Tag: private property

How the British Burned Washington

The British burned Washington 200 years ago today. In the Washington Post Joel Achenbach, with help from Steve Vogel, author of Through the Perilous Fight, tells how the day went, including this description of how thorough and careful the British were:

The British knew how to build a bonfire. You just stacked the furniture, sprinkled it with gunpowder and put a torch to it.

They built multiple fires inside the Capitol, immolating the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the splendid chambers of the House and Senate.

Later in the evening, Ross and Cockburn made their way to the White House and helped themselves, amid hearty toasts, to the fabulous meal and adult beverages left by Mrs. Madison and her staff. They took a few souvenirs, and one filthy lieutenant ventured into the president’s dressing room and put on one of the president’s clean linen shirts.

Then they set the fires. Up in flames went some of the most beautiful furniture in the country, including pieces obtained by Jefferson in Paris and the private possessions of the Madisons. The fires left the mansion a gutted, smoldering shell.

The British also burned the Treasury building, and the building housing the War and State departments. They ransacked the National Intelligencer newspaper office, with Cockburn ordering the seizure of all the letter C’s from the presses so that the editor could no longer write nasty things about him. The Americans themselves burned the Navy Yard to keep the ships and stores out of British hands. 

The invaders spared private dwellings. This was to be a civilized sacking; no rapes, no murders, minimal plundering. They even spared the Patent Office after being persuaded that patents were private property.

 One would hate to think that the British army was more respectful of private property rights than the current U.S. government.

 

 

 

Why Hayek Would Have Hated Software Patents

In his famous essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Friedrich Hayek argued that the socialists of his day falsely assumed that knowledge about economy could be taken as “given” to central planners. In reality, information about the economy—about what products are needed and where the necessary resources can be found—is dispersed among a society’s population. Economic policies that implicitly depend on omniscient decision-makers are doomed to failure, because the decision-makers won’t have the information they need to make good decisions.

In a new paper to be published by the NYU Annual Survey of American Law, Christina Mulligan (who drafted a recent amicus brief for Cato) and I argue that the contemporary patent debate suffers from a similar blind spot. A patent is a demand that the world refrain from using a particular machine or process. To comply with this demand, third parties need an efficient way to discover which patents they are in danger of infringing. Yet we show that for some industries, including software, the costs of discovering which patents one is in danger of infringing are astronomical. As a consequence, most software firms don’t even try to avoid infringing peoples’ patents.

Patents are often described as “intellectual property,” and patent law provides for harsh property-like remedies against patent infringers. But a property system that is so convoluted that ordinary firms can’t figure out who owns what isn’t a property system at all. Genuine property rights enhance economic efficiency by bringing predictability to the allocation of scarce resources and thereby promoting decentralized decision-making. Software patents retard economic efficiency by subjecting software firms to a constant and unavoidable threat of litigation for accidentally infringing the patent rights of others. Hayek would not have approved.

Our paper is available from SSRN.

This Month at Cato Unbound: A Little Foundational Theory

The October, 2011 issue of Cato Unbound tackles some of the foundational questions of political theory: how do we recognize justice? If it’s not utopia, is it still good enough to command our respect? Or allegiance? How do we know? Who are the members of the political community? How are they chosen? What counts as a “reason” for political action?

If all of this sounds abstract, rest assured that lead essayist Gerald Gaus is both lucid and engaging. He writes:

Liberalism’s founding insight was the recognition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that controversial religious truths could not be the basis of coercive laws and public policies. The task is now to apply this insight to philosophizing about justice itself. This is an extraordinarily difficult lesson for many. Can it really be that I should not endeavor to ensure that my society conforms to my “knowledge” of justice? (Compare: can it really be that my “knowledge” of God’s will should not structure the social order?)

Gaus argues for a “range of justice”—a range of theories that, while perhaps not perfect by anyone’s standards, are still close enough to demand our respect, especially given the large benefits that come from freely engaged social cooperation.

Discussing with him this month are a panel of three other prominent social theorists. Richard Arneson argues that we tolerate one another not because we’re all pretty close to rational (clearly a lot of us aren’t!)—but because intolerance breeds atrocity. Eric Mack argues that classical liberalism is no mere contending sect; it is the right approach to politics, because it offers the greatest leeway for individuals to choose their own ends in life. And Peter J. Boettke argues that any social system that neglects private property will fail to produce a cooperative society in any sense; without market exchange, individuals will fall into strife over scarce resources.

Obviously I won’t be able to do justice to their arguments here, so please do check out Cato Unbound, where discussion will continue through the end of the month.

Monday Links

Kentucky v. King

Awful ruling handed down by the Supreme Court this morning in a case called Kentucky v. King [pdf].  The case concerns the power to break into a person’s home without the occupant’s consent and without a warrant.  Our homes are supposed to be our castles–so the general rule is that the police must get an independent judge to approve a warrant application before the door can be forced open.  There are a few common sense exceptions to the general rule.  For example, if someone is screaming for help, the police can enter.  Also if the police are in hot pursuit, they can follow the suspect on to private property and into a home under such circumstances.  Today’s ruling expands the exceptions to situations where the police suspect that the occupants of a house may be destroying contraband such as marijuana, cocaine, or other narcotics.

In this case, the police were after a drug dealer after he fled from a controlled-buy transaction.  The dealer entered some apartment but the police were unsure of the unit number.  As the police got closer, they could smell marijuana coming from a nearby apartment.  Instead of posting an officer nearby and applying for a warrant, they decided to bang on the door, shouting “Police!”  Hearing some rustling inside, the police broke down the door so evidence could not be destroyed.  The occupants were arrested on drug charges and they later challenged the legality of the police entry and search.  (As it happens, the dealer the police were trying to capture was found in another apartment.)

