A Carson Sampler

In Honor of a Long-Time FEE Contributing Editor

Editor’s Note: Long-time contributing editor Clarence Carson died in April. In memory of this friend of FEE, we reproduce below excerpts from three of his many articles for The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.

“The Property Basis of Rights,” September 1980

There has been an attempt to separate property rights from other rights in this century. It has usually been done by labeling some rights as “human rights” and referring to others as “rights” of property. This distinction has been accompanied by the claim that “human rights” are superior to “property rights.”

. . . The distinction has not gone unchallenged. In the 1960s there was even a sort of slogan coined which called it into question. It went something like this: “Property rights are human rights.” The idea had some appeal. After all, rights are not something ordinarily thought of as belonging to plants or the lower animals. If there is a right to property, it must be first and foremost a human right. That was not, of course, quite the distinction the critics of property rights were attempting to make. They referred to property rights as if they were rights belonging to property. Those who challenged this concept maintained, to the contrary, that property rights were really rights of human beings to property. Thus, “Property rights are human rights.”

At the time, I agreed with this line of reasoning—I still do—and thought it stated the case adequately. However, further study and reflection have led me to a somewhat different conclusion. Property rights are not just another human right; such a statement understates the case. They are much more fundamental than that. Property rights are basic to all rights.

This relationship first occurred to me while studying the loss of rights in totalitarian countries. My general conclusion was that the loss of property rights either preceded or accompanied the loss of other rights. This was so in Hitler’s Germany. It was so in Lenin’s and Stalin’s Russia. It has also been the case in other totalitarian countries. It is possible that some property rights could be retained while other rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom of association and so on, would be severely curtailed or taken away. But it is now inconceivable to me that other rights could be maintained when property rights were gone.

This suggests to me that there is a causal connection between property and other rights. The historical connection can be seen not only in countries where rights have been lost but also in countries where they were being established. For example, in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, real property was being made private and personal. At the same time, there was a movement for substantial freedom of religion. In the wake of the establishment of these came the protection of other rights. . . .

Conceptually, all rights are either elaborations or extensions of property rights. For example, in the United States a person has the right to order the disposition of his bodily remains after death, by will. The right to one’s body is an elaboration of property rights; indeed, it may be the most basic property right. A will is written to dispose of one’s property. Hence, the right to order by will what disposition shall be made of the body is an extension of the process.

Many rights are so closely tied to property rights that they are virtually indistinguishable from them. For example, the right to buy and sell or, more broadly, to trade freely, is a property right. It is an aspect of the ownership of property. Free speech and a free press are fundamentally property rights. . . .

There is probably no way of conceiving of individual rights other than as either property rights or extensions of property rights. . . .

All attempts to exorcise property from rights and privileges, then, are in vain. Any claim to a right or privilege is, in some sense, a claim to property. It is possible, of course, to downgrade private property. But in the process, individual rights are unavoidably undercut.

“Health Care: Cross Questions and Crooked Answers,” May 1980

At the sometimes innocent parties I went to when I was an adolescent we occasionally played a game called “Cross Questions and Crooked Answers.” Boys were lined up on one side and girls on the other. Each boy was handed a slip of paper on which a question was written. Each girl got one with an answer. When they had been written, each question had an appropriate answer to it. But they were passed out randomly so that, hopefully, the questions no longer matched the answers when they were read. If all went well, there would be a series of malaprops, inanities, and ribaldries.

A variation of Cross Questions and Crooked Answers has now achieved adult status. Political involvement in medicine has made it commonplace without our being aware of it. Let us take a statement first. It is usually worded something like this: “Every American should have quality medical care.” Now, the question, “Don’t you want the best quality medical care possible?” It is tempting to treat this as a straight question, and to make what appears to be the only reasonable answer. Namely, “Of course, I want the best quality medical care possible.” From that point on the discussion degenerates into a debate as to which is the best possible system for providing quality medical care. It may not be a futile debate, but it is apt to be inconclusive because the best points have been conceded by the answer given to the question.

This is so because “Don’t you want the best medical care possible?” is a Cross Question. It is a Cross Question which will most likely elicit a Crooked Answer. Indeed, it is what one of my professors in graduate school called a false question. A false question is one which can only be answered by giving an answer that will be in some part wrong, regardless of what angle you take on it.

To illustrate, let me give the opposite answer to the question, a somewhat perverse answer, if you like. “No, I do not want the best possible medical care. In fact, I do not want medical care at all. Medical care is not something one drools over, like a steak, the best cut of which everyone should have. I do not long for the ministrations of physicians or for the comforts of a hospital bed. Indeed, my preferences run in the opposite direction, to have as little truck with any of these as possible.”

The answer is evasive, of course, but it is evasion with a point. I want the question reworded. The first order of business is not the quality of medical care; medical care is only a means, not an end. The quality of life is my main concern, not the quality of medical care. The question might be rephrased this way: What do you want from life to which medical care (and its quality presumably) is directly related? Now that is a straight question which can be given a straight answer.

My answer would go something like this. I want the use of my faculties with as little impairment as possible. I want to see, hear, smell, feel, walk, taste, talk, and use my limbs well so that I can function normally. Why? So that I can look after myself. So that I can manage my own affairs. So that I can be independent in order to fulfill my purpose as a man. In short, my concern with medical care is as an adjunct to my personal independence.

