Blogs > Liberty and Power > Kelo as teaching opportunity

Jun 27, 2005 2:04 pm

Kelo as teaching opportunity

To follow up on Radley Balko's post below, it occurs to me that we have a good teaching opportunity here. Normally, the left dismisses those of us who think property rights are important as being tools of the rich and powerful, as if only the rich and powerful benefit from a robust conception of property rights. We've been telling them for years, of course, that a regime of strong protection of property rights benefits everyone, especially the non-rich and non-powerful, but maybe now they'll believe us.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006


They won't. As utilitarians, they'll point out that property rights are good for property owners, but violations of property rights are 'good' for the unemployed, who will now get employment as a result of the jobs created by the violation of property rights via eminent domain. Same with those who benefit from the tax revenues from the city's projects. Since the unemployed + beneficiaries of largesse outnumber the homeowners, a hard-nosed rights-violator will remain unmoved by the plight of homeowners, whatever their class. We're talking crude act utilitarianism here, the greatest good for the greatest number, where 'good' is about money pure and simple, and rights aren't in the utility function.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Well, not all people sympathetic to the Kelo decision are lefties! I was talking about Kelo-sympathizers, not necessarily lefties. Abandon all hope, Aeon!

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Neither of those arguments is going to work.

First, there is no significant calculation issue here of the Mises-Hayek sort. From the city's perspective, it's a no-brainer. If the goal is revenue, you get more revenue from taxable businesses than from private homes, and private homes are in the way, you get rid of them. Case closed. The Mises-Hayek argument has no traction here at all.

Similarly for the second argument. If the city or state wants revenue, how does eminent domain "destroy" wealth? It doesn't. On the contrary, it creates a revenue stream for the city that didn't previously exist. And that funds services that need funding.

We're not dealing with socialists anymore. We're dealing with redistributive liberals. So the old Mises-Hayek stand-by's, designed to deal with socialism, are simply not going to work here. Which is why so many people have stopped using them.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Randian ones.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

All that you've done is to submerge the fundamental issue in language that you *think* the left will lap up. Result: the fundamental issue has disappeared, and I guarantee you, the left will NOT lap up your message.

The left has its own class analysis, and it says that people like you will dream up pseudo-"class analyses" just like the one you've come up with to conceal the fact that what you really, ultimately want is laissez-faire capitalism. The idea that you can out-match the left at class analysis and trick them into laissez-faire capitalism is the mother of all pipe dreams. All they have to do is ask, "So where are you going with this class analysis of yours?". Once you truthfully answer, "Libertarian capitalism!" the whole edifice collapses.

The hard fact of the matter is that if you define "benefit" in purely economic terms, and you simply evade the issue of what rights humans have qua human (or how they relate to human benefit), eminent domain benefits LOTS of the "powerless." It will create jobs for the jobless and put money in lots of empty pockets.

And the relevant people "benefited" are NOT necessarily the already rich and powerful. The guy who cleans the riverwalk isn't going to be rich or powerful. Neither are the janitors or security guards in all of those office complexes-to-be. Neither are the construction workers who are going to do build them. Neither is the support staff working in the offices once they're built. Neither are the people in the temp agencies who cultivate the support staff. Etc. etc. etc.

A libertarian "class analysis" that can't account for these simple facts is not going to convince anyone of anything, no matter how much sturm und drang it generates about the evils of corporate America.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Yes, and not just that. If I may quote myself (and being a Randian, I may), what really needs to be opened up is the notion of BENEFIT at work here, as in Assumption 2 in this post. The irony is that the defenders of eminent domain really reduce "benefit" to "having money." Benefit doesn't include respecting rights, and so doesn't include the process by which you acquire holdings. The real irony is that they have precisely the "selfish" conception of benefit that they (falsely) accuse Randians of having--a free for all money grubbing contest where force is a permissible mode of action.

Aeon J. Skoble - 6/28/2005

Just so.

Aeon J. Skoble - 6/28/2005

What Irfan said. It really has to be about the nature and meaning of "property" and "property rights" or it goes nowhere.

