Sunday, October 23, 2005

Propertarianism IV: the only (if crackpot) solution

In my last post,  I spoke of how it is human nature for dogmatists and aristocrats to join forces, finding lovely phrases and justifications for taking over the machinery of the state and then using it (and the distraction of war) to enforce a pyramidal hierarchy of privilege. Suppressing true markets and finding excuses to quash competition from the lower orders. Taxing everybody but themselves. Granting themselves contracts and/or even gifts from the state treasury. Justifying secrecy and closed courts and cronyism and evasion of every kind of accountability.

Hence my suggestion that transparency should precede any push for universal property law. The people of the world will (rightfully) be suspicious that "property rights" enthusiasts are allies of the "propertarians" who want the social pyramid back.

Right now, there is a weird alliance among "social" conservatives, "aristocratic" conservatives, and "market" conservatives who, in fact, have very little common ground when it comes to their vision of a future world. (see: for a poll or "questionnaire on ideology" that is designed to draw our such dismal, ill-considered alliances into stark contrast. Should you ally yourself with someone who uses similar terminology for surfaces, but has a totally different long term goal than you do?)

Right now, the very word "conservative" is used to mask the fact that one group wants dynamic markets and measures our success according to the rate of small business startups, vigorous investment in new business opportunities, social mobility for those who exhibit honest ambition and hard work, and rapid rewards for innovation. Sooner or later, champions of markets will realize that these traits are being systematically quashed by others who use "conservative" to mask a different agenda. The old agenda that destroyed every other market system on record.

Markets are the OPPOSITE of aristocratism. When we acknowledge this, "property rights" can be detached from "propertarianism" for good,

One sign of this will be the push for transparency... the trait that feeds science, democracy, justice and markets. The trait without which they all die.

Let's try a thought experiment. Suppose it were declared, by worldwide treaty, that everybody who owns something must step forward and avow that "I own that". Would this harm markets and/or genuine property rights?

How could it? The whole theory of capitalism is based upon making informed deals, whether you are rich or poor, based upon reliably enforceable contracts, entered into by knowledgable parties. The parties need not be equally rich or empowered for this to work! (An oversimplifying misconception of the left.) Economists have long held that a well-informed and legally free peasant should be able to dicker for his labor and at least gradually bargain for an improved situation arising from that labor. Even if you are a social darwinist, you should at least agree that all parties should be well-informed and legally free.

(Ask your libertarian friends if they would have supported southern slave owners or King Louis. The myopic temporal shortsightedness of, say, the Cato Institute, is mind boggling.)

If world market capitalism cannot be a process based upon fair and open knowledge, plus equality under law, then the people defending it are hypocrites. If they are not hypocrites, then there should be no problem with every person on Earth knowing who owns what, so that all decisions can be well-informed. (It could be accompanied by all sorts of amnesties and legal assurances against confiscation.)

Indeed, this is the one way to prove that right-handed solutions, empowering all the world's people to participate in fair markets, can engender as much progress as any solution offered by the left.

Heck, if that happened, there would be one staggeringly huge side effect. There'd be lots of UNCLAIMED property. The amount might be so huge that we could do without any taxes, worldwide, for a decade! The undermining of criminal gang wealth, alone, could make the whole thing worthwhile. (Drug dealers and state-corruption kleptocrats would not dare to openly claim most of what they've grabbed.)

Yes, there would also ensue a decade of frenetic lawsuits, where openly-avowed claims overlap. But would not that very process establish the property law we all want to see in those nations?

If that happened, there would be no need - at least on the first order - to confiscate any legitimate property from the honest rich. Moreover, the world's poor would see in this an act of tremendous good faith. One that could thereupon smoothly flow into genuine property rights for everybody, including the poor. One that might also help to forestall any slide into class warfare, a disease that feeds upon resented unfairness, as much as on actual disparity of wealth.

Yes, it sounds like science fiction. But is it really all that implausible? Simply to declare, "you all have five years to openly declare that you own what you own." How is that any more unfair to the rich man who must acknowledge that he owns a leaky tanker, than it is to a poor seamstress who must admit that she owns a leaky latrine?

Sorry to have gone on. But this needed some analysis. In any event, I think that it is essential to emphasize this point. It is one thing to point out the genuine conceptual flaws of the socialists "left". I agree for the most part. Marxism is as loony as Rand-ism. A sci fi tale about some other species. Not humanity.

Still, it is another matter to utterly ignore the fantastic hypocrisy of the "right"... to deny that aristocratism is a natural human evil that killed nearly every truly competitive market - and freedom itself - in nearly every human society.

It is the great enemy of the enlightenment and of genuine property rights. Show your honesty by facing that fact. Dealing with it.

