Calls for civility in politics are nothing new, and the incident involving White House spokesman Sarah Sanders at a restaurant has yielded plenty of smoke but little heat from both phony sides of this non-debate/non-issue.
I suppose we should be happy when property rights become part of the conversation. It’s healthy when our Left progressive friends develop a situational private property ethic. Of course property owners have the unfettered right to remove people or refuse service. And of course we should all be civil with those who don’t share our views. The day to day interactions that make any society at least tolerable, if not healthy, comport with customs and mutual-self interest, not positive laws.
But liberty requires property, and civility requires civil society. When politics and the state serve as the chief organizing principles in society, property rights and social cohesion necessarily suffer. Incivility is a feature, not a bug, of a highly political society. It is also a feature of an America where far too many things are decided by the federal government or its super-legislative Supreme Court.
What kind of healthy society devolves into cheering and jeering over judicial decisions, decisions swung by just a few judges voting one way or another? Should 320 million people have to worry so much about 5 or 7 Supreme Court justices?
It’s hard to argue for civility in winner-takes-all political scenarios. In fact it’s a recipe for hyperpartisanship, “othering,” and tribalism. It’s senseless to lament a loss of civility and then argue for overcoming our differences by voting harder and suing each other more.
Ludwig von Mises witnessed the collapse of the Habsburg civilization, the rise of Nazism in Austria and Germany, and two horrific European wars– a series of events far beyond mere incivility. His answer to actual barbarity was real liberalism, distilled in its purest form to one word: property. “If history could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization,” Mises tells us in the aptly-titled Omnipotent Government.
But property is not part of the liberal program today; on the contrary, private ownership is under serious attack not only among rising “democratic socialists” like Alexandria Cortez and Bernie Sanders but also by protectionist and mercantilist forces in the Trump administration.
In fact only libertarians believe in full ownership–i.e. full control– of private property. This is hardly an edgy argument at this point; Murray Rothbard made it 50 years ago. But nobody in politics or media actually believes this or argues for it. In the context of real estate, full property rights would require no property taxes, no zoning, no permits or building codes, complete freedom to alienate or sell at will, and most of all full control over who enters and who is required to leave. This kind of private property is not available to cake bakers or quaint southern restaurateurs.
America slowly but surely lost her sense of robust private ownership, the soul of a free society. It happened through the tax and regulatory state, by overturning the Lochner case and jettisoning economic substantive due process, through absurd readings of the Commerce Clause, through the creation of wildly extra-constitutional administrative agencies, and through the creation of an inferior form of property called “public accommodations.”
By giving up property we gave up liberalism and civil society. By insisting on political control over vast areas of human affairs we gave up civility for force.
Remember, politics is zero sum. The restaurant owners view Sarah Sanders as a threat, as someone who is going to cause them harm if her (Trump’s) administration prevails. That the owners acted absurdly is not the issue, nor is the incoherent argument that Trump somehow is beyond the pale relative to past presidents. The scene at the Red Hen restaurant was the result of the owners’ not-unjustified perception that the US political system vanquishes people. To avoid being vanquished they must vanquish Trump, at least in their eyes.
Ideally, when asked to leave by the proprietors of the restaurant Ms. Sanders simply should have shrugged her shoulders and left quietly. Which is apparently what she did, although reportedly she was followed and harassed at a restaurant down the street. What’s unfortunate is not merely the twitter incivility that followed, or the nasty news articles clamoring about a brewing civil war, but rather our blindness in understanding where “democracy,” politics, and disrespect for private property lead.
Jeff Deist is president of the Mises Institute, where he serves as a writer, public speaker, and advocate for property, markets, and civil society. He previously worked as a longtime advisor and chief of staff to Congressman Ron Paul, for whom he wrote hundreds of articles and speeches. In his years with Dr. Paul he worked with countless grassroots activists and organizations dedicated to reducing the size and scope of government.
Jeff also spent many years as a tax attorney advising private equity clients on mergers & acquisitions.
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Contributed by Jeff Deist of Mises.org.