Forced to Choose: Capitalism as Existentialism

18 Oct

I’ve been reading and writing all morning about Hayek, Mises, and Menger. And it occurs to me: the moral secret of capitalism, its existential fundament, is not that we are free to choose but that we are forced to choose. Only when we are confronted with the reality of scarcity, says the Austrian economist, only when we must reckon with the finite resources at our disposal, are we brought face to face with ourselves. In deciding how to deploy those limited resources—whether they be time, money, effort—we’re compelled to answer the great questions of life: What do I value? What do I believe? What do I want in this life, in this world? (“Every man who, in the course of economic activity, chooses between the satisfaction of two needs, only one of which can be satisfied, makes judgments of value,” says Mises.) That decision must not only remain free; it must also remain mine. Most important of all, says the Austrian economist, it must remain a decision. Should what he calls the “economic situation” disappear from the human world, the disciplining agent of all ethical action—the necessity to choose among a limited set of options—would go with it. If our “ends dominate economy and alone give it meaning,” as Mises says, it’s also true, as Menger discovered, that economy alone is what gives our ends meaning. That, it seems to me, is the center of gravity of free-market economics.

70 Responses to “Forced to Choose: Capitalism as Existentialism”

  1. Decker Walker, Sr. October 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    Yes, we must choose, when life gives us a choice, but a choice is also a risk, a hazard, and we must suffer losses when our choices do not work out as we had hoped. And we must also choose, as moral agents, what is to be the fate of those whose choices go wrong. Should we let them suffer or go to their aid?

  2. Nick October 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    Excellent thought. It has a Heideggerian “freedom is being-towards-death” ring to it. The Austrians presuppose a vision of what they call “human nature,” but which is actually a very particular ideal of the “rational man” operating in a situation of forced choices. Its like “trolley problems” in ethical dilemmas: one begins from a situation in which freedom (the capacity to forge novel responses to to mediate between different ends) has been eliminated ex hypothesi by the urgency of the moment, and then takes such situations as the basic model to construct an ethical theory. Its ludicrous, but also very enticing within a world of constraint that has been taken as the very height of freedom.

  3. Brian Donnelly October 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    Yes, but the issue really with the “reality of scarcity” is if the source of that scarcity is the result of the natural world or if it is manufactured. Then the choice becomes whether one chooses to live in a world of manufactured scarcity or not – and that is a more fundamental choice; and one those who create scarcity, or those who benefit from existing scarcity structures would rather not have you make. In fact, it’s probably a choice they don’t want you to be aware of.

  4. Paul H. Rosenberg October 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    ” the center of gravity of free-market economics”? I don’t think so. The center of gravity of a continental European rationalizing discourse for free-market economics, that makes sense. But the practices precede the rationalizations, we all know. And I think it’s no accident, as they say in the trade, that the rationalizations have very much come to the fore as the practices have come apart at the seams.

  5. troy grant October 18, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    “economy alone that gives our ends meaning”. Economy comes from the Greek meaning “the running of the household” and ecology meaning “the study of the household”. Economy is haphazard and reactionary. Ecology lets us recognize the problem, and find solutions before acting.

  6. Aliothemage October 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    I love when “progressives” make fun of conservatives because creationism but then your average leftist reject the science of economics,the science of evolutionary psychology and the science of sociobiology . All these 3 sciences proved long time ago the same thing: free-market capitalism is the only system compatible with human-nature,freedom and progress.

    • DBake October 20, 2012 at 1:01 am #

      Austrian economics is *science*? Dude, it’s not even within the mainstream of orthodox, free-market economics.

      • John S October 20, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

        Then why is Hayek the 2nd most cited economist in the official Nobel Prize lectures?

        “The elite of the economics profession, Coase, Friedman, Hicks, Hurwicz, Koopmans, Lucas, Maskin, Myerson, North, Phelps, Sen, Smith, and Stigler, all deem Hayek’s work as important and influential to economics.”

        http://www.davidskarbek.com/uploads/HayeksInfluence.pdf

    • FoucaultLaughs October 20, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      Science needs to define its object of study. Economics can’t do that.

      The science of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, according to some of its most vocal proponents today, concludes that women should be left in the kitchen and in the bedroom, and that art is a mutant, completely unwholesome aberration (just ask Pinker). In its earlier incarnations, those “sciences” “proved” long ago that the human tribe is divided into races, and that there are races made to be subordinate, deviant races (homosexuals etc). The social function of psychology, until very late in the day, was a bludgeon to beat those not conforming to the general idea of nature of the time into submission – it has stayed as an arbiter of punishment in the judicial process somehow, having sneaked into it in 18th century. Generally, expounding morals from scientific inquiries is a bad idea.

      There is hardly such thing as human nature, other than some metaphysical empty shell one can invoke instead of a clearly-defined argument. Once you complicate one’s definition of ‘that which is shared by all mankind’, you’re left with historically specific societal organization structures and a historically conditioned production of a given Subject. Human nature is a very human construct indeed. Some modern biologists consider the division of nature vs. culture as false – so you need to catch up on your reading, too.

      Freedom is an ideologically charged word, if not *the* most ideologically charged word, meaning lots of things to lots of people – for some of its best known theorists, the condition of existence of freedom is the State (paper beats stone, Hegel kills Hayek). May I remind you that “progressives” and “conservatives” have a very different conception of freedom, and that’s just the US – a landless Guatemalan farmer or a Chinese may have a very different notion of what it is. Lenin would’ve said: freedom, yes, but for who? To do what? And Corey Robin might answer: it is the freedom of the boss to exploit its workers, being ‘free’ of the regulations forcibly imposed by the State, left to implement ‘the private life of power’. It may be the freedom of 8-year-olds to work in a factory. Freedom may be just another way to say one has nothing left to lose (the Chris Christopherson theory of scarcity). Or that one is “forced to choose”.

      Progress is a teleologically charged notion and I am surprised people still use it this way, much like the term “civilization”: progress is what you starve 20 million Chinese for because it’ll all be worth in the end; progress, at one time, meant Aushwitz.

      • jonnybutter October 20, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

        Progress is a teleologically charged notion and I am surprised people still use it this way, much like the term “civilization”: progress is what you starve 20 million Chinese for because it’ll all be worth in the end; progress, at one time, meant Aushwitz.

        The ‘notion’ of progress – some linear, unitary, simplistic notions of it – have been used to justify the building of racist imperialist projects, Maoism, etc. therefore there isn’t a purpose to anything. what? The word ‘progress’ became a euphemism, but it’s not ‘charged’. It just means what it means: not indifferent. By the way, it’s no more ridiculous to believe that purpose, however oblique, does exist somehow, than it is to purport to know the opposite. It’s actually a harder case to make that purpose, however defined, is prohibited from the cosmos. Anyway, like conservatism, purpose is a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of deal, IMHO. It can always go either way. Human life, the cosmos, et. al. can be without purpose, but I think it’s laughably presumptuous to say that is.

