Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Conservative Philosophy

In a book that I am reading while I am on vacation, I came across a statement that was meant to summarize a conservative philosophy. I found it a useful statement because, in it, I could clearly identify two problems with that philosophy.

The sentence read, "You need a free, open, and competitive market place, property rights, a relatively stable legal system, minimal regulations, all underlain by a basic morality (religion)."

The quote came from the article, "History and Frontiers -- What Works and What Doesn't,' by Alex Gimere, in RETURN TO THE MOON edited by Rick N. Tumlinson with Erin R. Medlicott (Apogee Books, 2005).

The Role of Religion

The first question that came to my mind as I read this quote is, "What would you get if you simply scratched the phrase, "all underlain by a basic morality (religion)"?

Such a statement would not be anti-morality. Instead, my claim is that what remains of the original statement after eliminating this sentence is a basic morality. It refers to a moral system of free, open, and competitive market place, property rights, a stable legal system, and minimal regulations. It tells people that they ought to behave in a way that establishes or maintains these institutions. That which threatens these institutions is bad; that which establishes or preserves them is good.

Since this part of the statement already gives us a basic morality, we may ask what this trailing phrase actually contributes, if anything? I am particularly interested in the religion aspect, given the claims by so many (which is hinted at in this quote) that "religion" is simply another way to spell "morality" such that those who do not have the former cannot possess the latter.

It allows us to see that morality(religion) can be fit into one of three categories.

(1) Morality(religion) is redundant. Since the first part of the sentence already gives us a basic morality, tacking on the phrase "all underlain by a basic morality (religion)" simply repeats what has already been said. It makes the original phrase similar to saying, "A fruit bowl must contain apples, pears, bananas, grapes, oranges, all underlain by a selection of assorted fruit."

(2) Morality(religion) conflics with the rest of the statement. The second questin that came to my mind in reading the original quote was, "What about the cases where religion contradicts with the rest of the items on the list?" For example, what if the underlaying religions involve two people worshipping different gods where each believes their god gave them ownership of a particular tract of land? We then have a conflict over proprety rights. Similar problems arise if this underlaying morality calls upon its followers to attack and kill (or at least discriminate against) those who do not share their beliefs. Or we could have a religion that asserts that women and blacks are themselves property and that they have no rights of their own. In this case, by tacking on a claim about morality(religion) -- one that is not redundant with what has already been included -- Gimare is setting up a potentially violent contradiction between two incompatible moral systems.

(3) Morality(religion) is superfluous. Here, I am talking about the moral rules associated with a particular religiion that does not have a significant social consequence. it includes such things are religious dietary restrictions (do not eat Pork, do not eat during daylight during Ramadan, eat fish on Fridays) or worship requirements (pray 5 times each day, always keep your head covered, baptism). One set of restrictions are as good as any other, and there is no need for any restrictions at all of this type. It simply is not true that a free society requires people to eat fish on Fridays or keep their head covered. To include some set of superfluous rules as something that a free society needs is simply false.

This, then, describes the three possible relationships between morality and religion. Religion is redundant. Religion contradicts morality. Religion adds socially trivial personal regulations to the social regulations of morality.

Property Rights and Regulation

A second ambiguity in Gimare's original summary of the free market position concerns the relationship between "property rights" and "minimal regulation."

The short objection to including both of these in the same statement is that property rights ARE regulations.

The concept of "property rights" refers to a set of government-backed limits on what individuals may and may not do with their property and the procedures to go through in transferring property from one person to another. It employes a set of definitions and regulations whereby the government distinguishes a legitimate transfer of property (the buying and selling of property by people who have given mutual consent) from theft or robberty (transferring property without consent).

If we look closely, we can see that certain political factions play on a pun beteen these two concepts to argue for a political system where they are free to do harm to the life, health, liberty, and property of others in the name of "minimal reglation", while they restrict others from doing them harm in the name of "property rights"

We can see this in a set of regulations that those who claim to be concerned with property rights often complain about -- environmental regulations. Technically, a system of property rights prohibits individuals from using their property in ways that damage the life, health, liberty, and property of others. Many environmental regulations cover instances in which it is determined that certain uses of one's property damage the life, health, liberty, and property of others. Some activities produce global warming, which exposes others to the threat of heat stress, diseases moving into areas which were once too cold for them, property loss due to sea-level rise and more destructive storms, and crop failure due to climate change. Other forms of regulation seek to reduce the harms caused by acid rain, particulate matter, or chemicals known to cause damage to others.

We can see this pattern as well in the historic issue of slavery. One of the arguments that plantation owners used in defense of slavery was the demand that the government be established to protect property rights and to free individuals from burdensom government regulation. The property rights they sought to protect was their right to own slaves, and they protested any attempt on the part of government to regulate this industry.

Often, where we hear of people protesting regulation, they are not concerned with protecting the live, health, liberty, and property of others. Rather, they are seeking a special license to engage in behavior harmful to others without paying any cost for the harms they inflict. This is quite the opposite of what a concern with property rights would require.

These are simply two examples of the useful pun thta some political factions find useful. Where they want the government to protect them, they use the term "property rights" and argue that the government's duty is to provide them with that protection. The government's job in these cases is to step in and prevent others from doing harm to their lives, health, liberty, or property.

However, if they find it profitable to engage in an activity that is harmful to the lives, health, liberty, or property of others, they reserve the right to use "minimal regulation" as their battle cry against these types of restrictions.

Ultimately, the criteria that distiguishes "protection of property rights" from "minimal government regulation" in these cases is whether others are threatening harm to the person making the statement, or the person making the statement seeks to do something that is harmful to others.


I consider myself to be an economic conservative, and I believe in the power of the free markets. However, there are those who use demagoguery to cloud the issue of what a free market truly requires. It does not require religion -- in fact, no religion that I know of ever used the concept of a free market. It also recognizes the fact that "property rights" is a form of regulation, and that some forms of regulation are good and useful.


Anonymous said...

If only more people like you can get through to people like your author, we might actually take a step forward in political discussions. I'm sure there will always be differences of opinion, but I'd like to see debate and argument actually GO somewhere, rather than simply being a shouting match. Perhaps the author could take your well-made points and refine his book. (Hope you're enjoying Vegas.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I do not think that my one response to this one author will make much of a difference.

A better response, I think, would be for those who read this article, the next time they encounter somebody who says, "more property rights and less regulation", to answer this person -- in public and before an audience, "property rights enforced by the government ARE government regulation."

That is how we can best put a dent in this particular mindset, and move the social debate forward.