Reply to Ilya Regarding Evidence on How Leftists See Things

I have been arguing that leftist thinking typically involves a preconception of overlordship, with “the people” or “the state” (in the Hegelian sense, not merely the government) being the overlord. The best way to think of it is that the American people collectively own what I have called the “substructure” of the United States of America. Resorting to analogy I wrote: “you own the soil, perhaps, but the state owns the ‘flower pot’ within which your soil sits.” With the people owning the “flower pot,” you are then party to an implicit contract with the overlord restricting how you use your property and what contracts you make within the overlord’s realm.

On this conception of the configuration of ownership, the situation is analogous to entering a workplace and agreeing to limits on talking on your mobile phone, or entering a restaurant and agreeing to rules against wearing hats indoors, or entering a lease on an apartment and agreeing to rules limiting where tenants place a satellite dish. In these analogies, the mobile phone, the hat, or the satellite dish is your property, but you have voluntarily entered into a contract against doing certain things with it.

Ilya has suggested that most leftists do not actually think this way. Rather, he suggests that they, like libertarians, subscribe to an individualist configuration of ownership, and simply favor more restrictions on individual liberty than do libertarians.

I wish Ilya were right in this matter. I wish that leftists would affirm the individualist configuration of ownership, and identify liberty and coercion as libertarians do. They would then make themselves responsible to the presumptions and burdens of proof carried by such semantics. Unfortunately, I do not find Ilya’s arguments persuasive.

Ilya has suggested that survey data about the Kelo decision supports his contention about how leftists see things. As Ilya puts it, the survey data “show that the overwhelming majority of both the general public and self-described ‘liberals’ oppose such transfers, with many expressing great indignation about the Court’s decision.”

I see a couple of problems in invoking the Kelo survey results as evidence against my conjecture that leftists have overlordist preconceptions.

First, one can have overlordist preconceptions and still oppose certain rules that the duly appointed officers of the overlord implement. By analogy, I might think that my employer’s rules against mobile-phone use, the restaurant’s rules against wearing hats indoors, or my landlord’s rules about satellite-dish placement are bad or even immoral. Even though I disagree with the rule, I do not deny that the employer owns the worksite, the restaurant owner owns the restaurant, or the landlord the apartment complex. Likewise, if we subscribe to overlordism and the government passes a law forbidding the selling, manufacturing, and transporting of alcoholic beverages (as did the 18th Amendment), we could disagree with that rule without giving up our overlordism.

Second, in the case of the Kelo question, a survey respondent might have overlordist preconceptions and judge the decision to be a violation liberty. The reasoning here would be that the Kelo decision upholds a violation of the contract that Suzette Kelo had with the people, a contract based on the United States Constitution. That is, if a respondent with overlordist preconceptions regards the decision as unconstitutional, then he would regard the decision as a liberty violation, but that does not mean that he subscribes to the individualist configuration of ownership. He is still an overlordist.

Thus, I do not see the survey findings about Kelo as significant evidence against my conjecture about overlordist preconceptions.

Evidence regarding my conjecture would have to address not merely whether people agree with a certain decision or policy, but whether they view it as a liberty violation – two matters that we must learn to keep distinct. That is the kind of evidence I offered from the questionnaire put to people who had signed a petition to raise the minimum wage (Klein and Dompe 2007). But Ilya attempts to shoot down that evidence, saying it “is at best only very weak evidence for Daniel’s point.”

I find problems with Ilya’s criticisms of the minimum-wage questionnaire. First, that employment is a matter or contract, not property relations, is immaterial: In the overlordist view, the contract with the overlord is a matter of permissible contracts as well as property issues. Second, Ilya represents the question as asking whether the minimum wage law is a significant coercion, rather than what the question in fact asked, which is whether the law is coercive in a significant sense of that term. Third, he criticizes the sample of respondents, who were economists, who, he says, tend to be utilitarians. I do not see why that should affect how they see the underlying configuration of ownership. Finally, he criticizes the complexity of the question and suggests that respondents may have answered hastily without fully understanding the question. Yes, the question was very unusual and conceptually complex, but such is the nature of asking someone how they conceptualize a matter in terms of liberty/coercion. As for the possibility that the respondents answered hastily, note that the respondents were told that their answers to the questionnaire would be made public and would not be anonymous. They originally put their names into the public realm by signing the “raise the minimum wage” petition, and we proceeded to make our questionnaire public and non-anonymous as well. These circumstances would militate against responding carelessly or hastily.

When designing the minimum-wage questionnaire I wrote the liberty question to get at the issue of this Cato Unbound exchange. The responses show that very few leftist economists answer as Ilya suggested they would, and that a flat-out majority selected the option: “I give little to no weight to that definition of liberty; the minimum wage law is not coercive in any significant sense.” These responses are a unique form of evidence on the very questions with which we are dealing.

In Ilya’s comment he repeatedly quotes me as describing overlordism as the view that “everything is owned by the state.” In retrospect I see that I should have avoided any such simplified variation of the idea – I used those words as a warm-up to the fuller idea elaborated in my original essay. That is, I should have described overlordism only in terms of a contract between the individual and the owner of the substructure/ realm/”flower pot,” a contract that thereby envelopes his actions within the polity.


Klein, Daniel B. and Stewart Dompe. 2007. “Reasons for Supporting the Minimum Wage: Asking Signatories of the ‘Raise the Minimum Wage’ Statement.” Econ Journal Watch 4(1): 125-67. Link

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.