And see clearly the problem that lies before us... a new church-state-gentry alliance that has reared up to assail our Enlightenment, yet again.

return to Part 1 of this series


Mabus said...

Well...this is embarrassing.

I had spent all that time trying to figure out how to make high estate taxes more workable. They're useful for keeping rightfully-earned property out of the hands of do-nothing or incompetent heirs, but besides tending to disrupt legitimate intergenerational partnerships (a relatively tractable problem--just set the exemption level right), they seem fairly easy to evade. Of course, anyone can die unexpectedly, but who wouldn't transfer most of their property to their intended heirs in old age to sneak it "under the wire"?

And here Dr. Brin comes up with something much simpler and entirely fair. I'm not entirely clear about how this could be accomplished on an international scale, however. I can think of quite a few government leaders who would refuse, and I don't think many countries have much appetite for war these days, just to get them to comply.

Maybe I should pack it in. My imagination has shut down prematurely.

Palliard said...

There'd be lots of UNCLAIMED property.

No, there wouldn't. Every square inch of the surface of the earth above sea level (and significant chunks below sea level) is already claimed by someone.

Where I live, most of the land is claimed by the federal government and administered by the Bureau of Land Management. You cannot acquire land from the BLM because they don't sell it, in fact they are trying to acquire more.

Clearly establishing who owns what would have some useful benefits, but it's not a magic bullet.

Anonymous said...

In America, income tax returns have much the same effect, however full of fiction they may be.

David Brin said...

Mabus avoidance of the Estate Tax through certain legitimate means is not my worry. In fact, if the government collects ZERO estate tax that's fine by me... if the avoidance is all philanthropic donations and foundations. I believe capitalism-creativity can extend after death. A person who has accumulated vast capital through delivery of efficient goods or services may be JUST the right person to fill a niche on the philanthropic horizon too!


Evasion by gifting pre-death is a problem. But those gifts should simply be treated as income and taxed as such.

Palliard I think you haven't any idea how bad records are in many parts of the world. Nobody has a clue who actually owns most ships registered in Liberia, for example. One spilled oil all over Brittany a few years ago and the French could find nobody to sue.

Indeed, vast wealth is unattributed and masked. I think the ten year estimate of no taxes might be very mild. No legit welath need be confiscated, we'd get honestly, accountability and no taxes for years.

And third world govts that refused to go along? That sure won't look good to their native populations.

Steve (not the blogger) said...

Dr. Brin,

Would the following occur?

-Those with info-tech finding unclaimed bits of property/land and registering them. If I could program, I could make a mint just selling a database miner to find properties like these. How is legitimate ownership decided? How is the project communicated so as to be fair?

-Native or aboriginal claims on, say, Manhattan or New Zealand.

-What about Cuba or China where it would only be the government claiming everything "for the people?"

You say, "And third world govts that refused to go along? That sure won't look good to their native populations." Well to me it doesn't seem that they care very much about that now anyway. Will this be sufficient to drive an overthrow? I don't think so - people in some of those states have had it drummed into their heads that they are nothing, and I can't see that they would have the resources to prevail for possession against some kleptocrat.

Anonymous said...

Well, first of all, capitalism, regardless of what behavior it is assigned to, essentially refers to the strategy of setting aside some current asset for future use to create additional assets. The alternatives to this strategy are to consume all assets on the spot or let some go to waste--i.e. be utilized by some other species or just plain rot.

Secondly, because someone cannot KNOW what he has not yet experienced, the relationship between seller (who knows what he has and wants to get rid of it) and buyer (who expects that he might like what's on offer) is never going to be equal. So, the primary function of society is to assure that the seller is honest. The suggestion that an unsatisfactory transaction is the "fault" of the buyer who failed to inform himself properly is just not valid logically. You can't blame someone for not knowing something it's impossible for him to know.

Thirdly, I perceive a flaw in your argument related to the fact that acquisition is not necessarily driven by the desire to HAVE, but by the desire to acquire. In other words, it's the process which is particularly attractive to some people and, sometimes, it's simply the process of depriving someone else of acquiring something that, in the end, the acquirer ends up not even wanting. America is littered with abandoned property which the "owners" have no interest in using, but don't want others to have.

Anonymous said...

"Should you ally yourself with someone who uses similar terminology for surfaces, but has a totally different long term goal than you do?"

Dunno. I think the weird alliance is probably a reaction to something all three groups are aligned *against*, rather than their examining what their allies are actually for.

I'll offer also, if this essay goes to publication, that "myopic temporal shortsightedness" is redundant phrasing, since myopia means shortsightedness. "temporal myopia" might be a better way to put it; YMMV.

And, unless it's in there and just forgotten because of the way the essay is presented as four blogentries, I think a good deliniation between "social", "market", and "aristocratic" conservatives might be useful.

