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State Violence: A Dialogue

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Early that morning, a tiny, not terribly bright idea got lodged in Frank’s head. It happens quite often to the soft-headed. And, unfortunately, Frank was feeling ambitious.

“Hi Bill,” Frank said. Bill stood in his bathrobe, shivering at the front door of his house. The sun was barely up, and it was quite cold. Inside, the kids were having breakfast.

“What’s going on?” asked Bill. “Do you want to come in?” Frank did.

“This may sound strange,” said Frank, “but do you read Salon?”

“Sometimes,” said Bill. “Why do you ask?”

“Did you read this one?” Frank held up a printed article.

“Oh,” said Bill. “That one. About communism. He made some good points, I guess. But it seemed kind of lame. I mean, didn’t we already try communism?”

“We did,” said Frank, “but I’m not interested in communism.”

“Well what do you want?” asked Bill, clearly annoyed. “Can you make it quick? The kids need to get to school.”

“Sure,” said Frank. “I’ll be quick. I just want your television.”

“You want to borrow it?”

“No,” said Frank. “I want to claim it. Make it mine.”

“What?”

“See right here,” said Frank, and he read, slowly and emphatically. His finger stabbed the words he thought were important:

But state violence… is inherent in every set of property rights a government can conceivably adopt…

In capitalism, competing ownership claims are settled by the state’s willingness to use violence to exclude all but one claimant. If I lay claim to one of David Koch’s mansions, libertarian that he is, he’s going to rely on big government and its guns to set me right. He owns that mansion because the state says he does and threatens to imprison anyone who disagrees. Where there isn’t a state, whoever has the most violent power determines who gets the stuff, be that a warlord, a knight, the mafia or a gang of cowboys in the Wild West. Either by vigilantes or the state, property rights rely on violence.

Bill looked him in the eye and chuckled, nervously. “Frank,” he said, “you’re not the government.”

“I am the government,” said Frank. “Remember? I’m a government agent.” Frank held up his ID badge.

“You’re an inspector. For the Department of Agriculture.”

“Why so I am,” said Frank. “And my TV isn’t nearly as nice as yours.”

“Is this some kind of a joke?”

“No, Bill. It’s no joke. It’s just how property is made. You want to deny it?”

“Welll…”

“With what? With the state? Hah! And if you want to enjoy the rest of your property, I think – as a government agent – that I’ll be nice enough to let you. As long as I can have your TV.”

Bill grinned. “Why don’t you go pick on the Koch brothers, like the nice communist says?”

“I think they’re probably better armed than I am,” said Frank. He drew a small pistol from his pocket. “But you’re not.”

“Okay, okay,” said Bill. “Right over here, and don’t scare the kids.” He pointed Frank toward the living room. Blessedly, Sheila looked out from the kitchen. Bill pantomimed: He’s crazy. Call the cops!

“What’s going on, daddy?” asked Olivia from the kitchen.

“Never mind,” said Bill. “Just eat your breakfast.” He turned to Frank. “Did your boss tell you to do this?”

“No,” said Frank. “I’m doing it all by myself.” He unplugged the TV and began wrapping up the cables. “Do you have some kind of, I dunno, cart or something. To carry it out?”

“I do — I mean — what the fuck?”

“State violence,” said Frank. “Remember?”

“Is there any kind of law says you can do this?”

“Oh no, not at all,” said Frank. “But I’ll be taking the cart too. I expect I might… need it. You know, for the rest of the neighborhood.” He reached meaningfully into his coat pocket. Bill went to get a dolly. When he returned, Frank was looking around the room.

“Say, where’s the remote?” he asked.

“It’s not funny anymore, Frank. I mean, sooner or later you’ll meet up with the cops.” Sooner, Bill said to himself. Let’s make it sooner.

“I’ll just read them that article,” said Frank with a grin. “It’ll set them free.”

“But that’s — ”

“Violence?” asked Frank. “You bet it’s violence. We’re the state. Violence is… us.”

“Well,” said Bill under his breath. “I think that’s bullshit. These are people’s lives you’re messing with.”

“Not at all,” said Frank. “Only their possessions, which they don’t even rightfully own. I mean, if I wanted, I really should be taking your land, too.”

“Oh no you shouldn’t,” said Bill.

“I’m one-eighth Native American,” said Frank.

“And I’m black,” said Bill. “What do you think the system owes me?”

“Eh, well, whatever,” said Frank. “In the end it’s all the same, isn’t it? All states rely on violence. Restitution, slavery, it’s all the same. All just… violence. Might as well get when the getting’s good.”

Bill tried desperately to stall. “The getting,” he said “isn’t good. I mean, stop and think for a minute. What if someone came along and did that to you?”

“I’d have to ask myself,” said Frank. “…are they from the state?”

“What if they’re not?”

“That,” said Frank, “Would be very, very bad. That’s not how property works! Property comes from the state!”

“And if they are from the state?” asked Bill.

“Eh, okay, I guess.”

“Then,” said Bill, “what if someone else took your stuff from them? Or what if you came and took it back? Or what if they took it back again from you after that? Back and forth, back and forth — killing here, killing there, no one ever safe… you really want to live like that?”

“It’s just a TV,” said Frank. “Chill.”

“Hey look,” said Bill. “What if you do read the cops that article. And they join up. Then what?”

“Then we take the very best houses. We recruit the rest of the PD. We set up as warlords.”

“Ah,” said Bill. “What about the FBI? What about the army?”

“What about them?” asked Frank.

“You think they’re all going to stand by,” said Bill. “You think they’ll just watch you take whatever you like?”

“I’ll tell them what I know. And they’ll just grab what they can,” said Frank. “I mean, it’s basically good news, from where they sit. Nobody’s ever mad at the bearer of good news. I figure they’ll like me.”

“You’re crazy,” said Bill.

“You’re jealous,” said Frank.

“Fine, fine,” said Bill. “Maybe I am. But who says they’re gonna make you the king? You’re just some bullshit bureaucrat from the Ag department.”

“Well…”

“It’ll be some state of nature, then.” said Bill. “Why do you think you’ll come out on top?” He paused. “And not, say, the Koch brothers?”

Frank was silent.

“They’ll win, won’t they?” said Bill. “You know I’m right. There’s really just two choices — we either fight forever, like you want, or we all join up, and don’t fight.”

Just then the front door burst open. There was a flurry of badges and guns, tasers and handcuffs.

“Violence!” said Frank. “It’s all just state violence!”

“This nut’s trying to steal my TV,” said Bill.

“Hands where we can see them,” said an officer. Both men complied. In the kitchen, the children were screaming.

“Officers,” said Frank. “What you’re doing is violence! But think about it for a moment, please! What I’m doing is violence too! We’re like, a team!” The handcuffs snapped closed.

“You and me!” Frank yelled over his Miranda rights. “We’re brothers!”

“Thanks officers,” said Bill. “I mean, maybe it is violence, but it’s just violence to keep the other violence in check, you know? So it’s all good. And I’m so glad we can get on with our lives.”

Then a second set of handcuffs snapped closed, and the words died in his mouth.

One of the officers held up a baggie full of an herb. “You have the right to remain silent…”

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170 thoughts on “State Violence: A Dialogue

  1. This a glorious post Jason, and skewers the false equivalence of that Salon piece wonderfully. There are days I wonder just how large a disaster communism would have to create before it would finally lose its defenders.

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  2. The idea that your rights come from the government (as opposed to the idea that the government exists to protect your self-evident rights) is one of the most illiberal of all suspect political ideas. You really have to wonder how much of this article is about thinly-veiled authoritarian tendancies and how much is just plain old concern trolling

    It is Salon after all, an outlet that covers libertarianism and free market ideology in general with the same intellectual rigor that Fox News covers immigration and the American Renaissance covers race relations.

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    • What are my self-evident rights, and are they the same the world around? Do I have freedom of religion in Iran and freedom of speech in England?

      Rights come from the same place as our government: our Constitution.

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      • Rights come from the same place as our government: our Constitution.

        I just want to make sure I understand your position, here: you’re saying that women had no moral right to vote before it was recognized in the amending of our Constitution.

        Legal rights map 1:1 onto moral rights, then?

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      • They certainly had no actual right to vote.

        “Moral rights” are kind of nebulous. I can claim all sorts, and so can you, and who knows where and how our lists overlap?

        Actual rights, that’s another kettle of fish and it’s probably not a good idea to mix them.

        Philosophy is all well and good, but talking philosophy when another person is talking reality and vice versa is a recipe for confusion. “Ought to be” versus “Is” — they can interrelate, obviously — but “ought to be” is so very rarely “is”.