Steven Horwitz - 6/28/2005

Indeed. Anthony has it just right.

Aeon J. Skoble - 6/28/2005

"libertarians seem to have a blindness to the fact that"

I always get incensed when an argument begins this way, because the implication is that I and others haven't considered these alternative views. Don't you think that when I was grad school I was required to, y'know, take lots of classes, and participate in seminars, and do research? Don't you think that my advisors insisted that I become capable of responding to, or at least aware of, arguments contrary to my position? Don't you think that when I prep courses in political philosophy, or edit a textbook on political philosophy, that I would encounter these contrary view? Please, disagree all you like, but don't make the assumption that the reason I disagree is that I have a blind spot. Communities constitute our individual selves! OF COURSE I've considered that one before. I've concluded it's wrong, but that doesn't mean I haven't considered it.

"the fact that individual rights only exist within a community context"

The fact that? My contention is that this statement is false. Asserting that it's a fact isn't an argument. In my view, which is hardly original in this regard, people have rights which are conceptually prior to the social arrangements we enter into. Some argue that the whole point of entering into social arrangements is to be more secure in our rights.

"the fact that...there are no such things as individuals. THis has been shown time and again by logic, and is now being demonstrated scientifically."

I have no idea what you mean by this. I've been teaching logic for nearly 20 years, and I've never encountered such a proof. Another case of "proof by assertion."

"there cannot be any absolute rights. They must be balanced against one another."
Negtive rights can be compossible and do not require balancing. Only positive rights require this, but natural rights are negative ones which don't conflict.

Aeon J. Skoble - 6/28/2005

"The individual only exists because of its relationship with others...without those relationships the individual would not exist."
No, it's the other way around: individuals constitute relationships. It's true enough that the relationships we are in affect us, but they do not define us.

chris l pettit - 6/28/2005

Somewhere below, he states that we are not dealing in law, or rights, but rather in power relationships. THis is absolutely right, and libertarians as well as everyone else needs to realise that if they continue talking in ideologies and power relationships (which is exactly what libertarianism descends to if you refuse to take into consideration historical inequalities of all kinds and realise that universal rights cannot be based on liberty and property and must rather be based in the rule of law, equality (of opportunity), justice, and dignity) they cannot continue to utilize words such as law and rights that lose all thier meaning when put in an ideological power based context.

If we want to throw away our ability to reason and think logically and continue to operate in Hobbes' state of nature, so be it. I just dont want to hear anyone speak of rights or law...or be prepared to have your hypocrisy pointed out. At least Irfan is honest in his appraisal that humanity does not operate in laws and rights. I find it interesting in that this puts humanity on the lower realms of the evolutionary chain, as at least animas can live within their natural system and don't believe they are above it. I guess this means we are all a bunch of parasites...a virus if you will. If we want to overcome this nonsense, we have to realise universal rights and abandon the religious individualism that is unfortunately rampant in libertarianism. The individual only exists because of its relationship with others...without those relationships the individual would not exist...we need to adjust our views accordingly.


chris l pettit - 6/28/2005

That it always has to be "left" or "right?" I know that myself and other scholars of human rights who decry these nosensical labeling exercises are mutations of evolution or something, but can't we talk about this in terms of equality, justice and dignity, the basis of rights (no, liberty and property are not the basis)? I understand that, because most everyone else engages in labeling, you are tempted to speak down to their terminology, and you would probably label me a leftie, even though my views tend to run the gamut.

