Tradition-Aggression-Desert Whack-A-Mole

Earlier, I outlined the familiar game of capitalism whack-a-mole. In this game, proponents of capitalism shift constantly between the incompatible normative frameworks of voluntarism, desert, and utility. It’s funny because, during the whack-a-mole game, the underlying reasons that they claim to motivate them change dramatically, but their conclusions never do.

Yesterday, I was host to a novel version of this whack-a-mole game on twitter, care of some fellow named Adam Blackstone. This game was not a voluntarism-desert-utility whack-a-mole game, but a tradition-aggression-desert whack-a-mole game.

To understand the whack-a-mole, it is necessary to establish some context. For a long time, I have pointed out that property violates the non-aggression principle as well as voluntarism. Property is no different from a tax: it involves violently excluding pieces of the world from some people in order to secure them for others without the consent of those so excluded. Those who claim that their worldview is based on resistance to “theft” or “aggression” must, if they wish to be consistent, oppose property ownership because property is theft and aggression.

The move of Blackstone (as well as Adam Gurri, who is more disciplined and capable on such matters) is to say that property is not theft because we don’t regard it as such under our norms, traditions, and conventions. This response does not engage the point that property meets all the fleshed out qualifications of theft and aggression. It just denies that we should use that kind of abstract reasoning altogether. Instead, we are asked to use conventions, norms, and traditions to determine what is and isn’t theft, as well as what rights people do and don’t have. It’s a framework shift.

As I tend to do, my move in response to the framework shift is to accept the new “traditionalist” framework and derive conclusions from it that Blackstone won’t like. I know he is some kind of laissez-faire capitalism sort, especially when it comes to employer-employee relations. So I start advocating labor rights on the premise that they are conventional. I say that conventions, norms, and traditions cohere with the idea that people’s jobs are theirs not unlike property (hence “my” job). I say further that, especially among labor communities, norms and traditions have developed around the idea that labor has certain rights to their workplace, rights to halt production if being treated unfairly, and so on.

Blackstone did not like the conclusion this traditionalist framework was generating regarding labor rights. So what does he do? He switches into a new one. The whack-a-mole has begun.

[Blackstone:] How does “my job” even work without a gun held to the head of the guy buying your labor? What if he doesn’t want…

You’ll notice that this is not a traditionalist argument. Blackstone has not said “these conventional labor rights you are arguing for are in fact not traditional at all.” Instead, he flipped back into the non-aggression (non-coercion, non-force, voluntarism, etc.) framework. But remember that the whole point of flipping into traditionalism was to avoid my point that property is not permissible under the non-aggression framework. So I just repeat that point:

[Bruenig:] “my” always entails guns to the head of others right? property….

Distancing from Aggression
At this point, Blackstone distances from his inadvertent slip back into the very non-aggression reasoning that he initially tried to avoid. Here is the amusing back and forth:

[Blackstone:] You’re the one with the philosophy built around not touching people.

[Bruenig:] The philosophy of liberty?

[Blackstone:] Is that what you call it? I just recall it as “I’m not touching you!”

[Bruenig:] The libertarians call it the non-aggression principle and it has mobilized armies of fedoras in its defense.

[Blackstone:] Do you share it or not? I don’t.

Recall again that his objection to conventional labor rights was that it entailed putting a gun to the head of the boss. This is straightforward non-aggression silliness. But now, when I actually go to apply non-aggression (don’t put guns to people’s heads) to knock out all property, he says he doesn’t believe in it. In the last comment, he rejects the non-aggression idea altogether, an entire turnaround from his boss comments.

Since he has now explicitly rejected the aggression stuff (as was my goal), I implore him to drop it as an argument against labor rights:

[Bruenig:] Since you hate liberty, stop objecting to labor rights on the grounds that they require force to protect. Deal?

Blackstone refuses to do so, and turns to a desertist argument for why holding guns to people’s heads with regard to property is different from doing it with regard to labor rights. In it, he grabs for the whole defense v. aggression thing that I have so often remarked upon as question-begging and funny. This unfolds:

[Blackstone:] There’s a difference between self defense and aggression. Including defense of wealth I created with my own hands.

[Bruenig:] True. Aggression is acting on the body of others when they have not acted on your own.

Good times.

Instead of jumping back into the pit of trying to explain why someone may use unilateral violence against the bodies of others in order to prevent them from accessing pieces of the world that they never agreed to be excluded from, Blackstone shifts back into a traditionalist framework. This may not look like a traditionalist argument, but understand in our prior exchanges that he specifically describes “that which we defend” as essentially the same thing as conventions, norms, tradition.

[Blackstone:] No, and that trick’s getting old. You can defend things besides yourself.

So then I am like: sweet, we are back into traditionalism; I will just reassert my “labor rights are required by traditionalism” point. He never did answer it back after all. He just flipped into non-aggression briefly before abandoning it and coming back to tradition.

[Bruenig:] Indeed. Like your labor rights.

And that’s how it ended. What a glorious game of whack-a-mole it was. Here is my brief summary:

  1. Me: The abstract principles of non-aggression entail that property is aggressive theft.
  2. Him: Non-aggression abstractions are not the proper framework. We should look to norms, conventions, and traditions. Those things do not describe property as aggressive theft.
  3. Me: If we look to norms, conventions, and traditions, then labor has rights. People have certain rights to their jobs.
  4. Him: Having rights to “your” job means putting a gun to the head of the boss, which violates non-aggression (or voluntarism or whatever you want to call it).
  5. Me: Property violates non-aggression (or voluntarism or whatever you want to call it) too. That’s what (1) is all about!
  6. Him: Using guns and force to exclude pieces of the world from people is not aggression. It is defense because you are entitled to exclude people from the wealth you create, since desert theory is correct.
  7. Me: No, aggression is acting on the body of others when they have not acted on your own body. Defense is acting against the body of another in response to them acting on your own. Accordingly, property of all types is always aggression and involves guns to the head no different from the gun to the head of the boss in the labor rights situation.
  8. Him: Saying you may only defend your own body is not consistent with norms, conventions, and traditions. Those things would not call “defense” of property as aggression.
  9. Me: Traditions, norms, and conventions also don’t call defense of labor rights aggression. That’s my whole point in (3).

So in this interaction, we go Aggression-Tradition-Aggression-Desert-Tradition. Blackstone’s political conclusions never change, but his rationales radically shift from moment to moment. It is almost as if he just has certain Humean institutional preferences and backfills his rationales after the fact.