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      • I do not agree that rights are self-evident. To the extent that positive laws are justified, they are justified in reference to theories of morality.

        By contrast, the theory that rights come from a piece of paper is sheer superstition. The Constitution might be good or bad, but it is not so by virtue of its paper, which may contain any nonsense at all.

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      • You know, we could go back and forth about competing rights theories, but what’s the point? I may never convince you that rights are self-evident. And you most certainly will never convince me that rights are privileges granted by whatever arbitrary political power happens to be in power at a particular time and place.

        More importantly, that’s not even what my comment is about. The point of my comment is to note that, while liberalism is a broad spectrum, the basic foundation of political liberalism is the belief that human beings are fully formed moral agents that don’t owe their justification to any political order; rather, the justification of political order rests on how well it upholds the rights individuals.

        The writers and editors at Salon, however, are always willing to ditch whatever tenuous affinity they have for political liberalism to take a pot shot at the Kock brothers or spend a few moments feeling morally superior to libertarians.

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      • Well, sure, it is nonsense to say rights come from a piece of paper, since paper just kinda sits there. But if you literally want to find where rights come from, well they seem to come from the imagination.

        I mean, they are things we think up, and maybe some other person thinks them up differently, and maybe that person changes our mind, or maybe not. Maybe that person has a government. Maybe he writes them down and says, “Look! Here! Rights!”

        And this is a very old argument where no progress is ever made, because, I suspect, there is no progress to be made. The science of rights is much like the science of unicorns.

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      • Well, sure, it is nonsense to say rights come from a piece of paper, since paper just kinda sits there. But if you literally want to find where rights come from, well they seem to come from the imagination.

        I mean, they are things we think up, and maybe some other person thinks them up differently, and maybe that person changes our mind, or maybe not. Maybe that person has a government. Maybe he writes them down and says, “Look! Here! Rights!”

        What about architecture? It’s also a thing that comes from the imagination.

        Yet there are well designed buildings and badly designed ones; there are safe buildings and unsafe ones; there are ugly buildings and beautiful ones.

        And we may disagree all we like, but none of them are imaginary. That’s what government is like: Perhaps rights are just a thing we think up. But that doesn’t mean they are unreal. And it doesn’t mean that they have no consequences.

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      • I’m happy to discus rights as a manifest social and political reality, a particular sort of social constructions that groups use to organize. Fine. Go for it. Many interesting things to say.

        But that is not what people want to communicate when they claim a right. They neither mean to say, “I wish that X,” nor do they wish (in most cases) to assert that, “The present social environment allows X.”

        (Granted, sophisticated speakers in certain contexts might mean the latter. But in general, no, that’s not what people mean by rights.)

        This is the is/ought thing. It’s as old as the wind.

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      • I do not agree that rights are self-evident. To the extent that positive laws are justified, they are justified in reference to theories of morality.

        As I said above, the purpose of referencing self-evident rights was not to make some particular claim about rights theories. Rather, my point is that you cannot hold the position that human rights are solely grounded in the political authority of the government and call yourself a political liberal. You can somewhat credibly call yourself a progressive, but what you really are is an authoritarian. If people want to be progressive authoritarian, that’s fine, just be honest about it. That’s my beef with Salon.

        As for the claim about rights, when I talk about rights being self-evident I mean this in the most basic, literal sense possible. My right to life is grounded in my being alive. My right to freedom of thought and expression is grounded in my possessing a functioning brain and voice. Of course, rights are not absolute and we can go on to make all sorts of qualifications about what rights mean and what claims they make on the behavior of other people. It still remains that rights are the basic recognition of human beings as fully formed moral and physical entities.

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      • I mean, they are things we think up,

        Hmm. I don’t think that’s correct. The measure of a right is how it’s application (which requires enforcement) plays out in practice. Positing that bare right X is a priori knowable is in my view just plain silly. It’s only because of actual practice and experience that we’d (each of us as individuals) have any inclination to think X is useful in our lives, and further, that X is so fundamentally useful that it can be justified as necessary.

        Rights are conventions in my view, revealed by practice and justified by outcomes. What they are not is an emotional commitment to a principle felt with such intensity that they appear necessary or self-evident. So it seems to me they quite clearly aren’t things we merely think up. (Tho people can and do think things up and proceed to call those thoughts “rights”.)

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      • But that is not what people want to communicate when they claim a right. They neither mean to say, “I wish that X,” nor do they wish (in most cases) to assert that, “The present social environment allows X.”

        If you want to blame people for thinking this way, you’re in the wrong place. “I wish that X” is not a common formulation in rights theory, except usually as a description of an insufficiently strong claim. “The present social environment allows X” isn’t even a normative statement.

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      • To characterize rights as mere conventions is more than a little coy. If someone tries to rob you, are you going to defend your property rights just out of an obligation to some social convention? If someone tries to murder your, are you going to defend your life with the same ardor that you eat your first course with the salad fork or for the same reason that you shake hands with the left instead of the right?

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      • If someone were to do any of those things, I would pause for just a moment to reflect on whether rights are self-evident apriori knowable eternal truths, and proceed to act accordingly. And I’d quickly decide that if that’s what rights are, then I have no right to defend myself.

        I don’t claim that my view isn’t controversial, j r. Just that it makes a heckuva lot more sense to me than the apriori-based alternative.

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      • By contrast, the theory that rights come from a piece of paper is sheer superstition.

        oh for heavens’ sake, do try to apply a charitable, common-sense interpretation to comments. Our Constitution is the place where we have documented our rights. In 1789, slavery existed. Upon the adoption of the 13th amendment, things changed. But they actually changed in peoples’ minds and on the battlefield first. The Constitutional amendment was the culmination of the creation of the right to be free from slavery.

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      • — You say, “Rights are conventions in my view, revealed by practice and justified by outcomes.” Which to me reads exactly as saying rights are social constructs.

        But then, we hit problems. Do whites have the right to sell the children of their slaves?

        Well, I guess they used to. And we can learn much by looking at how the idea of rights has changed over the centuries, alongside looking at how specific groups regarded specific things as “their right.” We can also look at what happened to the various societies that held different rights in different ways. We can ask which society we (personally) would like to live in.

        But a problem remains: what then are rights besides a thing some societies do in certain ways? Societies do many things in many ways. We want rights to be special sorts of things. But where does the specialness come from?

        I’ve never seen a good answer to that.

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      • It seems self-evident to me the rights of human brains uploaded to Google servers and interfaced through holograms are identical to the rights of meat space humans. It is so self evident that clearly no one can argue with me about that.

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      • Veronica,

        what then are rights besides a thing some societies do in certain ways?

        Short answer is nothing. It seems to me that a right only exists if it’s actionable, and that means enforceable, and the means a third party involvement in the form of laws, which are all social conventions that are reflections of social norms and context-dependent pragmatic consequential considerations.

        The longer answer would involve talking about how even arbitrary rights claims (only white, landed males get to vote) are extended by the application of the principle of fairness to existing rights and how those extensions are justified (or not) by pragmatics and consequentialism.

        Societies do many things in many ways. We want rights to be special sorts of things. But where does the specialness come from?

        There is a desire for rights to be immutable principles that act as a definitive grounding (or justification) for certain types of political systems and laws and protections and what not. Usually, that specialness is accorded to rights by the way we become aware of them: they are divinely granted, self-evident, immutable properties (or … thingies of some kind) which transcend place and time and … you know, on and on.

        I certainly get the impulse to think that a right is something divine or even magical. That’s why I mentioned earlier that they aren’t emotionally based revelations: it seems to me that the emotional commitment some individuals feel to basic rights is so intense that they can’t help but think that feeling comes from the Theosphere.

        I think the specialness of rights derives from misidentifying the process by which we come to adopt them as well as the tendency to project principles that strikes us obvious (in this time, at this place) onto other times and places. But in reality, I think they are discovered by practice and reinforced and extended by consequentialism and principles of fairness (or something like that).

        I mean, consider the right to property and imagine a time when the right is only accorded to white males. There are practical benefits to private property ownership which reinforces the institutional practice (let’s say that’s true), yet the right appears to be arbitrarily circumscribed to individuals based on arbitrary properties. Women and non whites might object that the right should be extended to include them. That is, cultural and legal norms ought to change so as to extend the community of property rights bearers to include individuals who aren’t white males. Insofar as those changes lead to better consequences, the right is reinforced (and if property ownership is beneficial to white males it presumably would be beneficial to others).

        THEN, we look at our own society (favorably, more than likely) and make judgments about other societies based on a presupposition that the things we call rights are entirely obvious and self-evident and all these other cultures are inferior insofar as they’re political-economic systems don’t attribute and enforce the rights we value. Etc etc.

