Friday, May 8, 2009

Liberalism and Violence

Lately -- probably since the release of the torture memos -- I've become fascinated with the relationship between violence and liberalism.

Politics is violence. No question. There is violence in liberalism, but it is kept within certain boundaries. Beyond those boundaries, the law cannot cross. Liberal regimes use violence in respectful ways - at the limit, on the basis of reasons all citizens would accept, if such reasons were presented to them.

In this way, liberalism is taken to be not just superior, but uniquely superior to any other form of politics. Every other form of politics involves subordination: the king commands and his inferiors obey. The king need not offer any reasons to his subjects; they obey merely because he tells them to obey. The king does not respect his subjects and nor do they respect him. They fear him, and so they obey. Perhaps, in some sense, the king even fears them, which keeps his edicts within certain bounds.

Liberalism is different. In the ideal form of liberal politics, citizens interact with each other respectfully, as moral equals. Within the political sphere, no one tells another what to do without providing reasons both will accept. The subordination of one will to another is replaced with the rule of public reason. Fear of the Other is replaced with respect for the wisdom of the consensus.

(By the way, I think a good case can be made that Rawls' later work - exemplifying this vision - is much closer to Rousseau than to Kant.)

This is the liberal ideal. And it is a noble thing. But it is a manqué. I don't just mean that it is unobtainable - although this is certainly true. I mean that it is not and cannot be what it claims to be. Liberalism is not a fake (maybe); it's a never-was, wrapped in a set of plausible concerns that lend the ideal itself an air of credibility.

To explain, let us return to violence. Where is the violence in the liberal ideal? It is no where and everywhere at once.

The king exudes violence. In the very interesting cover of the first edition of Hobbes' Leviathan, the sovereign carries a sword in one hand - his right - and the scepter in the other. In Leviathan, all are subordinate to the sovereign - which is what the term means after all - but they are in fact subordinate to the sword.

For Hobbes, who carries the sword is less important than that there is someone who is carrying it.

The sovereign's awesome power to inflict violence makes not only society possible, but justice itself. "Justice therefore, that is to say, keeping of covenant, is a rule of reason, by which we are forbidden to do any thing destructive to our life; and consequently a law of nature," he writes, before going on to say that,"covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all."

In other words, justice, absent the sword, is a manqué. Violence -- overwhelming, incredible violence -- is what makes justice real, instead of a never-was.

As I understand it, the liberal ideal promises to take us beyond the Hobbesian vision. Justice, to the liberal, is formed by the strictures of public reason. It is unjust to coerce someone on the basis of reasons he could not accept. What makes justice possible for the liberal -- here I take Rawls as the exemplar -- is not violence, but our capacity to respect others even when we completely disagree with them about matters of morality.

And this is why the liberal ideal is also a manqué. Out of respect for others, we try to meet them on common ground, making our case for the use of violence on the basis of reasons they themselves will accept. But if we are successful, then violence is unnecessary: they will be convinced, and comply without the sword! If we are unsuccessful, then - compatible with the ideal - we will not use violence against them.

Thus, while the Hobbesian vision starts and ends with violence, the liberal ideal never allows violence to enter the picture.

So while liberalism starts out life as a theory about the proper and respectful use of violence, the ideal cannot sustain itself: there can be no respectful use of violence, and hence nothing like a liberal politics. Liberal politics is a never-was. A manqué.

So why haven't liberals followed this line of reasoning to its conclusion and become libertarians? Good question!

Here is how forming policies around a manqué, a never-was, pays off. To return to the king, there is never any question about his ability or right to inflict violence. Hobbes didn't invent the idea of the sovereign; he only gave him secular clothing (and what clothing: take a look at the cover illustration again if you haven't seen it before.)

The relationship between the sovereign and his subjects is impeccably honest. He will kill them if they disobey. They obey.

But imagine a weakening sovereign, one whose sword is rusting and falling apart. Hobbes was very clear about what a sovereign should think of himself once he finds himself in this position: look out! If you're too old to swing the sword, you shouldn't be sovereign in the first place.

This decaying sovereign, terrified of being displaced, comes up with a new scheme: liberalism. "Citizens," he declares, "why must there be so much violence in our relationship? Why can't we relate to each other as equals?"

The citizens-cum-subjects respond: "Give us a break. We can't respect you while we're subordinates. Put down the sword and we'll talk."

However, the sovereign is too clever for such a ploy. Instead of putting the sword away, he addresses the citizens thusly: "If I give up the sword, there will be chaos. But I'll make you a deal. Bring me the people you hate the most. The ones you despise. The blacks. The queers. The foreigners. Bring them to me and I will slay them before you, every year without exception. If I do this, will you let me keep the sword?"

And so it was agreed. And there was even a great deal of new found respect between the sovereign and (most of) his citizen-subjects. They did share common ground after all! The sovereign got to keep the sword, and he pointed it mostly at those in the hated groups, the minorities who could not rally a coalition of other indifferent or hostile citizens to defend them against the sovereign's violence.

They called it liberal democracy -- and it was good.

If anyone protested the "special" treatment he got at the hands of the king and his mob, he was denounced as unreasonable: "Surely, you can't reject the wisdom of the consensus," it was said. "After all, things are much better than they used to be when the king would just inflict violence on whoever he liked."

