Property Rights and Democracy: Reply to Wilkinson

Property rights—at least “absolutist,” “hard-core,” “hard-nosed” property rights that are “rigid and all-encompassing”—are the enemy of democracy. That is essentially the theme of Will Wilkinson’s essay and follow-up on the matter.

I answer that Wilkinson, who apparently favors the “standard redistributive policies of successful modern states,” does not recognize property rights at all, but merely property permissions that can be granted or retracted by democratic majorities at will.

Properly, democracy is restrained from violating people’s rights. If the majority wishes to enslave the minority, too bad—a proper constitution forbids it. If the majority wishes to censor the speech of the minority, again, that is properly disallowed.

Wilkinson grants generally that democracy properly is restrained. He recognizes that most people, “left or right,” want “to take some issues off the table of democratic negotiation by constitutionalizing certain rights.” Wilkinson’s position is that property rights should not be in this bundle—which in effect means that people do not actually have property rights, as government may take people’s property at will to “redistribute” it (provided it follows procedure).

Wilkinson does not offer any argument, in these essays, as to why people do not have property rights. He just treats the position that people do as crazy and tars it with alleged connections to racial nationalism. Thus, the essays function as a long-winded ad hominem—if you believe in property rights and oppose welfare statism, you’re a nut who promotes (at least implicitly) unjust policies and unsavory movements.

The question of whether people have property rights—in the broad sense that would bar welfare statism—is too intricate to answer here. My goal is not to convince the reader that people in fact have such rights, but merely to show that Wilkinson’s claims against the position do not hold.

Wilkinson wrongly suggests that restraining democratic governments from violating people’s property rights would effectively destroy democracy. He writes, “if ‘taxation is theft,’ it’s hard to have a government at all, and democratic bodies will be left without much to make decisions about.”

It is possible to think that people have robust property rights and that limited taxation—only to fund rights-protecting government actions—is justified, due to the free-rider problem. The idea is that people “really” want to help fund such services, only they are tempted not to because others might defect. Taxation for such purposes, in this view, is not theft, it does not violate people’s property rights, and it is not an aspect of the redistributive welfare state.

Some of us believe that the free-rider problem can be overcome without government threatening to lock people in cages if they do not contribute to the rights-protecting services of government. This suggests a short-term and a long-term goal, as articulated by Auberon Herbert: “We must place limits upon every form of compulsory taxation, until we are strong enough to destroy it finally and completely; and to transform it into a system of voluntary giving.”

But even if that long-term goal proves impossible, that hardly justifies the position that democratic governments may take people’s property at will for the enjoyment of others, as Wilkinson seems to believe. (If he doesn’t believe that, perhaps he would care to articulate when democratic governments may and may not take people’s wealth by force for others’ benefit and why his lines are not arbitrary and subject to majority revision.)

Wilkinson is right that, if government robustly protects people’s property rights, that rules out a great deal of what democratic majorities might otherwise do. But why is that a problem? Why is it somehow worse to say majorities may not “redistribute” people’s property than to say majorities may not enslave minorities, censor their speech, search their property without a warrant, or imprison them without trial?

A stronger argument may be made. Constitutional protection of property rights is actually pro-democracy, just as the constitutional protection of speech rights is.

When majorities censor speech, they cut off the very public debate that makes possible government by the people, and they open wide the door to authoritarianism. So democratic censorship is actually profoundly anti-democratic.

By comparison, when majorities “redistribute” people’s wealth, they unleash a political system of interest-group warfare (factionalism), cronyism, and bureaucratic control that undermines true governance by the people and that ultimately threatens authoritarianism. So democratic redistribution also is profoundly anti-democratic in the only sense that matters.

No sensible person advocates absolute democracy or even thinks it’s a coherent doctrine. Before any vote of the people occurs, there must be some rules established regarding who can vote, what people can vote on, how proposals may be brought to a vote, what are the rules of voting, and so on. In other words, any democratic action necessarily rests on fundamentally non-democratic rules that set the bounds of democracy.  These rules dramatically affect outcomes (as the Public Choice economists show). To take an obvious example, can the majority vote to transfer power to an autacrat, a minority, or a supermajority?

Democracy in the sense of absolute majority rule does not exist and logically cannot exist. The only democracy that is possible and that is worth having is democracy restrained to certain functions and to certain procedures. History shows that constitutional republicanism is the only stable form of democracy (at least in a large area). A workable constitution necessarily protects individual rights from majority oppression—and we can’t just omit property rights from such protection on the basis that some people won’t like that.