        One thing tho is that insofar as certain outcomes are valued, then a system which emphasizes certain basic rights regimes may in fact be better (or worse) than another. I mean, we have a hard time justifying some of the practices in the Muslim world and what appear to be pretty objective grounds. Does that mean that the rights of women in Muslim countries are being violated? According my view I can’t say that. Instead, I have to say that those women haven’t been accorded the same rights that everyone in our society is accorded. But I could also say that they haven’t been accorded the rights men in their own societies are accorded, and because of that – insofar as they want the same rights men in their society currently have but are being denied them – they’re living in an unjust society. (Not the most elegant of solutions, but it strikes me as more descriptively accurate than apriori right theory.)

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      • Our Constitution is the place where we have documented our rights.

        No, it is not. The Constitution is the place where we have documented the limited set of powers that our government may exercise. It’s also where we have documented some of our rights, but by no means all of them.

        The language that rights “come from” the Constitution is unhelpful. But one thing is clear: it doesn’t mean that the Constitution merely documents these rights. “Come from” means that the thing originates in or is created by it.

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      • Fair enough. “Rights” can arise under local, state and federal law, as well as state and federal constitutions. (If I were in the mood to split hairs, I’d argue that our entire legal system derives from the US Constitution, and therefore all rights do “come from” the Constitution. But I’m trying to be charitable.)

        The problem with all rights other than federal constitutional rights is that they’re much more easily revocable.

        Are there common-law rights? I’d argue no: California can establish a “right” to self-defense that’s very different from the right that goes by the same name in Virginia.

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      • the theory that rights come from a piece of paper is sheer superstition.

        First, you know that the constitution is not just a sheet of paper; it is a set of ideas agreed upon by specific people. When it comes to rights, we’re mostly talking the Bill of Rights, not the constitution, also. The piece of paper is just a symbol of the ideas, not the ideas themselves, and those men that signed it agreed to the ideas on the paper, not to a piece of paper.

        So when people say that rights extend from the constitution (or the Bill of Rights), they’re saying they extend from those ideas. I don’t find anything particularly wrong with that answer. It’s lazy, but it at least deserves a passing grade. The ideas embody theories of morality, and the dimwitted student intuits some connection.

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    • The idea that your rights come from the government (as opposed to the idea that the government exists to protect your self-evident rights)

      It strikes me that the right to take whatever you want is just as self evident as the right preventing someone from taking something you’ve already claimed. In fact, it seems to me that the first claim is more self-evident than the second. I mean, I have to do some logic to make sense of the second one, no? Add in a premise or interpret a concept, or appeal to empirical evidence or consequentialism or somesuch.

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      • Part of what I’m very remotely hinting at here, though by no means defending it rigorously, is the idea that first-appropriation claims are different from subsequent-appropriation claims.

        Encourage first-appropriation claims, and you encourage the enclosure of the world. Which may or may not be a good thing — a topic I didn’t bother with. No time in a short dialogue.

        Encourage subsequent-appropriation claims, and privilege them over first-appropriation, and the result is the war of all against all, which no one really wants. (Even if they do personally want to make subsequent-appropriation claims, on their own behalf, and enforce them against their neighbors!)

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      • Encourage subsequent-appropriation claims, and privilege them over first-appropriation, and the result is the war of all against all, which no one really wants.

        true to a point. Over-reach and you’ve just invalidated taxation. You may consider taxation to be a war of all against all. I suspect most people understand that taxes = government.

        And there aren’t really any first-appropriation claims without government. The very idea of “first appropriation” invokes a very particular, and not universally shared, idea of “property” derived from English common law.

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  3. I was kindof wrinkling my nose at this until, on whim, I looked at the Salon article. Holy agnostic Jeebus the idiocy of that drek nearly blew my eyebrows off.

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      • Right. Here we see the nonsense of competing oversimplification. It’s all drek from tip to tail.

        On the other hand, I love (not) how conversations about “rights” so quickly develop into “How would you like it…” stories. As if that could establish a mind-independent moral reality. As if a cautionary tale about {bad outcome #3494}, in one person’s imagination, tells me anything about my life and what I face. Or what I might want. Or what some shitty bigot might want. Or why we might call my needs a right and his not.

        Simple, let’s invent a metaphysic.

        Look, turtles.

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      • On the other hand, I love (not) how conversations about “rights” so quickly develop into “How would you like it…” stories.

        There goes the veil of ignorance. Now it’s not turtles anymore. It’s self-dealing, all the way down.

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      • James,
        I’m finding that remarkably anthropocentric.
        Also, what do we do when certain individuals
        are more than half a degree off plumb human?

        What about after we let the half a degree off
        plumb folks write the rules? Do we then have
        moral justification to rebel?

        [Not, quite, hypothetical.]

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    • Its Salon, they employed Greenwald at one point. What do you expect?

      I’m really not a fan of the caricature that many liberals let alone people further to the left have of libertarians. Its not intellectually honest.

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      • I’m really not a fan of the caricature that many liberals let alone people further to the left have of libertarians.

        I dunno. There are lots of whackjobs out there who call themselves “libertarian” or “liberal” or “conservative” who in some cases deserve to be mocked more than engaged with. I think the caricatures have some value, actually. They send a message: if you want to be taken seriously by people of different isms, shout less and discuss more.

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      • Reading your comment again, Lee, yes I think you’re right. (I initially misinterpreted what you were saying.) The left as a group does reflexively caricaturize libertarians and libertarianism as an entire group and dismiss some very sound criticisms, analyses and policy suggestions that they might otherwise agree with. If they weren’t advocated by a “libertarian.”

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      • You last comment suggests rich people could sucessfully defend themselves from the gov’t. I would disagree. Rich people have the means resist longer, but in the end, if the state wants you, they have the resources to get you. The final default action is just to roll in on you with a bearcat and ignite those tear gas fumes with an incendary.

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      • Damon,
        What’s GWB’s answer to that? Move to Uruguay — no extradition treaty. Feh.

        (now, granted, the USA could steamroll Uruguay. But that’s a bit far to go to grab a Koch).

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      • Well, the US has been known to invade countries for less, but in a case of just grabbing one person, we’ll send an aircraft carrier, super secret stealth helicopers, and kill the guy in his bed then throw the body into the sea. If it’s not who we’re really after, we’ll just say it was.

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      • Damon,
        really. And Snowden is still free-range? how about Assange?
        Point is: if you can get the government backing you, or get enough tanks/aircraft together,
        you can make it pretty damn costly for the US to get at you.

        I don’t think America is really capable of assassinating the President of Sony (just taking a random example). I mean, obvs America could. I just don’t think we would.

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  4. “Then,” said Bill, “what if someone else took your stuff from them? Or what if you came and took it back? Or what if they took it back again from you after that? Back and forth, back and forth — killing here, killing there, no one ever safe… you really want to live like that?”

    Right. Which is the reality of the non-existence of property (rights). Which is a sad state of affairs, which is why the State acts to create conditions in which people can keep what they deem and have satisfied certain conventions to show is their property. But those are fairly arbitrary conventions, and reflect a pattern of initial holdings that no one asserts ever reflected any kind of rightful (emphasis on “right”ful) distribution of property.

    If the government didn’t protect our claims to what we regard as our property, we’d take it from each other more than we do, with more impunity than we now enjoy, which would engender a generally more insecure and dangerous world, physically and materially. No one wants that, particularly people who think they own more property than most (whom governments tend to be most responsive to, being that, usually, those are the classes of people who set them up and fund them). So it does. And that’s it – that’s about all there is to be said about it.

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      • No, but violence committed in the act of trying to take something from me isn’t substantially worse at a base level than the same violence where its aim is just to hurt me for sport. (That may be an insufficient response, though; in truth, I don’t understand how that question follows from what I wrote.)

        And I think I explained the second question. The world becomes less secure, and you can’t keep as much of the stuff you’ve got at hand. People don’t want that, but that doesn’t create an actual metaphysical relationship between me and a particular hammer that survives my lending it to you. It’s just a social expectation, fueled by convention, that I expect you to return it. It’s not really “my” hammer.

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      • You realize you demand the impossible when you ask for a “metaphysical” relationship between items and owners. You also demand that I prove a thing that no serious, post-Lockean author on the question of property has ever asserted.

        Yes – of course – we look to the incentives that various systems set up, in our attempt to choose between them. And those things are real, deny them however much you like.

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      • You seem to be completely oblivious of human history. Rather recent ones, mind you.

        All those revolutions and transformation of our political/social orders since the 18th Century can be understood as violent “redistributions” against existing violences. French revolution, American Civil Wars, Bolsheviks and communist movement,.. to repeal of Jim crow, end of apartheid, women’s suffrage, labor movement, civil rights movement, same-sex marriage, etc,.

