Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Moral Importance of Ownership

{Note:  what follows is a long excerpt from the conclusion of the article “Republicans Should Repudiate Rand Paul’s Civil Rights Stand” by Peter Wehner.  It is such an important issue that, if you have not thought carefully about it, you should.}

[Wehner urges us to] consider the logic and moral force of George F. Will, a man of impeccable conservative credentials.

Will, in his 1983 book "Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does," points out that segregationists like Lester Maddox, a proprietor of the Pickrick Restaurant in Atlanta before he was governor of Georgia, was exercising a real right when he denied service to black patrons. But that right had to be weighed against other, competing rights. And so in 1964 Congress, in Will's words, "undertook a small but significant rearrangement of American rights. It diminished the rights of proprietors of public accommodations, and expanded those of potential users of those accommodations."

Will goes on to write this:

The simple truth is that in 1964, because of brave and skillful symbolic actions by civil rights forces shaping public opinion, an American majority was unusually aroused and conscious of what Congress was doing. Congress was coming to the conclusion that a right exercised meanly, with ugly consequences, should yield to another, better right.
The great civil rights legislation of the 1960s was, of course, designed primarily to improve the condition of the descendants of slaves. But it had another purpose. It was supposed to do what it in fact did. It was supposed to alter the operation of the minds of many white Americans. The most admirable achievement of modern liberalism -- desegregation, and the civil rights acts -- were explicit and successful attempts to change (among other things) individuals' moral beliefs by compelling them to change their behavior. The theory was that if government compelled people to eat and work and study and play together, government would improve the inner lives of those people.

That is a deeply conservative, and deeply American, insight. I wish Rand Paul shared it.  The fact that he doesn't is bad enough. The party of Lincoln should not be complicit in his offense.

Kent Comments:

Who am I to take on George Will?  Nevertheless, Rand Paul’s position on this is based on property rights.  The most fundamental right of any human being is that of property.  First of all, if (in relationship to other human beings) you do not own yourself, then you can have not other rights.

Beyond that, it is very important that we respect the right of people to use their properly-gained property as they see fit.  This is, of course, subject to the provision that you are not using your property to destroy someone else’s equal right to his own property.  This sounds all very ethereal, but without it, we really do not have civilization – as we currently do not.

So let us be very specific with an example.  Suppose you own a little ice cream shop.  You own the building in which it is housed, you own all the equipment in the building, and you own the products you keep for sale.  Do you have the right to decide to whom you will sell ice cream?

George Will, Peter Wehner, and many others think you do not.  If you decided not to sell ice cream to Germans, Will thinks that “right exercised meanly, with ugly consequences, should yield to another, better right.”  That is, your right to control your property is trumped by another right held by someone else.

Is it not interesting that, within all the flowery language about rights, the details of this other right is never specified?  What right trumps my right to decide how I will use my ice cream shop?  Does my right not to be treated “meanly” trump your right to decide how you will use your ice cream shop?

If it does, then you do not really own your ice cream shop, for ownership implies control if it implies anything at all.  If someone you wish to ban from your ice cream shop can use it in spite of your objection, then you do not own “your” ice cream shop.

But the truth of the matter is that George Will and Peter Wehner do not believe that you or anyone else should really own anything, because they do not think you should finally control anything you own.  George Will even states above that, via the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the government was rightly attempting “to alter the operation of the minds of . . . Americans.”

This means that for George Will and those of his ilk, government mind control trumps the right of ownership.  This is far more than “a small but significant rearrangement of American rights.”  It is, instead, an obliteration of the right of ownership.

Where is the “logic and moral force” of this?  There is none.  It can be slipped past people in the modern United States partly because of the background of slavery and all of the horrible consequences that flow from the way “reconstruction” was handled by – guess who? – early Republicans.  It has created a whole pathos about the matter that seems to prevent many of us from thinking clearly when it comes up.

I do not think, contrary to Peter Wehner, that this is a “deeply conservative, deeply American” insight.  But if it is, I am not a conservative, and I am not an American.  As Ben Franklin is alleged to have said, “Where liberty is, there is my country.”

Rand Paul has been on the hot seat for his very logical and cogent remark about this matter.  The fact that he is getting heat about it shows just how effectively government has been controlling minds since the 1960s.  But it is so very depressing to see how many, even among those who call themselves conservatives, think that is a good thing.

Maybe that is why it is high time for some new kind of Republicans – the Rand Paul kind, at least on this matter – who are not afraid to speak up for the most fundamental right of human beings – the right to ownership.

Postscript:  if I owned an ice cream shop, it would be my fondest wish that any and all ice cream lovers enter my shop and buy my ice cream, for the obvious reason that it would help me make greater profits from my investment.  It would be economically irrational to do otherwise.  But the right to ownership implies that people may use their property in economically irrational ways.  Again, if they cannot, then they do not really own their own property because they do not control their property.

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