Monday, March 26, 2007

Cicero on Private Property

Cicero’s views on private property reveal in a nutshell his political worldview. In De Officiis he continually returns to the topic to reiterate that the “right of ownership is inalienable” (Book I paragraph 37). His reasons are rooted in natural law and the “laws of human society” (I 21) but his exposition has a very different emphasis from contemporary libertarian arguments. Instead of the laissez-faire notion of protecting domains of individual seperateness, Cicero sees rights as unifying; and the violation of property rights as a grave injustice that destroys society’s harmony and the “common bonds” between men. Men of good will do not plunder their neighbors wealth, directly or through the apparatus of the state.

His notion of the origin of private property is not quite the immaculate conception of Locke: “There is, however, no such thing as private ownership established by nature, but property becomes private either through long occupancy … or through conquest … or by due process of law, bargain, or purchase, or by allotment …Therefore, inasmuch as in each case some of those things which by nature had been common property became the property of individuals, each one should retain possession of that which has fallen to his lot; and if anyone appropriates to himself anything beyond that, he will be violating the laws of human society” (I 21)

While the motive for property is understandable, Cicero worries about the excesses: “... men seek riches partly to supply the needs of life, partly to secure the enjoyment of pleasure. With those who cherish higher ambitions, the desire for wealth is entertained with a view to power and influence and the means of bestowing favors; … Fine establishments and the comforts of life in elegance and abundance also afford pleasure, and the desire to secure it gives rise to the insatiable thirst for wealth. Still, I do not mean to find fault with the accumulation of property, provided it hurts nobody, but unjust acquisition of it is always to be avoided.” (I 25)

Nevertheless government policy should be clear: “The man in an administrative office, however, must make it his first care that everyone shall have what belongs to him and that private citizens suffer no invasion of their property rights by act of the state. It was a ruinous policy that Philippus proposed when in his tribuneship he introduced his agrarian bill. … he often played the demagogue … [and his speech] deserves unqualified condemnation, for it favored an equal distribution of property; and what more ruinous policy than that could be conceived? For the chief purpose in the establishment of constitutional state and municipal governments was that individual property rights might be secured. For, although it was by Nature's guidance that men were drawn together into communities, it was in the hope of safeguarding their possessions that they sought the protection of cities. The administration should also put forth every effort to prevent the levying of a property tax …” (II 73)

Clearly no socialist, Cicero condemns confiscatory taxation time and time again. “Now, there are many — and especially those who are ambitious for eminence and glory — who rob one to enrich another; and they expect to be thought generous towards their friends, if they put them in the way of getting rich, no matter by what means. Such conduct, however, is so remote from moral duty that nothing can be more completely opposed to duty. We must, therefore, take care to indulge only in such liberality as will help our friends and hurt no one. The conveyance of property by Lucius Sulla and Gaius Caesar from its rightful owners to the hands of strangers should, for that reason, not be regarded as generosity; for nothing is generous if it is not at the same time, just.” (I 43)

“.. to exploit the state for selfish profit is not only immoral; it is criminal, infamous. … But they who pose as friends of the people, and who for that reason either attempt to have agrarian laws passed, in order that the occupants may be driven out of their homes, or propose that money loaned should be remitted to the borrowers, are undermining the foundations of the commonwealth: first of all, they are destroying harmony, which cannot exist when money is taken away from one party and bestowed upon another; and second, they do away with equity, which is utterly subverted, if the rights of property are not respected. For, as I said above, it is the peculiar function of the state and the city to guarantee to every man the free and undisturbed control of his own particular property.” (II 77-78)

By book III, Cicero rhetoric reaches a crescendo: “Finally, if a man wrongs his neighbor to gain some advantage for himself he must either imagine that he is not acting in defiance of Nature or he must believe that death, poverty, pain, or even the loss of children, kinsmen, or friends, is more to be shunned than an act of injustice against another. If he thinks he is not violating the laws of Nature, when he wrongs his fellow-men, how is one to argue with the individual who takes away from man all that makes him man? But if he believes that, while such a course should be avoided, the other alternatives are much worse — namely, death, poverty, pain — he is mistaken in thinking that any ills affecting either his person or his property are more serious than those affecting his soul.” (III 26)