      • FoucaultLaughs October 20, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

        jonny, I was not arguing that “purpose” was void from the human endeavor since the notion of “progress” was used to justify major atrocious projects, any more than Nietzsche argued for nihilism after concluding that God is dead – or any more than I would argue that communism is not worth talking about after Holodomor and the Great Leap Forward (or that ‘democratization’ is shit if it leads to wars in Bosnia or the Taliban taking over). I was not talking about purpose – though I do think purpose is solely the product of an abstract mind and therefore bound to this place where humans live (and if purpose reveals itself inside the kosmos and no one is around to testify to it…). The problem with “progress”, as it was used since at least the Enlightenment, is that it connoted an unfurling of History to a transcendental destination, with a clear – yes – purpose of emancipating humans from bondage. So, like the religions it sprung in connection and opposition to, structurally it presupposed the same kind of metaphysical grand narrative that somewhere, at the end of History, the roots of progress will have redeemed what has come to be used in the name of its unfolding (Marx called it “a historical necessity”); hence the expression “a teleologically-charged notion”; I’m just saying that one should be careful with that because if you have to starve millions in order to get there – whether you are Milton Friedman or Chairman Mao – you may become the very thing you are fighting against without even being aware of it. (I detect the same kind of abrasive worldview present in the New Atheists, especially with their insisting on the retarded binary division of Science vs. Faith and the religious worshiping of the former; Dawkins because he is as critical of his own milleu as any person enjoying the smell of one’s farts excessively; Hitchens, Progress rest his soul, because he never stopped thinking like a bolshevik – which is especially symptomatic in his use of the terms “struggle” and “victory”). I was simply pointing out to DBake that throwing notions like “progress” around as if it is something “natural”, neutral, and good with no problematization necessary, can lead to the same well-worn path of barbarity for civilization’s sake. This is why some postmodern thinkers emphasize “the lack of closure” inherent in their projects (see Derrida’s notion of otherwise messianical-sounding “democracy yet-to-come”, for instance).
        So let’s use an example: It is one thing to be – in the context of the US political scene – a “progressive”, and to support “progressive” causes, but it is a folly to believe that said progress is somehow inevitable and that it will one day be justified by History even if we have to, I dunno, round up 75 million right-fundamentalist Christians into a gulag (I’m obviously exaggerating to prove a point here). No. We support the, say, right of gays to get married because it’s the right thing to do here and now, no further justification necessary; also, for all we know and do, the handful of US states that “allow” same-sex marriage may not be the harbinger of Progress into the Great Equality, but merely a side-note before being engulfed into the flames of a new conservative revival.

      • jonnybutter October 21, 2012 at 10:59 am #

        #FoucaultLaughs:

        thanks so much for your wonderful comment. Couldn’t have said it better myself re: Dawkins; Hitchens.

        I entirely understand and endorse your warning about using the word ‘progress’ in a blithe way. I do think that there is a problem with English, wherein ‘end’ or ‘goal’ sound like they mean ‘terminus’ but are synonymous with ‘purpose’, which need not be thought of that way, regardless of what Hegel or Marx thought. Teleology means ‘final cause’ – ‘final’ as in ultimate or underlying or fundamental, not a terminus.

        I had in mind Philosophyandwaste’s 4:40 comment in which the dichotomy we’re talking about is simplistic, I think.

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg October 25, 2012 at 9:26 am #

        Aliothemage is an idiot, possibly trolling, and not worthy of more than dismissive responses.

        But just to take a tangent here:

        Evolutionary psychology and sociobiology do not imply social darwinism, nor that “women should be left in the kitchen and in the bedroom”.

        If that is what their most vocal proponents are saying, it’s because they’re looking for a scientific veil for their pre-existing politics. It’s not because the actual science that is being published actually says that.

      • Corey Robin October 25, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

        Please cut the name-calling. I won’t delete this comment b/c there’s other stuff of substance here. But no need to call people names.

      • FoucaultLaughs October 25, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

        Everyone is worthy of response if one has too much time on one’s hands or if it’s inspiring. I’m dialectial Habermasian that way :P
        Sure, science does not imply any morals for social relations, but it is more often than not perceived as an arbiter of it, which is why I have a problem with the almost sacral way a lot of smart people approach it, and its popularisers such as Dawkins or the ignominious sexist liberal-hawk Pinker. (And let us not forget all the instances where science dictates social processes, from worming its way into the judiciary process to early genetics to the Gattaca of 3D organ-printing that awaits us in just a couple of years.) My best friend is a very astute psychology ph.d, and she tells me all the evolutionary psychologists she knows treat the findings of their science as dogma, as in, first there’s what we do, then perhaps the laws of physics, and at the bottom of the barrel there’s psychoanalysis. Even with my Foucaldian, anti-Edipus sympathies, it makes me wanna go beat them over the head with Žižek/Lacan hardcovers.

  7. Islam Hussein October 18, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    Very well and accurately put, Corey, and I never thought I’d ever say that about any of your blog posts. :)

    With that said, only one thing I’d like to address where I think you go a little wrong. You write

    “and it occurs to me: the moral secret of capitalism, its existential fundament, is not that we are free to choose but that we are forced to choose.”

    Being “forced” to choose implies that someone else is doing the forcing. Our limit and scarce resources are the result of nature and as such are not “forced” by anyone. Yes, we can not escape these. Hence, that in itself doesn’t take away any of the options you may still have to choose from. And between these options, yes, we are and should be free to choose. That’s what Austrians (and others within the libertarian creed) mean by freedom to choose. We are not denying that there are constraints in life. They exist, but that still leaves us with a lot to choose among. Our choices are dictated by our values and the rest of what you right is good.

    If someone forces you to act or economize in a certain way, then you are indeed “forced”. Libertarians reject that. But sometimes, “we” (government/society) makes decisions for individuals with good intentions and in the process limit their choices. Even thought it is well-meaning, these decisions are still *forced* onto others. Libertarians also reject that. Not because they are evil for not sharing your well-meaning intentions, they may very well do, but because they also see evil (“force”) being applied, resulting in further limitations in choices, to achieve the end that society/government chooses for the individual. The ends and the values they reflect are no more that of the individual, but are those of some other people.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg October 25, 2012 at 9:31 am #

      “If someone forces you to act or economize in a certain way, then you are indeed “forced”. Libertarians reject that. But sometimes, “we” (government/society) makes decisions for individuals with good intentions and in the process limit their choices. Even thought it is well-meaning, these decisions are still *forced* onto others. Libertarians also reject that.”

      With one exception, of course: the privatization of all of the land on the planet. *That* forceful act is one libertarians don’t reject.

      It’s not lost on most of us that this one forceful act, which libertarians accept, is the basis of all of the other private domination, which libertarians pretend are not also forceful.

      • FoucaultLaughs October 25, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

        Hard-core libertarians seem constitutionally unable to understand this point no matter how hard one tries to explain it. “Property is theft” just explodes their brain. It’s strange how the same folks who identify systemic violence when it emanates from the state are willfully blind to the systemic violence borne out of private property and/or any power relations not ‘forced upon one’ by the state. As if everything not done by the state constitutes ‘freedom’. It’s like they only ever read one book. *shrugs*

      • Islam Hussein October 25, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

        “With one exception, of course: the privatization of all of the land on the planet. *That* forceful act is one libertarians don’t reject.”

        How is that forceful? If it is land claimed by someone already, taking it by force is, well, forceful. An unclaimed land, who owns it? That’s the philosophical argument.

        Then there is the utilitarian argument, privatization of resources can lead, in most cases (almost all cases), to better utilization of the resources than leaving them as a common good. Tragedy of the commons and whatnot.

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg October 25, 2012 at 9:44 pm #

        “How is that forceful?”

        Take, for example, the beach. Suppose I land my boat on it. But then someone comes up to me and says, “Sorry. The beach is closed. If you don’t leave I will shoot you.”

        You’re saying that’s not forceful… because I haven’t done the same thing to anyone else first?

        I know it’s too much to expect. But, please, think it through. You can’t ever convert a public domain into a private domain without the use of force. You cannot ever close a beach, without forcing people off the beach. The beach is always open, until someone comes along, with guns, and closes it.

        (Unless, that is, you somehow gain the voluntary consent of every person on earth whose access is restricted by the privatization; which obviously has never happened and will never happen.)

        Whether the person with the guns who closed the beach had to kill someone else, who had closed it before him, is totally irrelevant to everyone else whose access to the beach is forcibly denied either way.

