Friday, December 17, 2004

The State

Samuel Brittan has an ambiguous discussion on the nature of the State in the FT ($)

He has a good way of looking at the budget: Look at some of the items in the official Treasury summary of this year's pre-Budget report. Nearly all consist of the handing over of money from some citizens for the benefit of others...It is tempting to call the process "bribing ourselves with our own money

But gets a bit hazy when it comes to political philosophy:
Margaret Thatcher aroused furious reactions when she said there was no such thing as society. I would prefer to say with the poet W. H. Auden:
There is no such thing as the state
And no one exists alone.
What is called "the state" is simply a mechanism by which citizens can provide collectively for items such as defence and security, which cannot readily be provided either through the market or through voluntary co-operation. It is also a mechanism for transferring claims to income or property from one citizen to another.
The question is how much one set of citizens should transfer to another set. The transfers may require a complicated administrative mechanism, although not one as complicated as that provided by the present accumulated mix of goodies.
Such transfers cannot be ruled out a priori. Neo-liberals rightly say that income does not belong to the state. But to say this does not rule out transfers effected by government machinery. In any case, neo-liberals have yet to provide a theory of just property rights; and most of them are reduced to exegesis of the writings of John Locke, a 17th-century philosopher whose teachings need massaging before they can be applied to today's problems.

For excellent Lockean "massaging" see the work of David Schmidtz. We need private property because it is the only way of avoiding the tragedy of the commons, and this holds for non-environmental spheres (welfare for example). The internalisation of responsibility prompted by the incentive structure of private property promotes a harmonious and prosperous society. It is not perfect and people will abuse the system, but in a system of several property one person can do far less harm than in a system where all land is owned by the State. Basically, the justification of property rights is that they work. They might not be fair by cosmic standards (as Thomas Sowell would say) but here on earth, in reality, these standards are of secondary importance.


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