        All you are doing is rooting for certain group’s notion of “liberty” and “non-violence,” by following and preaching a certain kind of theory that is tailor-made for that group. I am more and more disappointed by libertarianism. Considering that I once considered myself libertarian of a sort, it is sad that I find the whole thing more and more empty and deceitful these days.

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  5. Warning: contains random musings rather than a secret hidden argument waiting to strike, like a snake, that you knew what it was when you picked it up.

    There are a lot of things that are Social Constructs.

    The problem is that I have seen the argument “X is a social construct, that means that it’s not really real!” as well as “X is a social construct, that means that it is seriously really real.” and both of these arguments had some merit to them.

    I mean, we all remember the fun minefields that come from arguing that race is a social construct or that gender is a social construct. I can certainly see the argument that rights are social constructs (though I am a fan of the whole “emergent property” theory).

    I just don’t know that starting from rights being a social construction will get us to where we want to go.

    But maybe that’s because I don’t know where we want to go.

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    • Is the Pythagorean Theorem a social construct?

      I mean, in nature, there aren’t even triangles. There are just trangle-ish things, and then we make up the abstraction that is the triangle, and then we arbitrarily block off a subset of triangles, and we say certain things about them…

      But none of that means that the Pythagorean Theorem is false.

      I won’t assert for property rights an equal ontological status. But I will suggest that if the ontology of ideas can include things like the Pythagorean Theorem, then it can include an awful lot of things people readily recognize as real.

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      • I’m pretty sure that mathematical relationships are not constructed in the same way that physics isn’t constructed (or chemistry).

        The problem is that if Rights are discovered (the way that the Pythagorean Theorem relationship was discovered and, later on, the way that E was discovered), then that means that Rights come from a different place (and have different traits) than if Rights emerge from relationships (and evolve the way that the relationships evolve).

        So I’m stuck trying to figure out what Rights are most like… and the first examples to come to mind are such things as Rights to play by the same (or by different) rules within Social Constructs.

        And I get all confused.

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      • Well, sure. And yet the Pythagorean Theorem is only true in Euclidean Geometry. It doesn’t hold otherwise.

        Whether you use Euclidean or Non-Euclidean Geometry depends on what you need the geometry for. One is more correct not because of some universal moral truth about math, but because of some specific facts about the situation you’re trying to describe mathematically.

        To me, that’s no less true of property rights. There’s no universal moral truth about ownership that makes personal property better than collectivism. The two systems simply have different effects, and we find the effects of one better on a practical level.

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    • If the rallying cry was, “Damn it, property rights are SOCIAL CONSTRUCTS, not GOVERNMENT GRANTS!” I think we could probably all call it a day and go home.

      I don’t think the confusion starts on the side of the people who get tripped up by the claim that property rights are a Fundamental Part of Human Reality (or whatever the claim is).

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      • Well, on a more-down-to-earth level, I don’t know how people get from “You don’t have the right to X” to “Therefore I have the right to take X from you using force if need be.”

        And that’s even if I agree with the first one.

        (Assuming, of course, that X is something more like “property” than “pour mercury in the lake”.)

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      • Usually by saying it increases overall utility. Not that that should necessarily convince you you shouldn’t get to keep X. But if you in fact don’t have a right to keep X, then there is a certain logic to the argument that if someone else has it and that increases overall utility, then it’s not wrong to take it from you. Not all actions have to be sanctioned by right, they can just not be unjustified, or indeed be justified while not being taken pursuant to a right. Unless your view of rights is such that you literally have a right to do anything that someone else doesn’t have a right for you not to do. Which is not my conception of rights, but could be yours.

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      • I think part of the problem comes from these statements about rights being a lot more vague or disconnected from life then people think. Ex; Do people have a Right to medical care? Well EMTALA says everybody can at least get emergency care. If you are against that, then what are you for? Does what you are for lead to people going without care completely? If you are okay with EMTALA then you are okay with some sort of state provided medical care whose cost we all share. The question then is how to provide medical care and how to fairly ( yes i used the F word) apportion costs. It seems like theory is good and important but also needs to be tied to many different real life examples to work out what all that fancy Rights talk means in practice.

        Most people aren’t nearly as strident in practice as they are when talking philosophy.

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      • Usually by saying it increases overall utility

        This strikes me as transparent.

        there is a certain logic to the argument that if someone else has it and that increases overall utility, then it’s not wrong to take it from you

        True enough, but we can find a whole bunch of examples from recentish history where the appeals to overall utility were overstated.

        your view of rights is such that you literally have a right to do anything that someone else doesn’t have a right for you not to do

        It’s easier for me to come up with examples of things that I’d have the right to do under that paradigm than things that I’d not. I keep coming up with stuff like alcohol, drugs, gay marriage, and such “so long as you aren’t scaring the horses” examples while all of my counter-examples involve, wait, no… that would infringe on someone else’s rights (violence, pollution, scaring horses).

        Do people have a Right to medical care?

        I can’t help but see this question as exceptionally similar to “Do people have a Right to carpentry?” Even if you agree that people are entitled to a small amount of shelter to call their own (a Right, even), it’s tough to come up with a proper amount of time and materials that you have claim to and questions like “how responsible should you be held for upkeep?” quickly become distasteful.

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      • True enough, but we can find a whole bunch of examples from recentish history where the appeals to overall utility were overstated.

        Certainly, but if you never had the right to keep X (if, I’m not necessarily saying you don’t have rights to keep your stuff even if they are mere conventions), then perhaps the most we can say is that they transgressed perhaps a prudential rule that, absent good reason to transfer property (about which you aren’t mistaken!), property should stay with its current holder. And, further, if you can show that such appeals were overstated, perhaps in theory we could get them to agree that they erred and transgressed said rule, or even denied you your right to keep your stuff. Sometimes people make mistakes and admit it, after all. But it doesn’t follow that any such appeal in the future is not so well-grounded. (Nor does that settle what the nature of property right are.)

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      • your view of rights is such that you literally have a right to do anything that someone else doesn’t have a right for you not to do

        It’s easier for me to come up with examples of things that I’d have the right to do under that paradigm than things that I’d not.

        I mean… obviously? Rights either work that way or they don’t, though.

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      • Jay- That a specific amount may be difficult to determine doesn’t mean something shouldn’t be done. In fact it should be irrelevant. What is the proper sentence for murder 1st….people disagree, so there is no prison sentence??? If we are talking about how much of something then my preference/belief/magic FSM totem/goat intestines i threw on the wall suggest we are looking at a pragmatic issue that should be decided on evidence.

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      • But it doesn’t follow that any such appeal in the future is not so well-grounded.

        Will there ever be a point at which we will be able to say “okay, maybe we should stop pointing out that maybe we’ll have sufficient footing to be able to make this appeal in the future”? Even in theory?

        Rights either work that way or they don’t, though.

        If they don’t work that way (but still exist), how would they work?

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      • That a specific amount may be difficult to determine doesn’t mean something shouldn’t be done.

        Well, it can get us to the conclusion where “we” say “our” obligation has been met, anything past this point is your obligation.

        (And, small piece of advice, if I were really trying to sell how awesome the Right to Medical Care was, I’d use a different comparison than to a prison sentence.)

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      • Will there ever be a point at which we will be able to say “okay, maybe we should stop pointing out that maybe we’ll have sufficient footing to be able to make this appeal in the future”? Even in theory?

        Not necessarily. It seems like a sufficiently broad class of justification to me that any future use shouldn’t be irretrievably tainted by past errors in its use. More specific applications I suppose might lend themselves to such disqualification more quickly, I suppose but the, “Because overall more people would be more better off that way even if some are worse off” is one that I think lends itself to nearly indefinite tweaking and learning (providing that learning vis-a-vis specific applications actually happens). I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t know what gets us there.

        If they don’t work that way (but still exist), how would they work?

        I’m not the guy to ask. But I would guess that it would be something like you having certain basic rights about things you can do so long as they don’t violate others’ rights, and other people have those rights, as well as things they have the right for others not to do (as do you), but that that leaves a large space for a whole class of actions that you can do because they don’t violate someone else’s rights, but that if you are prevented from doing, your own rights haven’t been violated. Like say, earn a million dollars, and then earn another hundred thousand, and then keep 100% of that last hundred thousand and have it not be taxed at all.

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      • Did i compare medical care to a prison sentence: Well that goes down in the annals of bad faith reading.

        There is no absolute Philo truth that answers our questions about what or what isn’t enough.