        If someone wanted to privatize the oceans (which, unlike the beaches, currently are not privatized) it would require forcibly restricting access to the oceans. If someone wanted to privatize the right to emit CO2, it would require forcibly punishing unauthorized emissions. Similar, too, are airspace, copyrights, etc., etc.. All the myriad forms of property are always, by nature, applications of violent force.

        Property rights, like taxes, may often have majority or even overwhelming popular support. But the dissenting minority is still forced to pay taxes, and the dissenting minority is still forced to respect property lines. There is no legal option to “opt out” of the obligations imposed by either taxes or property rights. Thus, they are not voluntary. They are mandatory; forced (and enforced through the state — by “men with guns” and all that).

        This is a fact readily admitted (even eagerly asserted) by libertarians in the tax case, and bizarrely denied in the property case…

  8. Nick October 18, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

    Wow. Watching how these comments have unfolded has me suspicious that there isn’t an office at the Cato Institute devoted to responding to your blogs. That must be a good sign!

    @Alothemage: you are working with a positivistic concept of these sciences, which measures human beings as they behave in the situations in which they currently exist. That is not a discovery of human nature, but of human nature within the constraints of an environment structured by the laws of private property, among other things. In order to understand what might count as “human nature,” one would have to turn to anthropology, and a study of the myriad social forms that do not premise themselves on “scarcity,” nor its mirror image — that of human beings who are innately yearning for more and more consumable items. Time and again these presumptions about human psychology that undergird the modern theology of economics have been shown to be false by those who actually go and observe humans in non-capitalist societies. For a wonderful account of just how wrong these assumptions are, I recommend David Graeber’s recent book “Debt: The First 5000 Years.” In particular, chapter 2 — though the whole thing is astounding.

    • Islam Hussein October 18, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

      The institution of private property has been there since before there were laws, enforced by the state, to enforce them. A caveman who made a home out of a cave, adorning it with art and making it a hospitable safe place for his family, will still feel violated if someone came and destroyed it. He would feel hurt if mother nature took a swipe at it. A sense of ownership is as part of human nature, and hence of nature itself. The fact that some societies, and these are truly rare, did not develop a sense of property and a value for preserving and protecting it is, yes, part of nature, but only one realization of the natural process.

      • philosophyandwaste October 18, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

        But this issue of a “caveman” does not address the particular formation that private property has taken in the modern era. Yes, human beings have significant relationships with nonhuman objects. But that relationship has not always resembled anything like “private property.” This concept employed by economists today is a relatively recent construction. It has two main features: the right to exclude others from the use of something and the right to appropriate the products of others created through its use. In order to discuss such things, however, we need to move beyond mythical projections of “cavemen,” and talk about the very different and very specific ways thats cultures have related to objects and their land. That includes both those of non-europeans and, perhaps more relevantly, those of european commoners that were displaced in and through the construction of the modern state and concept of property.

      • David Kaib October 18, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

        Stuff existed before laws, likely a sense of personal ownership as well. Private property didn’t exist before laws, because property is nothing but a bundle of legal rights. That is, it doesn’t just come later in terms of time, but analytically.

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg October 25, 2012 at 9:33 am #

        “A caveman who made a home out of a cave, adorning it with art and making it a hospitable safe place for his family, will still feel violated if someone came and destroyed it.”

        Look, even a modern family will feel violated if they’re evicted for non-payment of rent.

        Property means the ability to evict people based on government-recognized titles. It did not exist for cavemen.

        For cavemen, there was no such thing as legal eviction vs. illegal eviction. Therefore, there was no such thing as property.

  9. Islam Hussein October 18, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    @philosophyandwaste

    “This concept employed by economists today is a relatively recent construction. It has two main features: the right to exclude others from the use of something and the right to appropriate the products of others created through its use. ”

    How is that any different from any other non-recent/modern “construction”?

    The modern construction just made it more crystal clear (but has not absolutely done so –e.g., intellectual property). Non-modern/capitalistic societies do have some form of (a very natural) concept of property. The fact that an individual in such societies does not necessarily exclude others from using what he owns or does not appropriate the products of others created through its use fits perfectly with the Hayek/Mises/Classical liberal/libertarian theory of property and value. It’s that individual’s value, coming about from eons of social evolution shaped, in part, by his own community, to share what he truly owns with others. Other societies, the English one to give one example, have evolved differently with different values that ascertain the absolute right of an owner to exclude others and to appropriate the product of what he owns, all guided by a contract its provisions with the user of that private property.

    And, more importantly, that modern form of private property **allows** for the owner to share it freely and as he wish and to not appropriate the products of what he owns. In other words, the modern construct allows for the freedom to exercise the non-modern construct. It is more general. And that I think is a beautiful thing.

    Now, yes, those who first exercised and benefited from the private property construct were the artisans and merchants and not the commoners, but that is how political evolution goes. With time, more and more people get to exercise and enjoy that private property construct. I’ll take that while it would be nice that the rules of society are shaped so that we ensure that everybody gets to enjoy the fruits of respect and defense of private property.

    • philosophyandwaste October 18, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

      This is a revealing discussion, and I’m glad you are taking it seriously (by the way, this is Nick from above — my account switched on me).

      I say “revealing” because it shows that you are committed to a view of history as fundamentally progressive. That is, you endow the word “evolution” with directionality — a sense that is hardly scientific. Indeed, if you start of with the idea that evolution is progressive, all you can ever end up with is a position that affirms the conceptual structures of the present, and looks to any other ways of doing things that may have occurred in the past as a primitive history that has been discarded. Your assumption is that “private property” is a clarification of a concept that was simply inarticulate, but always existent elsewhere. This is an incarnation of this myth of progress, for you have actually excluded from the start the idea that there are different cultural formations, different relations between humans and the things they require and desire. Instead, you’ve reduced them to our own shadowy pre-history.

      In response to your first question: not all concepts of property have been premised on the right to exclude, and very few have included the right to appropriate the products of others. The English commons, which were enclosed from the 13th century on, seem to have employed a concept of property derived from one’s own labor. This was premised on no one having the right to exclude others from laboring on the land. The land being held in common was the condition of property. Further, no one in that concept had the “right” to take the products of another’s labor (though indeed, it was taken from them under threat of violence. That is, it was exploitation that followed from domination). Now was there a right to exclude? If by that you mean a right to exclude others from the products of your own bodily labor or from your household, sure. But this exclusion played a role within a context that was premised upon the limitation of such assertions of property.

      By contrast, what you’ve outlined is a vision of history that would see that as simply one step along the way in the progressive (dare I say dialectical? In any case teleological) development of the concept of property, as if the changes were premised on the unfolding of truth rather than the violent destruction of those forms of life.

      • pws October 18, 2012 at 9:14 pm #

        The problem with Social Darwinism (which I think should be called Bastard Darwinism to go along with it’s religious equivalent, Bastard Calvinism) is that it assumes that the “god” driving nature is guided by human aesthetic and moral choices. If it were, why the scabies mite? What is beautiful about the scabies might? What is moral about the scabies mite? Or the bed bug?

        These creatures survive despite human attempts to eradicate them, and the fact that they continue, and thrive, despite human antipathy toward them shows that the “god” of Natural Selection is operating from a very different set of moral and aesthetic ideas than Homo Sapiens.

        Or, as Charles Fort put it, “The fittest survive. What is meant by the fittest? Not the strongest; not the cleverest – Weakness and stupidity everywhere survive. There is no way of determining fitness except in that a thing does survive. ‘Fitness’, then, is only another name for ‘survival.’ Darwinism: That survivors survive.”

        The fundamental misunderstanding of evolution as being some noble guide toward progress leads toward Auschwitz.

      • Ticklemonster October 19, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

        @pws

        Your diatribe is clearly against Herbert Spencer or Butler not Darwin. Darwin concerned himself more with biological fact less with theorizing about social progress. Sociobiology has obscured, left generations confused. It has been used to justify cruelty very well.

