A Distinction Without a Difference?

In response to Tom W. Bell's post on surfing and property rights, Henry Farrell writes,

Bell's emphasis on natural property rights seems to me to obscure the real explanatory factors in his story as he tells it - the existence of a community, with collective norms on how a common resource should be allocated.

Reading the rest of Henry's post, I confess that I don't see much difference between what Tom is saying and what Henry is saying. Tom gave a positive explanation of evolved norms that surfers use to allocate scarce resources through customarily emergent rules. Henry appears to me to be agreeing, even though he says he disagrees.

Could it be that some people like the sound of the words "common pool" and "collective action" while others like "property rights" and "homesteading" even though all are saying the same thing?

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Nicholas, Then why not steal

Nicholas,

Then why not steal when it's to your advantage? Why do you guys irrationally resist the apparent fact that prudent predation would improve your outcomes? Why disapprove of prudent predation?

And Nicholas, I'm not saying

And Nicholas,

I'm not saying that one cannot make mistakes and attain a given level of happiness but I am saying that people do make mistakes those mistakes cost them. Subjectivism holds that there are no mistakes since there's nothing to be mistaken about. In that case there can be no basis to rationally persuade anyone to modify their behavior. Which leaves one to wonder what Catallarchs and Agitators think they're doing.

If morality is subjective

If morality is subjective wouldn't it make more sense to modify your own preferences rather than attempt to change the political landscape?

One completely cynical

One completely cynical argument against "prudent predation" would go like so: in point of fact it is rarely to my advantage, or to most people's advantage, to steal even when only short-to-medium-term consequences are considered; and the more long-term unintended consequences one considers, the more rarely is stealing seen to be advantageous. To capitalize upon the rare exceptions one must have some skill. That skill takes time and effort to maintain, and for someone whose talents are already firmly developed in other directions that time is not worth it.

Less cynically, most people do have a subjective preference against stealing in most situations, even though they don't act consistently with it in the political realm. You can make a rational argument to people about acting consistently with their own subjective intuitions or "common sense"-- if you believe it's wrong to steal as an ordinary private person, why abandon that belief when you put on a badge?-- and that argument does not require you to try and put those intuitions on an objective foundation.

This is not an entirely satisfactory strategy, it's true. But I think it better than a bald assertion that you know what the objectively highest values are, coupled with an assertion-- in the teeth of the evidence-- that those values are unavailable to predators. The troubles of subjectivism are not in themselves reasons to accept the truth of objective morality, any more than the troubles of atheism are reasons to believe in God.

(As to your aside about modifying one's preferences: that assumes that preferences are freely modifiable. I'm not so sure they are, especially when it comes to moral preferences. But that is perhaps another argument.)

Here's a question that cuts

Here's a question that cuts to the heart of the matter:

"Why ought I respect your rights to life, liberty, and property?"
- Jonathan Wilde

It's a question "collective norms" can never answer for you; at most they could be part of reason for wanting to be perceived as rights-respecting.

You did say you would offer your own answer to your question, didn't you?

I was thinking the same

I was thinking the same thing, as was Glen Whitman in the comment thread to the Timber post. Glen wrote,

You're drawing a sharp line between "property rights" and "community norms." Why? A property right is a kind of community norm, so the fact that community enforcement is involved doesn't mean property rights are absent. In this case, the norm indicates that a particular person will have the sole right to use a wave and exclude others from it — the very definition of private property. The surf community cooperates in the enforcement of that right.

To which Henry responded,

Glen, I agree with you entirely, but I'm not sure that Bell would. As I understand him (I could be wrong) he seems to believe that property rights are natural and pre-given in some important sense, rather than the contingent product of community-level choice.

