I recently had an argument on Usenet with a communist regarding an important aspect of freedom: doing what you want with what you have.
My opponent, a polite Australian communist named Fran was arguing the usual undefinable socialist platitudes: that using private property for ‘frivilous’ reasons (ie. more than what we ‘need’) is immoral as it wastes resources, keeps others in poverty, violates the rules of social ‘obligation’ and leads to an empty, meaningless life.
The final posts in the thread nicely sum up the argument that occured. I’ve posted the exchange below the cut. For the purposes of readability, I’ve played with the formatting a little. Keep in mind, this was a quickly typed series of responses, not a prepared series of debate points.
Fran: Each of us, in my opinion, must decide for him or her self what is necessary, advantageous or merely recklessly indulgent. Sometimes, often, even with the best of intentions, deciding which sides of the frontier a given good or service lies can be difficult. Yet I believe it is incumbent upon all of us, and especially those of us who have rather more than we need to live in dignity, to make the effort.
I don’t propose to legislate it — call it an “aspirational goal” — to use a current term that is doing the rounds at the moment. You can play lawyer as much as you like, but you surely are aware that the moment you interact with your fellows, you create bonds of mutual obligation, which, if you are rational person, you must of course define, according to a coherent ethical code.
Tex: It’s called “voluntary transaction” Fran. I’m just fine with it.
Fran: To do that seriously, you must devise ways of working out how to reconcile your own needs and wants with the needs and wants of others.
Tex: Simple. I want to buy something, someone else wants to sell it to me, we agree on a price (or not).
Fran: You must distinguish out who is likely to collaborate with you (and for how long and on what basis) from those likely to compete with you.
Tex: It’s called the marketplace. There really isn’t anything mysterious or sinister about it.
Fran: If you know that large parts of humanity get a rather smaller fraction of their needs met than you and that the result is that you get rather more of your most indulgent wants met than otherwise, can you be indifferent to that?
Tex: Yes. I didn’t cause their problems, I don’t know what their “needs” are, or how they define them, I’m not responsible for them, and I can’t change them. Quite simple really.
Fran: I’d say not, at least, not if you believe that everyone is entitled to a shot at the same life chances that you have.
Tex: Wrong. You’re talking about equality of outcomes which cannot and has not been achieved anywhere in human history.
Fran: I read the other day that the families of those 172 Chinese coal miners who were drowned will receive about $250 in compensation.
Tex: Unfortunate. Nothing to do with me either.
Fran: There are places in the world where life is bought and sold for less than that of course, but I’m betting that you place a higher value on your life than an amount of money with which you could to keep your petrol tank full for five weeks.
Fran: I wonder, were you a bereaved family member of one of those miners, how you’d explain the differing values placed on life in China and Australia.
Tex: They’re in a poor, totalitarian society, and we aren’t.
Fran: There are parts of the world where an annual income of $300 and a working week of 80 hours is the norm. Assuming you are on $60000 a year for roughly half that number of hours, I wonder if you tell yourself that this reflects the fact that you are a good deal 400 times cleverer, more diligent or more worthy than they are.
Tex: No, it means the market I’m in is willing/able to pay more for my labor than the marketplace they are in is willing to pay for theirs.
Fran: And if you don’t suppose that that is so, how would you explain it? Dumb luck?
Tex: See above.
Fran: Are you not troubled by such an arbitrary disparity in “personal freedom”, to borrow your phrase?
Tex: There is not “arbitrary disparity” in personal freedom. You seem to equate “freedom” with “entitlement”.
Fran: If personal freedom in an intrinsic good, shouldn’t everyone get an equal amount of it?
Tex: Yep. You have this weird idea that freedom doesn’t exist unless equal outcomes are achieved, or that freedom is some kind of zero-sum game.
Fran: And if you get rather more than someone else, shouldn’t you use it rather modestly?
Tex: Nope. Why the hell should I? What claim do you or anyone else have over I how should use what is mine?