      • philosophyandwaste October 25, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

        @Islam Hussein (in response to your response which I don’t see for some reason): let me spell out my point more clearly. First, we admit that there have been other relations with human and nonhuman things apart from the modern concept of private property. Now admitting that, it seems we have two options: either those were distinct cultural forms of themselves, not “incomplete” versions of anything but legitimate relationships that tied into a legitimate form of life; or, on the other hand, those were degraded, confused attempts to clarify the modern concept. It seems that the libertarian view is committed to the latter position: property is a fundamental — metaphysical — fact about human beings and their relation with nonhuman things. The consciousness of such a relation is not merely “another” cultural formation, but hitting upon the truth of human life in a fundamental way. This commits you to a progressive, teleological concept of history — and thus one that breaks from any scientific concept of evolution or anthropology and enters the realm of theodicy (Christian, Marxist, whatever). It is the myth of progress come back to bite.

        By contrast, I would caution against any claim to “progress” regarding consciousness, and certainly regarding human relations with other humans and nonhumans. We are, after all, currently the driving force behind one of the most rapid extinction events that has occurred. I would suggest that the modern concept of property be viewed more as a natural disaster than the revealing of ultimate truth. But the real point is this: the concept is invented in and through the violent displacement of people from land that had been held in common. This is what Locke is arguing in support of in his famous defense of private property in the “Second Treatise”: the private appropriation of the commons *without the express consent of the commoners*. Proudhon hit the nail on the head: Property is theft.

        Now I’m very interested in discussing different kinds of property. That is, agreements to assign responsibility to a certain task for the sake of some public good. But that must be an ongoing discussion inclusive of as many voices as possible, and treats property as a responsible office for the purposes of production — not necessarily consumption (for when people are in need and you have more than enough, I follow Aquinas and Locke [take a look at what he actually says] in saying that you are actually robbing them of their due).

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg October 25, 2012 at 9:41 am #

      People have a natural sense of property today, which is definitely at odds with the legal concept of property. You’re falsely conflating them.

      You can steal my seat, but I can’t have the police evict you.

      You can steal my girlfriend, but I can’t sue you for damages.

      People who live in apartments will talk about “my apartment” as if it was property, even though they are not legal owners.

      Legal property has to do with police enforcement, not with an intuitive “sense of ownership.” The intuitive “sense of ownership” is often in conflict with legal property. Don’t conflate them.

  10. Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a The Enemy Combatant October 18, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    I recall a conversation I had with a friend many years ago when I came to what my then twenty-four year old mind claimed as an insight: that Morality Is Choice. It is not WHAT you choose, but THAT you choose. Moral agency is the ability to choose; the species of Morality you may possess can be suggested in what you choose, but that you have Morality is in the fact that you choose. This is what I concluded after taking a few philosophy courses (in Hunter College) all those years ago. After having read this post, I am inclined to seriously reconsider that position.

    But as Prof. Robin suggests, it appears that a precondition of “choice” is scarcity – rather than… something else. I suppose that this makes choosing more dramatic, as in an Ayn Rand novel.

    Yet, we have to ask: of what, this “something else”, is scarcity a function, in order that choice is the compelled action? Once we learn this, we need to ask another question: how does scarcity accomplish this magical deed of imbuing Morality with…, I don’t know – what, exactly? – … in order that Morality is that upon which we cast our inquiring gaze rather than upon its precursor, scarcity?

    And what kind of “scarcity” are we talking about, the scarcity of nature (not that many fish in the river today, so we’ll be lucky if we catch any) or the scarcity created by concentrated accumulation (you wanna fish in my river, it’ll cost ya, boy; but of course you could choose to fish at another river, many miles from here, so choose wisely) leaving persons with little but to accept terms imposed by powerful others?

    It thus seems to me that a way to understand “choice” after the fashion described by Prof. Robin’s insight into these economists is by way of distinction: One chooses to fish in a stream because that is where the fish are; one chooses to fish in a stream owned by the local lord because he owns all of the streams within a travelable distance, and in so choosing accepts, as well, the constraints that attach to “choosing” to fish in “his” stream. Both choices have feeding oneself as a motive, but only one of them has a politically potent element that animates the claimed morality of choice as the Austrians would have one believe that it does. As well, this political potency reaches deeply into one’s hunger, politicizing it. Suddenly, your hunger is… social. One can claim “That decision must not only remain free; it must also remain mine. Most important of all, says the Austrian economist [Mises], it must remain a decision.”, but it begs a critical intervention: what do you mean by “free” and what do you mean by “mine”? I sense that this “free” and “mine” are critical elisions in the Austrian’s thinking and, frankly, that these elisions are strategic.

    I submit that the choice to fish in a stream because that is where the fish are (and not in the trees, say) is not the same as choosing to fish in a lord’s stream because he owns all of the streams around. Yes, one can “choose” a different vocation from fishing because of the lord’s conditions, and “free” oneself therefrom. That is, until the lord takes the remaining commons under arms, thereby creating the scarcity that compels new, continually narrowing, and increasingly desperate, choices.

    Or, one can choose to fish in the stream because fish don’t grow on trees.

    The “choice”, therefore is, as I have tried to lay out here, is not how one wishes to feed oneself, but in deciding upon what kind of world where feeding oneself is to take place.

  11. wisedup October 18, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

    Can we extend the argument and claim then that the root cause of the failure occupying the heart of present day capitalism is that the “owners” not longer are forced to make choices – choices in consumption yes, but not choices that reaffirm their humanity. At this point I must admit that the brain of Warren Buffet is as interesting as the brain of Einstein.

  12. George October 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

    I recently purchased a ceiling fan. I was surprised to find it only had 3 arms to support light bulbs instead of the 4 I was accustomed to. It turns out there is a reason for this. The powers that be have decided that I should not be allowed to have more than 190 watts of bulbs hanging from my ceiling fan. Since 4 x 60 Watts is 240 watts I can no longer purchase a 4 arm ceiling fan even if I plan to use 40 watt bulbs (4 x 40 watts is 160 watts which is less than my allotted 190 watts, so why can’t I have it). If I had known this I would have either chosen a different lighting fixture or added an additional lighting fixture. But I didn’t and can not afford to pay an electrician to punch more holes in my ceiling. I am also considering buying a Chinese 4 arm lighting kit to replace the 3 arm fixture I am forced to use, but that will cost like $50 and who knows how much of my time to install.

    So why are manufactures not free to sell 4 arm ceiling fans, and why am I not free to buy them? It is kind of clear that in the future when I pay for renovations I will just have the electrician put in more ceiling boxes or track lighting, bringing the wattage back up above my allocated 190 watts. So here I am an adult, and it’s like I am back in high school working my way around the silly rules put forth by the old bald guy in the big office. Yes I understand that they want me to use CFLs and LEDs and whatever it is, and that lobbyists lobbied in the lobby, yes I know that, don’t remind me Daddy-O.

    One site explaining something about the EPA and what not.

    http://www.hansenwholesale.com/ceilingfans/with_lights/

    This illustrates points you are not considering. Beyond the waste of resources all these little rules result in the same thing they did in High School, infantilization and humiliation. It also causes a kind of disrespect for the system when you discover these things and figure all sorts of other annoyances must really be caused by the same sorts of silly rules. For some reason I am reminded of the Woody Allen joke “The Russian revolution occurred when they learned that the Czar and the Tsar were the same person”.

    But back to my story, what does Mises, Hayek, Marx, Burke or Hume have to say about the 190 watt maximum wattage of ceiling fans? Just wondering.

    • Chip Daniels October 20, 2012 at 10:07 pm #

      I went to purchase a new pair of shoes; turns out the style of shoes I liked, is no longer offered in any of the stores near me; the gods of the marketplace have deemed them unfashionable, and it is not profitable to serve the dwindling number of customers like me. Why am I not free to buy these unfashionable shoes any more?

