Oh What Tangled Blogs We

Oh What Tangled Blogs We Blog, When First … or, Libertarianism Caught Up in the Blogs: I just read a piece on AndrewSullivan.com that led me to a a fairly insubstantial and snippy attack on libertarianism in Tapped. (As it turns out, the author, a writer at the American Prospect, had registered a few years ago for a Cato University seminar, which I direct, for the pretty explicit purpose of getting a nice and colorful little hatchet piece on the Cato Institute out of it. Hang out with a hundred and fifty people for a week at a seminar on philosophy, economics, history, and the like, and it’s pretty easy to find someone to say something that will seem outlandish out of context. It’s certainly not as hard as real journalism.) Anyway, that led me to a critique of libertarian thinking by a fellow who writes under the name of Junius (specifically, a critique of something that my colleague Brink Lindsey wrote] in which he (Junius) picks up on something that Brink wrote that was less than clear, viz. that:

“Consider, first of all, the disquieting fact that full-fledged protection of property rights is incompatible with industrial civilization. If I can enjoin trespassers from entering my property — even if they take just a single step onto my zillion-acre spread — I ought to be able to enjoin the first molecule of pollution that crosses my property line. But if that were the rule, it would only take one green zealot per air shed to bring the entire economy to a screeching halt. Instead, the common law of nuisance holds that only ‘unreasonable’ interferences with quiet enjoyment of property are legally actionable. The common law, in other words, strikes a balance between property rights, on the one hand, and the economically valuable use of property on the other. Environmental regulations have now largely replaced the common law in striking this balance, but the basic principle remains the same. And that principle is: At the margins, property rights have to give way to other public goods.”

Now I think that that’s an odd way to put the issue, since I don’t know any serious scholar or thinker who has argued that I have a property right to exclude a molecule from landing on me. What form property takes is a matter of social convention and results from a variety of different factors, such as scarcity, technology, economic development, and the like. I agree with Brink’s general approach, except that he’s wrong to claim that “full-fledged protection of property rights” entails that “I ought to be able to enjoin the first molecule of pollution that crosses my property line.” Property cannot be defined in such an abstract and absolute way; it’s a social institution, not a Platonic form.

Anyway (again), Brink responded, and then Junius responded, and so on it goes. The surprising bit of fun for me was that Junius mentions his sympathy for the libertarian political philosopher Hillel Steiner, whose work I admire and respect and from which I have learned. (He states that Hillel thinks that “Lockean rights mandate a lot of redistribution,” but Hillel is certainly not a redistributionist in the usual welfare-state sense of the term. He follows, rather, in the older Henry George-oriented tradition, i.e., he believes that each person “has a right to an equal share of initially unowned things,” which is rather different from the system of organized theft that we see today.) In any case, and this is the moral of my little story, Junius then cites “Cato’s review” of Steiner’s An Essay on Rights, a book that I enjoyed. I thought, well, I’ll have to read that. It turns out that I was the one who reviewed it. And so I was led back to myself.