The lower courts have generally frowned on what they describe as exigencies manufactured by police conduct, but the Supreme Court has now overturned those lower court precedents by a 8-1 vote.  In dissent, Justice Ginsburg asked the right question: “How ‘secure’ do our homes remain if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and, on hearing sounds indicative of things moving, forcibly enter and search for evidence of unlawful activity?”  And the unfortunate answer to the question is, a lot less secure.   

For more on the power to search, go here and here.

Obama on the Ground Zero Mosque

Politico Arena asks for comments today on President Obama’s Ground Zero Mosque remarks:

My response:

Speaking expressly “as President” last evening [Friday], Mr. Obama has weighed in on the Ground Zero Islamic mosque controversy – and blatantly misstated it.

This controversy has nothing to do with Muslims having “the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country” or with their ”right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan,” as Obama put it. Nor does it have anything to do with the First Amendment. Rather, the issue is simply one of common decency and sensitivity to the feelings of others.

The president is right about one thing: Ground Zero is “hallowed ground.” It is the ground where some 3,000 people of all faiths lost their lives in a brutal attack by radical Muslims acting in the name of their religion, however distorted their beliefs may have been. Those who lost loved ones that day, to say nothing of the rest of us, cannot be indifferent to that fact – as those who support the mosque’s location near Ground Zero seem to be.

Topics:

Libertarianism Hits the Big Time

Michael Crowley, late of the New Republic and now with Time magazine, writes thoughtfully about Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and libertarianism. Crowley notes that Rand Paul, “more politically flexible than his father,” has plenty of unlibertarian positions. But both of them are tapping into a real strain in contemporary politics:

But he, like his father, also knows well that a genuine libertarian impulse is astir in America…. polls show an uptick in both social permissiveness and skepticism of government intervention….[Ron Paul] has already waited a long time — and it appears the country is moving his way.

This is a current trend, but it’s also deeply rooted in the American political culture. As David Kirby and I wrote in “The Libertarian Vote”:

It’s no surprise that many Americans hold libertarian attitudes since America is, after all, a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the [American] Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”… Richard Hofstadter wrote: “The fierceness of the political struggles in American history has often been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the values of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture.”… McClosky and Zaller sum up a key theme of the American ethos in classic libertarian language: “The principle here is that every person is free to act as he pleases, so long as his exercise of freedom does not violate the equal rights of others.”…

Some people recognize but bemoan our libertarian ethos. Professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes complain that libertarian ideas are “astonishingly widespread in American culture.”

Much political change in America occurs within those guiding principles. Even our radicals, Lipset and Marks note, have tended to be libertarian rather than collectivist. America is a “country of classical liberalism, antistatism, libertarianism, and loose class structure,” which helps to explain the failure of class-conscious politics in the United States. McClosky and Zaller argue that many of the changes of the 1960s involved “efforts to extend certain values of the traditionalethos to new groups and new contexts”—such as equal rights for women, blacks, and gays; anti-war and free speech protests; and the “do your own thing” ethosof the so-called counterculture, which may in fact have had more in common with the individualist American culture than was recognized at the time.

In a broadly libertarian country most voters and movements have agreed on the fundamentals of classical liberalism or libertarianism: free speech, religious freedom, equality before the law, private property, free markets, limited government, and individual rights. The broad acceptance of those values means that American liberals and conservatives are fighting within a libertarian consensus. We sometimes forget just how libertarian the American political culture is.

And of course American politics and policy deviate a great deal from those fundamental principles, which leaves libertarians feeling frustrated, even angry, and seeming extreme or radical to journalists and others. But as Conor Friedersdorf just wrote in Time’s longtime rival, Newsweek, the media have a bias toward the status quo and establishment politicians, even when current policies and the proposals of elected officials are at least as extreme as libertarian ideas:

If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.

And Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, made the point a dozen years ago in a review of Charles Murray’s book What It Means to Be a Libertarian (in the Public Interest, not online)

The reason that libertarians seem extreme and odd is not that they are a furious minority, angry at a world that seems to have passed them by, but rather the opposite. They are heirs to a tradition that has changed the world. Consider what classical liberalism stood for in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was against the power of the church and for the power of the market; it was against the privileges of kings and aristocracies and for dignity of the middle class; it was against a society dominated by status and land and in favor of one based on markets and merit; it was opposed to religion and custom and in favor of science and secularism; it was for national self-determination and against empires; it was for freedom of speech and against censorship; it was for free trade and against mercantilism. Above all, it was for the rights of the individual and against the power of the church and the state….

The reason that libertarianism seems narrow and naive is that having won 80 percent of the struggles it has fought over the last two centuries, it is now forced to define itself wholly in terms of the last 20 percent. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice if you were in Prussia in the 1850s, but in America in the 1960s? Libertarianism has become extreme because the world has left it no recourse.

Now, I don’t feel furious, angry, or extreme. I think that libertarianism is the philosophy of the American revolution, the basic ideology of America, and indeed the foundation of Western civilization. The concept of personal and economic freedom – giving people more power to pursue happiness in their own way by restricting the size, scope, and power of government – is not extreme. Nor is it reactionary. In fact, it is the direction in which civilization has been heading, with many digressions and blind alleys, since the liberal revolution of the 17th century. I am a progressive. I believe that the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution – individual liberty, limited government, and free markets – are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined.  Libertarianism is not just a framework for utopia, it is the indispensable framework for the future.