Core and Periphery
Tom G. Palmer has just put up a very good and full response to the recent spate of positivist/conventionalist attacks on property rights — that is, the view that since property is a social convention both enforced and shaped by the state, there’s no coherent objection to redistribution, since there’s no such thing, really, as a pre-tax property distribution. The tax system is as much a part of the distribution as the market. Tom’s response knocks out the argument well enough, but I thought I’d throw in a slightly different angle.
Property rights are not all that different from many other rights — free speech and privacy, to pick two. The boundaries of all these rights are going to have to be drawn by convention. There is no plausible way to extract directly from pure moral theory a way of determining in specific instances whether to regard an inflamed rant which leads to a riot as merely “speech” or instead as “action,” akin to a mob boss’s command. The same goes for privacy, where there’s a problem determining when certain methods of information gathering — bloodhound sniffing? scoping my house with infrared goggles? — become intrusive. But as my friend Glen Whitman recently reminded me, “the existence of twilight doesn’t eliminate the distinction between night and day.” That is, all these rights are conventional at the periphery. It’s no less true that the core of these rights, the central range of their application, remains morally mandated, not conventional. There are those iffy regions where we think the extent of each right is subject, to some extent, to political judgment. But any regime that seeks to silence an unpopular viewpoint merely because it is unpopular, which allows goverment to rifle through your home and papers at whim, or which treats your labor and efforts as one more national resource to be divvied up as those in power see fit, deserves moral condemnation.