Monday, July 14, 2003

Language, Libertarianism & Ludwig

A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (?)

The trouble is that, if someone did write such a work, very few people would recognise its seriousness. Take for example, the comments on this post by John Quiggin on the subject of libertarianism, where with serious intent but flippant tone I posted the following comment:

Re: The moral argument is simply: All used things are owned (by definition).

That's a very interesting use of language. Which prompts me to pose a simple question: if I pick up a stone off the ground, and use it to break a window (by throwing it) do I acquire property rights in the stone? Or is it in fact morally wrong to do this, because I have used a thing which I do not own?

PS - for the sake of this example, please assume that the window is my own, as is the house it is on. There may be any number of reasons why I might choose to break my own windows but the simple assumption of lunacy will do for now.

This brought on a number of replies from libertarians; the upshot is that the stone becomes my property through the application of the "homesteading" principle, although it might be a little impractical to enforce. Especially if the window through which I lobbed the stone were someone else's, such as my neighbours.

I'm not going to complain about the subsequent comments missing the main point of the comment; when a point has been missed it's usually because it wasn't well made in the first place. After all, whatever can be said at all can be said clearly. Tedious as it is, I'm just going to have to put in the time to expand on the comment and raise the issues I hoped people might start thinking about explicitly, however much I might feel that this is going to be a lot like explaining to a particularly dull-witted child how to count on his fingers.

Reading the various arguments that have been offered by libertarians - whether they be moral libertarians defending the primacy of property rights over all others, or utilitarian/consequentialist libertarians defending property rights on whatever basis utilitarian/consequentialist libertarians defend property, it's difficult not to conclude that, while they might not be using a private language, they are using a demotic or dialect of their very own. Just as Marxists do. And when they attempt to translate from that demotic into the sort of ordinary language that the rest of us use, they get in trouble. Just as Marxists do. 24601's summation of the moral argument for property rights is a very good example; as I hinted in my response, the ordinary senses of the words "use", "thing" and "own" aren't up to the job of making the moral case for property.

At this point, it's usually considered obligatory to insert an extensive passage of very earnest argument on the various senses each of the words in question - "use", "thing" and "own" - might take in different contexts. I think it's sufficient to note that, in ordinary usage, language might be referred to as a "thing", just as a window or a stone might; that we use language when we speak or write; and that, langauge is the social institution par excellence. The notion of "owning" a language is patently ridiculous - if language could be made property, it would cease to function as language (following Wittgenstein, I will assert that a private language is no language at all). So, in language, we have an example of a thing that is used which is not owned, and, by definition cannot be owned. I think you'll agree that's a pretty telling counter-example to the assertion that "all used things are owned (by definition)", and that getting it across in a single paragraph is a nice piece of philosophical work.

I did have a few more things to say on this topic, but I might save those for later; right now I'd rather quit while I'm on a roll.

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