Cato Unbound: Property, the State, Libertarians, and the Left

Talk between libertarians and the left usually follows one of two scripts, each of which frustrates me.

In the first script, both sides find things that they can safely dislike together – war, eminent domain, small business licensing – while carefully avoiding all the contentious areas. They’re a lot like that recently divorced couple at the Christmas party you’ve just attended, chattering as much as they dare… but mostly about the weather.

In the second script, someone yells “Taxation is theft!” or “You hate the poor!” and it’s not long before someone gets a drink thrown in their face. Perhaps also like that Christmas party you’ve just attended.

If I may say so myself, this month’s Cato Unbound has been quite different. The disagreements have been sharp, but well-informed and polite. (Even the libertarians are disagreeing among themselves; it’s a good sign that our movement isn’t just a set of dogmatic propositions, as some have claimed.)

As readers may already know, the December issue is about the role of property rights in social democracy. Discussants Daniel Klein, David D. Friedman, Ilya Somin, and Matthias Matthijs are arguing about whether social democracy entails the concept of overlordship – that is, the idea that the state must be the final, true owner of all property in a social democracy. If it’s not explicitly and by declaration, then at least it’s implicitly and by inference from its actions.

Klein shows that social democrats were once quite explicit on the point, and did indeed portray themselves as would-be overlords. Today they have to be cagier, but the claim remains logically implicit, he says.

Friedman argues that property has existed without the state, and perhaps even before the dawn of the human race. The state might claim any number of things, but we should judge it by what it actually accomplishes.

Somin suggests that today’s social democrats aren’t really overlords; they’re pragmatists without much in the way of theoretical principles at all.

And Matthijs actually is a social democrat. A proud one, by the look of it. He’s even European! Rights aren’t meaningful unless something enforces them, he argues, and the state does the work we all depend on. In this sense, all rights are artificial; all rights are created by the state. And he’s gamely defending his claims against a barrage of libertarian criticism.

Is your blood boiling? Or are you giggling behind your hand? Either way, grab yourself another egg nog, promise not to throw it at anyone, and go read the discussion for yourself.