Column on No Good News

No Good News

Tibor R. Machan

For a while now I have been concerned with the issue of whether any argument advanced in support of violating private property rights might just have something going for it. Some argue, for example, that since one’s private property isn’t always the result of one’s own work and often even stems from plain old luck–as when the price on one’s home rises because of market conditions one had no hand in–one’s property rights cannot be inviolate, let alone inalienable. Others claim that when majorities decide, after widespread public consideration and discussion that someone’s resources or wealth should be taken from them for some important project, this suffices to limit or even void the right to private property.

The second argument underlies the very recent ruling of New York State’s Court of Appeals in support of the decision of the Empire State Development Corporation to condemn privately owned homes and small businesses so as to replace these with Mr. Bruce Ratner’s "Atlantic Yards" project of 16 huge skyscrapers. The court didn’t rule exactly as did the U. S. Supreme Court back in July 2005, in the case of Kelo v. City of New London, CT, which opened the door to take property simply to develop it better that how it is being used. The New York case backed the taking of private property because it is considered to be blighted. This is the "reasoning" of the lynch mob. And it is ominous because the very point of basic rights to one’s life, liberty, property (or whatever is involved in governing one’s own affairs–in other words, one’s sovereignty) is to bar others from being intruders, no matter what. The point of rights is to secure for individual’s their own realm of authority, wherein they and not others make choices, be these wise or not, prudent or not, generous or not. That is what it means to have jurisdiction over one’s own life and the only way to intrude on it is first to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that one has violated someone else’s rights and needs to pay for this with one’s liberty or property. Having a bunch of other people decide about how important or sensible is one’s use of one’s belongings is no better, actually, than having them do this vis-a-vis one’s life! You aren’t living it as well as we believe you should, so we will take it over and direct it ourselves for far better purposes. What a crock this line of reasoning is!

As to the other line of argument, that, too, simply a gross non-sequitur. After all, no one has produced one’s own liver, heart, eyes, or most other personal attributes, so are these now to be available for others to take? The fact that I came by my pretty face or sturdy heart with no effort by me confers absolutely no authority on others to deprive me of any of these. Yet somehow certain influential people make just such an allegation. It seems to me that it is nothing but sophistry since logic, reason, common sense or anything else that might support a conclusion gives this no credibility whatsoever. That kind of reasoning serves to support an atmosphere of arbitrary intrusion by everyone into the lives of all, a Hobbesian war of all against all, with just a bit of legalistic window dressing. Talk about an uncivilized society!

Unfortunately the American Founders, who learned their political philosophy from classical liberals–most especially John Locke–didn’t manage to teach later Americans enough about the merits of the theory and principles underlying the founding documents of the country, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. And there were some conflicts between those principles and the widely championed ethics of "service to others" or altruism, which helped to undermine a free American society. Never mind that most people actually act as if they believed that helping others comes after one has taken decent care of oneself and one’s loved ones. The rhetoric of morality has tended always to be altruistic since people attend to moral matters mostly when it concerns how other people ought to serve them! Yes, altruism gets much of its support from an insidious kind of narrow egoism: "Tell everyone to serve others since that will suggest to them to care for me!"

So there is a lack of solid ethical support for the ideals of individualism, and that weakens the support for individual rights. People consider standing up for those rights too selfish! And since this looks bad on their ethical CV, they do not put up a fight against those who would impose involuntary servitude on them, not at least until it may be too late.

Now we see the consequences: despite the superiority of the rights based free society when it’s compared to all other types, Americans are slowly losing their liberty and letting a bunch of dubious arguments disarm them. It is not too late to turn this around but, sadly, the prospects are minimal, judging by how nearly all the professional thinkers in universities and colleges favor an anti-individualist, anti rights-based society, collectivist.

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