Reality Intrudes

Demos writer Matt Bruenig and Cato Unbound editor Jason Kuznicki have been rhetorically at each others throats for a long time. Between blogging & comments and even Twitter it has long been clear those two think very lowly of each other. There’s net beef all over the place though, so why am I even remotely paying attention here? Well, this is because the roots of their war of words are in such heady things as definitions of justice, property rights, the very structure of society — argument over Vacuous Pop Star A vs Vacuous Pop Star B this ain’t.

In the latest chapter of their fight, Matt makes a claim about the Non-Aggression Principle to the effect that it either a) requires a world where there is no such thing as ownership of anything, or b) is nonsensical. Jason took that on and it has resulted in ongoing argument in the comments section at Matt’s personal site (2nd link). While reading through it I noticed what I’d say is a key issue sitting between them unobserved and obscuring, like a force field or an invisible elephant. Consider the following quotes from their comment exchanges (bold mine)…

Matt’s defense of taxation:

[…]People say I am violating the NAP when I tax even when they know that my theory of entitlement dictates that the amount being taxed does not belong to the person.[…]

Jason’s remark on first use theory of property:

First use theory for the ownership-free world. And consensual transfer with restitution thereafter.

That would describe an optimally just world, in my opinion.

Now, we clearly don’t live in such a world (Native Americans, slaves, etc, etc…), so the next steps afterward are to explain why we should do private, individual property and free markets anyway. […]

When Matt Bruenig states that his theory of entitlement says what one is taxed by the state “does not belong” to them, why is that? An assumption is being made here about property that to me reads as if in part its recognition or even existence in the first place inherently creates a debt. This looks in one sense like typical “social contract” talk for which I have the patience of a squirrel on cocaine, but could also come from an argument that the debt is meant as compensation for prior takings (sure it’s largely going to war profiteers instead, but lets humor the progressive for the moment). The latter view lifts away from Dem Land and shifts to a (very) crude Georgist/Tuckerite synthesis: the care & feeding of monopoly capital costs money, and that money should be obtained from the ones benefiting from it. Why Matt defends the currently existing tax system while it doesn’t fulfill either the synthesis function or the “social contract” function, I have no idea…

Jason, meanwhile, upholds the usefulness of the Non-Aggression Principle and his view of property rights… while admitting that the actually existing property system is built on aggression. That is, centuries of dispossession of those deemed lesser for the benefit of the ruling class, centuries of some people’s property rights meaning jack squat and an operational theory of property that begins and ends at “GIMME!” is baked in.  To me, such an admission carries within it implications for his view of taxation that make the question more complex than he lets on:

Yes, takings by force, including taxation, violate the Non-Aggression Principle. At the same time, there are and have been throughout economic history people who owe their wealth to massive and ongoing violations of it in the first place… Sowhuddowedonow?

Tl;dr take: Jason Kuznicki effectively handed Matt the justification that Matt himself whiffs on, while Matt’s implied view of justice actually suggests something even more Wacky Libertarian than Jason offers if followed to logical conclusion. We already live in the take whatever world, some are just way better at taking than others.

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About b-psycho

Left-libertarian blogger & occasional musician.
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