see what I’m missing.

    • Kevin Vallier

      All rights claims that we think political bodies should protect by definition involve coercion, as that’s just what political protection is. But the idea that coercion can extend liberty isn’t a strange idea at all, is it? Why should free speech rights create a “prison” for others rather than simply limiting the liberty of others to restrict my speech?

      So I’m not sure I see the weirdness; perhaps you can draw it out for me.

      Note that I am emphatically not claiming that property ownership is immoral, just that it is coercive. (No *esoteric* citation is needed on this point, as Rousseau famously made the claim long ago). While coercion is a ceteris paribus bad (achieving a goal without coercion is nearly always morally better than achieving it with coercion), it is not always all things considered bad (such as in cases where coercion is used to protect free speech rights).

      • glennd1

        So you aren’t claiming that coercion is immoral, okay, so what are you claiming? Your larger point seems to be that private property ownership is “authoritarian”, but according to your logic that would make any government that enforces any law which involves coercing others via force authoritarian. If all govts are authoritarian under this definition, what use is the term in the first place? And what’s the use of making this distinction if you don’t believe authoritarianism is immoral?

        • good_in_theory

          Well, maybe it’s trivial, but wouldn’t the first step be a move from authoritarian/not authoritarian to more authoritarian/less authoritarian, or ‘authoritarian along dimensions a, b, c; but not x,y,z’ and ‘justifiably authoritarian’ vs ‘unjustifiably authoritarian’?