Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tim Worstall: Now What's a Good Liberal To Do?

Tim Worstall here asks the question that, I think, underlies all of our political opinions. From vulgar libertarians to state socialists, the question of how to regard property that was taken by force in the past colours how we perceive the present, and what we recommend doing in the future.

"The conundrum of course is that the latter is clearly illiberal. But then so was the original taking of the property. But, then again, so have been most of the acquisitions of land and property throughout history. At some point a line needs to be drawn and, OK, yes, he thieved and murdered to get it but it's now 700 years, 300, 50, whatever later, and for society to continue to have property rights at all we've got to ignore that.

So how many years is it?"

It's a question, however, that 'classical liberals' choose not to address. They do not propose an answer because any answer would entail some redistribution of property from its current arrangement, something too horrific for them to contemplate.

It doesn't take much thought to recognise that the historical distribution of property was based on someone's ancestor, at some point in the mists of time, being physically larger than someone else's ancestor. In Britain we helpfully have the Domesday Book, which tells us that it was between 1066 and 1068 that some people's ancestors took other people's lands by force. That, after all, is what conquest is.

It's not a huge leap from here to suggest that the current distribution of property is not the sacrosanct absolute that some libertarians suggest. The remedies that some suggest: nationalisation of land, redistributive taxation on inheritance, may not be the right remedies, but they are, at least, partial answers to the question Tim poses; a question he will never answer.

Is it a question that needs an answer? Vulgar libertarians would argue that any attempt to use the political process to right the wrongs of the past is bound to create new wrongs. There may be something in that, but it does not follow that they will be as wrong as the crime initially committed. I do not believe that should adopt, as a principle, the holding of people to account for the actions of their ancestors, but do we really believe that everything that happened in the past, no matter how contrary to our principles, just has to be accepted as the way things are? Even if the ramifications of those actions affect society today?

This question is fundamental, because it is not just about Franco's house. It is the underlying bassline of all political discussions, pounding underneath arguments from Palestinians' 'right to return' to apologies for slavery to positive discrimination. The question is simply, when do we try and correct the mistakes of the past, and when do we just have to let them go?

Of course, Proudhon gives us an easy out here, as pointing out that as well as stating that 'property is theft' he, in the same book, claimed 'property is freedom' will inevitably make it sound as if you are a balanced and thinking person who has answered the question, when you have not. So...

After all, as Proudhon points out, not only is property theft, but it is also freedom. So there...