  13. Tom Hickey October 18, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    I am a professional philosopher, and this argument about the fundamental “existential” choice being economic is so puerile it is ridiculous. In the history of ethics, East and West, it has never even been raised as an ethical choice, let alone an existential one determinative of human freedom. Mises, Hayek, Friedman were half-baked philosophers and pop psychologists, as was Jeremy Bentham’s version of utility. None of the them make the cut for third-rate philosophers.

    • Hampus October 19, 2012 at 4:23 am #

      Thank you for telling us that you’re a “professional philosopher”, otherwise I never would’ve guessed.

      • philosophyandwaste October 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

        Ironic actually. The way the term “professional” is supposed to carry authority, when it simply refers to one’s place in the economy. I know plenty of professional philosophers who don’t know a thing about love or wisdom.

        In any case, while I agree with the poster’s assessments of Mises, Hayek, etc., I disagree with the idea that economics is fundamental to moral questions. For Plato and Aristotle, it is essential that the good life be released from the necessities of the economy (that is, you need slaves and women to tend to such things). Freedom is only possible once you no longer have to deal with the home (oikos). This idea that morality is only possible in the context of abundance, and that scarcity is a situation of unfreedom, forms an important tradition in philosophical thinking, though one that is drowned out in modernity by the tired dispute between deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics.

        I’ll note further that Socrates’ was no professional, and that this was not simply a contingent fact about his philosophical practice. He recognized that if you lived off your argumentation, your argumentation would have to suit your living. And philosophy is about learning how to die.

      • philosophyandwaste October 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

        note, i meant “i disagree with the idea that economics is NOT fundamental to moral questions”

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg October 25, 2012 at 9:46 am #

        Ha, you’re right, the irony is hilarious.

  14. Howard Burkett October 19, 2012 at 1:34 am #

    “[N]ecessitous men are not, truly speaking, free men, but, to answer a present exigency, will submit to any terms that the crafty may impose upon them.” Vernon v Bethell (1762)

    Hayek is hogwash. Much like “Evolutionary Psychology.”

  15. Douglas D. Edwards October 19, 2012 at 1:55 am #

    Despite its brevity, this post makes a profound diagnosis of one important source of the conservative elements in the most common variant of libertarianism in the USA (right-libertarianism). The morbid valorization of scarcity that you’ve detected in Mises reminds Nick (above) of Heideggerian “being-towards-death”. I was reminded, instead, of a less flattering term of comparison: the fascist slogan ¡Viva la muerte! From a healthier perspective, the vitality of choice would be enhanced, rather than eliminated, by a plethora of options: so many X, so little time. (And even if we someday were to attain immortality, so that no choice of X need be permanent, there would still be the question of which X to choose at the present moment.) Mises, by contrast, thinks choice is more vital when it is constrained by a stringently limited set of options, so that agonizing tradeoffs must be made. With abysmal perversity, Mises thinks the vitality of choice comes not from what (and how much) we can do, but from what (and how much) we cannot do. We show our freedom to choose A by demonstrating our willingness to abandon B forever. This is an axiology for a Hobbesian life (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”) lived in a snakepit of a world dominated by a war of all against all. What kind of sick and twisted person would feel most alive in that environment? Little wonder that the axiology of Mises plays out in Pinochet’s Chile and today’s Honduras.

    Tellingly, such valorization of hardscrabble scarcity is not only absent from left-libertarianism; it is replaced by its polar opposite. Since libertarianism has a left-wing variant (however marginal it may presently be in terms of influence in the larger political sphere; popularity is beside the point), libertarian doctrines common to the Right and Left variants cannot be the sole source of the conservatism inherent in right-libertarianism. Here, however, the stark contrast between the two varieties of libertarianism is consistent with the hypothesis that the valorization of scarcity is a principal conservative element in right-libertarianism.

    The struggle against “artificial scarcity” is as central to the work of left-libertarian theorist Kevin Carson as “the private life of power” is to yours. He is as much a libertarian and an advocate of “free-market economics” as Mises (arguably, more consistently so!), but he denounces scarcity as an evil inflicted on the world by design, for the specific and conscious purpose of subjugating the masses; and he presents the elimination of this artificial scarcity as the centerpiece of his project for the political liberation of humanity. Carson argues in “Yes — the rent really is too damn high!” that historically existing capitalism, which is characterized by pervasive scarcity, is the protectionist antithesis of the free market. In “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin”, he applies this general argument to the specific form of state-enforced monopolist protectionism most critical to capitalist exploitation in the 21st century, namely, so-called “intellectual property”. In “The subsidy of history”, Carson traces the current distribution of private property to past violence and robbery committed in both the private and public sectors, refuting claims that scarcity is an any way natural. (Within a Marxist framework, this kind of thing would be called “primitive accumulation”, though Carson’s presentation is non-Marxist, and this article was published in the libertarian journal The Freeman.)

    The left-libertarian touchstone confirms that investigation of the role of scarcity in right-libertarian ideology is a promising research program, focused on its genuinely conservative elements. The attack on artificial scarcity within left-libertarianism, likewise, promises to shed further light, by contrast, on right-libertarianism, and is also likely to reward in-depth investigation, even by those whose principal interest is in right-libertarianism.

    • Aliothemage October 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

      Carson is an anti-capitalist libertarian

      Now anti-capitalist libertarian is a oxymoron because when you let people to be free they naturally engage in free-market capitalism

      • Douglas D. Edwards October 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

        On the contrary, as Carson shows in the articles linked above (especially “The subsidy of history”), there is nothing “free” about the capitalist market. Carson opposes capitalism precisely because he wants a free market.

        Not that you need a historical argument as sophisticated as Carson’s to recognize that the capitalist game is rigged. High-school history is enough. Even when a particular capitalist’s behavior is exemplary, their ability to make money depends on a pre-existing stock of capital. If you trace back through history where that capital in turn came from, ultimately you arrive at the worst kinds of violent robbery, such as characterized the settlement of the American West, and before that the “Age of Exploration” (really an age of plunder), and before that the empires of the Old World. Capitalists are playing the game with stolen goods, and the resulting distribution of private property has zero moral validity. Carson calls it “the subsidy of history”; Marxists call it “primitive accumulation”. But you don’t need to be either a left-libertarian or a Marxist to see the problem; you only need honesty, basic history, and common sense.

        Even back in the day, when I was a conservative and wanted to believe that the capitalist market was free, that bullshit was too much self-deception for me to swallow. I did believe in capitalism then, but I justified it pragmatically, on the ground that the alternatives were even worse. I didn’t try to pretend that the existing distribution of private property was fair; instead, I maintained that any effort to redistribute wealth more fairly would require totalitarian control over every aspect of life, leading to something like a Stalinist dictatorship. That kind of pragmatic argument for capitalism is at least worthy of a respectful hearing and a thoughtful critique (although I now reject it also). By contrast, the pretense that capitalist markets are “free” deserves only the political-theory equivalent of a barrage of rotten tomatoes.

        People who profess to believe that the capitalist market is “free” don’t need more facts or better reasoning; they need to stop lying to themselves and others.

      • FoucaultLaughs October 19, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

        “Now anti-capitalist libertarian is a oxymoron because when you let people to be free they naturally engage in free-market capitalism”

        Okay :)

  16. jonnybutter October 19, 2012 at 8:18 am #

    If our “ends dominate economy and alone give it meaning,” as Mises says, it’s also true, as Menger discovered, that economy alone is what gives our ends meaning.