As for Wilkinson’s complaint that, if majorities cannot violate people’s property rights they’ll have nothing to do, there is plenty that a rights-respecting government can and should do. It can build a military force to repel foreign invasion, hire police to keep the peace domestically, enter treaties, ensure that people and businesses do not harm others via pollution and the like, help record property rights, run the courts to handle disputes, deal with violent and “white collar” criminals, facilitate immigration, and set rules for citizenship and voting, among other things. A government that did those sorts of things well would be a robust government, one that played a critical role in the daily lives of everyone in the country. So a democratic order, in which people voted on representatives to set policies in these areas, would be critically important.

The upshot is that Wilkinson’s main thesis is wrong and indeed the opposite of the truth. Robust constitutional protections of people’s property rights would not be anti-democratic but profoundly pro-democratic, in the proper sense of the term.

Yet Wilkinson makes some other important points about libertarianism which, although confused, are extremely important. I turn to those next.

The Problem of Anti-Government Libertarianism

Wilkinson identifies some real and important problems with libertarianism, only he misdiagnoses them.

As Wilkinson writes, a distressingly large number of libertarians have gotten in bed with racial nationalists. He offers, as examples, the racist newsletters that went out under the name of Ron Paul and an essay written by “Mr. Libertarian,” Murray Rothbard, defending David Duke and promoting “right-wing populism.” (Rothbard’s 1992 essay is a remarkable read, particularly for those of us now living in the Age of Trump.)

These libertarians actively work with racial nationalist conservatives, Wilkinson points out, to suppress democracy via gerrymandering; voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect minority voters; voter restrictions for felons; and immigration restrictions.

I agree with Wilkinson that these are real problems and that many libertarians are so aligned. The problem is with Wilkinson’s explanation for the trend. He blames “absolutist” property rights, when in fact the problem is virulently anti-government strains of libertarianism.

Wilkinson lumps together Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard (among others) as property rights absolutists and as responsible for the racial nationalist libertarian turn, despite the facts that a) Rand explicitly denounced Rothbard’s anarchism (and indeed libertarianism generally), b) Rand developed a theory of property rights that is substantially different from that of Rothbard, c) Rand explicitly advocated government in the form of democratic constitutional republicanism, d) Rand explicitly and strongly denounced racism and racists, e) Rand was an immigrant who advocated the right of free migration (for peaceable people), and f) Rand explicitly denounced the sort of “populist” anti-intellectualism that typifies the likes of Trump (see Onkar Ghate’s insightful essay on the matter).

Wilkinson pretends that Rand characterizes democracy as such as “a social system in which one’s work, one’s property, one’s mind, and one’s life are at the mercy of any gang that may muster the vote of a majority at any moment for any purpose.” But here Rand was explicitly talking about “unlimited majority rule,” which Wilkinson also opposes, not democracy broadly understood to include constitutional republicanism, which (again) she advocated.

The upshot is that there is nothing of substance in common with respect to the problems at hand between pro-government defenders of individual rights and anti-government anarchists who wish to tear down the state. The problems that worry Wilkinson are entirely caused by anti-government libertarians, not pro-government advocates of rights. Apparently it is convenient for Wilkinson to blur the distinction to promote his welfare statist agenda.

Ideology and Politics

In his generally excellent first and second replies to Wilkinson, Ilya Somin makes a similar point that I make: Restraints on democracy are not necessarily anti-democratic, and they can be profoundly pro-democratic insofar as they make government by the people feasible.

Unfortunately, Somin and Wilkinson get off on a tangent as to whether property rights are “absolute.” Somin notes he doesn’t think they are. But Rand doesn’t think they are, either, in the sense that they may not apply in emergency situations. But the fact that property rights are not in that sense “absolute” does not mean that they do not exist or that they allow room for welfare statism, and that is the substantive issue on the table.

Libertarians really can be crazy with respect to their hostility to government as such and to their “theory” (usually dogmatic non-theory) of rights. Consider a line from Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism (p. 19):

Libertarians (not all libertarians, certainly, and not even many) have advocated on libertarian principle private ownership of nuclear weapons; the right of parents to starve their children; and that, if you fell off a building and grabbed onto a flagpole and didn’t have the explicit permission of the person who owned the balcony, you ought to let yourself fall rather than violate their property rights by crawling to safety.

I readily concede that many libertarians believe utter nonsense. That doesn’t mean that people who advocate property rights thereby advocate nonsense.

It is important here to distinguish types of libertarians. There are classical-liberal libertarians (David Boaz); burn-it-all-down libertarians (Rothbard and the Trumpists); and anarchist but still broadly liberal libertarians (Michael Huemer). The second group is the main source of the problems that Wilkinson identifies. The Boazes and Huemers of the world detest Trump and the racial nationalist movement he inspires. However, I do think that some of the ideology from the other camps helps to feed the virulently anti-statist populism of the worst libertarians, because libertarianism in its main thrust really is anti-government more than it is pro-rights.