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      • Did i compare medical care to a prison sentence: Well that goes down in the annals of bad faith reading.

        Perhaps “compare” isn’t the proper word. “Other example given”, then? If you weren’t making a comparison to prison by asking “What is the proper sentence for murder 1st….people disagree, so there is no prison sentence???“, I’m afraid I don’t understand what the word for what you were doing happens to be.

        Could you provide it? I’d like it so that I may use it in the future.

        In any case, my advice remains that if you’re trying to sell the awesomeness that is the Right to health care, use examples that bring to mind “good things” rather than “bad things”.

        a large space for a whole class of actions that you can do because they don’t violate someone else’s rights, but that if you are prevented from doing, your own rights haven’t been violated

        I am coming up with tons of examples of things that, looking back, were rights violations when people were prevented from doing them. We just denied that the rights in question existed. Marriage provides the easiest examples but there’s the War on Drugs and moving back from there we easily see Prohibition and, looking around, Jim Crow laws… in the future, I imagine we’ll look at the sex offender registry or prison the same way. The theories of what will happen and how nice it will be are always so very much shinier than the actuality… and the actuality, somehow, continues to be defended with the non-existent ideal.

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      • Perhaps i should have clearly noting i was using the murder sentence as an example of something everybody agrees should happen but people would disagree about what the appropriate sentence is. Your making the argument that it is hard to determine how much of something is “okay” or “enough” which is an insurmountable problem. I’m using an example of something where there is disagreement about what is “enough” but that doesn’t in anybodies mind suggest we shouldn’t have something. If i have your premise wrong then correct me. If you don’t have an actual answer for how this example leads to a problem with your premise as i’ve stated then, well then that is for you.

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      • Ah, so instead of “if I were really trying to sell how awesome the Right to Medical Care was, I’d use a different comparison than to a prison sentence”, I should have said “if I were really trying to sell how awesome the Right to Medical Care was, I’d use a different analogy than to a prison sentence” and that would be a good faith reading instead of a bad faith reading?

        If so, thank you.

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      • Your making the argument that it is hard to determine how much of something is “okay” or “enough” which is an insurmountable problem.

        I’m pretty sure that I used the word “tough” which, I hope, communicates difficulty rather than insurmountability.

        If there’s a part that is insurmountable, it’s in the part where I said “questions like “how responsible should you be held for upkeep?” quickly become distasteful.”

        But maybe we can overcome distasteful, too.

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      • Good lord, Jaybird. He made an analogy to show why he disagreed with you, and instead of responding to the argument he made you’ve switched to talking about the propaganda value of analogy he used to make the point. As if he didn’t express a substantive disagreement with you.

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      • So you don’t have an answer for how the murder sentence example creates a problem for your premise. Got it.

        Well, I assume that we’re talking about someone who was not falsely accused and went on to receive something close to a fair trial.

        Even so, there are people who don’t believe in prison (and some sects say that they don’t believe in earthly punishment) but let’s dismiss those nutballs and say that now the debate is between the people who think that he should get life in prison until he dies or whether he should be put to death (a much shorter version of the same thing) and there’s a handful of people who are arguing that life in prison is more punishment than the death penalty because of all of the forcible rape in prisons.

        And so, from this, I should conclude that we have an obligation to provide some health care to everyone? Sure. Can I say that every child should be vaccinated for free? Like, even the undocumented ones but I don’t know that that means that I’m obliged to provide Viagra to men of a certain age because that strikes me as their obligation rather than my own?

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      • He made an analogy to show why he disagreed with you, and instead of responding to the argument he made you’ve switched to talking about the propaganda value of analogy he used to make the point. As if he didn’t express a substantive disagreement with you.

        Stillwater, if he’s arguing that it’s tough to come up with a right amount of health care and that’s not an insurmountable problem, then he and I are *NOT* in disagreement. I said that “it’s tough to come up with a proper amount of time and materials that you have claim to”.

        He went from that to saying that I was arguing that it was an insurmountable problem.

        I am not arguing that. I did not argue that. I have quotes and everything saying that I thought it was, instead, “tough”.

        The lack of good faith is not, in fact, mine. Hell, I wish he were using a better example to push his argument and told him so.

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      • Jay- so if the issue is only that it is tough to come up with the proper amount of X then high fives all around. Yeah it is, but that is life and stuff. Lots of things are to figure out, but we try our best. So is there anymore of a point there since we all apparently agree with that.

        Yeah i’ll cop to not noting every possible person or group who might not agree with prison sentences for a capital crime. Mea Culpa. But since we agree on the point shown in the example, that some things may be tough to figure out, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to figure it out…..then…umm what was the point other then a minor thread jack onto not believing in prison.

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      • Well, if I had a point, it’d be in the part above the advice to use a different comparison, er, I mean “analogy” than prison.

        Well, it can get us to the conclusion where “we” say “our” obligation has been met, anything past this point is your obligation.

        I suppose I should ask first: do we agree that that point exists? (We may not, after all.)

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      • Not only have i never actually compared health care with prison( but leaving that aside) did i, or anybody except maybe for the doofus who wrote the Salon piece say there aren’t limits to obligations and some things that each of us is on our own for. I don’t really think that is much in doubt but almost anybody.

        We are on our own for some things that nobody has any obligation to even try to help or support us with. Where are people saying there is some unlimited obligation to provide everything anybody wants or desires other then in the cartoons playing inside hard core conservative minds. Maybe people don’t explicitly say it in every conversation, but do they really need to.

        Off topic: Doofus isn’t in the firefox spell checker……that is a such a fail.

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      • Great! Then all we need to do is figure out where our obligations will have been met.

        I presume that we would have the same obligation to everyone… I mean, we shouldn’t say that “we will take care of this person to point P and no further and this other person will be taken care of to point Q (where Q is not equal to P)”, right?

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      • I figured out a way to make the analogy work.

        The *AMENITIES* of prison. Let’s say that someone is convicted of whatever (and it’s not a wrongful conviction). Like with health care, we agree that this guy should go to prison.

        Assuming you agree with prison, of course, it’s at this point that things get hairy. What amenities should prison have? Should inmates have their own single rooms or can we expect them to have roommates? Should they have their own televisions? How about videogame systems? Should they have access to alcohol?

        Should they have access to library books? How about pornographic library books? How about Judy Bloom-level smut? How about law libraries?

        How about gyms? How about GED classes? How about college courses? How about vocational training?

        To what extent should “public opinion” about what prisons ought to have color what prisons actually get? I mean, if they found that inmates who had a great deal of access to a Playstation were less violent and more likely to be released early on good behavior (and, personal opinion here, it seems to me that this would be the case), wouldn’t that be one hell of a bargain for prisons? For the cost of a few hundred dollars, you could reduce violence and prison time. That’s a serious bargain! However, it seems to me that “the public” would be outraged to think that a convicted criminal go to prison and “spend his day playing video games all day”.

        And with *THAT* in mind, it seems like once we establish that we are responsible for taking care of the convicted for a few months to a few decades, we need to have a serious discussion of “at what point are our obligations met”? And, much like with health care, we also need to ask the question “what are we doing this *FOR*?”

        (Much better.)

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    • However one views the origins of social construct and “realness” of it, what is almost certain is that there will be tension and conflicts between X and non-X (often Y). The struggles would naturally follow, it seems.

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      • what is almost certain is that there will be tension and conflicts

        It seems to me that if we can hammer out some constructs that can exist without tension and conflict (or, much more likely, that we can always automatically assume that the tension and conflict are because of the party in the wrong), we’re likely to have figured out something that could very well be a Right.

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      • And, when it comes to “Society”, what rights are reasonable for society to ask us to relinquish in order to remain a member in good standing. (For example, the right to self-defense seems pretty dang absolute out there in the imaginary State of Nature… but when we come inside to Society, we agree that our right is somewhat less than absolute and that’s where police and trials and law enforcement come into play.)

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    • The Pythagorean Theorem, like everything mathematical, says “A follows from B”. It says nothing about the real world, unless you first demonstrate that B is true there.
      Likewise, you can reason from property rights to the sort of society they produce or vice versa, but you can’t say that they’re in any way a feature or a description of reality.

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  6. Pingback: Initial Appropriation: A Dialogue | MattBruenig | Politics

  7. Not all states are created equal.

    There’s the solid state, where rights a locked in place like a solid-state circuit, and the violence of the state solidly supports those with rights and squashes those without rights.

    There’s the liquid state, where rights are defined in an ever shifting bath of confusion and discomfort.

    There’s the gaseous state, which is all hot air and no rights at all.

    And then of course there’s the United States, which is the pinnacle of everything, and don’t talk bad about it but it’s big gummint and taking away my stuff.