    And so continues the identification of proto-political postmodernism in Conservatism. This really is of a piece with CR’s discussion of Burke’s ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful’. We must be *forced* to choose. If we choose really freely, entropy must rush in like air filling a vacuum. (And this seems to be true with both Left and Right PoMo, btw). Just for those who haven’t read it, here’s a relevant quote from Prof. Robin’s ‘Reactionary Mind’, about Burke’s conception of human nature:

    Curiosity leads to weariness, pleasure to indifference, enjoyment to torpor, and imitation to stagnation. So many doors of the psyche open onto this space of inertial gloom we might well conclude that it lurks not at the edge, but at the center of the human condition. Here, in this dark courtyard of the self, all action ceases, creating an ideal environment for “melancholy, dejection, despair, and self-murder.” Even love, the most outward of raptures, carries the self back to a state of internal dissolution. Suicide, it seems, is the inevitable fate awaiting anyone who takes pleasure in the world as it is.

    This is why it’s neither a mistake nor overblown rhetoric to call Conservatism ‘reaction’. It is indeed always essentially reactive, fundamentally passive. In the ideologically conservative mind, human nature isn’t just bad, as the cliche goes, but it’s barely anything at all; human nature is a void. It is essentially negative. We need sex to be ‘dirty’ and proscribed, else it will loose its allure; we need the political economy to be brutal else we will stop trying and excellence will disappear from the world; etc. The problem with this view is that by adopting this practical ideology, the conservative *is* making a positive choice, is – at least tacitly – thinking through the kind of Grand Plan people like Hayak inveigh against. Conservatism is therefore really *pseudo*-helpless. It is itself an *expression* of the entropy it fears, not a sagacious response to that entropy. Conservatism is the self-fulfilling prophesy par excellence.

    • Aliothemage October 19, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

      what,Mises was a libertarian not a conservative

      why do you(leftists) keep confusing libertarianism with a right-wing ideology when libertarianism is beyond the left and right

      conservatives want to control you in the bedroom; liberals want to control you in the board room,libertarians want you FREE

      and yes freedom of choice is the most important freedom

      Fear the Libertarians, They Want to Leave You Alone!

      • David Kaib October 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

        Mostly because we have a model of the world that includes not one person and one institution, but multiple people and multiple institutions, so we don’t imagine that leaving an employer free to do as it pleases makes people free, and it is quite “right.”

        Sometimes a dash of complexity is a good thing.

  17. Ty October 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    We don’t even have to engage in philosophizing to come to this conclusion. We can look at the history of capitalism, which from its beginnings has been one of violence, enclosure and dispossession. People don’t “choose” capitalism — it is imposed on them. If “free markets” and capitalism were inherent in human nature, then the capitalists wouldn’t need the state to force us all into doing it.

  18. Ed scott October 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Corey, that’s what you get from reading those guys, a mind in a strangle hold, seduced by assumptions little by little till the logical conclusion is narrow and ridiculous.
    Here’s an home grown antidote; life’s basic driver is not choice, if you are human; it’s survival and sex. That’s what motivates all but few, despite the layered vanities.
    Imagine a machine with consciousness. Survival and reproduction would have to be programmed into it, then making it akin to human consciousness, but not at all necessary for consciousness
    I think, perhaps, the notion of values and virtue, admired by aristocracies but little possessed, aspired truly to choice made possible by wealth, freed human nature. A man of virtue would hold to his values above the fear of death. That, I think, is what a Gentleman was supposed to be, a cut above human.
    Hayek and the rest are mental wrestlers, sophists.

  19. Harold October 19, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

    Usually, when the ancient moralists talked about choice, it was the choice to give up personal comfort and possessions, and in some cases lives, that they were talking about.

    Socrates chose poverty, as he refused to take money for teaching. He was not a professional philosopher. His profession was that a skilled craftsman (sculptor), though he chose not to practice it, to the chagrin of his wife and children.

    Ironically, however, he (or at least Plato) advocated leaving government to the trained professionals (philosophers).

  20. Ticklemonster October 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Curious little article, with some interesting comments so I’ll add my two pence…

    To start, I always thought Sartre coined the ‘Existentialism’ term despite a few mentioning Heidegger but no matter the details I think ‘existentialist’ literature is really just writing about alienation which may or may not be linked to our present day capitalist social structure. Of course there’s probably something there even if indefinite.

    Here’s Clouscard with his take:

    “Neofascism will be the ultimate expression of libertarian social liberalism, of the unit which starts in May 68. Its specificity holds in this formula: All is allowed, but nothing is possible. The permissiveness of abundance, growth, new models of consumption, leaves the place to the interdict of the crisis, the shortage, the absolute depauperation. These two historical components amalgamate in the head, in the spirit, thus creating the subjective conditions of the neofascism. From Cohn-Bendit (libertarian leftist) to Le Pen (French extreme nationalist), the loop is buckled: here comes the time of frustrated revanchists.”

    To think he made this remark in the 70’s or 80s is impressive by itself. Here we are folks, libertarians are gaining without question, at least in the States.

    The ‘gulag casino’ model is evident to see for anyone with an operating synapse. Incredible how what Marx called ‘commodity fetishism’ has infected the human animal.

  21. Frank Wilhoit October 19, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

    Capitalism may once have had a philosophy, in the true sense of the word (although I doubt it), but it certainly no longer has one. All it has today is a pseudophilosophy that reduces to the core proposition that business should be above the law.

  22. Douglas D. Edwards October 19, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

    Above, I’ve recommended deeper exploration of left-libertarian opposition to artificial scarcity, to illuminate (by contrast) the morbid and perverse right-libertarian fascination with scarcity and with the forced choices that accompany it. But there is also a need for further direct investigation of the right-libertarian perspective, and especially for more detailed documentation of the valorization of scarcity and forced choices by Mises and other right-libertarians. Left-libertarians like Kevin Carson might be able to help with this, in that they are generally familiar with the right-libertarian viewpoint, and especially with issues on which their own position is radically different. As insightful as this post was, it was only a single short paragraph, whereas I can easily envision many lengthy books being written on this topic without a word wasted.

    Another promising topic for exploration would be the role of scarcity in non-libertarian (especially, traditionalist) variants of conservatism. In the past I’ve been critical of your attempts to assimilate libertarianism, in general, to feudalism. But literal, historical European feudalism is widely believed to have been motivated, at least in part, by insecurity, forced choices, and scarcity of resources in the wake of the downfall of the Roman Empire. It would not be surprising to find valorization of that scarcity among apologists for historical feudalism. There is likely to be a general, deep connection, independent of economic libertarianism, between the valorization of scarcity and the advocacy of hierarchy — including that “animus against the agency of the subordinate classes” whose “theoretical voice” you identify conservatism to be (The Reactionary Mind, Introduction, p.7). I had been critical of the fundamental thesis of The Reactionary Mind in part because I did not believe that “animus”, even when present, to be always a deep or fundamental principle of conservatism. Valorized scarcity is a promising candidate for what more fundamental motivation might underlie and explain such an “animus”.

    Yet another good related line of investigation would be exploration of the full extent to which an obsession with scarcity and forced choices distorts our basic moral judgments. I agree with Nick (above) about the pernicious influence of “trolley problems” and other such philosophy-classroom examples of forced choices. Psychologists have used the term “mean world syndrome” to describe the resultant jaundiced perspective. One chapter of The Reactionary Mind was entitled “Easy to be hard”; the mean world syndrome could help to explain why conservatives find hardness so easy. Incidentally, Peter Frase’s discussion of “exterminism” in “Four futures” is a graphic illustration of just how far moral judgments can be distorted by scarcity, although Frase deals only with scarcity as an unavoidable fact in a hypothetical future, not with valorization of scarcity.

    Libertarianism is not an independent motivating factor for conservatism; instead, a conservatism driven by wholly different motives has, in the past century or so, learned to use libertarianism as a form of camouflage. Right-libertarianism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. To understand it, we need to understand what a genuine sheep looks like (left-libertarianism) and also what an undisguised wolf looks like (historical feudalism and its traditionalist conservative legacy).

