Man is born free and poor

… and Matt Bruenig wants us to stay that way.

Adam Gurri asks:

Is a “no” from a private property owner truly different in kind than a “no” from a government official? Why?

But before we get an answer, first we have a digression …

I think of man’s nature as a fixed constant, and our cultural institutions a multiplier. The multiplier can be positive or fractional, but not negative.

The fixed constant of man’s nature is the amount of wealth and prosperity that a man could produce living entirely on his own, free from trade but also free from banditry. He has complete control over his own consumption and savings rate, and is totally free to decide for himself whether to accumulate capital or eat all the corn. 

Make no mistake – this is not a romantic view. The above life would consist of hunting and gathering, with maybe a bit of subsistence farming (at best), and guarantee grinding, inescapable poverty by any modern standard. But at least you don’t have to worry about Matt Bruenig grabbing all your fresh-picked strawberries while you’re not looking.

Of course we live in a much wealthier society than the one described above. Our current institutions are a very large multiplier. And key among those institutions is private property. I won’t spend any time defending that thesis, others have done so ably and I’d be preaching to the choir on this blog anyway.

So to answer Adam’s question: I don’t care to distinguish private and public “No”s. For one thing, private property isn’t just enforced by the shopkeeper; the fuzz have his back. “Private” property is a publicly enforced “No”. Even the ability to say “No” to having your person touched against your consent is also publicly protected by laws against assault, and the affirmative defense of self-defense against criminal charges. Almost every “No” we have is some mix of private action and public support, with the exceptions proving the rule. Our institutions are greater than the sum of their parts, and we make case by case decisions as to whether to entrust a certain kind of decision to the public or the G-men based on whether it moves the multiplier up or down.

So to conclude, I agree with Matt Bruenig that the private “No” is harsh, but I strongly disagree that this leads us away from our current arrangements. A “Grab what you can society” would be far worse than the one we have. All his ideas do is reinforce in me why charity is a virtue. It is our duty to give what we can afford when others are in need, but is our right to decide what we can afford – a right enforced by law. This is the arrangement that maximizes our humanity, as it also creates great prosperity that can be shared.

One thought on “Man is born free and poor

  1. Pingback: Joint Determination and the Line between Public and Private | Sweet Talk

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