The inequality scam
One of the most destructive popular myths is the idea that inequality is a severe problem and needs to be replaced by some state of enhanced equality - which always turns out to be inequality dysfunctionally rearranged according to the preferences of those with sufficient political clout. Why is the myth so popular? To like it you only need to regurgitate bromides that make you instantly likable and respected; to not like it you must think and look beyond appearances and face distrust and moral outrage.
Be that as it may, to some extent everyone reroutes the flow of information from a lecture like the below one by Richard Epstein through the filters of his personally preeminent themes. For me these were self ownership and first possession, which I happen to do some reading on at the moment.
A reflection on self-ownership
Let us concentrate on self-ownership, which is a concept I find awkward, maybe because one tends to associate ownership with inanimate objects or non-human creatures, and only odiously with humans (slavery). What self-ownership really means is a bundle of rights that legally entitle you to do certain things by applying your mind and body as you see fit. I have discussed the errors underlying the concept of absolute self-ownership in Elementary Errors of Anarchism (1/2) - explaining that self-ownership can have legal and moral meaning only as a relational concept, i.e. one reflecting and defining social relationships, for which reason it will always be constrained and conditional so as to allow for the necessary give and take between human beings. Absolute self-ownership (doing whatever one likes) and no self-ownership (being unable to ever apply ones mind and body as one sees fit) are two extremes that can never serve as modes of structuring social order. So self-ownership lies somewhere on a continuum between these extremes.
The attempt to qualify self-ownership by the so-called non-aggression principle fails. The principle posits never to violate a person's (bundle of rights called) self-ownership unless that person initiates aggression against you - which is why anarchists consider the state illegitimate, as it does initiate or threaten to initiate violence against people who have not initiated aggression against the state or anyone else. But this reasoning is remarkably naive, begging the all-important question: what is to count as illegitimate aggression? First, we have to settle what a person is allowed to do and what not; only then can we discern aggression from non-aggression.
The challenge then is to find a (more differentiated) system of command [a strong term admittedly, bear with me] generating rules that produce optimal outcomes from self-ownership.
It appears that now only three such systems of command remain to be considered:
The first two treat self-ownership as a residual outcome subject to communal or governmental approval, the second is based on a legal framework that seeks to leave as much discretion as possible to the individual regarding what she can or cannot do with the help of her mind and body.
(1) Communal determination of residual self-ownership - i.e. all human beings negotiating instantly and simultaneously with each other the content of self-ownership of each person, as in a Rawlsian world, where talents and other personal advantages that may be ascribed to luck are considered the property of all those not so advantaged, or the task is delegated to
(2) central determination of residual self-ownership - i.e. an authority endeavouring
(a) to approximate either the end specified under (1), or
(b) to impose a regime of rules that purport to serve an even better or morally more valid end, best known to and enforced by that authority.
Instead of self-ownership we could just as well use the term public ownership, as there will always be precepts within the bundle of rights that constitutes self-ownership which reflect public constraints on the individual - even anarchists admit this by conceding the non-aggression proviso. The term self-ownership, I surmise, is chosen to express strong support for a preponderance of decision making options delegated to the individual rather than to public discourse or public authorities.
The best system of command, the liberal would argue, occurs under a strong presumption in favour of
(3) determination of self-ownership under rules that represent a supra-jurisdiction, if you will, establishing in its turn a vast sub-jurisdiction for the individual to determine the content of self-ownership, i.e. the rule of law which enforces individually delegated decision making under common constraints, as opposed to the rule of man which is based on unconstrained decision-making by central authority.
This third approach to self-ownership amounts to an extensive privatisation of law. Rather than approval by the public or authorities, what is needed in order to act in a way covered and protected by the law is compliance with general rules that circumscribe broad areas of discretionary decision making by the individual. In fact, the modern state is the largest privatizer of law ever seen in history, enabling an unprecedented independence of decision making by individuals and organisations from the discretion of rulers - which is what we mean by civil society.
Under a law conceding extensive sub-jurisdiction to the individual, we can achieve more things and achieve them more readily and more peacefully.
Ultimately, the extent of (a) delegation empowering the individual and (b) its benign efficacy are a matter to be empirically established.
The whole belief in individual freedom is only as good as our ability to see where personal liberty ought to be fostered and where it must be enclosed.
Now, this is where Richard Epstein's lecture comes in instructively. He gives an outline of the reasons and conditions that make a preponderance of individual decision making power desirable, and indicates how liberty is strengthened by the very limits we put on her. He also explains how forcing equality damages the common weal brought about by self-ownership.
All in all, the lesson that I take away from thiinking about Epstein's belowlecture is that the key concepts of liberty such as self-ownership or private property must not be treated as conclusive dogmatic tenets but as testable scientific propositions, that in certain circumstances may prove to be incomplete and in need of complementation or contexually dependent suspension.
No such thing as market failure
Incidentally, the term "market failure" [time mark 07:15] is infelicitous, from a liberal point of view: there are things markets are not equipped to deal with, like making your neighbour fall in love with you. It would be just as inappropriate to say Georg fails because he cannot make your neighbour fall in love with you. Of course, Richard Epstein does understand this. Sometimes, however, one yields to linguistic convention. Sadly, "market failure" talk is a conventional habit that reflects the dominance of uneconomic and anti-economic thinking in our societies, and not only among "ordinary people" but very much among economists, too, who make careers by exploiting the market failure myth - like Joe Stiglitz.