He still expresses this as the harmony of interests: “This, then, ought to be the chief end of all men, to make the interest of each individual and of the whole body politic identical. For, if the individual appropriates to selfish ends what should be devoted to the common good, all human fellowship will be destroyed. And further, if Nature ordains that one man shall desire to promote the interests of a fellow-man, whoever he may be, just because he is a fellow-man, then it follows, in accordance with that same Nature, that there are interests that all men have in common. And, if this is true, we are all subject to one and the same law of Nature; and, if this also is true, we are certainly forbidden by Nature's law to wrong our neighbor. … This attitude demolishes the whole structure of civil society. Others again who say that regard should be had for the rights of fellow-citizens, but not of foreigners, would destroy the universal brotherhood of mankind; and, when this is annihilated, kindness, generosity, goodness, and justice must utterly perish; and those who work all this destruction must be considered as wickedly rebelling against the immortal gods. For they uproot the fellowship which the gods have established between human beings, and the closest bond of this fellowship is the conviction that it is more repugnant to Nature for man to rob a fellow-man for his own gain than to endure all possible loss, whether to his property or to his person . . . or even to his very soul — so far as these losses are not concerned with justice; a for this virtue is the sovereign mistress and queen of all the virtues.” (III 26-28)

Cicero believes in complementing the protection of acquisition and ownership of property with the virtue of liberality -- but within reason, with taste, to those worthy of aid, for the right things, and with one’s own wealth. “There are, in general, two classes of those who give largely: the one class is the lavish, the other the generous. The lavish are those who squander their money on public banquets, doles of meat among the people, gladiatorial shows, magnificent games, and wild-beast fights — vanities of which but a brief recollection will remain, or none at all. … Again, the expenditure of money is better justified when it is made for walls, docks, harbors, aqueducts, and all those works which are of service to the community.” (II 55) But he is a practicing politician and accepts the social reality of his day. “To conclude, the whole system of public bounties in such extravagant amount is intrinsically wrong; but it may under certain circumstances be necessary to make them.” (II 60)

But never over do it! “The second point for the exercise of caution was that our beneficence should not exceed our means; for those who wish to be more open-handed than their circumstances permit are guilty of two faults: first they do wrong to their next of kin; for they transfer to strangers property which would more justly be placed at their service or bequeathed to them. And second, such generosity too often engenders a passion for plundering and misappropriating property, in order to supply the means for making large gifts. We may also observe that a great many people do many things that seem to be inspired more by a spirit of ostentation than by heart-felt kindness; for such people are not really generous but are rather influenced by a sort of ambition to make a show of being open-handed. Such a pose is nearer akin to hypocrisy than to generosity or moral goodness.” (I 44)

Cicero believes the state exists to protect private property and to outlaw “force and fraud.” His concept of fraud is broader and includes actions that might be allowed under the doctrine of caveat emptor. He sees no problem with charging more for food when it is dear but the deception of market conditions by commission or omission that leads to taking advantage of momentary ignorance (perhaps failing to hear of the news of the bumper crop) is seen as fraud in Cicero’s book. In the end of book III he gives both sides of a debate on this issue citing two “highly esteemed” thinkers. (III 51)

De Offisiis consists of three books, the first on honor, the second on utility, and the third on the inherent identity of honor and utility. He argues that the moral is the practical; that it respects the interests of all, and brings about the good will and harmony of a civilized order. Despite the fragile nature of the Roman Republic, Cicero never despairs on human nature. The title, often translated to “On Duties” would be better translated to the lengthier “On the Moral Obligations of a Gentleman of Public Affairs.” It served that purpose as a core text in Renaissance and Enlightenment liberal arts curricula. It is a core text of the Western tradition.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Limited War

In Clausewitz Revisted, the author, Tom Snodgrass, argues that we are fighting a limited war and that is a losing proposition.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Anglosphere

Interesting thought: “…almost all the advances of freedom in the 20th century have been made by the English-speaking peoples — Americans especially, but British, as well, and also … Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.”