Contemporary medical practice has this as its primary aim. Its aim is to maintain or restore the independence of the individual, to get him up and walking again, to get him to looking after his bodily needs, to get him to exercising his faculties, and so on. The desired goal is dismissal of the patient and a minimal dependence on drugs. In short, good medical practice requires that the patient be restored to independent status as quickly as in the judgment of the attending physician he is ready for it.

Medical care cannot correctly be considered in a vacuum. When we do so we can only ask Cross Questions and get Crooked Answers about it. It is part of the larger corpus of life itself, and ordinarily a subordinate part. In the context of the statements made above, the aim of medical care—the maintaining and restoring of personal independence—is part of the broader aim of personal independence for individuals. Whatever impairs the independence of the individual will tend to be detrimental to the aims of medicine. . . .

“Farming Is a Business,” August 1986

The plight of service station operators does not appear to ever have caught the public fancy. Not once in all my years as a diligent TV watcher can I recall having seen a special on the subject, or even a segment on the evening news about the disappearance of the family-operated service station. The television cameras have not focused on any sheriff’s bankruptcy sale of some service stations, with the sheriff surrounded by a bunch of surly service station operators protesting the sale. No legislatures or courts have declared a moratorium on foreclosures on service stations, to my knowledge. There are no Federal Service Station Banks to provide easy credit to go into the service station business. And, in all my years of perusing textbooks on American history, I have never encountered even a sentence about “The Service Station Problem,” much less a paragraph or a whole section of a chapter.

By contrast—and what makes the above so remarkable—I have seen reams of material over the years dealing with “The Farm Problem.” No presidential administration since that of Rutherford B. Hayes, at the latest, has managed to get by without some sort of “Farm Crisis.” Every sort of scheme, crackpot or otherwise, to deal with the farm problem has had its advocates, and many a bill has made its way through state legislatures and Congress that was supposed to address the problems of farmers. For more than a hundred years now those who claimed to speak for farmers have proclaimed the responsibility of government to help farmers, and for nearly as long governments have been passing legislation of one sort or another that was supposed to do just that. Inflation—back in the days when everyone understood that meant an increase in the money supply—was once considered to be the panacea for farm problems. Then it was regulation of rail rates, government-sponsored loan programs to provide easy credit, government-sponsored cooperative storage and crop loan facilities, parity payments, subsidies, and so on. No history book worthy of the name is minus sections planted here and there through the accounts of the last hundred years detailing the plight of the farmers. And, according to spokesmen for farmers, the problem is apparently as urgent today as ever, what with declining foreign markets, drops in the prices of farm lands, and widespread farm foreclosures.

It is not my point, of course, that farmers have not had and do not have problems. As far back as my information goes, farmers have always had problems of one sort or another. They have ever been hampered in their enterprise by droughts, floods, plagues, disease, fat years when prices fell and lean years when prices might rise but they produced much less. Farmers have been going into debt ever since merchants, factors, or bankers could be found to extend credit, many of them going deeper in debt from year to year in the vain hope that bumper crops could be sold at high prices to rescue them. Anyone who doubts this should study the accounts of American farmers and planters in our own colonial history. There have been many changes in technology and farming methods over the years, but the sort of financial problems encountered by commercial farmers have not changed much.

My point, rather, is that it is not all that clear that farmers differ that much in having problems from the rest of us who are exposed to the exigencies of the market—which is to say all of us, to greater or lesser extent. Even government workers sometimes lose their jobs, and politicians do not always get re-elected. But I started out to contrast farmers with service station operators, so allow me to stick with that for a bit. The woes of service stations over the years must often have been as great as those of farmers. True, many have left farming for other fields, especially over the past fifty years. But the number of service stations that have gone out of business during the same period must be very large, in view of the many abandoned businesses which dot the countryside. Service stations that remain in business also change hands or come under new management from time to time. One of the plaints about farming is that the family farm is disappearing, but service stations may also be operated by families. Whether service station operators are as prone to bankruptcy as farmers, I have no information, but undoubtedly many service station operators do not make a go of the business for one reason or another.

The central point I wish to make, however, is that farming is a business. In this crucial respect, it is like a host of other businesses. It has been contrasted with operating a service station not because farming is essentially different but because a great deal of political attention and a large number of political programs have been enacted that were supposed to aid farmers. By contrast, very little notice has been paid to service stations, and except for an occasional piece of legislation dealing with the treatment of independents by suppliers, service stations have rarely been singled out except for restrictive legislation. There are many other businesses for which there are no specific government aid programs: toymakers, for example, candy manufacturers, makers of cereals, and so on. Some businesses have been the objects of government programs which were supposed to aid them, of course, but none so massively, I think, nor over so long a period of time. Certainly businesses, in general, have not usually enjoyed public sympathy in this century; they have much more often been the subject of punitive regulation. Moreover, public opposition to and criticism of aiding other businesses has usually been vigorous.

Thus, it is important to emphasize that farming is a business. This is important for two reasons. First, it brings it into the correct framework for considering the appropriateness of providing aid. Second, it helps to cut away the alleged differences from other businesses. . . . This is not to deny that there are public benefits from farming, but these do not appear to differ from those that attend hundreds of other enterprises. . . .

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