    It’s too bad I believe God a fictional character, because ain’t nobody else going to help us sort this all out. Your government, your views of your government, your rights, and your views of your rights seems highly state dependent.

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  8. Huh?

    Bruenig and this guy are making two claims.

    1. Everyone has a theory of entitlement, i.e. of distributive justice, or who deserves what.

    2. Once any state -even a minimal one- takes on a theory of entitlement as its guiding star of how to determine who is entitled to what, it uses violence and the threat of violence to maintain that state.

    Thus, even libertopia would use violence. Just like communism. Just like Sweden. Just like China. Just like America. Just like everywhere.

    Maybe some societies would use more violence. Maybe others would use less. Other things being equal, more violence is morally worse.

    However, the bigger question is which theory of entitlement is correct. Because if a state has a correct theory of entitlement -say Nozickean Libertarianism, or Swedish Socialism, or Rawslian Property Owning Democracy, or Gerald Cohen Socialism, or whatever- then some degree of violence and the threat of violence in defense of realizing that theory of entitlement is justified.

    After all, Libertarians (and liberals too) do justify the use of force to protect what they call private property that you are entitled to, i.e. that you rightly own. Others who believe will say the state is entitled to take a tax, a share of the common wealth, or whatever, and the state is justified in using violence in realizing and maintaining that ideal, i.e. putting tax evaders in prison.

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      • That is a lie and you know it. I ran into his blog only a few days ago and it wasn’t long ago I found his objection to the first-use doctrine as well as learned his own (albeit shaky) theory of property.

        I know your defense of the first-use theory is kind of intertwined with “non-agression” principle on consequentialist ground. As far as I know he disputes the first-use theory as both 1) logically incoherent and 2) consequentially unjust.

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      • ???

        Why do you say that Jason?

        There is an egalitarian-Rawlsian view that determines what we deserve or are entitled to, there is a clear-eyed Marxist Gerald Cohen view, there is a Nozickean view, etc.

        The guy in the article seems to favor Marx-lite. IIRC, Bruenig is sort of egalitarian with a Rawlsian maximin bent.

        Bruening has responded here, as you know:

        http://mattbruenig.com/2014/02/04/initial-appropriation-a-dialogue/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+MattBruenig+%28MattBruenig+%7C+Politics%29

        —-

        Also, are you saying that you agree with Nozick and/or Locke’s account of distributive justice?

        I though Nozick was supposed to be extremist and you were more moderate.

        —-

        Also, years ago, I swear I remember you saying that you don’t think philosophical accounts of initial acquisition, and transfers are important in libertarianism.

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      • Larry is right that Bruenig is pretty clearly a somewhat extreme egalitarian.

        You are -apparently- a Nozickean. Going with Locke and the idea that property is mixed labor and natural resource is such a stupid mistake, I can’t believe you would make it. (Moreover, Locke’s account leaves open that some of the goods that you produce remains unowned by you or owned by the commons.)

        I am actually more and more certain that Locke meant the idea much more loosely and metaphorically than it is sometimes interpreted.

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    • Hi Shaz,

      “However, the bigger question is which theory of entitlement is correct.”

      Couple of Qs:

      First, many people are talking about property conventions, you specifically mention “entitlements.” Are you using this as a synonym to property or social conventions or as a distinct term? If the latter how are you defining it?

      Second, how do we determine which is correct? Is there more than one way to determine it correct? What if two people disagree irrevocably on what is correct?

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      • Great question.

        1. I am being unclear. By entitlement, I mean desert. “Entitlement Theory” is often a synonym for Nozick’s account of who deserves what. I meant to be referring to any theory about who deserves what: Nozick’s, Locke’s, Rawls’, a utilitarian’s, etc.

        2. People will disagree about who deserves what because their own interests make them more likely to say they or people in their class (or race or life situation or whatever) deserve such and such. So a theory of desert could only be decided by people who didn’t know what their race, class, or social group was, i.e. a theory of desert is what people would choose from behind a veil of ignorance.

        From behind the veil of ignorance, all rational and self-interested actors would make the same choices. They would consider the plight of those worst off on the chance that they were one of the worst off.

        Given basic facts about our society, technology, etc., from behind the veil, it is pretty clear we would choose a system of distributive institutions that would look more like Sweden than what we have. Or something similarly protective of the worst off.

        That is to say, I am a Rawlsian.

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      • Also, a theory of desert would be defined in a contract between rational actors behind the veil. It would be what they agree to.

        One objection would be to say that rational actors would disagree about what is best for them. But then the question is why would they disagree? They are all equally rational and all in the same position. What is different about them that would cause them to disagree?

        There are problems with Rawls and this whole account, but one can imagine rebuttals and solutions that could be worked out.

        First use theory and the mixing of labor and natural material is a conceptual mess. Nozick doesn’t rely on it. It is quite possible that Locke meant it as a sort of loose metaphor. Taken as a loose metaphor it does not imply a libertarian account of property rights.

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      • Thanks, Shaz

        Those were very thorough answers.

        I too am a fan of choosing institutions, conventions and entitlements in this manner. Switching metaphors, it is like agreeing to the rules of a sport prior to the game beginning, indeed prior to even knowing what you are good at and bad at.

        I wouldn’t say that this leads to the “correct theory,” but rather to a “good theory.” And I could go on to explain why it is good.

        One other thing is that the behind the veil aspect of Rawls does not necessarily lead to one conclusion. It also seems to me to depend upon time horizons, risk tolerance and such. Rawls introduces other assumptions necessary to get to his conclusions.

        On your issue of Sweden, I would just point out that the optimum strategy for a nation to take in the presence of another nation which acts as a “lead husky” is not necessarily possible absent the lead dog. Said another way, Sweden is indeed a practical choice of institutions given the existence of other countries and institutions, some of which are not Swedish.

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  9. POLL (for the sake of simplicity, let’s let people just respond, if you want to argue about what somebody says, start a new subthread, so that this section of the comment thread stays clean)

    Regardless of whether you think “rights” are self-evident or a social construct or other… Do you believe that any absolute right to anything exists? In other words, is there anything to which an individual can make a claim to “have a right” *without* an attendant responsibility or caveat regarding rights conflicts?

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    • All the action is really in the ontological discussion of what the hell the concept even is and whether it has a real counterpart in the world, but assuming that rights are a thing (which I don’t, but I’m willing to play along), I’d say there might be one absolute right but no others: to literally think whatever you want. I don’t think you need to be accountable for how your mere thought conflicts with others’ rights. But that may actually be more than really exists. As I say, the action is all in that discussion.

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      • ,

        I did a phone poll once. Never again.

        Me: “Some people believe confined animal feeding operations should be banned. Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with that?”

        Them: “Well, I’ll tell you how things really work when you’re on a farm…”

        Me: “Sir, can I have your address and the time of day you’re most defenseless?”

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      • Hehe… I worked for a political consulting firm for a couple years, and spent about the first 6 months doing surveys (during the off season, we did market research surveys). It was not uncommon for me to spend 30 minutes on the phone while doing a survey that should have lasted 3 minutes. Sometimes you it was people like the one you describe, and I’d just tune out. Sometimes it was elderly people who were clearly lonely and just wanted someone to talk to, and I couldn’t bring myself to just hang up on them (which is what we were instructed to do).

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      • Calling for political donations is worse.

        I’ve done that, and I’ll do it again. Better me then the person I’m raising money for; she should be out doing her job. Instead, raising the money’s the job.

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      • Yes, some respondents were clearly lonely and wanted someone to talk to. I, too, found it hard to disengage.


        Clearly somebody has to call for donations, but I can’t imagine many jibs more miserable than that.

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      • Take that up with Terry Schiavo (and that pregnant brain-dead lady in Texas). While I think that you should have the right to die, in practice the exercise of that right can be a lot more complicated than it should be

        I also think that people have the right to refuse sex. But I note that for years marriage was a defense to a charge of rape.

        So while the 5th Amendment may create a right to personal autonomy, it seems to me that our society is still very much struggling with the boundaries of that right.

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    • n other words, is there anything to which an individual can make a claim to “have a right” *without* an attendant responsibility or caveat regarding rights conflicts?

      Probably not. (Unless my use of the “bold” function is in itself a caveat.)

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      • This is kinda where I am at whenever this discussion comes up – conceded that ‘inalienable rights’ may be fully imaginary, and yet a strong suspicion that it is very, very important that we act as if they are not.

        Which of course has other implications.

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      • What would be jeopardized if people rejected the notion of inalienable rights? How would things change? Do we have evidence to justify the worry, or is it just an intuition? (I really don’t know.)

