James Leroy Wilson's blog

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Equality, Exploitation, and Freedom

Ideological differences are often described as a struggle between liberty and equality. The primary concern about the inequality, however, is exploitation. Political problems boil down to four questions:
1. When does private property itself become monopolistic and coercive - i.e., exploitive?

You can pick the apple from the tree, and it's yours. But can you pick more than your share and sell the rest? Can you pick it clean? Can you claim ownership of the tree and use force to keep others from touching it? Do you have a right to chop the tree down?

Do you have the right to claim ownership of a mountain pass, even if you were there first?

If land and resources are held by the few, they could coerce and exploit the rest. But if there's no private property at all, there is no growth, no improvement, no civilization.

2. When is the individual self-responsible, and when is he manipulated by more powerful forces into making decisions that hurt him and benefit them?

People with greater power and knowledge can take advantage of others in inferior positions. A man who charms a lonely widow and walks away with her cash may be a jerk, but not as bad as if he tricks a mildly retarded man into parting with his money. We don't hold children to be as responsible as adults. In what circumstances should individuals be responsible for their own behavior, and when should they be considered victims duped into giving their consent to something against their own interests? Thus drug dealers are treated harshly by society; they are perceived to prey on the young and the already-addicted. And many people believe that no woman would ever voluntarily go into pornography or prostitution; they are thought to be the victims of those who use them, who should be punished.

3. When must individual and tribal/national interests give way to universal humanitarianism and morality?

We tend to believe that moral law applies to everyone the world, but our loves and loyalties are far more local. Under what circumstances should we sacrifice for the rights of far-away peoples, and when should we mind our own business? When should we be idealists, and when should we be relativists?

4. Who decides questions 1-3?

Often, two or more questions apply to the same issue. Take the hysteria against smoking in restaurants, bars, even apartments. The "dangers" of second-hand smoke are minimal. However, there is a general backlash against Big Tobacco, and restrictions on smoking is a way to "stick it to them."

From where does this hatred of Big Tobacco stem?

1. Dating back to slave days, the tobacco industry has been the beneficiary of stolen land and exploitive practices which today's major companies have inherited.
2. The power of manipulation through advertising has deliberately lured new generations of young people not mature/responsible enough to make rational decisions regarding smoking.
3. The nicotine content has allegedly been spiked, making it harder to quit.
4. For a long time, Big Tobacco denied the dangers of smoking, or at least evaded the questions. Big Tobacco executives are viewed as the moral equivalent of criminals.

Because individual responsiblity is denied (question 2), private property rights (the freedom to set one's own smoking policy) are denied (question 1). Smokers are the victims of evil Big Tobacco. To punish Big Tobacco, we must make it ever-more inconvenient to smoke.

Moreover, those who work in smoke-filled environments are deemed to be exploited by the economic system; if more and better jobs were available, surely they would work somewhere else. They have "no choice" but to work in smoke-filled areas and put themselves at risk to the dangers of second-hand smoke. They must be protected; smoking must be banned in those workplaces.

The War in Iraq relates to question 3. In one sense, we are "humanitarians," in another, we are tribalists. That is, America has the right to invade sovereign countries and overthrow foreign governments on the grounds of "humanitarian intervention." Why is America uniquely qualified to favor war over peace and meddle in other countries affairs - powers we wouldn't want other countries to exercise over us? The reason boils down to, we're Americans. We're the exception. Our "tribe," our nation, gets to play by special rules because we're superior.

In any case, these concerns about economic exploitation based on private property rigths, moral and economic exploitation by people in positions of authority, and conflict based on cultural differences will persist. Many people who advance un-libertarian solutions do not think of themselves as anti-liberty, they are just concerned by the exploitation that results from inequalities in property, power, and culture. They don't believe that any market can really be "free" or result in just outcomes, since real-world societies of the future will always inherit the real-world inequalities and injustices of the past and present.

I think this is why, no matter how strong an argument we may make against, say, the minimum wage, or our drug laws, a large number of people will shake there head even when they can't mount a rational rebuttal. I believe that, at heart, they believe that individuals are just too weak, and the forces of injustice too strong, for libertarian solutions to work.

I'm not saying that they're right, I'm just saying there's a reason why it's hard to persuade them.

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