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Tyranny for Art’s Sake

with 7 comments

I’ve been looking at the comments from yesterday, and I find them very interesting.  I seem to have confused two different attempts at railroad building in 19th Century America.  I’ll try to be more careful as I go on. 

But the really interesting thing is the statement that “absolute property rights” would have resulted in there being no Paganini.

In the first place, it’s important to note that I said NOTHING about “absolute property rights.”

In fact, most of what I was talking about had nothing to do with property rights at all, unless you’re using the Lockean formulation that the origin of property rights is that every man owns first and foremost himself.

It’s not that I don’t think that property rights are important.  They are very important, and they are more important for the poor and disenfranchised than they could ever be to the rich and powerful.

Running on about “absolute property rights” is a straw man argument.  No one denies that there are times and circumstances when  there needs to be a public project for the long term advantage of the country or the city or the county or the town–the building of dams, the building of roads, all kinds of things.

The trick is to frame the policy of what we now call “eminent domain” to make sure that the use of it is a) restricted to absolute necessity and b) restricted to actually public projects and c) not available for use by the government to deprive some people of their property in order to enrich other private parties.

In other words, I think the Interstate highway system is defensible.  I think the Kelo decision is not.  Kelo, by the way, is a great example of why property rights should be closer to absolute than they now are.  And you’ll notice that the majority decision that gave New London the right to through Kelo et al out of their homes was a result of the legal philosophies of the justices that call themselves liberals.  The conservatives were all on the side of the homeowner.

But on top of that, none of what I said even implies that civilization COULD NOT advance without the use of coercion.  I don’t think it’s possible to know.

I DO think, however, that if the only way we could get Paganini would be to make people suffer through slavery and oppression, then I’d be happy to give up Paganini.  That’s no choice at all.  I am not George Steiner.  Art, no matter how great, is no excuse for millions of people living in misery.

There is nothing to say that civilization would not have developed anyway, although more slowly.  And there is a lot to say that every country that has increased properity and comfort for the majority of its citizens has done so through respect their individual natural rights as human beings.

Democracy may or may not produce great art–personally, I think it can do that, too, Steiner notwithstanding–but what it definitely does do is give us “relative” poverty instead of the absolute kind, so that conservatives can be driven crazy by poor people with cell phones and air conditioning and plasma TVs, and liberals can insist that none of that matters because you can have all that and be poor anyway.

What I was actually talking about, though, was not the property problem, but something else:  the extent to which the state should be allowed to interfere in the private decisions of private people about their private lives.

The democratic revolution–English version–says that each human being is an end to himself and may not be used as the means to the ends of others.  It says that government power must be tightly restricted in order to make interference in such things as rare as possible, and even then only when there is an overwhelming need to get a job done.

There is no question that sometimes, such overwhelming need actually exists.  The institution of laws forbidding dumping human waste in the streets of growing cities was definitely one of them. 

And sometimes such laws are legitimate in some places but not in others–that NYC requires its citizens to have professional garbage service makes sense; in a small rural town with only a couple of thousand people, letting people make their own arrangements (even taking their own garbage to the dump by themselves) also makes sense.

 The issue is to what extent must governments treat their citizens AS citizens and AS human beings, rather than a fodder (cannon and otherwise) for “the public good.”

The problem begins with the very phrase meant to defend the practice:  who is the public? what constitutes their good? who gets to decide that? And the problem gets more acute when you look at the fact–and it is a fact–that most declarations of the public good have not been good for the public or even for the elite forces that imposed them.

Both left and right want to engage in cultural coercion. They see the wrong of it in some cases and not in others.

The left waxes indignant about such practices as forcing Native American children into boarding schools to be trained out of their own culture and into the white majority’s.  They reject–as “cultural imperialism” and virtually without condition–any suggestion that African American children should be trained out of their colloquial speech and customary cultural habits.

At the same time, they have no trouble with imposing mandatory national curricula on private as well as public schools, with an eye to ending fundamentalist Christian teaching against evolution.

In the meantime, the right will fight for the rights of fundamentalist Christians to raise their children their way (including teaching creationism), but often vigorously support imposing cultural mandates about things like Ebonics and teen aged sex.

The list of topics about which each side is convinced that allowing people to make their own decisions will bring on the apocalypse is very long, and each side, once in power, resorts to coercion first rather than last.

And that is, as I’ve pointed out, been the truth throughout history.

But it’s also the truth that it is only when governments began to retreat from that posture that we begin to see nations with near universal prosperity, nations where even poor people are richer than rich people have been throughout the centuries.

And it’s even more so the truth that all those projects for “the public good” MOST often brought no good to the public and lead to nothing but more efficient forms of oppression and pain for the vast majority of the populations they’d been foisted on.

The Mayans  didn’t produce a Paganini either.

Written by janeh

April 8th, 2014 at 8:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Tyranny for Art’s Sake'

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  1. “The left waxes indignant about such practices as forcing Native American children into boarding schools to be trained out of their own culture and into the white majority’s. They reject–as “cultural imperialism” and virtually without condition–any suggestion that African American children should be trained out of their colloquial speech and customary cultural habits.”

    I love that. The left waxes indignant… :-) I can’t find a verb “to indign”. Perhaps we should invent it.

    Down here, the Left indignantly opposes and obstructs, always without condition, any attempt to provide children in remote Aboriginal communities with decent health, education and welfare services that would a) protect them from the extreme physical and sexual abuse that is endemic in many of those communities and defended by the left as either “cultural” or as, more often, a side-effect of European corruption. Thus we have a situation where the children’s mission-educated grandparents are more literate than their children and grand-children born since leftist governments swept the missions away from the 1970s.

    Bluntly stated, the Left wants to preserve tribal (read remote rural) Aboriginal culture, as in aspic, at the expense of effectively forcing each coming generation into illiteracy thus denying them the choices to assimilate or to be otherwise absorbed into the wider multi-cultural Australian community. They achieve this by pursuing idiotic schemes like teaching students in their native languages of which there are myriad. Shades of similar stupidity in the US where, no doubt, there are people pursuing similar aims.

    I imagine that many Native American communities on the reservations suffer from similar Leftist nonsense.


    8 Apr 14 at 8:16 pm

  2. I would agree, and can’t add much to what I wrote on part 2. Free government is a balance struck, and the balance varies with circumstances. The city dweller is of necessity less free than the countryman–though he may be (literally) less civilized.

    The balance has to vary with people too. When you have people who form serious criminal conspiracies, justice shifts toward star chambers and informants. How can it not? The founders were right that only certain people were suited for certain forms of government–and that people can change. I wonder what form of government Madison or Franklin would say we were suited for?


    8 Apr 14 at 8:46 pm

  3. Mini hijack alert:

    VDH rides again.



    10 Apr 14 at 10:22 am

  4. Almost on topic. The devil makes work for idle hands department:



    10 Apr 14 at 8:44 pm

  5. Apologies, Jane, but just one more with feeling.


    Shame Brandeis, shame!


    11 Apr 14 at 2:28 am

  6. From Wikipedia

    Brandeis was founded in 1948 as a nonsectarian Jewish community-sponsored coeducational institution on the site of the former Middlesex University. The university is named for Louis Brandeis (1856–1941), the first Jewish Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

    I suspect that Judge Brandeis and the founders would be ashamed of the University. What a travesty of freedom of speech and freedom of religion!


    11 Apr 14 at 2:56 am

  7. jd

    13 Apr 14 at 1:56 am

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