Fran: I understand that you see yourself as a “libertarian”.
Fran: In your definition, this entails distrust of collective organisation, and a belief that the action of individuals is key to happiness.
Tex: Wrong again. It entails that any collective organisation is voluntary.
Fran: You of all people should be keen to state what you and others can do, as individuals, to assist those not so well placed as you.
Tex: How does holding voluntary transaction as a high value obligate me to “assist” someone else? Especially as your idea of assist seems to involve handing over something that is mine to someone else. My interest in assisting others is in seeing that they are freed from coercion.
Fran: If resources were abundant, the point might be moot, but they are not. Everything on the planet that you’d describe as worthwhile exists as a result of the applied labour of others.
Tex: Big deal. Their labour is paid for when I buy the products they produce.
Fran: Yes, indeed, but in the end, as we know, much of the labour in those consumer goods is paid at sweatshop levels.
Tex: Really? Which ones? I’ve got news for you Fran: my Kawasaki motorbike wasn’t built in a sweatshop by child labour.
Fran: Child labour is common in much of the world, even today. And even the adults get paid a relative pittance for their efforts. Even in Australia, there are textile workers getting between $3 a $5 per hour. Is there any good reason why you should be required to contribute just 10% or perhaps 1% or even less of your time to work than any other person?
Tex: There’s a very good reason: someone is willing to pay me the amount of X for the work that I do
Fran: Is there any good reason why you ought to be able to use this privilege to burn through resources frivolously?
Tex: What “privilege” are you talking about? And what resources am I somehow using “frivolously”?
Fran: I read that George Bush will take an entourage of 655 people and five planes to APEC. Try as I might, I can’t imagine how this can be justified.
Tex: I agree, which is why libertarians want drastic reductions in the amount of government spending, and the size of government. I’m quite happy with the idea of starving the bastards of revenue.
Fran: Indeed, I’m far from convinced he needs to come here at all.
Fran: In the time it will take me to compose this post (about 15-20 minutes), roughly 300-325 children will have died from malnutrition-related causes.
Tex: Terrible to be sure, but you not writing the post, and me not riding my motorbike isn’t going to stop that from happening.
Fran: I wonder how many of these might have been given what they needed in time, if the resources burned getting the lame duck president here and home in the style he has come to demand had been applied to that purpose.
Tex: And if my auntie had balls she’d be my uncle. What makes you think the resources used by El Presidente are somehow capable of being transferred over to Country X to keep some poor kiddies alive? Just look at how efficient most aid programs are.
Fran: If you have more than others without working more, it means you are living off the labour of another.
Tex: No, it means I’m living off my labour. That’s why I get paid.
Fran: That is an evasion.
Tex: No Fran, that is reality.
Fran: The cost of your labour reflects factors that have nothing at all to do with your skill or your effort
Tex: Strange, most employers would disagree with you. That’s why they hire person X to do job Y for the amount of Z.
Fran: …and much to do with the resources flowing into Australia as a result of high resource prices and extensive natural resources, the quality of the infrastructure, the strength of the currency and much else.
Tex: Welcome to the world-wide marketplace Fran
Fran: If you had no choice but to use whatever skills you had or could acquire growing up in, for example, Sierra Leone or East Timor, you could also “live off your labour” but not nearly so well.
Tex: Absolutely. And me not riding my motorbikes, buying DVDs or travelling isn’t going to change the lives of those in Sierra Leone one iota.
Fran: Someone in a wealthy country someplace else would also be living off your labour and justifying why they needed things that you apparently didn’t.
Tex: Fine by me. It’s their money. It’s up to them to decide what to do with it. It’s none of my business, or yours.
Fran: The world is badly organised, and I don’t hold you responsible for that, but ethical people are surely chastened by that thought, and hesitant to take more than they need, no?
Tex: You are using a computer, powered by fossil-fuel-provided electricity. You don’t “need” to do that.
