The reasons why are complex, and to some extent can only be answered by psychology and weakness of character. But I think there are ideological factors as well. I think libertarian and classical liberal ideology appeals to two very different kinds of people, those who support liberty because people should be free to live their lives as they wish so long as they don’t aggress on others, and those who want to be free to live their lives as they wish.
This post launches my investigation to see whether some on this list agree or have interesting reasons for disagreeing.
I want to use property rights as a diagnostic device. Everyone here supports private property, I imagine, but there are two broadly different ways classical liberals and libertarians conceive of and defend private property. They often coexist, but they have different 'flavors'.
First, private property is something over which I exercise control. If it is all mine my control is total. In a classic statement of this position, Sir William Blackstone observed “There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination and engages the affections of mankind as the right of property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, to the total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.”
Second, private property is a bundle of discrete rights. Some rights can be sold or rented without denying other unsold and unrented rights. When we think of private property in this way it is not so much a thing as it is a field of possible relationships with others and (potentially) with what is considered property.
This second view makes it possible to raise a question difficult to address in the first: what relationships are appropriate and what relationships are inappropriate? The first has a simple answer – you may not aggress on my boundaries. All else is permitted. Not so the second because property is not a thing with boundaries but a set of potential and realized relationships.
From this perspective inappropriate relationships can not be property rights at all, and this so-called “limitation” is in no sense a limitation on genuine private property rights. For example, many people myself included have no problems with buying and selling animals. But many, myself included, would argue that there is no right for an owner to torture his or her animal. Ownership does not appropriately include that right. Some people, myself included, would go farther, and say if I own an animal I take on certain obligations to care for its welfare. Thus the “private property” that is my dog or cat is not the same as the “private property” that is my pen or shoe, where few indeed would argue such obligations exist. The same word is used to describe different sets of relationships, but in both cases I can buy and sell what I own.
A despot or would be despot can consistently be a libertarian or classical liberal if he or she believes they will never exercise power and want no power exercised over them. But when “their side” is in power, all restraints are off beyond prudential ones. I think such people would be attracted to the first model of property and not much to the second.
I hypothesize classical liberals and libertarians who are more attracted to the first kind of reason than they are to the second will be more likely to also support or have until recently supported, the Bush administration on a number of issues, such as the war, and perhaps even be drawn to authoritarian politicians such as Guiliani.
I have not read Barnett for years, but wonder where he falls on this issue of property rights? I assume someone on this list knows.