The right to life, liberty, and cows
May 13, 2017 § 121 Comments
In the case of usury this failure to perceive the difference between real things and mere ideas shows up in how contracts for profit are secured: as St. Francis Xavier put it, “in the whole matter of security for contracts”. A non-usurious contract for profit is secured by property which actually exists, and only that specifed property. A usurious contract for profit is secured by (sometimes in addition to some actual property) the mere idea of property: by a personal IOU.
A pledge to give an investor a cow next year is not — the pledge is not — an actual cow. It is not usurious to pledge to give an investor a cow next year as part of a contract for profit; but only so long as that pledge is secured by some property which actually does exist, which fully discharges the obligation. The pledge is not to hand over a cow next year simpliciter, but to hand over either the actually existent security or a cow, thereby fully discharging the borrower’s obligation. A well structured contract will incentivise but not guarantee the latter.
The term ‘right’ is (like many terms) multivocal, kind of like the term ‘cow’. A right which actually has teeth is a particular right: a specific exercise of discriminating authority which trumps all other claims in a particular instance, treating one specific claim as superior to all other claims. Bob is the owner and Fred is the trespasser, so Fred must depart Bob’s property or be dragged off to jail.
Other uses of the term ‘right’ include talking about abstract categories of rights as opposed to actual rights. Again, kind of like cows. The idea that everyone has an equal right to (e.g) property is like (indeed is a superset of) the idea that everyone has an equal right to cows.
If this right is actual as opposed to abstract then it pertains to a particular cow or cows; and no particular cow is equal to any other particular cow. If Fred slaughters and eats Bob’s beef, he goes to jail.
Furthermore, many people don’t have a cow (other than metaphorically, when all of this is pointed out). The mere idea of beef is not a meal equivalent to actual beef.
There is nothing more authoritative and discriminatory than an actual right; nothing more empty and unreal than an abstract right with no instantiation. Owning a hypothetical cow is categorically distinct from owning an actual cow. Reality is categorically distinct from fiction.
It is sometimes suggested that my understanding of liberalism is flawed because it relies on a concept of rights which is “absolute”. But what critics see as “absolute” in my criticism of liberalism is simply recognition that the difference between reality and fiction is a categorical distinction, not a matter of gradiation. The difference between the idea of a cow and an actual cow is not a matter of moving along some continuum of compromise with a possible happy medium. Being and non-being are absolutely distinct.
The liberal war on authoritative particularity arises from its commitment to political liberty framed in terms of rights: arises from the fact that nothing discriminates (contra equality) and constrains (contra liberty) like actual, real, existent particular things. And conservative liberalism, as the more sane and commonsensical sphere of liberal societies, makes the mistake of believing that a happy medium is possible between reality and the void.