Saturday, August 13, 2005

Freedom, Property and Capitalism

Recommendation time. Elizabeth Anderson is a philosopher at the University of Michigan, a former student of John Rawls -- and a blogger, on the site Left2Right. Since January she has been doing a series of posts on the relationship of property and freedom which are simply magnificent -- the very best that the blogosphere has to offer. They are in a very philosophic vein, and assume a familiarity with the basic ideas of, e.g., Locke; but they're clear and well written and unless you're absolutely allergic to that sort of thing, I recommend them as strongly as I can. They are all really one series, but so far they have run under two titles; first, a series called How Not to Complain About Taxes parts One, Two, Three and Four, and then So You Want to Live in a Free Society, parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five. She's written a lot of other good posts on other (sometimes related) topics too (e.g. this one), but this series is magisterial.

As befits a student of Rawls, the series is clearing going to end up being a defense of the redistributionist welfare state -- but a defense based not on justice per se but rather on the value of (ultimately) freedom and of private property as an essential part of that. Anderson is doing some intellectual work that is part of a project which is, I think, absolutely crucial to rebuilding a sane politics in this country, namely, reclaiming the mantle of pro-capitalism and pro-private property from the rather simplistic libertarian philosophy that currently claims it as its own in public debate. Private property is essential to freedom -- but not absolutely unrestricted use of private property, nor is it a matter of natural right or individual desert, all of which Anderson argues for eloquently. Libertarianism is a very appealing stance in American political debate, but one which is not only simplistic, but is, I think, ultimately dishonest at any number of levels (in its honest versions, which certainly exist, it isn't really appealing to very many people). Separating the argument for property-based-freedom from libertarian assumptions is crucial intellectual work -- and Anderson is doing it. (Along the way, she is demonstrating rigorously something which many people (including me) have long thought, namely, that so-called libertarians don't care so much about liberty as about property. Property is necessary for liberty -- but so are other things, so the two can conflict; and in the conflict libertarians pick property over liberty just about every time. (Again, there are exceptions.) Anderson hasn't gone into the issue of libertarianism explicitly yet -- she's building up slowly -- but the implications of her arguments are already quite clear, I think.) Anderson is an enthusiast for private property (as she's said a few times, she wants everyone to have access to it!) and is in particular an enthusiast for capitalism, and the expansion of opportunities -- liberty, really -- that it provides. But she is a liberal capitalist, in a way that strengthens both liberalism and capitalism.

The most recent post segues into a contemporary political topic, making a powerful argument for why pharmacists should not be able to refuse service to customers based on their religious convictions (e.g. against premarital sex), as is currently being pushed politically. Her argument here rests on her earlier work, although I think one can summarize it by saying that she sees it as analogous to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the reasons that storekeepers can't, and oughtn't be able to, refuse to serve someone because of their race. But this simply shows the good ground work she's doing, making arguments which can then be put to powerful intellectual and political use.

I have some ideas of my own on these issues -- influenced and inspired by hers in large part -- ideas which are probably closer to the realm of pure political argument than the sort of philosophy that Anderson is doing. But I don't know if/when I'll write them, so in the meantime, go read Anderson. She's terrific.

My biggest beef with the series, really, is that what she's saying is too important to be left in such academic, philosophically-sophisticated terms. Her basic ideas (e.g. for property as a basis of freedom, but not on the grounds of natural right nor of desert; the issue of the two notions of freedom, the necessity of both but the primacy of freedom-as-opportunity) could be phrased in much more popular ways -- ways in which they might begin to do some healing on the deeply sick political discourse in this country. Her work on this topic is too important to be left to the philosophers. Which is one more reason I strongly encourage everyone to read it -- the more people who do, the better chance of these ideas spreading further and deeper into the culture then they can from these essays alone.

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