The stance for robust property rights can and does stand apart from the libertarian edifice and forms part of a refined classical liberalism. I refer to myself as a liberal, not a libertarian.

A genuine liberal with strong property-rights commitments opposes such evils as gerrymandering and voter suppression precisely because the liberal sees government as essential for protecting people’s rights and does want to see government undermined. And the liberal is concerned not only with property rights but with the rule of just law, which entails equal treatment under the law. So Wilkinson is wrong to conflate liberals who endorse a strong version of property rights with anti-government libertarians who consort with racial nationalists.

By contrast, Rothbardian libertarians are not even consistent advocates of property rights. In the main libertarians condemn intellectual property, for example. In a libertarian anarchist world, private defense agencies generally would defend only the rights of their paying clients—and there’s no guarantee that “defense” agencies would not violate others’ rights, if their clients paid them to do so.

Wilkinson is wrong about the source of the problems he describes; he is also wrong about how those problems play out among conservatives. Wilkinson  claims that, after the Cold War, “American conservatism continued to grow more ideologically anti-redistributive.” That’s ridiculous. If anything, Republicans defend welfare programs such as Social Security even more ardently than Democrats do (even though the program punishes the poor by stripping away a substantial portion of each pay check). George W. Bush expanded Medicaid, and the “individual mandate” of ObamaCare was a conservative invention.

Paul Ryan is “an Ayn Rand fan,” Wilkinson insists. Sure, one who explicitly rejects Rand’s philosophy and who explicitly advocates the welfare state.

The modern racial-nationalist conservative movement simply is not driven by an antipathy to the welfare state, as Wilkinson suggests. Instead, it openly embraces welfare statism. Granted, it wants the welfare state only for the “right” people, which helps explain its anti-immigrant and anti-minority policies.

Donald Trump is pretty much the opposite of a free-market champion. He advocates trade restrictions, he used to advocate universal government-financed health care, he has no concern with paying down the national debt. He has lifted not a single finger against the welfare state, but has instead loudly praised  and promoted it.

Racial-nationalist conservatives are driven not by any love of markets or property rights but by a desire for cultural “purity.” We can’t let in immigrants, we can’t go out of our way to let minorities vote (goes the thinking) because they’ll sully American “culture.” The racial nationalists are not fundamentally anti-democratic, as Wilkinson supposes; they want to use the power of democracy to disenfranchise the “wrong” people and to keep out more of the same.

Is it possible for people to read (say) Ayn Rand’s works and use elements of those works, out of context, to promote a racial nationalist agenda? Of course it is. It’s also possible to contort Charles Darwin’s works toward the same end. That hardly undermines the theory of evolution; it just proves that some people are intellectually dishonest jerks. We need to look for logical connections, not accidental associations.

A couple of caveats: First, obviously conservative fusionism remains alive, so some Republicans really do embrace some free-market positions. This helps explain why Republicans currently are trying to cut corporate tax rates, which is a good idea (I have no strong opinion on the broader Republican tax plan). People are complicated, and some Republicans reflect multiple intellectual influences.

Second, liberals who oppose welfare statism recognize that the welfare state should be unwound carefully. Long before Brink Lindsey raised the point, people such as George Reisman pointed out that removing opportunity-destroying economic regulations would be necessary before scaling back welfare for the poor. (Corporate welfare, by contrast, should be eliminated totally and immediately.) And welfare programs would have to be phased out sensibly. For example, Social Security should not be ended abruptly, as that would be profoundly harmful; rather, its costs should be contained through means-testing, and then it should be phased out by slowly and continuously raising the payout age.

If Wilkinson wishes to find the intellectual co-conspirators of racial nationalism, he is looking in the wrong place insofar as he focuses on advocates or property rights. Beyond anti-government libertarians, he should look (for example) to the identity politics of the left, the advocates of which increasingly sound like members of the KKK. He should look to the conservative supporters of the drug war, which has devastated many minority communities and destabilized much of Central and South America. And he should look in the mirror; as I’ve suggested, welfare statism inherently creates the sort of factionalism that feeds collectivist movements.

Wilkinson, quoting Samuel Freeman, says that a liberalism that takes seriously property rights and that rejects welfare statism promotes a sort of “feudalism.” But a system based on individual rights is the opposite of feudalism. The heirs to the feudal lords are not the capitalists; they are the political and bureaucratic administrators of the welfare-regulatory state, for which people trade real control over their own lives for the illusion of control over their government.

Image: Martin Cathrae