Do you realise how broad your commentary is? I agree that Kelo is a terrible decision and that individuals have a right to shelter as an aspect of their right to dignity...and that the right cannot be overcome by the state or for the common good. And I am definitely the farthest thing from a utilitarian, having decried utilitarian theory in several articles. In fact, one of my favorite parts of teaching rights theory is the chance to tear to shreds the negative aspects of utilitarianism (there are a couple good but misguided aspects as well). However, libertarians seem to have a blindness to the fact that individual rights only exist within a community context and that there are no such things as individuals. THis has been shown time and again by logic, and is now being demonstrated scientifically. Therefore, there cannot be any absolute rights. They must be balanced against one another. It is because of this that I asked the question posed below...who do we want making the decisions. I agree with you that it should not be some sort of state proceeding on utilitarian grounds...which are actually individual ideological grounds masquerading as "the greater good" since it is impossible to take all things under consideration. It should also not be absolute rights for individuals...this is where libertarians fail to take into consideration historical and cultural inequalities that must be recognised in a pure theory of rights based on equality and justice. If you want to speak of providing equality of opportunity, that is fine...I am not saying that everyone must end up equal...they must have the opportunity to start equal though. For instance...if the Kelo decision was taking a couple of houses away from Wal Mart execs in favor of a community centre...and ample restitution was being paid (maybe even if not)...that is fine as long as it conforms to certain relationships that exist within rights theory. THe fact that they are taking it away from those that are disadvantaged historically and culturally by the worthless "free market" (i know it isnt) economic system operated by the US government and imposed internationally is atrocious and violative of the general principles behind rights theory. Unfortunately, libertarian solutions to the problem, while marginally better, usually cause as many problems, and still put the power in the hands of those who are historically advantaged and have taken advantage of violations of the rights of others to make their fortunes.


Mark Brady - 6/28/2005

I thought you'd say that! I'm unconvinced. Readers should check Anthony Gregory's post below.

Mark Brady - 6/28/2005

Well said.

Anthony Gregory - 6/27/2005

I think the collusion of Big Business and the State to override individual property rights and steal land for the sake of private profits and augmented local government budgets and central planning is pure economic fascism, and that's my preferred way of approaching the issue when addressing the left. Looking at it from a libertarian class analysis perspective, libertarians can explain to the left that as long as there is a powerful state, of course it will be those who already have influence and money who most stand to benefit. However, to be convincing, we have to strip ourselves of all unnecessary baggage as apologists for corporatism. It is sometimes necessary to defend the actions of big businesses, but not to the extent and in the ways that libertarians often do.

Mark Brady - 6/27/2005

If you're correct, and I don't accept that you are, which arguments do you suggest we use?

Mark Brady - 6/27/2005

I certainly don't deny that some people think along the lines that Max Swing has described. However, he appears to be writing off most, if not all, of the left. And to whom does he suggest libertarians should direct their case? The truth is that libertarians don't use the sort of arguments that I sketched nearly as much as they ought to do. I certainly think that Marxists who take ideas seriously are more open to these arguments than leftists who don't take ideas seriously and who far outnumber this Marxist minority. So be it. I can certainly point to a couple of scholars and writers who were Marxists and became--and remain--committed libertarians as a result of the economic calculation argument and similar exercises in consequentialism. (The word 'scholar' is overused but in this case I'm prepared to defend my use of the word.)

Max Swing - 6/27/2005

The problem is that they see property rights as a tool of big business and they believe that every business is eventually big business (except the little shop around the corner). And then the abstraction follows that government is independent to big business (or can be as such), because it doesn't rely on self-interest, but the interest of those who have no or less property.

You can't get them with the market idea, because in the end, they see all markets without government control as potentially unfair and problematic.

Mark Brady - 6/27/2005

I suggest we can make some very powerful arguments on utilitarian (or, as I prefer to say, consequentialist) grounds for "a robust conception of property rights." Perhaps the most important is the economic calculation argument for private property and the market argued by Mises, Hayek et al. Another powerful (and related) argument is that the market permits those who value resources more highly than their current owners to buy those resources rather than using state power to engage in wealth-destroying 'rent seeking' to acquire them.

Aeon J. Skoble - 6/27/2005

Oh, see I was just talking about the skeptical-about-property-rights left -- this case really highlights how robust property rights are good for everyone, including the poor. That's who I was hoping we might reach out to via this sad decision. But your point is of course well-taken.

Aeon J. Skoble - 6/27/2005

You're right about utilitarians, but not all lefties are utilitarians. Hey, a guy can hope....

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