I remember a similar quote at the end of this article: "... the values that made America, and our sister nations of the Anglo-sphere, civilization’s bulwark against tyranny and barbarism over the last 200 years." And in this article: "While continental Europe descended into dictatorships, totalitarian horrors, and the Gulag, the Anglo-American tradition upheld the rule of law, parliamentary proceedings, and the individual liberties of speech, thought, and religion."

Defintely an interesting thought.

Friday, March 16, 2007

What the Subprime Crisis Shows

Here we go again. In any economic upheaval the government seeks scapegoats. Today it is the “subprime lenders.” A good economic analysis takes into account all simultaneous interacting factors and this is extremely difficult. But let me take a stab at it.

The structural problems with the housing market stem from over-regulation. Zoning and anti-growth laws limit supply in the face of demand stemming in part from a 10% increase of population growth decade over decade. This is exacerbated by harmful regulations that have limited corporate productivity: Sarbanes-Oxley, software anti-trust, and a myriad of minor regulations. Consequently, the liquidity from monetary easing didn’t go into industrial/commercial loans where the return was limited but into housing where the price appreciation was largely the result of supply constraints.

The housing bubble was government caused. The innovations used to fund that coordinated speculative excess are secondary. It was the underlying fundamentals caused by government regulation that directed mal-investment into a consumer good, housing. Yes, there were unwise lending practices during the tail-end of the investment cycle and this happened before in the sub-prime industry six years ago. However, coordinated mal-investment and coordinated liquidation is a result of macro-policies in the face of regulations.

The demagogues will pile on, just as they did in the face of the accounting irregularities exposed by the stock-market fall six years ago. These rabble-rousers will layer on another level of regulations to compound the mal-investment correction. What this exposes is the increasing inability to whether economic challenges without panicking. This is extremely worrisome and portends a grave problem if there were a major economic challenge.

What could create such an economic challenge? A significant attack on New York, perhaps by a dirty bomb, could make a large area unusable. The economic pain (far worse that New Orleans) would be accompanied by a demand for government control that would compound the damage by an order of magnitude. Such a downward spiral would be catastrophic. In essence we are unprepared and ready-to-fail if and when such an emergency arises. A healthy culture maintains its discipline and responds rationally.

Update 8/07: Let Thomas Sowell explain it.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Culture Is the Explanation

The centrality of culture doesn’t mean that other elements – economics, war, natural disasters, plague – don’t play a role in the evolution of human societies. My thesis is that a healthy culture is robust; it can deal with unforeseen challenges.

Most historians focus on events. Implicit in this analysis is a rejection of identity: it isn’t the character of a nation, the culture or dominant philosophy, but event-causality that explains history. Germany, we are told, resorted to the fascistic Nazi form of government because of the unfair Treaty of Versailles even though Italy became fascist a decade before and was on the winning side. The susceptibility of continental Europe and Latin America to dictatorship in the 20th century has to do with cultural flaws. The Anglo-Sphere remained close to the liberal model during that same period.

Today, Islamic societies are susceptible to dictatorship and barbarity. I talk about it here.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The 300

I haven't had time to see the 300 yet. Some rave: VDH TH JA. Some have reservations: RB. We'll just have to see it and decide. Update: superlative review: GJ. Update2: but wait: DF.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Ayaan Again

During the Motoon uproar last year the general response was that free speech should be defended but the cartoons should be condemned. I argued that the cartoons are in essence true and should be defended not grudgingly but with the full vigor that one fights for the truth as well as fighting for the right to speak one’s mind. Almost no one talked about “fighting for the truth” as if that were a secondary matter. I found a like-minded soul:

“I am supposed to apologize for saying the prophet is a pervert and a tyrant …[b]ut that is apologizing for the truth."

