Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Refuting the Canons of Conservatism, Part IV

Russell Kirk's fourth canon of conservatism states:
Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

The first sentence focuses on the implications that a society's system of property rights has for the amount of political freedoms in that society:

Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked:

Private property can provide human beings with the wherewithal and resources to exercise their freedoms in even the most unfree societies. There is nothing wrong with conservatives insisting this. After all, what is freedom of the press if the government won't let you buy paper or a printing press? On the other hand, conservatives are mistaken, because they often make the assumption that private property can cause the growth of political freedom all by itself. There are many societies in both the past (e.g., the South before the Civil War, medieval Europe) and the present (e.g., the authoritarian government of Singapore) that have given wide latitude to property owners, yet still remain unfree for a majority of their citizens. Private property may be necessary for the exercise of freedom, but it is not sufficient to make a free society on its own.

...separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.

The philosophy associating regulation of private property with Leviathan government is the source of the extreme laissez-faire conservative point of view that even the most minor economic regulations (e.g., zoning laws) or government enterprises (e.g., the post office) will lead to a downward slide into totalitarian government. The only problem with this claim is that conservatives are notoriously fuzzy in explaining how regulation of private property would lead totalitarian government, at the same time that they ignore the many examples of authoritarian governments (e.g., Nazi Germany) that still respected private property. (In fact, the Nazi regime actually increased privatization of state-owned enterprises, when compared to the semi-democratic Weimar Republic it replaced. In addition, when the Nazis expropriated the property of Jews, they returned much of it to the public as private property, as the book Hitler's Willing Beneficiaries indicates.)

Another counterexample to conservative claims about private property would be primitive indigenous societies, where property is held collectively instead of individually. Conservatives may not want the "freedom" of living in primitive conditions, but most of these primitive societies are not sufficiently developed to create a Leviathan government of the kind that more modern societies are capable of producing. Instead, in practice, the conservative insistence on property rights as a guarantor of freedom and civilization has historically been used to justify the seizure of lands from indigenous societies (e.g., the theft of land from the American Indians), because those indigenous people did not have the "correct" system of property rights.

Conservatives are correct that private property allows individuals to exercise their autonomy vis-a-vis their government, but they neglect how the distribution of private property influences relationships between individuals with and without property. Since conservatives are generally unconcerned with the distribution of private property (as long as private property stays "private"), they make no moral or political distinction between a society in which all property is monopolized by one person vs. a society where many different types of people have many different types of property. Conservatives make no distinction between those two types of social arrangements, but liberals understand that the latter type of society is more likely to achieve justice, harmony, and social stability.

Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

The reference to "levelling" is extremely similar to the insistence in Kirk's third canon of conservatism that increasing equality leads to "equality of servitude." The relevant historical reference is a political movement from 16th century England called the Levellers. Although Oliver Cromwell accused the Levellers of wanting to reduce everyone to the same level of poverty, in reality, the Levellers were primarily a political movement focused on religious toleration and expanding the right to vote, not economic issues. Like Russell Kirk, Oliver Cromwell used fear and exaggerated claims about his opponents in the attempt to squelch a movement for the expansion of equality.

Now that we know the historical context, we must ask, "Is it true?" The comparative experience of the United States and Europe suggests that the answer is No. Economic researchers have shown that societies with a high degree of economic equality are often more economically efficient than unequal societies, not less. When resources are only in the hands of a limited few, the people at the bottom of the economic hierarchy will not have the opportunities to develop their talents and abilities in a manner that contributes to the economy. When resources are widely distributed to people at many different income levels, the economic contributions made by people at the bottom of the hierarchy will increase, because they now finally have the resources to make something of themselves.

An excellent answer for balancing the concerns of economic equity and economic efficiency comes from the philosophy of John Rawls. John Rawls acknowledges that some inequality may be necessary, but only if the inequality leads to everybody in society being better off than they otherwise would have been. Rawls refers to this as the maximin criterion, whereby the goal is to "maximize" the welfare of the people at the "minimum" bottom position in the social and economic hierarchy. In this respect, the liberal maximin principle reflects the Biblical injunction that "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

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