Last night, the Carolina Review hosted its first event in its history. The event was a debate on the statement: Government intervention in the Free Market is Moral. Arguing the affirmative was Ralph Byrns, a self-described “leftist libertarian” professor of economics at UNC Chapel Hill. Arguing the negative was John Lewish, a objectivist libertarian professor in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
Unlike last week’s debate on the ethics of health care reform, this debate actually focused on moral issues. The debate was sometimes heated and threatened to spin out of control at times, as Byrns and Lewis on occasion resorted to shouting obscenities at each other over the pleading voices of the moderators. Once order was restored, the debate centered around the issue of rights, whether they exist, where they come from and what they guarantee us.
Lewis argued that we do not have a right to anything, we only have the right to take certain actions. Lewis is an atheist and rejects any sort of divine origin of rights, rather, he argues that rights come from our nature. We are individuals, and we make decisions as individuals. From this, we derive our fundamental right to action. This right is often expressed as a right to own property.
In Lewis’ view, the role of government is to protect our rights by preventing us (through retaliatory force against criminals) from infringing on the rights of others. This creates what Lewis defines as the free market. The free market is not anarchy, after all, Lewis points out that there was no free market in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. The free market must be protected by government. However, government should limit itself to retaliatory use of force. Actions such as taxation, wealth redistribution and corporate bailouts are government interventions, and ultimately government initiations of force. As these violate our rights to property, Lewis views them as immoral.
Byrns counters these claims by claiming a different definition of freedom. Rather than the absence of coercion, Byrns views freedom as a condition with the most available possible choices. Limiting our rights can give us more choices. Byrns challenges the origin of rights. Also rejecting the divine as an explanation, he says that the government is what defines property rights for us. And if the government defines our rights, it can change them. Ultimately, our rights are defined by consensus.
Lewis countered Byrns’ view of freedom by pointing out that if we all stole from each other, we would have a more available possible choices than we do now. Byrns did not answer this directly, but later said that we should not be able to own certain types of property, such as slaves. He apparently believes that choices should be maximized within reason, but limited by other factors.
Byrns on the other hand attacked the realism of Lewis’ views on government. If government is supposed to exist to protect our rights and punish criminals but never initiate coercive intervention, how should such a government fund itself? Taxation, after all, is a coercive action backed up by force (jail if you refuse to pay) and according to Lewis it is immoral.
Lewis countered by saying that his ideal government would be one tenth the size of today’s government, and that there would be plenty of ways to fund such a government non-coercively. However, he never specified what these methods were. Thinking on this, it’s hard to think of a way a government could be reliably funded that would not involve either a tax (coercive initiation of force) or state-run businesses (a government intrusion into the free market).
And that was the main problem with Lewis’ argument: It was consistent, but it fails when you try and apply it practically. Byrns on the other hand has only a vague definition of what rights are, and since he says they are defined by majority rule he should probably just scrap the term entirely. Byrns’ view that rights are decided by the majority without any sort of divine input is societal relativism at its most dangerous. With no divine moral mandate and majority rule deciding what is right and what is wrong, people can decide to take away anything if they can get enough people to agree with them. The door to dictatorship, communism, Nazism, and all sorts of despotic and tyrannical government is opened by this philosophy.
Although I disagree with the concept of natural or inherent property rights, I hold that there is a divinely granted moral law which governs what we should and should not do. Stealing is not wrong because it violates someone else’s rights, stealing is wrong because it is in violation of that which God hath commanded us. However, this is a topic for another post, but for now, I will give the edge in last night’s debate to Dr. Lewis, although it was a close one.