Indeed! Who says such a simple and obvious truth?

“Ms. Hirsi Ali was born in 1969 in Mogadishu--into, as she puts it, "the Islamic civilization, as far as you can call it a civilization." … The culture that I came to and I live in now is not perfect," Ms. Hirsi Ali says. "But this culture, the West, the product of the Enlightenment, is the best humanity has ever achieved."”

What ails Islam? Is it poverty, lack of education, lack of democracy?

“"Immediately after the murder," Ms. Hirsi Ali says, "we learned Theo's killer had access to education, he had learned the language, he had taken welfare. He made it very clear he knew what democracy meant, he knew what liberalism was, and he consciously rejected it. . . . He said, 'I have an alternative framework. It's Islam. It's the Quran.' "”

Surely a fighter for woman’s rights like Ayaan will be a champion of the left. But wait:

“Many liberals loathe her for disrupting an imagined "diversity" consensus: It is absurd, she argues, to pretend that cultures are all equal, or all equally desirable. … "The multiculturalism theology, like all theologies, is cruel, is wrongheaded, and is unarguable because it is an utter dogmatism. . . . Minorities are exempted from the obligations of the rest of society, so they don't improve. . . . With this theory you limit them, you freeze their culture, you keep them in place."”

Surely conservatives would welcome her as a champion of the West:

“But conservatives, and others, might be reasonably unnerved by her dim view of religion. She does not believe that Islam has been "hijacked" by fanatics, but that fanaticism is intrinsic in Islam itself: "Islam, even Islam in its nonviolent form, is dangerous." … This worldview has led certain critics to dismiss Ms. Hirsi Ali as a secular extremist. "I have my ideas and my views," she says, "and I want to argue them. It is our obligation to look at things critically."”

Well that might have alienated D’Souza and Auster. Most of the rest of us love her. Indeed, the editor of the Wall Street Journal concludes:

“All of this is profoundly politically incorrect. But for this remarkable woman, ideas are not abstractions. She forces us back to first principles, and she punctures complacencies. These ought to be seen as virtues, even by those who find some of Ms. Hirsi Ali's ideas disturbing or objectionable. Society, after all, sometimes needs to be roused from its slumbers by agitators who go too far so that others will go far enough.”

Too far? You decide. Read it all.

Update: Ayaan autobiography's a must read!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Cicero on Man, Society, and Nature

Cicero’s moral philosophy had a profound influence on Western philosophy and he was a major influence on our founding fathers. Yet he is almost completely ignored by professional philosophers today. His best thoughts were absorbed by other philosophers. Here’s a small sample of the ideas in his once widely-read treatise on ethics: De Officiis.

Following the Stoics, the core driver of ethical concerns was self-preservation. “Nature has endowed every species of living creature with the instinct of self-preservation.” … [T]he most marked difference between man and beast is this: the beast, just as far as it is moved by the senses and with very little perception of past or future, adapts itself to that alone which is present at the moment; while man — because he is endowed with reason, by which he comprehends the chain of consequences, perceives the causes of things, understands the relation of cause to effect and of effect to cause, draws analogies, and connects and associates the present and the future — easily surveys the course of his whole life and makes the necessary preparations for its conduct ...”

Society offers opportunities to flourish. One can’t possibly produce all of one's needs. Trade is the cornerstone of a just and prosperous social order. “Why should I recount the multitude of arts without which life would not be worth living at all? For how would the sick be healed? What pleasure would the hale enjoy? What comforts should we have, if there were not so many arts to master to our wants? In all these respects the civilized life of man is far removed from the standard of the comforts and wants of the lower animals. And, without the association of men, cities could not have been built or peopled. In consequence of city life, laws and customs were established, and then came the equitable distribution of private rights and a definite social system. Upon these institutions followed a more humane spirit and consideration for others, with the result that life was better supplied with all it requires, and by giving and receiving, by mutual exchange of commodities and conveniences, we succeeded in meeting all our wants.”