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      • – well, I guess you could say that’s where my few conservative sympathies comes into play. I am pretty pessimistic about human nature, and suspect that we (as a society) may need some ground rules, however arbitrary, to help keep us somewhat in line and not ripping each others’ throats out for a percentage 24/7.

        I mean, look at something like the Ten Commandments – in essence, they are (or imply) some of the same “inalienable” basic rights we encoded here in our nation’s founding documents – human life and property is not to be taken. I don’t think that’s accidental, or *just* a holdover from the religious beliefs of the founders – rather, it’s an acknowledgement that some of the oldest rules are just too important to forget, and without them we risk sliding back to a pre-human monkey morality – what’s yours is mine, as long as I am strong enough to take it from you.

        Now, religion has gotten up to a lot of bad stuff over the years, and has been used to control people and justify horrible abuses.

        But I also suspect that at times it has acted as a civilizing or restraining influence, and that fear of gods or punishment, or desire for heavenly rewards, motivated better behavior, on average, than would otherwise have obtained. (I realize many will find this a suspect claim, and in any case would argue that good behavior based on threats and lies is meaningless).

        But it seems to me we are moving, slowly, to a post-religious society. So “God says so” will hold less and less water, for fewer and fewer people.

        To the extent that concepts like “inalienable rights” serve as the same basic boundary line for society, religion withering away doesn’t concern me overmuch.

        But if these concepts *also* went away?

        I guess my worry is that we aren’t yet grown up enough (collectively, as a society/species) to throw out the old rulebook and responsibly draw up a new one. That on some level we (as a species/society, not necessarily any one person) may still need certain “lies” to be “true”.

        I realize many people will find this patronizing; but there it is.

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      • What would be jeopardized if people rejected the notion of inalienable rights?

        Well, I imagine that a sufficiently motivated leader might take the attitude that one cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

        The trick when it comes to rights isn’t that “I have them!” Pretty much everybody is down with that particular theory. The trick is that “I have them, you have them, everybody has them.” This prevents, out of hand, a handful of tools available to sufficiently motivated leaders.

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      • Well, I imagine that a sufficiently motivated leader might take the attitude that one cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

        I was looking for something more along the lines of Glyph’s imaginings: he’s worried that society would become just like the passengers in Airplane when captain Oveur turns off the Fasten Seat Belt sign. That makes a bit of sense to me.

        But your worry is certainly a possibility. I’ll give you that. About exactly as likely as a leader breaking a few eggs on the premise of inalienable rights.

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      • Well, have there been societies where there wasn’t a concept of inalienable rights?

        I’m of the impression that we’re dealing with a relatively new concept here rather than a relatively old one.

        What happened in pre-inalienable rights societies?

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      • It seems that the US which is an inalienable rights society seems to muddle along just about as well as other OECD countries which are less committed to inalienability. Meaning, instead of having debates about whether some right a person has can be overridden for this social goal, you just end up having arguments about whether a person has a particular inalienable right to some particular thing*

        * I consider particular negative liberties things as well

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      • Jaybird, I’m not trying to get you to agree with me (cuz that ain’t gonna happen). I’m just expressing my disagreement that it’s a uniquely compelling worry. I also know that arguing with you about these types of things won’t produce much value for either of us, and even less for the unfortunate folks who click thru to our “dialogue”.

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      • The US has backslid quite a bit since 9/11. Once, I would have held our record up against anybody’s. Now? I dunno. It certainly seems to me that if we wanted to make a list of “Top Ten Countries That Respect The Rights Of Their Citizens”, there’d be reason to bet that the US might not show up until the honorable mention section.

        Could we compare the top ten countries, whatever they might be, to the bottom ten? Count eggshells? Count completed breakfast dishes?

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      • Murali,

        Yes, I agree with that.

        (And I’m still pondering the rights distinction you mentioned a while ago. I’m not entirely sure I see how it disambiguates the confusion you apparently saw in that earlier discussion. I’m not sure we were talking past each other, actually. I think we were disagreeing. Jason and I less so my disagreement with Veronica. But I aint sure.)

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      • “free rider, eh?”

        yeah, basically. i need everyone else to believe in the good stuff even if i can only wish to.

        there’s some downsides (free parking will eventually become a right, probably) but the upsides are good times.

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    • I think there’s a difference between “imaginary” and cultural conventions that we use as a sort of basic grounding for many aspects of our society. The latter are very real, even if they’re not concrete, observable entities. They’re also subject to discursive processes that can, have, and do constantly reshape their meaning and role (which I’d argue is there meaning, but that’s another conversation) in often subtle but significant ways.

      This, of course, is also why saying “They come from the Constitution” is sort of meaningless. The Constitution is full of things that we’re still sorting out, dynamically, as we try to navigate the world as a society. It’s one piece of a significantly larger discourse.

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    • No.

      For any right X, if respecting Y’s right of X destroyed the whole world, prior to making everyone feel agony and pain for 1 million years, and brought back Growing Pains, and caused Kim and Kanye to split, then we shouldn’t respect Y’s right of X.

      —–

      Would you walk away from Omelas?

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    • Answering the poll Q

      Of course not. The universe wasn’t created out of quarks, leptons and absolute rights.

      Absolute rights are a euphemism for sacrosanct social conventions. These are social and cultural rules which are best treated as inviolable. The best way to treat something as inviolable is to make up some divine story and rationalization.

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  10. Perhaps i should have clearly noting i was using the murder sentence as an example of something everybody agrees should happen

    For the record, this board contains at least one person opposed to prison.

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  11. On Obligations.

    When we talk about rights, we are always talking about obligations. Your rights are protected, and in receiving that protection (that would be the violence of the state, right? There are other ways of framing this right that are equally valid), you are obliged to refrain from violating the rights of others; or presumably so in most countries.

    All too often, we discuss rights as something we own, but they’re also something we owe others. From that perspective, rights are obligations that we place on each other; they’re two sides of the same coin.

    But it’s also a conversation, and we all have the right to join in that conversation, to have a say in the obligations we place on one another. Rights change. If everyone’s participating in the conversation, if everyone gets to speak and gets heard in one small way or another that matters to them, the evolution of our rights seems generally positive; to the greater good.

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    • All too often, we discuss rights as something we own, but they’re also something we owe others. From that perspective, rights are obligations that we place on each other; they’re two sides of the same coin.

      Well said!

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  12. @stillwater

    It seems as if everyone is talking past one another. Basically, there are two ways in which the word rights is used lets call these two ways right(p) and right(n).

    Someone (A) has a right(p) to X just in case said person’s actions in sphere X are protected against most or all claims against A’s X-ing by existing social norms and/or the use of force by the state or equivalent actors.

    Someone (A) has a right (n) to X just in case he ought to have a right (p) to X and everyone else ought to treat A as if he or she had a right (p) to X even when A doesn’t have a right (p) to X.

    Now that we have clarified that some of you are using the word “right” to refer to right(p) and some to right(n) let’s stop arguing and thinking the other person has unsupportable views. Nothing you’ve said so far actually amounts to a substantive (rather than terminological) disagreement. People who use the word rights to refer to right(p) do not necessarily deny that there are normative considerations favouring rights(p) to certain sorts of things over rights(p) to other sorts of things. People who use the word rights to refer to rights(n) do not necessarily subscribe to some weird metaphysics.

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    • To clarify, are you suggesting that the two definitions are:
      1). These are our current social conventions, and
      2). These are the social conventions we should have which should be treated as sacrosanct.

      ??

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      • re no 1, that is to say, that right(p) merely refers to an institutional instantiation (either hypothetical or actual) of a social rule which protects a sphere of activity against a wide range of claims. So, you, like Stillwater almost always talk about rights as rights(p). You, linguistically, keep the normativity of the social arrangement separate from your description of it. Natural law guys like Jason build the normativity into their account of the rights.

        It doesn’t have to do with how sacred rights actually are vs how sacred we ought to pretend they are.

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      • There’s a reason for that, Murali. THe idea of an individual possessing a right they can’t in principle act on makes no sense to me. A right is something that’s actionable and enforced. If it’s not that, and we’re still talking normatively about behaviors, and permissions and prohibitions on behavior and within certain institutional structures, then we’re talking about codifying laws for instrumental purposes (eg., maximizing total utility). But circularly identifying those instrumental structures with rights is (dare I saw it? yes? incoherent to me. It either presupposes or requires that the concept of an apriori knowable eternal property-thingy can be identified, and that social systems ought to form legislation protect those mysterious abstract property-thingies.

        OK, that was too quick, I admit. And it’s not like my view doesn’t have problems. Honestly, and I know this is unAmerican to say, but it the whole Natural Rights theory makes no sense to me. (Except consequentially!)

