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Many non-liberals (in the classical sense, not the modern sense) construct elaborate arguments aiming to rebut the primacy of self-ownership and thus that a liberal order (i.e. a social “system” that is permitted to emerge through voluntary exchange and contract) is unjustified either on that ideological ground or on some contrived argument about the undesirability of inequality or some other perceived outcome of a liberal order.

Let’s take these arguments at their face value. I cannot remember reading a serious anti-liberal exposition that does the second of two things.

  1. Argues that the classical liberal position on self-ownership is unjustified.
  2. Argues that the progressive/communitarian position on self-ownership is justified.

On what basis is some alternative arrangement more justified than a liberal private property order? It is not simply enough to point out that there might be some undesirable consequences of a liberal order, especially when the best defenses of a liberal order often proceed quickly from the theory to the poor records of competing orders. In other words, isn’t a proper institutional comparison in order when making such claims. Sure, in a utopian world it is possible that in a world without property rights we’d all be able to sing Kumbaya by the campfire, but in the real world, where conflicts are not just possible, but prevalent (even if everyone was a saint conflict would be unavoidable), such utopian theorizing gets us nowhere. And the fact of the matter is, even aside from my own view that a liberal order is theoretically and morally superior to competing orders, in practice it HAS been superior to other orders, like it or not.

We cannot live in a perfect world. And the better liberal arguments in favor of a private property system spend as much time explaining how a liberal order would be successful as they do in showing why competing ideas are not likely to be successful as they are claimed to be. Anti-liberals rarely if ever provide an argument for why communism, or some lighter version of it is justified.

For example, if you believe in collective ownership – that groups of people living in an area collectively own the area and its resources and have the ability to make decisions about resource use, you must show that these people do have the rights to determine the direction of these resources, and that individuals do not. I often see convoluted arguments why individuals do not have such rights, but rarely if ever have I seen a principled and sensible discussion of what the origin of collective rights is. “Proving” that some other argument is false does not make yours the right one.

One Response to “In Which a Liberal Order is Not Justified”

  1. Harry says:

    Part of the problem, at least for the nomenklatura of the Ivy league and other yuppies from New England and California, is that they worship Hegel and Marx, or at least the derivative orthodoxy they learned from their perfessers, who were mired in dialectical determinism and their ambition. (No, my first thought was not about Larry Summers, nor Paul Krugman, nor Alan Blinder, nor Noam Chomsky. But now that I think about it, there is a common denominator there.)

    Their style of argument is Nietzschean, a fancy word for both an appeal to authority and to against the man, both fallacies.

    Frederic Bastiat would have had little patience with them.

    When I was in Russia, and had only a digest of The New York Times to read, Krugman was arguing for another 800 billion or so of (chips? monopoly money?), and he is still doing it. I guess when you get old, you get wistful.

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