Rejoinder to Daniel Klein on Consequentialist Social Democrats

There is only limited disagreement in this exchange between Daniel Klein and myself. We both favor strong protection for private property rights, and we both reject claims that the government should have largely unconstrained authority to override those rights because it supposedly “created” them or because the owners have consented to it.

However, I do continue to disagree with Daniel’s claim that “leftist talk about [property rights and government] entails the collectivist configuration of ownership, or overlordship.” I think that is true of some left-wing rhetoric about these issues, but by no means all or even most of it. As I pointed out in my original reply essay, most modern liberal rhetoric justifies government intervention on consequentialist grounds, not on the basis that government owns everything.

Daniel himself recognizes, “one could affirm the individualist configuration of ownership and then go on to say that he nonetheless favors the myriad initiations of coercion of the modern activist state.” In my view, this is in fact what most American left-liberals (and many European ones) do. They accept the basic idea of private property rights (what Daniel calls the “individualist configuration of ownership”), but then claim that such rights must often be overridden in order to achieve beneficial consequences such as promoting equality, increasing social welfare, protecting the environment, eliminating “blight,” and so on.

This is not to say that the “collectivist configuration” Daniel attacks is a straw man. Ever since Plato, a variety of prominent political theorists and legal scholars (not all of them leftist) have espoused just that. It is certainly an important idea whose serious weaknesses are worth pointing out — as I tried to do in my reply essay. But it is not quite as ubiquitous as Daniel seems to assume.

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.