So David, How’d You Like My Essay?

My lead essay contains the sentences: “You naturally claim ownership of your own person. The claim springs, at least in part, from the uniquely intimate knowledge and control of your bodily processes; it springs from the constitution of your being.”

At the end of that passage, I cite David Friedman’s excellent, highly Humean essay, “A Positive Account of Property Rights,” published in Social Philosophy and Policy in 1994. That essays offers a fuller discussion of David’s installment here, entitled “A Positive Account of Rights.”

David’s installment nicely supports the two sentences of mine just reproduced, confirming the aptness of the citation to his 1994 essay. I would be interested to know what David otherwise thought of my essay.

Beyond that, I register two qualms about David’s contribution.

First, in the effort to relate his words to mine, David says that my essay “contrasts positive rights to negative rights;” he refers to “Klein’s issue of positive versus negative rights;” and he speaks of “[p]ositive rights – in his [i.e., Klein’s] sense.” Let it be known that the word negative does not appear in my essay, and that positive occurs just once, in a quotation.

Second, viewing David’s installment apart from the role it was supposed to play in relation to mine, I question whether the positive/normative talk is helpful. I don’t think it is, but getting into that would take us farther away from the question of whether overlordship underlies leftist ways of speaking.

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.