There was much tut-tutting about how the new system was uniquely superior to whatever had come before. Much less violence, always inflicted in the name of the king and his citizens. Violence that became laws codifying the new relationship between people and state, a relationship of equals, united in hatred and fear.

Violence made respectful, because it was the instantiation - albeit impure - of a genuine ideal. But mixed with violence, the manqué merely provides cover for the yearly slaughter. After all, no one really expected violence to leave politics. What they wanted - and what they got - was less violence, comfortable living, and their consciences cleaned in the abattoir of the "reasonable overlapping consensus."

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Problem With Property

Mike Brock put up this great post on the Shotgun and I wanted to take the opportunity to jot down a few more thoughts here.

Formally, property isn't all that difficult to understand. If X is A's property, then A has the right to exclude others from using X, where "using" is defined as broadly as possible.

"Exclusion" entails something like this: if X is A's property, then it is morally permissible for A to use violence to stop B from using X. While violence isn't normally permissible, the fact that X is A's property gives him the right to inflict violence on those who encroach on X.

Again, this is all very formal. The details of property -- not to mention property law -- go beyond my pay grade. However, there are probably only two ways to think about property and property rights, if one's moral view accepts them at all.

What should we think about property as "the right to exclude, using deadly force if necessary"?

Here's the first view: property rights are an extension of personal rights. Each of us comes equipped with a moral force field around our bodies. If another person enters this field without our permission, we are permitted to use violence to protect ourselves. The moral force field around our bodies is what prohibits others from (say) harvesting our organs without our consent.

On this view, there are certain actions we can take with respect to the stuff in the world that extends the force field around that stuff. Enveloped, our stuff gains the same level of moral protection as our own bodies; which means, basically, we can use violence to protect it, make use of it as we like, and so on.

Because the force field around our bodies is seamless, holding unconditionally, our property rights are absolute. There is only one field and it imposes the same moral requirements whether one is talking about body or land.

How we extend the force field is something of a "black box." I don't think the Lockean labor mixing story can be made coherent. The mere exertion of calories, as when one moves a stone across a field, seems insufficient to wrap both the stone and the field within the moral force field. "Purposeful labor" might work better - but maybe not.

In any event, I wish to leave the black box unexamined in order to turn to another way of thinking about property rights.

On this story, there is a gap between self-ownership and stuff-ownership. Think of it this way: the moral force field around the body can still be extended to cover stuff, but it loses a little bit of its punch once it is extended in this way. While it gives a person the right to exclude others from her body 100% of the time, perhaps it only gives her the right to exclude others from her stuff 99% of the time.

In short, the force field is weakened once it leaves its natural starting point in the body. Perhaps the more it is extended, the weaker it gets. At the limit, perhaps it dissipates entirely. Perhaps no one's force field is powerful enough to encompass an entire planet, or an ocean.

I think a good intuitive case can be made for a gap between self-ownership and stuff-ownership. Here is a case I presented in the comments at the Western Standard to try to demonstrate the idea (I cleaned it up a bit):

You buy all the land around Sally's house, which - to take the metaphor - means now there is a moral force field around her house. But let's make it a literal bubble: You put up walls of plastic stretching into the sky, all around Sally's house.

Given the right to exclude, Sally is obligated not to try to break through those walls. It would be morally wrong for her to cross over your land in an attempt to get food or water.

But of course you haven't coerced Sally, haven't done anything unjust to her from a libertarian point of view. At the same time, your actions have effectively crippled her autonomy.

So the question: suppose we accept that there is no divide between self-ownership and stuff-ownership. It's one force field and it applies to both you and to the stuff you've labored on (or something like that.) This means that when Sally cuts through the plastic, she's done violence to you. This means -- I'm assuming -- that you would be fully justified in shooting her in the head as she tries to make her escape. After all, she just tried to break into your property with a blow torch!

Intuitively, was it permissible to shoot her?

Now assume that there is a divide between self-ownership and stuff-ownership, one that works out in this way: self-ownership is absolute. No one can use your kidneys without your consent. But stuff-ownership is not absolute. Every once in a while, when it's necessary to give someone any shot at all of living an autonomous life, the stuff force field can be bent, manipulated a little.

In this case, if you refuse to ease your force field to accomplish some moral goal or protect certain values, Sally does nothing wrong when she ignores the field, and you are not justified in shooting her. Rather, you've committed murder, because you used violence in a way that, under the circumstances, was not permissible.

Of course, "bent and manipulated a little" is extremely vague. One might think that I'm just waxing utilitarian about property rights. But I don't think that's quite it. I don't support taking Jones' property and handing it to Smith just because Smith would enjoy it better. That's what a utilitarian might support.

My thought is different: we adjust your property rights for the sake of Sally's liberty, but we adjust them as little as possible. I never said you had to let her live on your land: you just have to let her escape, without shooting her as she crosses your property.

So what does that mean? It means, I think, that property rights should be subordinated to liberty - or autonomy, if you prefer. But some property rights are necessary if one is to have the space to develop and grow into an autonomous individual.

My quibble is not with property as such so much as it is with the first vision of property I presented, one that takes the form of an unconditional right to exclude. We don't need to think of property in that way, and most people don't. Libertarians who cleave too tightly to property in that sense are doing themselves and the movement a disservice.