    • philosophyandwaste October 19, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

      This a fascinating post, Douglas. This is Nick, and I’m glad you are equally disturbed by the role of trolly problems in framing ethical discourse. In your post, I especially liked zeroing in on “the valorization of scarcity” as a fundamental animus of conservative thought. It is the thinking of those who, so wounded by the drought or famine, continually repeat the trauma in the time of plenty. The horrifying thought, for me, is that this constant imposed scarcity in the name of producing a surplus has so damaged our ecology that we are heading for a time of real scarcity — that they will have created for the rest of us the hell they’ve been living in all along.

      Just a thought.

      • Douglas D. Edwards October 19, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

        Yes, I agree that ideologies motivated by valorization of a nonexistent scarcity now pose a risk of imposing on the world a genuine scarcity with truly inescapable hard choices. Nietzsche would have called it a world-historic irony.

        I suspect — but do not claim to know — that “geoengineering” techniques may still be able to save us from such a dismal fate. But I hate to admit this, even as a possibility, because geoengineering tends to be used as an excuse to avoid recognizing the seriousness of the problem. Whether it is technically possible or not, geoengineering will never happen as long as the current capitalist world order is in place.

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg October 25, 2012 at 10:01 am #

        A risk, or a goal?

        As the earlier poster stated, “necessitous men are not, truly speaking, free men, but, to answer a present exigency, will submit to any terms that the crafty may impose upon them.”

        This is not at all disadvantageous to the crafty. The wealthy know that scarcity among the poor is the foundation of all of their power.

    • jonnybutter October 19, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

      yes, interesting Douglas. At least we can establish to the Aliothemage’s of the world that it is right libertarianism, not left, which is the aberration, at least historically.

      #Douglas I had been critical of the fundamental thesis of The Reactionary Mind in part because I did not believe that “animus”, even when present, to be always a deep or fundamental principle of conservatism. Valorized scarcity is a promising candidate for what more fundamental motivation might underlie and explain such an “animus”.

      First: Maybe ‘animus’ can be thought of as ‘project against’ rather than always a seething visceral hatred.

      Also: I wonder if a deep organizing principle and an explanation have to be the same? Couldn’t an animus be a fundamental thing to conservatism even if the true cause of the animus was different from what conservatives said it was? In a sense, you really wouldn’t *expect* them to be the same.

      I think of this animus as being essentially the same in any dominant/subordinate social situation- master/slave, boss/worker, husband/wife, etc. For example, you could say that the real reason Europeans had to invent racisms was because they wanted to plunder the world and be rich, not because they really hated Africans, et. al. But racism is still an organizing principle of imperialism. And the hatred was real enough!

      just a thought

      What’s different to me about modern conservatism (i.e. Burke) vs a traditionalist kind, is the former’s post modern tang: Burke argued, directly and in so many words, that arbitrary power is preferable to rationalized power. It’s breathtaking. Note however, that, as Corey points out so well in his book, conservatives tap into a very deep, very human, very real, well of fear to do it.

  23. John S October 20, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    “And it occurs to me: the moral secret of capitalism, its existential fundament, is not that we are free to choose but that we are forced to choose. Only when we are confronted with the reality of scarcity, says the Austrian economist, only when we must reckon with the finite resources at our disposal, are we brought face to face with ourselves.”

    Do you believe that scarcity is not real? Even if you believe that by taxing the rich we could feed the world many times over, we are still constrained by our finite lives. Every action comes with an opportunity cost–in that sense, life really is all about economics.

  24. Islam Hussein October 25, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    @FoucaultLaughs

    “Hard-core libertarians seem constitutionally unable to understand this point no matter how hard one tries to explain it. “Property is theft” just explodes their brain.”

    It doesn’t. Not really. :) But “property is theft”, theft from whom? It is only theft if you use force to take someone else’s property. It is not if it is unclaimed.

    “It’s strange how the same folks who identify systemic violence when it emanates from the state are willfully blind to the systemic violence borne out of private property and/or any power relations not ‘forced upon one’ by the state.”

    Quite the contrary. I argue above (somewhere) that unclaimed resources are not owned by anybody. An individual, or a voluntary group of them, can lay claim to such unclaimed territory and move on to defend it. But by what right does the State claim ownership of unclaimed territory? The extreme anarchist (free-market) libertarian in me asks that question. The classical liberal in me says that that would be a good role for government to intervene. It claims all unclaimed land and then goes about distributing it (using some mechanism, I prefer the price-based market system), converting it to private ownership.

    “As if everything not done by the state constitutes ‘freedom’. It’s like they only ever read one book. *shrugs*”

    I promise you that I read more than just one book. Oh, and read Marx, Proudhon, etc etc etc… Pick your favorite right or left author and I’ll let you know if I read them or not. :)

  25. Islam Hussein October 25, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    @David Kaib

    “Stuff existed before laws, likely a sense of personal ownership as well. Private property didn’t exist before laws, because property is nothing but a bundle of legal rights. That is, it doesn’t just come later in terms of time, but analytically.”

    Private property as a legal construct evolved, and “evolved” is the right choice of word here in my opinion, as a reflection of this sense of personal ownership that existed before it become codified into law. We can discuss and further reevaluate the law to make it more just, but at heart it is a reflection of an eternal human sentiment towards nonhuman objects that they invested in (labor, time, intellect, emotion, etc.)

  26. Islam Hussein October 25, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    @Blinkenlights der Gutenberg

    “Look, even a modern family will feel violated if they’re evicted for non-payment of rent.”

    How will the owner of the property feel if the property and source of income that they invested in someone is using without the agreed upon contract of use? The owner is the person who rents out the apartment, not the one who has some limited use to it according to contract.

    One can feel the pain of that family, but claiming that that’s the fault of the owner of the property obviates the real problem (the inability of that family to pay the rent).

    “Property means the ability to evict people based on government-recognized titles. It did not exist for cavemen.”

    Oh yes it did. Back then you can be your own government (read “thug”). Government is nothing but an evolution of the rule of thugs with big “guns” who allow themselves to use force to control others into modern day, well, thugs. Except, it is more benign today in its constitutional liberal (broadly defined) form than before. I’ll take the role of this modern thuggery as, hopefully, the enforcer of contract over whatever savagery existed before.

    “For cavemen, there was no such thing as legal eviction vs. illegal eviction. Therefore, there was no such thing as property.”

    Yes, it was eviction all the same, but today there are at least rules for the game. Rules that clearly define what it means to own something, to rent it or to be excluded from it. Before, it was free for all. If you have a bigger weapon, its yours and, then, it doesn’t matter it was legal or illegal. Your physical strength was just enough. Withe legal institution that is private property, merely having a bigger weapon or mastering a larger mafia doesn’t legitimize your taking away anyones property. Nor does it legitimize your evicting someone who abides by the contract that was signed.

    Private property protects renters as much as it protects owners.

    • FoucaultLaughs October 25, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

      ‘Government is nothing but an evolution of the rule of thugs with big “guns” who allow themselves to use force to control others into modern day, well, thugs.’

      Forgive a chuckle on my part.

      For someone else, this is a very strange definition of government. For some, government – and the state as such – is what came to be in exact opposition to ‘thugs’, something that exists solely to curtail the power of ‘thugs’ towards the little people. The one definition of the state – to your libertarian ears this will sound horrible, no less than a recipe for totalitarianism – is that which holds monopoly on the use of force. For a whole tradition of modern thought, starting from Rousseau, and especially for Hegel and Marx, freedom as such is impossible without the state. Freedom, for them, is not the absence of bonds and regulations, but the very complex social structure of rights, laws, regulations, imposed from above, to regulate social reality.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg October 25, 2012 at 10:15 pm #

      You’ve completely failed to read what I said in its context, as a response to you.