Fran: Oh but I do, in my opinion. I use the computing access I have to learn more about the world about me, and to share what I’ve found with others. Usenet is indexed and archived, and what I write will be available to others long after I’ve drawn my last breath. I serve my own needs and the needs of others coterminously.
Tex: So you’re placing your thirst for knowledge as a “need”…. just like some kind in the third world has a need to eat. You’ve every right to do so as well, strange you don’t want others to have the same right.
Fran: I’m also troubled by your evident ennui. Despite your money and your avowed spending habits, you seem to find a great deal boring, You attach little value to self-knowledge and amity with others.
Tex: On what basis do you come to this conclusion?
Fran: Your persistance in identifying happiness with superficial things. Above you said: “Enjoying myself is important and worthy. Riding motorbikes, buying DVDs and books, travelling with my girlfriend on jet airplanes”.
Tex: None of these things are “superficial”, any more than you posting things on usenet are “superficial”.
Fran: When I suggested that going without “stuff” you didn’t need wouldn’t harm you and might lead to you reconsidering what was important and worthy in life and invited you to consider whether living this way was more pleasurable in the long run than pursuit of comfort in the possession of trivial personal effects, you responded: “Sounds dull”
Admittedly, you did toss in your girlfriend accompanying you as part of the pleasure, but it seemed to be only a minor part of a lifestyle that sounded more like a Peter Stuyvesant commercial.
Tex: …and you posting “stuff” on usenet under the more-pious-than-thou assumption that somehow your actions are somehow more worthy than others seems a waste of time to me. But there’s the rub: I respect your right to post “stuff” to usenet, because it’s your time, but you think my lifestyle should be restricted because you don’t like it.
Fran: This suggests to me that your extravagance does not give you profound or lasting pleasure at all. Perhaps you should reconsider this, in your own best interest.
Tex: You wouldn’t have the slightest idea what is in my “best interest”.
Fran: Well I have the ideas that you invite by what you post.
Tex: So Fran, what is in my “best interest”?
Fran: Everyone wants freedom, but one cannot have true freedom while others are in bondage and misery.
Tex: Yes they can.
Fran: Then you and I have radically differing views on what true freedom is.
Tex: I dont’ think you have the foggiest idea what “freedom” is, other than you seeking to make others live by your pious dictums
Fran: On the day when nobody has any basis for envying my freedom, or any basis for constraining its exercise to protect their own, I will be free.
Tex: You are “free” now. The idea that you tie your own personal liberty to the situation of everyone else on earth is little short of insanity, especially as you equate freedom with material wealth.
Fran: Most of us also want amity and community, which things sit particularly well with freedom. Why do you place so little value on these things, Tex?
Tex: I place lots of value on them.
Fran: And can you place any value on them at all if you are helping to despoil the biosphere and strip it of the things others need?
Tex: You can’t show me “despoiling the biosphere”.
Fran: Well if you are purchasing things frivolously
Tex: Again, you can’t show how anything I am doing is “frivilous”
Fran: that’s exactly what you’re doing. One has of course, the defence of necessity. One must eat, breath, drink and seek shelter from the elements. One should also seek intellectual enlightenment and emotional growth. If the rational pursuit of these activities consumes scarce resources, this is still defencible. But when one is profligate and reckless, the defence of necessity collapses. Are you profligate and reckless, Tex? Or do you believe in moderation now?
Tex: I’m neither profligate or reckless. I don’t believe in “moderation” in any sense other than maximising the use of my own time, health and resources.
There’s one glaring point I should have emphasised: Fran’s utterly contradictory construction of freedom. One one hand, one cannot be fulfilled without the bonds of community and the growth of one’s intellect and emotions, yet Fran argues these things are impossible without a level of material wealth she argues is ‘frivilous’. Talk about a self-defeating ideology. That’s the intellectually mushy world of communism for you.