Which leads me to another thought: is there an "aristocratic leftist"?

Anonymous said...

I've noticed, among some but not all libertarian friends, a kind of snorting viscious admiration for the rich and powerful.

Not just any rich people; they have to be pricks. The last century's Carnegie. Today's Mellon-Scaife. Larry Ellison.

I think this attitude is rooted in ingrained, human social instincts. We are egotistical, egalitarian, and hierarchical all at once. This results in all sorts of behavioral tendencies and beliefs, one of which is bully worship. By some sort of twisted logic, freedom and liberty achieve their highest expression by letting the rich and powerful do what they want.

Would Ayn Rand's "classics" -- Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead -- be anywhere near as popular if they didn't star uncompromising ubermensch?

There's also the freaky worship and admiration of large corporations. Why do Conservative pundits feel the need to rush to the aid of Wal-Mart when citizens protest when the company tries to open stores in their neighborhood?

Why do a lot of gamers and SF fans I know slaver over the concept of private corporate armies? There's something really creepy about that. Geeks and nerds and armchair generals getting all excited about the notion of corporate feudalism.


David Brin said...

There sure the hell ARE "aristocratic leftists". Just look at the snooty, smarmy, smug and insuferably superior professors in nearly every lit, English, communications, philosophy and humanities department acros the USA.

(Ironically, there are no intellectuals on the planet more "anti-science fiction" than these guys.)

Sure there are exceptions. But these crypto-Marxist intellectual thugs are prize candidates to have blood work done in my campaign to see self-righteous indignation studied as society's worst and most harmful drug addiction.

Yeah, the "postmodernists" we were discussion here a couple of months ago.

These folks would be our tyrants if they could. Indeed, their rationalizations are even more sanctimonious than the worst right wing moralists. Because they parasite upon the genuine suffering of porr and oppressed people all over the world -- while in fact doing very little for those people.

The horrible Senator Frist has at least flown all over the world giving free hands on medical care... many sancto-apocalypts do this, top their credit. Perhaps a higher fraction than left profs who have joined the Peace Corps.

Oh, without any doubt I worry far far far less about these lefty imbecilles - powerless and pathetic and despised even by their students - than I do about super-empowered righty imbecilles who are draining the treasury, opening the borders, lobotomizing science, purging the Officer Corps, ruining our readiness ,spewing on our allies, frittering away the influence of Pax Americana and treating our military as toy soldiers. And sending us back toward an era of Class Warfare that none of us really wanted ever to see again.

But have no doubt that many of them would be commisars, if they could. Others, well-intentioned (if indignation junkies) would be shot BY the commissars, first thing.

Know this. Make your conservative friends know that you know it. Make them see that you share their wariness toward these morons of the left...

...while you MAKE them see that these ineffectual lefty twerps ARE NOT THE THREAT TO CIVILIZATION THAT WE NEED TO BE WORRIED ABOUT, RIGHT NOW.

Promise them you will donate to Campus Libertarians... if only THEY will stand up and do their duty. Save American conservatism. Save America. Save the world. By admitting that it's their side's turn to go utterly mad.

David Brin said...

And yes! That howl of mine above was worthy of indignation-addiction blood work!

My one claim to sanity ans satiability is NOT that I do not wallow in selfrighteous snits! My hope for a bye comes from evidence (slim perhaps) that I have the saving grace of perspective. Even (maybe?) a sense of humor about my own indignation.


But sometimes exclamation points FEEL so damn good....

Anyway, here's a piece of news that gives us hope. Maybe the Modernist Conservatives are getting ready to stand up, after all.:

"The Bush administration is bracing for a powerful new attack by Brent Scowcroft, the respected national security adviser to the first
President George Bush. Scowcroft's critique of both of the style and the substance of the Bush White House is slated to appear in Monday's edition of the New Yorker magazine. The new attack comes hard on the heels of the denunciation of "the cabal around Cheney's office" by Col. Larry Wilkerson, the chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell in a widely reported speech to the New American Foundation in Washington this week. Wilkerson said the national security decision-making process was effectively "broken.""

Anonymous said...

A right-wingy news site claims that a gag-ordered whistle-blower has dirt that could hurt Bush and scuttle the Miers nomination:

This is interesting because:

i) Right-wingy news sites are now licking their chops over the possibility of juicy dirt on Miers and Bush.

ii) AAAAIIIIEEEEGHHH!!! The lottery- technology firm that requested the gag order, GTECH, was one of the "vice" companies that I bought stock in when Bush was elected in 2004.

My cynical theory that casino and lottery firms would do well was correct; I've quite well with most of them. I should have suspected that the nature of GTECH's business lent itself to corruption and dirty deals.


Mabus said...

Quoth Anonymous: Dunno. I think the weird alliance is probably a reaction to something all three groups are aligned *against*, rather than their examining what their allies are actually for.