      The point of talking about the feeling of being violated is not assigning “fault.” It’s that you tried to naturalize property institutions, based on the assertion that even a caveman had certain feelings of violation.

      That is, your argument was this: “cavemen had feelings corresponding to property rights; therefore, property rights existed in the time of cavemen.”

      What I did was point out how (1) caveman’s feelings of violation don’t actually correspond to legal property rights; and (2) modern people also have feelings of violation — which also don’t correspond to legal property rights.

      Therefore, your argument from feelings of violation totally fails.

      (In fact, the offense felt at the violation of the sanctity of the home is a deep facet of human nature, or even mammalian nature — but also a principle which frequently conflicts directly with property rights. The Koran commands, “do not drive people from their homes.” But it does not say, “do not drive people from their homes, unless they have a mortgage.” Remember: a home is not the same thing as a house. It’s not a title to a property. In order to be your home, you have to “live” there; that is, what makes it a home is that it has a certain relationship to you and to your life. The home a foundation of personal bodily security. Its violation implies a loss of personal security, as well as a loss of the ability to secure one’s personal effects. Thus, if you really want to contrast the “feelings” of the shareholders in the bank who stand to profit from an eviction, with the feelings of the evicted, who suddenly lose everything they own and every semblance of basic stability and safety — then you are really setting yourself up for a terrible argument loss. And please also remember: it was you, not me, who brought forward the principle of “feelings of violation” being capable of justifying a legal regime.)

      But if you aren’t going to keep up, taking context into account, then this is going to be very tedious…

  27. Islam Hussein October 25, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    @philosophyandwaste

    “This is a revealing discussion, and I’m glad you are taking it seriously (by the way, this is Nick from above — my account switched on me).”

    I am enjoying the discussion as well. Thank you.

    “I say “revealing” because it shows that you are committed to a view of history as fundamentally progressive. That is, you endow the word “evolution” with directionality — a sense that is hardly scientific. Indeed, if you start of with the idea that evolution is progressive, all you can ever end up with is a position that affirms the conceptual structures of the present, and looks to any other ways of doing things that may have occurred in the past as a primitive history that has been discarded.”

    That is true to a large extent. But I have to thoughts on that. Firstly, what else do we have? What other than the actions and reactions of people who existed before us, and other than the outcomes that materialized to justify how we read and interpret history? You have a different view of history, then act, and I will react, and let us see how history will evolve. Then we, more likely our grandchildren, will read and interpret history based on that. If that history shows that private property is an unnecessary construct, then I sure hope my grandchildren will stand up for whatever alternative construct (or non-construct) that emerges.

    Secondly, the way history unfolds is a reflection of some subtle features of the human nature (not that that is uniformly and identically existent in all humans, but that most humans have it, or something like that). When I look at history, I see an evolution, yes progress, towards overall betterment and more freedom of humans. In seeking that freedom, we sometimes err individually and collectively, but then we learn and adjust. This evolutionary process reflects a desire to be more secure, to be more “free” (“free” from others’ control of our lives, except for those we choose to allow to influence our lives), to be more at ease with constraints, especially scarcity that exists in nature.

    “In response to your first question: not all concepts of property have been premised on the right to exclude”

    Of course.

    “and very few have included the right to appropriate the products of others.”

    Definitely, and that’s a libertarian value that existed in pre-modern times.

    “The English commons, which were enclosed from the 13th century on, seem to have employed a concept of property derived from one’s own labor. This was premised on no one having the right to exclude others from laboring on the land. The land being held in common was the condition of property.”

    We can discuss the merits and conditions in which commons can work, and there are situations they can and these do **not** necessarily violate libertarian principles. I love Elinor Ostrom on the subject. Yes, there is room for the commons even in a libertarian dreamland. :)

    “Further, no one in that concept had the “right” to take the products of another’s labor (though indeed, it was taken from them under threat of violence. That is, it was exploitation that followed from domination). Now was there a right to exclude? If by that you mean a right to exclude others from the products of your own bodily labor or from your household, sure. But this exclusion played a role within a context that was premised upon the limitation of such assertions of property.”

    No contest there.

    “By contrast, what you’ve outlined is a vision of history that would see that as simply one step along the way in the progressive (dare I say dialectical? In any case teleological) development of the concept of property, as if the changes were premised on the unfolding of truth rather than the violent destruction of those forms of life.”

    Not sure I agree with that. I will need to give it some further thought.

  28. Islam Hussein October 25, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    @Blinkenlights der Gutenberg

    “People have a natural sense of property today, which is definitely at odds with the legal concept of property. You’re falsely conflating them.”

    Why do you say that I do?

    “You can steal my seat, but I can’t have the police evict you.

    You can steal my girlfriend, but I can’t sue you for damages.”

    Of course not. Because you neither own that theater seat, nor that girlfriend.

    “People who live in apartments will talk about “my apartment” as if it was property, even though they are not legal owners.”

    Of course they are not. It is theirs to some extent defined in the rental agreement/contract. That’s all. But they are not full owners of the property. And by renting it out, bound by the written contract with the tenant, the “owner” doesn’t have unrestricted access/ownership to the apartment anymore.

    “Legal property has to do with police enforcement, not with an intuitive “sense of ownership.” The intuitive “sense of ownership” is often in conflict with legal property. Don’t conflate them.”

    Trust me, I am not. :)

    • FoucaultLaughs October 25, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

      “theft from whom? It is only theft if you use force to take someone else’s property”

      Like I said, it explodes your brain. You cannot possibly conceive that property may not be anyone’s to claim, and forgive me but I think you are bluffing when you say you have any notion of commons. (This is why, by your logic, a nice little company would take better care of, say, national parks, than the state: oh, imagine, what utilitarian wonders the company would squeeze out of it, logging timber, putting a Starbucks between two giant sequoyas…) There has to be a “whom”. If a company claims a lake in Guatemala and starts charging water to the nearby inhabitants, who is the thief?

      “I argue above (somewhere) that unclaimed resources are not owned by anybody. An individual, or a voluntary group of them, can lay claim to such unclaimed territory and move on to defend it. But by what right does the State claim ownership of unclaimed territory?”

      This is a nice example of the deadlock you are experiencing. You can not possibly conceive that not being owned by anybody is exactly the condition of existence for something being a “common”: if it doesn’t belong to anybody, it means it belongs to all. The condition of its not being a property of anyone in particular is EXACTLY that which makes it a property of all. The State claims ownership EXACTLY to keep it that way (since the State is, or at least should be, the extension of the will of the not-one, the ‘all’). Again, national parks are a nice metaphor for it. The State owns it exactly because national parks belong to everyone who lives in its polis. The State owns it PRECISELY so it won’t be private property. That’s why it’s called public property – it belongs to all and NO ONE can claim to own it by him-her-it-self. It can not be sold, because it doesn’t belong to anyone in particular – it belongs to The State – meaning, it belongs to all.

      “I promise you that I read more than just one book. Oh, and read Marx, Proudhon, etc etc etc… Pick your favorite right or left author and I’ll let you know if I read them or not. :)”

      When I was a small pupil in a public school, the teacher told me to differentiate ‘reading’ with ‘reading with understanding’. If one reads “On the Jewish Question” or the first chapter of Capital on commodity fetishism, or on ‘primitive accumulation’, or ponders enough on Proudhon’s quote, one would have to grapple much more engagingly with its arguments concerning The State, the nature of property and social distribution. But this is why God gave us some time, no? To isolate oneself with books on economy and Hegel’s logic and, as Lenin would have put it, “learn learn learn.”

  29. Free Market Capitalist October 31, 2012 at 5:10 am #

    Because we have fatally compromized our engine of growth, we find many of the problems which have presently come to a head to be intractable. In the absence of planned annual growth, we will encounter, sooner than necessary, the fate of all mature capitalist economies

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