My essay, yesterday, on property and morality sparked another striking Twitter argument with Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s husband, Matthew Bruenig. It fell away when he decided that his point would be best served by trying to hurt his opponent’s feelings, but the angry-young-man nastiness was telling. Here’s the cut that he appears to have thought fatal:
opponents of the poor are less than human, especially when they are profoundly stupid as you are
Note the assumption of righteousness premised on faceless human groupings to justify dehumanization of somebody who disagrees with him. What does it even mean to be an “opponent of the poor”? Apparently, it means criticizing Matthew Bruenig’s preferred approaches to addressing the problem of poverty (which, conveniently, allow his ilk to take money away from people he believes are less than human while enriching those who mouth his demanded shibboleths).
Bruenig’s final tweets were little more than a show of immaturity and a push to win an inconsequential debate with a stranger, but the reasoning leading up to them is worth considering. In terms of debate tactic, his initial jab was to pluck a Biblical reference from the 2,800-word essay and present it as a turnabout, to cast my argument as Marxist. Then, he took that position to deliver his main thrust and claim that I didn’t understand the foundations of my argument, which he followed up with his violent slashes.
The move works well on Twitter, with its 140-words-per-post limit, but it amounts to a flashy dance with no sword in hand. Or, without the metaphor, he studiously avoided the point.
My essay’s argument was that property rights are individual and derive from a moral (ultimately religious) basis and that competitive redistribution offers a more moral starting point for an economic system than does forced redistribution through government. In Judeo-Christian terms, original sin requires us to take responsibility for earning our own living, giving us a moral obligation to find a vocation — to create a source of economic value unique to each of us. When it comes to property, everything is ultimately God’s, but our obligations to earn and to advance society require that we effectively take temporal ownership of material objects, and the moral determinant of proper ownership is the use of the property for the right purposes. The challenge of an economic system is defining who gets to decide what those right purposes are.
In the Book of Genesis, God condemns Adam to working the field as his toil, but even by the next generation, with Cain and Abel, the literal labor of farming has expanded to include Abel’s occupation as a shepherd. In articulating the principles involved, therefore, one can extrapolate to modern society that “toil” isn’t a question of breaking a sweat or exercising muscles, but of creating value for moral purposes.
Seeking to defend the morality of handing out money through a welfare state, Matthew Bruenig’s debater trick was to raise the neoclassical production function (which states that output [Y] is a function of labor [L] and capital [K]) to separate work and capital investments so that he could insist that gathering money through capital investment does not give a person a right to property any more strongly than does gathering money through welfare payments. That is, if I’m going to take the Marxist position (his accusation) that earning through labor creates a special right to property, thereby excluding government handouts, I also have to exclude investment income.
If Bruenig were more interested in intellectual pursuits than ideological warfare, he might have noticed that my essay explicitly left open the possibility that helping the disadvantaged has a value to society (or an individual business) from which the beneficiaries can derive a vocation. Before attempting to belittle me and dispute my humanity, he might have taken just a few brief moments to notice that I’m also skeptical about claims that capital deserves special treatment against labor, mostly on the grounds that ideologues of all sorts push us into categories so that our mutual interests can’t unite against them.
Certainly, for purposes of economic modeling and prediction, one must acknowledge that capital and labor are distinct in how they can be conceptualized and handled, but my entire point was that we risk losing sight of people when we start talking in terms of groups like “the poor.” The poor are us, in the past, present, or future, and all of us have the human rights and obligations of our moral system. The question of morality and “right use” of property cannot be decided at the sky-high level of system design. It’s personal and unique, so the system should be designed to allow economic and moral decision-making at the narrowest possible level.
This understanding of life is why I remarked to Bruenig how well he was illustrating how technocracy leads to tyranny. He believes himself to have special information in his equations. Those equations divide labor and capital into separate variables; misused, the variables stop being names for different types of human activity and become representations of different groups of people. Ideology picks one as higher and more-virtuous, and those with a different view are, in Matthew Bruenig’s words, “less than human.” Of course, through this approach, everybody is less than human, except the masterminds who get to decree economic and human value.
Thus, everything gets neatly wrapped up. Labor unions cooperate with government in order to speak for L, and progressives claim for government ultimate ownership of K. Anybody who declines to fit into a category is the enemy, and when humanity is redefined as a bunch of letters, it’s very easy to take an eraser to their rights, up to and including the right not to be killed.