My investigations indicate that two of the three types--"market" and "social" conservatives--are more closely aligned than it initially appears.

The ancestral social conservatives were the American "free churches" (my term--I'm not sure it's correct in a scholarly sense) that sprang up in tandem with democracy. Just as Americans in general opposed European monarchy, the "free churches" opposed European state churches for more or less the same reasons and organized themselves in a relatively democratic and decentralized fashion, as against the priestly order that dominated Europe.

The catch is that while American government eventually had to centralize to meet various problems, the free churches did not. Their descendants, most of which are now fundamentalist, still tend to fixate on centralized governments as dangerously powerful, and by doing so they damage the restraining influences on large corporations. From this somewhat skewed perspective, a government strong enough to restrain Halliburton or Enron is also strong enough to crush Joe Average utterly. Which is true, but not very helpful when Halliburton is also strong enough to crush Joe Average, wants to do so, and has no one to stop him.

Nicq MacDonald said...

"Why do a lot of gamers and SF fans I know slaver over the concept of private corporate armies? There's something really creepy about that. Geeks and nerds and armchair generals getting all excited about the notion of corporate feudalism."

The right-wing militia nut who salivates over the possibility of takeover by socialists so that they can go put their marksmanship practice to use has it's reflection in the left-wing (or, in many cases, libertarian) cyberpunk. You know, the guy with the leather and vynil wardrobe who has a black belt in at least one form of martial arts, collects swords (and often guns as well- the "right" doesn't have a monopoly on gun collection, at least in my experience), yaks about "heavy crypto" and "cracking mainframes" and has read way too many Bruce Sterling and Bill Gibson novels?

That description, or something close to it, matches about two-thirds of my friends- and myself as well.

Honestly, being a "runner"- revolting against an evil, oppressive aristo-capitalist system- is much more interesting than writing code for commercial web sites, training dolts in how to use microsoft's latest software package, or grinding out business reports all day. What young cyberpunk doesn't dream of being Hiro Protagonist or Molly Mirrorshades? They all (myself included) secretly- or not-so-secretly- hope that everything will go to hell so that they can have some cyberpunk fun- that maybe their hours in the dojo or grinding code, building wiretaps and working out- might finally be put to some exciting use? That maybe the swords and guns they've collected, the anarchist's cookbooks and housebreaking equipment might finally pay itself off?

It's obvious how such a creature is created: ironically enough, pop culture breeds them. Take a kid, raise him on a steady diet of Star Wars, The Matrix, Fight Club, D&D, Final Fantasy, Marilyn Manson, KMFDM... boom. Talk about an indignation junky- a kid who is completely sure that his society is a corrupt illusion that exists merely to bore him to tears and insult his intelligence. Now drop said kid (if he made it through school without going on a shooting spree) into the so-called 9 to 5 working world... it all begins to look very gnostic. A boring world of papers and paychecks vs. an exciting one of blazing guns, screaming music and sexy outfits. A more interesting "reality" behind the dull routine.

Just one problem- that dull routine world is actually fairly benevolent. It doesn't take long to realize that carpel tunnel syndrom beats gunshot wounds- and nothing is as sexy as it looks in the movies.

But it doesn't stop us from dreaming... and wishing that the companies might become a little more malevolent, that the world might look a little more like Neuromancer or Snow Crash, and that a babe in black vynil might show up and claim that one of us is the one...

John David Galt said...

What you describe as the "property rights" view is exactly the libertarian view, shared by all libertarians to the extent that they are really libertarians.

What you describe as the "propertarian" view does exist, but not in the liberty movement. It is simply the right-wing version of "gimme-ism", just as welfare-statism is the left-wing version. There is no fundamental difference between those two; each wing is merely out to appeal to its voting bloc by giving them goodies at everyone's expense.

But what I find really outrageous is your claim that somebody is trying to bring back aristocracy (and maybe slavery, or so you have hinted).

The only thing I see in our government that looks even a little bit like aristocracy is left-wing: the so-called profession of urban planning. Both HUD and the local and regional planning agencies it mandates are effectively owned and operated by the owners of existing homes for the real purpose of keeping those homes astronomically expensive (and letting their owners keep using other people's unbuilt land as "viewshed" without paying for it) by severely limiting the number and quality of new homes that can be built. (The environmental and animal rights movements, and the phony science they promote, are primarily the propaganda arm of this movement.)

So far, the only "evidence" you've presented for the existence of a pro-aristocracy movement is the bald assertion that anyone who doesn't see it isn't worth talking to -- which, of course, is the ad-hominem fallacy. Pardon me for not being persuaded by it.

Would you kindly name one proposed law which would move us even a little toward aristocracy, so we can understand what you mean by it?