G.L.Piggy [at] gmail.com
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I wish that in the upcoming Presidential debates the two candidates would devote one debate to first principles rather than policy. In particular I’d like to witness their responses to something that Matt Yglesias tweeted the other night:
The concept of “redistribution” falsely implies that the existence of property is prior to the existence of the state.
The question is being discussed now by Yglesias at his blog, and Bryan Caplan has weighed in on a secondary dilemma: if a Lockean theory of property rights exist, if we have a natural right to property that exists prior to government and if property is justly owned when it is passed from one person to the other through legitimate means, how do we account for the expropriation of Native American lands? As Caplan lays out, Murray Rothbard has a response to that dilemma while Robert Nozick wrote in his most famous work Anarchy, State, and Utopia that this question had not yet been adequately addressed.
The latest Romney gaffe and Obama’s “bitter clinging comments” and now the video of Obama in 1998 telling a college crowd that he supports redistribution…this exposes huge differences in political philosophy. This is an obvious statement.
I don’t want to come off as being too defensive of Romney – what he said in May was poorly thought out. Even if he was just giving his crowd what they wanted to hear, the most common pseudo-defense so far, there were better ways to parse the issue. Romney would have done well just to say that people who favor more government (a number which will more closely match the percent of Obama voters) will not have their minds changed. People who don’t think that it is right to criticize people who don’t want to work very hard for their pay; people who advocate for the poor no matter what – that is Obama’s true constituency who will not be swayed. On the other hand, many of the people Romney ended up criticizing would be critical of their own life station. They aspire to move out of that life station not just because they would be better off but because they are constitutionally opposed to the idea of being a taker.
Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, despite some of their overlaps, stake out the two different camps. The reason that Ron Paul doesn’t play too strongly to OWS despite his criticism of the Federal Reserve and the banking system lies in the two fundamentally different beliefs on the relation of individual property rights to the State. One side generally believes that the State exists prior to the concept of property; the other believes that property exists prior to the State. It is reasonable to expect that Obama does believe the former while Romney believes the latter. In fact, everyone knows that Romney believes the latter, but we only have a sneaking suspicion that Obama believes the former. It would be nice if they’d lay it out for us, nice and neat.
We have Paul Ryan who has filled his stump speeches with lines like “Our rights come from nature and God, not from government.” The Lockean theory of property rights which Yglesias disagrees with. If property is a function of the State then the State can do what it wants with property. It fulfills what was stated at the DNC that “government is the only thing we all belong to.” It carries from Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line. Do we work for the government or does the government work for us? Do we accept progressive taxation schemes as a means to achieve distributive justice – because the ownership of property and/or income is, in effect, stolen from others further down the economic ladder – or is the existence of such schemes an injustice in and of itself? I don’t claim these would be original discussions or that no other candidates have addressed them, but they just seem most at the forefront, ready for picking, at this particular election. The electorate wants this battle to be waged.
Whatever we all might think about the gaffes of each candidate (Romney has more “gaffes” whereas Obama is able to openly insinuate that Romney would leave poor people in the gutter) , most people don’t vote in their immediate best interests. This is where we become complacent and where we consider the two candidates the “lesser of two evils”. Considering their limited political leeway, yes, we do end up seeing two candidates who make similar arguments and quibble over a couple of tax rate percentage points. Many people vote, I believe, based upon what their candidates fundamentally believe. This informs what those candidates would do if they had free rein. What they would do if they were dictator or king. And could we deny that if Barack Obama or Mitt Romney were granted such power that they wouldn’t lead us in two quite different directions which stem from their first principles on the concept of property rights in relation to the State?
And, of course, thrown into all of this are the conservatives who don’t hold a natural rights view of property. It would fall on Romney to tease that one out for anyone who cares.