Cicero also notes a dark side of human society. As we’ve seen in the 20th century, the state can be the greatest source of human suffering. While we join societies to increase our mastery over the elements and further our personal well being, Cicero notes that the state has been a greater source of pain and death than any natural disaster. “He was a famous and eloquent Peripatetic, and he gathered together all the other causes of destruction — floods, epidemics, famines, and sudden incursions of wild animals in myriads, by whose assaults, he informs us, whole tribes of men have been wiped out. And then he proceeds to show by way of comparison how many more men have been destroyed by the assaults of men — that is, by wars or revolutions — than by any and all other sorts of calamity. Since, therefore, there can be no doubt on this point, that man is the source of both the greatest help and the greatest harm to man, I set it down as the peculiar function of virtue to win the hearts of men [that] the cooperation of men, on the other hand, prompt and ready for the advancement of our interests, is secured through wisdom and virtue [in men of superior ability].”

While celebrating the human potential, Cicero, a man of action and a public intellectual, writes as the Republic disintegrates. Corruption seems more certain than regeneration. Once a great liberator of mankind, Rome’s disintegration leaves Cicero despondent: “And so in Rome only the walls of her houses remain standing — and even they wait now in fear of the most unspeakable crimes — but our republic we have lost for ever.” As our Founding Fathers looked across the Atlantic, they described Europe in similar language. The Roman Republic stood in their minds as an object lesson.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

India and Her Critics

Amity Shlaes notes that India’s phenomenal 9% yearly growth has its critics: leftist egalitarians. Unhappy that some succeed as long as others struggle, egalitarians damn India’s capitalist-driven success on moral grounds. This, of course, is part of a pattern. Israel has created a vibrant economy and liberal democracy, but is damned because so-called Palestinian Arabs are as poor as those in Egypt or Syria. America creates $12 trillion of wealth annually but leftists damn such productiveness as “taking a disproportionate share” which “harms the environment.” The main problem, however, isn’t a failure to understand economics.

Shlaes does an excellent job describing India’s progress since abandoning the socialist model that was fashionable in the West (and the world) at the time of India’s independence. However, she defends this success on utilitarian grounds and concedes the high-ground to her critics who “want to moralize.” This totally misses the problem. The virulent ferocity with which the left wants to destroy America, Israel, and now India suggests that the problem isn’t their flawed understanding of economics but a deep moral malady.

A top executive from India, Gurcharan Das, answers his leftist critics: “Everyone doesn't rise equally, but eventually studies have shown all boats do rise.” This, of course, will never satisfy the collectivist egalitarian morality. The general beneficial nature of broad-based economic progress can’t address the fundamental collectivism and altruism of those who damn capitalism as a “den of inequity.” This isn’t a mere mistake about economic theory. It’s a disagreement about goals, ethics, and what makes life meaningful.

Is Shlaes wrong to tout the economic success of India? Of course not! Such success is to be expected of a liberal economy. But it is not the criterion. This is an important point that Ayn Rand makes best in her book: Capitalism the Unknown Ideal. Capitalism, the social system that respects individual rights, lays the groundwork for a high level of economic success because it respects the source of human efficacy: the individual human mind. Reason is man’s tool of survival and it is an attribute of the individual requiring the cultivation by a lifetime of initiative in thought and practice. To be alive is to be actively initiating rational action in producing one’s values.

The new leaders in India may implicitly grasp a pro-life philosophy and they’ll make substantial progress imitating the market economies in the West. However, progress will only reach a fraction of its potential unless it is freed from the moral shackles of collectivism. Without a moral defense, advocates of a liberal economy will be worn-down by leftist moral badgering. Without a moral defense the entitlement philosophy of the left will mobilize the mob to cannibalize its most productive citizens. India needs more than an economic rationale if it is to become the great nation that she deserves to be. India needs the moral confidence of a reality-based rationally-sound defense of individual rights.