Life, Liberty, and Professor Matthijs

My essay is about two conceptions of the configuration of ownership in the polity, the individualist and the collectivist. The latter implies overlordship.

I say that an intellectual shift from the former to the latter occurred principally after 1880. I quote a few of the great many authors who championed the shift. They talk clearly about issues of ownership. I quote L.T. Hobhouse three times. He was one of the important figures in the shift.

The heart of my essay, then, concerns the two configurations of ownership and the semantics and presumptions that correspond to each. As I say in the essay, “The issue all turns on the configuration of ownership.”

The three-letter permutation own occurs 29 times in my essay. All 29 occurrences pertain to the central idea.

In Professor’s Matthijs’s comment on my essay, the three-letter permutation own occurs just twice, as follows:

  1. “Klein’s own ‘straw-man’ argument”
  2. “his own dogmatic libertarian thinking”

Thus, there is not a single occurrence of own as it relates to the central idea of the essay that Professor Matthijs is supposed to be commenting on.

The first two sentences of my essay read: “Libertarians and conservatives say that Obamacare forces you to buy health insurance. Folks of the left are apt to shrug at calling it force.”

Professor Matthijs has shrugged off the entire essay. All I can do is put the question to him directly:

Professor Matthijs, does Obamacare force individuals to buy healthcare?

The individualist configuration of ownership frames the idea of liberty we associate with Hume, Smith, and so many other leading figures up through 1880, and later with such figures as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Richard Epstein. It was the heart of the old liberalism, which the many exponents of the “New Liberalism”[1] saw they needed to call “old” because theirs — openly framed by the collective configuration of ownership, or overlordship — was new.

Another question:

Professor Matthijs, Do you understand why I see Obamacare as forcing individuals to buy healthcare?

Likewise, I ask the following questions to Professor Matthijs:

Does marijuana prohibition initiate force? Is the law (and concomitant enforcement) an initiation of coercion?? Does it tread on liberty?

And, do you understand how I see it?

Does the minimum wage initiate force against employers who would pay less than $7.25 per hour? Is the law itself an initiation of coercion? Does it tread on liberty?

Do you see any difference between these laws and laws against theft and murder?

If Professor Matthijs is able to understand how I see it, then perhaps we can have a conversation about that way of seeing things, and how Hobhouse and social democracy relates to that way of seeing things.

I would be most interested in his thoughts about the place of that idea of liberty — the Hume-Smith idea — in social democracy.

Professor Matthijs, what place does that idea of liberty have in social democracy?


[1] Allett, John. 1981. New Liberalism: The Political Economy of J.A. Hobson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Weiler, Peter. 1982. The New Liberalism: Liberal Social Theory in Great Britain, 1889-1914. New York: Garland Publishers.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, Daniel B. Klein introduces us to the idea of overlordship – the premise, implicit in modern social democracy, that the state is the ultimate owner of all property rights in society. Under this theory, the state provisionally delegates any rights that individuals may have, and it is free to revoke them as well. The social contract, to which we have all allegedly subscribed, gives warrant for these acts, or so we are told.

    Though his formulation may seem quite harsh – “overlordship” is a term we more often associate with feudalism – Klein traces its development in the late nineteenth century, citing authors who were quite explicit about their intentions. He also cites recent figures, up to and including President Barack Obama, who subscribe to substantially the same views. Klein calls for a return to individualist modes of ownership, as championed by David Hume and Adam Smith, both of whom were also skeptical of the social contract in general, owing in part to the dangerous consequences implicit in that mode of thinking.

Response Essays

  • Matthias Matthijs charges that libertarian thinking caused the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression, and that our current political climate is nonetheless still dominated by an ideology highly congruent to Daniel Klein’s. Reasonable people, however, now doubt even market capitalism itself. Libertarians and social democrats disagree on three fundamentals: the empirical evaluation of government efficacy, the positive/negative liberty distinction, and the absolutism of private property rights. On each disagreement, Matthijs argues, the social democrats have the upper hand. In particular, property rights would not exist without the state to regulate them, and these rights are in no sense “natural.” A natural right, Matthijs argues, would never have any need of defense by the state.

  • David Friedman suggests a threefold classification of rights. In his scheme, normative rights are moral claims whose violation results in a moral judgment: I may think, with reason, that you are a bad person. A legal right is one that has been duly written into the law. Finally, a positive right is one for which violators face meaningful consequences, such that they will be substantially deterred. These definitions differ somewhat from those found in traditional legal theory, but Friedman defends the analytical power of his schema. In practice the three types overlap, but we may still analyze rights according to their normative, legal, and positive dimensions. Friedman offers historical and contemporary examples of the three types of rights and speculates on their origins using game theory.

  • Ilya Somin examines three arguments for government control over property rights: the claims that property rights are created by the government, that residence and/or citizenship imply consent, and that government control can produce superior outcomes to private control, regardless of theoretical justification. He dismisses the former two and concedes that the latter, consequentialist argument for government control is the strongest of the three. Still, he argues that this approach has serious weaknesses, in that people across the political spectrum tend to overestimate the good that governments can do.