I agree with both positions. On the one hand, I don't think property rights exist outside of the community-level choice. On the other hand, it's not as if a community can just arbitrarily choose any allocation of property rights it wants without having to worry about incentives and unintended consequences. This is what Randy Barnett calls natural law: the given-if-then considerations that must be taken into account if we want to live in peace and prosperity in a world of scarcity. In one sense this is objective--we cannot change the "given"; in another sense, it depends upon whether the subjective considerations of the hypothetical imperitive are met; i.e., do we want to live in a peaceful and prosperous society in which individuals are free to pursue their own ends as much as possible? Or not?

JTK: "at most they could be

JTK: "at most they could be part of reason [sic] for wanting to be perceived as rights-respecting."

At the risk of restarting an old argument...

But isn't this enough most of the time? To be a successful social being, after all, you really need others to perceive you as rights-respecting. And maintaining a pose of being rights-respecting while secretly not being so is very difficult for most people; much easier simply to actually respect rights.

Matt Ridley wrote a very thoughtful (and mildly-to-moderately libertarian) book called _The Origins of Virtue_ which spent quite awhile on the question of how moral norms emerge in a universe which has no inherent moral attributes or objectively "highest" values. I recommend it.

"But isn’t this enough

"But isn’t this enough most of the time? To be a successful social being, after all, you really need others to perceive you as rights-respecting. And maintaining a pose of being rights-respecting while secretly not being so is very difficult for most people; much easier simply to actually respect rights."

Doesn't the profession of politics neatly refute that?

Is Senator Kerry a successful social being? Sure.

Is he actually rights-respecting? No.

And it's not just politicians, there are plenty of other "successful social beings" who buy the rights-violating services of these gentlemen, without being widely perceived as thieves.

So again, why should these individuals respect rights? Why shouldn't they violate rights whenever it's to their personal advantage to do so?

Well, the profession of

Well, the profession of politics is a demonstration of the facts that:

(a) "most" is not "all"
(b) our cultural predator-detection mechanisms are imperfect and getting more so

There are some-- a small minority-- who are unusually skilled at convincing others they are rights-respecting while actually continuing their predation. The extent to which others are good at finding them out varies from culture to culture and from time to time.

It's pretty pointless, I think, to try and argue with exceptionally skilled covert predators that they shouldn't violate others' rights. Better to convince the much larger remainder that they should improve their predator detection and rejection skills.

"It’s pretty pointless, I

"It’s pretty pointless, I think, to try and argue with exceptionally skilled covert predators that they shouldn’t violate others’ rights."

These guys aren't that clever, the game isn't that hard. You're probably more clever than many who excel at it.

So that at least leaves you, or any reasonably intelligent person, with the question: Why should *you* respect rights?

Like I said, collective norms can't help you with that one.

You did say you would offer

You did say you would offer your own answer to your question, didn’t you?

I did, and I will. I have been too busy to give what I think is a thorough answer, so I have been putting it off, but I will very soon.

But I don't think that gets to the heart of any difference between what Tom Bell and Henry Farrell said, which I don't think is much. Both were making a positive argument, not an ethical one.

JTK: there are many

JTK: there are many different sorts of cleverness. I don't actually think most people have the sort required to succeed in the political game; I sure as heck don't. Never could tell a convincing lie, for one thing.

But suppose you're right; suppose that for most of us, even in a culture with better predator-detection mechanisms than ours has, "prudent predation" would still be a viable option. I don't know, then, that there's a better answer than personal preference that one can give to the why-respect-rights question.

Certainly your favorite bit about "the highest values cannot be stolen" won't do. Let's lay aside the issue of whether we can say objectively what the highest values are; suppose we agree that, for example, they include

1. the sincerely and freely given love of others
2. the pride taken in a great achievement

Sadly, I think these things are no less available to a Kerry or Bush than to the ordinary honest working stiff. I'd like to believe, I really would, that such men get less sincere love from their wives and children than the rest of us, or that the pride they take in their "achievements" is less deeply felt than ours. But I see no evidence for such a belief. Even if the highest values really are highest and really cannot be stolen, their attainment appears, from the best available observations, to be compatible with doing a great deal of stealing.