Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Property is a Necessary But Not Sufficient Condition for Liberty

Marc Lombardo, writing in The Public Sphere, 14 September, (HERE):

Your Government Lied to You. So What?”

“Adam Smith made the economic significance of Locke’s notion of private liberty more explicit, showing that the concepts of property and liberty are fundamentally intertwined. Smith argued that even the public good (i.e., what is best for all) is most effectively and efficiently pursued only when private interests are left unchecked by any external influences whatsoever (most especially, that of the government). The liberals defined private liberty as existing only to the extent that the government did not interfere with it. This in turn required that private liberty could only be protected if and when private individuals came together collectively in order to limit the exercise of governmental power upon their lives. As such, from the liberal viewpoint, the ability to do what one wants in one’s private life depends entirely upon the public and cooperative practice of constantly and diligently surveiling and criticizing everything that the government does. The active public manifestation of the distrust of government is the basis for all other private liberties

Marc Lombardo makes an assertive statement about the role of property in history but misleads about the views of Adam Smith when he ties property to liberty as if one was an essential component of the other.

Property was certainly a decisive break with past when individuals regarded patches of territory as belonging to them and not to others, and enforced their claims with violence. Without property there would have been no civilisation to follow, though, of course the former did not lead to the latter in one, or a few steps, or in a short period of time, nor did it do so everywhere.

Adam Smith saw the origins of civil government in the enforcement of property rights, and in consequence, the denial of property rights to others (the majority) (Lectures in Jurisprudence, 1763). Shepherding and farming could not develop without property in land and the flocks and plants on it (the Cain and Abel parable is one example from written history, many millennia after property first developed in the Near East from 11,000 years ago).

Property came first; liberty in its modern sense came later, much later. But without property there would have been no meaning to liberty, because property created the possibility of surplus over individual needs that could feed much larger populations and employ stone builders that are the familiar indicators of the presence of superior technologies. This was Smith’s point in his comparison of the effects of the division of labour between the ‘savage’ societies of North America and Africa, and those of North-Western Europe in the 18th century.

Liberty evolved in the crises of governments. Turbulence – or politics- features in all governments; competition within and among the elites is endemic. Those further down the hierarchy seek to influence or replace those further up. The tensions among property owners and among governments are the stuff of history. Long periods –even millennia – without other than cyclical change are the norm. Liberty is not a norm, but it is an improvement on what goes without it.

In Britain’s case, the emergence of liberty is documented in Smith’s account in his Lectures in Jurisprudence and to a lesser degree in his Wealth Of Nations. From the struggle with the Barons, a king conceded the provisions of Magna Carta. In the fates of successive monarchs, sovereigns conceded the veto of parliaments over their spending. So, even with highly restricted constitutional changes and restricted franchises, liberty percolated downwards, slowly and gradually, towards the majority – eventually.

That is why Marc Lombardo takes the wrong interpretation of the relationship between property and liberty. Property rights are one, not the sole, manifestation of the prelude to liberty. Property rights emerged in various guises throughout and across the world without developing ideas or practices of liberty, and even in the majority of the most developed of Western European societies, and in China and India (two colossi economies for many millennia) there was hardly any signs of liberty emerging throughout their histories up to Smith’s time.

Transposing the struggle for liberty solely to the rights of property owners against those of civil governments is more an indicator of modern versions of property rights associated to some extent with libertarianism and with far right politics.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home