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      • I made an unfortunate mistake up there. The sentence

        “But circularly identifying those instrumental structures with rights…”

        should read,

        “But circularly identifying the grounding of those instrumental structures with rights…”

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      • It is definitely too quick. One way to think of natural law theories is as of a type of rule consequentialism where the consequentialism is really hidden in the back end. So, when Jason says that people have a right(n) to religious liberty, what he is saying is that having a norm of not encroaching on religious liberty will contribute to everyone’s eudaimonia. And we therefore ought to adopt such a norm and act according to the norm. The latter part comes from what it means that we morally ought to phi. Consider, suppose it was the case that among possible rules regarding religious practice, respecting religious liberty was the rule that maximised pleasure. A rule utilitarian would have to say that we ought to act in accordance with such a rule regardless of whether others also did so or whether the rule was formally institutionalised.

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      • Well,maybe. I’m not gonna go too deep into the weeds on defending my theory since everytheory fails at some point. I completely admit I can’t give a complete defense of it.

        what he is saying is that having a norm of not encroaching on religious liberty will contribute to everyone’s eudaimonia.

        Sure, but supposing that principle is true, it’s not apriori knowable or apriori justified. Which makes it inconsistent with robust natural law theories. Weaker conceptions of natural law theory, like the kind Jason advocates, are closer to the my view. Further, tho, the principle is clearly false as a general proposition since someone’s religious liberty might encroach on other values or liberties, and disastrously so.

        No, I’ll stick with my loose conception of what rights are and stipulate that coherence is a condition on the collection, and that they aren’t a priori knowable (in any interesting sense of that word) and certainly aren’t apriori justified.

        Roger is actually better at articulating this view than I am. Maybe he’ll chime in. For all practical (and analytical!) purposes, his conception is identical to mine, I believe. Or it seemed to be last time we talked about this stuff. (We arrived at these ideas separately so I don’t know exactly how he justifies certain moves in the rights-logic game.)

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      • Further, tho, the principle is clearly false as a general proposition since someone’s religious liberty might encroach on other values or liberties, and disastrously so

        Depends on what you mean by religious liberty. Religious liberty could refer to religious liberty simpliciter, where religious claims trump any interference regardless of whether it involves human sacrifice etc. Or religious liberty can be understood as not covering cases of human sacrifice etc. I was just using it to refer to the latter because I didn’t want to spell out what should be obvious exceptions.

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      • Well, the thing is no matter how you define it the claim that protecting religious liberty promotes happiness isn’t obvious. It depends on the religions, what we mean by liberty, what implied or expressed constraints are included, how those constraints are justified, how the inconsistencies are reconciled, etc etc.

        A conception that detailed, it seems to me, cannot be arrived at apriori. And it certainly won’t hold necessarily. So why not just skip right past the a priori part (and the necessary part) and justify those principles on the grounds that they’re ultimately judged by: practice? Evidence? Institutional dynamics in a context?

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      • Sorry to keep dumbing you guys down, but all this P, Q, Not P stuff just confuses me.

        Let me rephrase again:

        The difference is between what conventions we do have, and what conventions we should have.

        Right?

        If so, I do not try to keep the normativity out of it at all. There are an infinite number of potential conventions. I am only interested in conventions which work. That is “good conventions.” This is a much narrower set. We can worry about how we determine or discover which are good another time and how we resolve differences of opinion or context (though Shaz and Rawls suggested one such approach elsewhere).

        Sorry to further confuse the issue with the word “sacrosanct.” Obviously I don’t believe any convention is sacred. My point is that some conventions are so useful that they have proven they are best treated as inviolable. The best way to treat conventions as inviolable is to pretend they actually are.

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      • “One way to think of natural law theories is as of a type of rule consequentialism where the consequentialism is really hidden in the back end. So, when Jason says that people have a right(n) to religious liberty, what he is saying is that having a norm of not encroaching on religious liberty will contribute to everyone’s eudaimonia. And we therefore ought to adopt such a norm and act according to the norm. ”

        As best I can tell, this matches my take on the broader issue as well, with certain caveats on the utilitarian assumption (I do not assume everyone is or should be a utilitarian).

        My way of saying it is that if we value widespread human flourishing, then a norm of not encroaching on others religious liberty is a very good convention and we should follow it.

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  13. To avoid the hurt feelings that I’ve sometimes seen rise when someone does not completely grasp what such OP’s are saying, I’ll start by admitting that perhaps I am missing the point and it’s my own reading comprehensive that’s challenged. The OP is either a satire, or philosophical exploration. Or both. Or neither. I stand to be educated on that score.

    Now, here’s my comment. This OP seems to be attacking the assumptions and arguments in a very poorly written article that seems to apologize for communism. One of the key points from the article (which I have only skimmed) that the OP attacks is the suggestion that people own property thanks to violence. Perhaps this is a reprise of the argument that someone (Proudhon?) made to the effect that “property is theft.” At any rate, I don’t see why it’s all that outlandish to claim that the claim to private property can rely on violence, or that violence is somehow implicated in enforcing the right to property. That doesn’t mean I think private property is wrong, presumptively illegitimate, or even unnatural. As for the latter point, I believe some notion of property is either natural, or so ubiquitous and so involved in any person’s sense of self that it might as well be “natural.” But it does suggest, to me, that perhaps violence is inherent even in what is a good thing. Where I differ from the “property is violence” idea is not so much that it’s not violence, but establishing that it’s violence doesn’t invalidate it.

    I do think, however, that restrictions on private property are also so ubiquitous or so involved with the sense of most societies’ functioning as to be something perhaps not natural, but to be expected of anyone who is a social animal and who wishes to fulfill his/her existence as a social animal.

    This all implicates, somehow, the discussion above about rights and duties or obligations. Frankly, when people debate what is and isn’t a right, my eyes (figuratively!) glaze over, because I’m not sure exactly how to define a “right.” I have a better sense of how to define “duty,” but I’ve drunk enough of the libertarians’ non-FDA approved kool aid to be able to acknowledge the danger of asserting positive duties upon others. I answered ‘s question above as “probably not,” but I’m not sure exactly how, or how much, I’d want to defend it.

    One of the points from the poorly written salon article that the OP seems to be lampooning (again, maybe I’m misinterpreting the OP) is one that I think is very congenial to a libertarian world view:

    If I lay claim to one of David Koch’s mansions, libertarian that he is, he’s going to rely on big government and its guns to set me right. He owns that mansion because the state says he does and threatens to imprison anyone who disagrees. Where there isn’t a state, whoever has the most violent power determines who gets the stuff, be that a warlord, a knight, the mafia or a gang of cowboys in the Wild West. Either by vigilantes or the state, property rights rely on violence.

    Isn’t that most (or at least “many”) libertarians’ critique of state power? Perhaps the libertarian critique–especially the minarchist one–is more favorable to the notion that the state is not much better than what’s implied those feudal symbols. But how is that different in spirit from what libertarians tend to believe about the state?

    And the article, which again I only skimmed, seemed to make that particular point to counter the argument that only communism relies on violence. Perhaps that’s a strawperson argument because I’m not sure who actually says that about communism, but it is the argument. Maybe it’s the case of one strawperson argument deserving another, and if so, then fair enough. Or if I’m misapprehending the point of the OP, then fair enough, point two.

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    • If Koch couldn’t rely on the state, he’d just put machine guns on his mansion (or buy tanks, he’s certainly wealthy enough).
      A man committed to nearly sparking a state civil war to reduce his tax burden (and steal off the state’s radioactive teat), is not a man I’d care to tussle with lightly.

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    • Great comment Pierre,

      Humans are social creatures. Part of successful, functional social living is having shared cultural norms and conventions. Included in this are shared notions of what does and does not constitute violence and harm to others. And let’s be clear here, many disagreements over property are viewed as acts of violence or harm (reasonably so).

      Thus we have shared social conventions which include conventions against violence, conventions on what is or is not property and who it belongs to, what interactions constitute violence, and when violence can be used (for example to prohibit acts of property violence).

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  14. The story was kinda cute, but really, in most of the country, the TV stealing Ag employee would likely get a few rounds to the chest–end of story.

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  15. An illustration of the potential violence of the state.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lF4fKhlDXJs&feature=youtu.be

    My younger sprout made this, with a remote-control helicopter, a go-pro, and a gimble. (That’s Key Largo.) While making this, the park rangers came and told him to stop, it’s against the law. Meantime, he’s had offers from several real-estate agents and recreation companies to make promotional videos.

    After the conversation with the park rangers, he googled. And yes, he told me, it is against the law for him to use images taken from drone flights for commercial purposes.

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