Sunday, 25 November 2007

The sophistry of liberty

Over at the Devil's Kitchen, where nuance fears to tread, we are presented with nothing less than the philosophy of liberty [hat-tip] - in a Flash animation at that. (What a shame it is that, limited by the technology and cultural expectations of the day, Mill and Locke had to express their thoughts in full sentences, even paragraphs. What could they have achieved with access to Java?) The animation is as tedious and painful as all Flash animations, albeit a little trippier than most. Happily, however, our guide to this most subtle of political philosophies has been grafted into plain text, to ease the path of understanding.

The whole thing starts with one of the most astonishing assumptions ever taken as an axiom:

"You own your life"

The great thing about axioms of course, is that technically you don't have to do anything as boring as support them with evidence. However, anyone who might question this bizarre assertion is immediately warned of the perils with which they flirt:

"To deny this is to imply that someone else has a higher claim on your life than you do."

Dash it all, I was all set to argue the point, but now I realise I might as well just fetter myself and be done. What nonsense. To deny this axiom is simply to reject the absurd conflation of ownership with existence. I live my life. I am my life. But to claim that I "own" my life, presumably in similar fashion to the way I own this PC (which I bought), or my copy of Luther Bisset's "Q" (which was a gift) is meaningless. These things I can buy or sell, lend or rent, donate to charity or just leave in the street. There is no meaningful way in which I can do any of the above with my life. (We might talk, for example, of the hero of some last-ditch stand "selling his life dearly" but this is simply a metaphor meaning "He killed quite a lot of people before he died."). My life and I are inseparable concepts and to reduce what is not only my existence but my essence to the status of a tradeable trinket is to make a category error. Birth certificates are emphatically not title deeds.

So why start with such a debatable axiom? Because the goal here is to frame the entire conversation in terms of property rights. Now, property rights are without doubt an important facet of any society but making them the sole underpinning of your understanding of human relations leads to some very odd contortions and conclusions. To take a limited sample:

To lose your liberty is to lose your present

What? If I get kidnapped I cease to exist in the here and now? But maintain, presumably, a future in which (if never released) I will never have a present? It would make for some interesting thriller dialogue: "If you don't pay the ransom, you'll never see him again - unless you have an inter-dimensional wormhole handy." "No, to be honest, while I know you need a proof of life, a photo with today's paper is going to be rather tricky".

Two people who exchange property voluntarily are both better off, or they wouldn't do it.

Only they may rightfully make that decision for themselves.

Here are least we move away from arrant nonsense into the realm of the poorly thought through. Two stupid people who exchange property voluntarily can easily end up worse off. Or one intelligent person could convince an idiot to make a bad decision. Not by doing anything as crude as lying (or "initiating fraud" to use the technical term); just using the wide range of persuasive techniques that we as a society have honed over the centuries to part fools from their money. To paraphrase Lister, even intelligent people buy cinema hot-dogs for a second time. But it's the second assertion which really highlights a lack of serious thought: there are whole classes of people capabable of exchanging property voluntarily who must not be allowed to do so. Let's just pick one: minors. The kiddies, bless their little hearts.

Now ordinarily, we wouldn't have much to talk about in terms of kids exchanging property - they haven't got any worth speaking of, and if they want to blow their pocket-money on cheap tat, who cares? But remember, these kids own their lives. Can they consent to medical treatment, or refuse it? Remember again, the "product of their liberty and life is their property". So can they agree to go work down t'pit? Basically, they can't consent to anything. Which is fine in my worldview, but in the "philosophy of liberty" to lose control of one's life is nothing short of slavery. That's right: all parents are slaveowners. You suspected it when you were 14, and now you know. Either that, or this "philosophy" is a load of old tosh.

Tentatively accepting the latter hypothesis, what's the point? Well, we come to that in the next set of "conclusions" - or to be more accurate, non-sequiturs. Here's fun! See how many of these statements you can relate to the axiom "You own your life" and how many to the attitude "Taxes suck and I hate poor people".

The initiation of force or fraud to take property is theft.

It is the same whether these things are done by one person acting alone, by the many acting against the few, or even by officials in fine hats.

Thus you have no right to designate some other person to initiate force against others on your behalf.

Regardless of the imaginative labels for their behaviour, or the number of people encouraging them, officials have no right to murder, to enslave or to steal.

Success and failure are both the necessary incentives to learn and grow.

Evil does not arise solely from evil people, but also from good people who tolerate the initiation of force as a means to their own ends.


You see? You thought you lived in a democratic society, which had collectively decided to a) submit to the will of the electorate and b) empower the government to collect taxes to provide a safety net for poor people , but no! You have empowered fine-hatted governmental officials to deprive others of their justly earned property; you have tolerated the initiation of force for your own ends . Sure, you might have termed this "not letting the children of the poor starve" but that is just an imaginative label for theft. In doing so, you have allowed evil to arise. (You didn't even chant in a graveyard at midnight, either.) What is perhaps worse: you have deprived the poor of their glorious failure, from which they could learn and grow. (The poverty of others is always a noble and inspiring thing, isn't it?) Now, rather than becoming hedge-fund managers, the poor are going to merely feed their children and stagnate.

This is not a philosophy. It is a collection of category errors, vacuous truisms, non-sequiturs and unjustified assumptions intended to dress up as lamb the same old stale right-wing mutton.

4 comments:

MJW said...

All you seem to have done is put up a series of straw men designed to refute liberal notions that human relations should be consensual. As for the idea of a safety net that’s the biggest straw man of the lot, why would a safety net, something which implies a minimum level of safety, necessitate statism? Do you actually want a safety net, or are you looking for something closer to equality of outcome because they are not the same thing?

p said...

You wrote: You thought you lived in a democratic society, which had collectively decided to a) submit to the will of the electorate and b) empower the government to collect taxes to provide a safety net for poor people

The old 'social contract' argument. And when did we sign?

ph said...

"You own your life" means no more than that your life belongs to you. If your life doesn't belong to you who does it belong to? Like it or not people have been and continue to be traded as objects and consequently the distinction you make between your life and yourself is meaningless.If you do not believe that peoples lives belong to themselves on what basis would you object to slavery?

"You thought you lived in a democratic society, which had collectively decided to a) submit to the will of the electorate and b) empower the government to collect taxes to provide a safety net for poor people ,"

This phrase begs so many questions as to be almost beyond comment. Our society is not democratic in any meaningful way. Merely changing a few people at the top every four or five years, in the absence of any real difference between political parties, does not a democracy make. Ordinary people know this perfectly well which is why increasing numbers of them don't bother to vote. They know that the real power lies further down the chain with doctors, social workers, policemen and other petty officials who are not accountable to those they are meant to serve.

By poor people I presume you mean the relatively worse off, as absolute poverty disappeared some time ago.Maybe 'poor people' would prefer less interference from an overbearing state, that takes almost half their income and provides 3rd rate services in return. The fact that people on the minimum wage have to pay income tax is ridiculous, for example.

Stuart said...

"But to claim that I "own" my life, presumably in similar fashion to... things I can buy or sell, lend or rent, donate to charity or just leave in the street... There is no meaningful way in which I can do any of the above with my life"

Not to disagree with the thrust of your argument, but:

Lend: volunteer
Rent: Have a job
Donate to charity: volunteer for charitable work
Buy/Sell: A bit trickier. Thankfully.
Leave on street: Commit suicide?

Also,
"If I get kidnapped I cease to exist in the here and now?"

I think the argument goes, you don't cease to exist (obviously), but you no longer have volition over your time; it has been stolen from you. Similar to the way murderers are described as 'stealing someones life', I guess... which I think DK goes on to say.