Friday, June 09, 2006

Selling national lands, String theory, biological mutation, and cell phones

I'm hardly an anarchist, but I don't "get" the intellectual grounding for the idea of "property" as a "natural right". If anything has a "natural right" to property, wouldn't it be "nature" itself? I understand the medieval notion that property is a reversible right from the king and the king has a contingent appointment from God, and I can see the historical context of the enlightenment response that imagines a civil society where property rights inhere in individuals, but if your deepest belief is that the world belongs to God, then isn't it a demonic act of theft to say that it belongs to anyone else? And how exactly do you "own" this area of the planet that has been around for four billion years? Why prioritize humans? If the most basic source of human happiness comes from connecting to nature, doesn't "ownership" undercut that connection? And what's up with all this talk about the "sanctity of property-rights"? Don't saints give everything away?

Some of the smartest people ever think that "property" is a source of misery and woe, so how did it become an eternal right that transcends national borders and geographical changes? How can property rights be reconciled with the natural cycles of ownership that allow a society to be Pareto-stable? Most people see Pareto as a pessimist, saying that 80% of the resources are controlled by 20% of the people, but what happens when property distribution is so lopsided that it almost seems utopian to postulate that 80% of the people should control at least 20% of the resources?

The legitimational systems for our society prefer to talk about property as a "natural right" rather than a revocable social contract, for the simple reason that the valuation models for equities and property would yield different numbers if they factored in what is euphemistically called "political risk". How bizzarre is it for people to expect to gain from a social contract that they are not part of when they buy "property" across national boundaries? Foreign investors tend to pay a twenty percent premium when they buy internationally, but shouldn't they recieve a twenty percent discount, since their property rights are contingent on a specific social juncture? And, in fact, much of the volatility from international equities comes occasional flashing awareness of the tentativity of property rights in emerging economies, and the "global macro" niche in the hedge fund industry exploits the seame between "social contract" theory and "natural rights" theory.

Of course, "property rights" are hardly absolute, even to the most committed member of the Federalist Club. The insect and animal kingdom do not respect it. Building codes and social mores need to be followed. Taxes need to be paid. Neighbors can fill your property with sound waves and smells. Airplanes can fly overhead with impunity. And low-level radiation can pass through your property without even bothering to thank you.

Is it pure crankery to be troubled when the government allows my "property" to be saturated by low-level radiation? It is almost a tautology that low level radiation changes the path of a subatomic particles and it is completely established that high level radiation massively increases the biological likelihood of mutation and cancer. Is it a conflation to suggest that the process of DNA mutation relates to the unpredictability of subatomic particles exposed to radiation?

With current computational techniques, this sort of question can only be answered in multi-century longitudinal study. We know that cancer rates are up. We know that genetic mutations are increasing. People are probably crazier than ever. Is it simplistic to find a unitary cause for all these maladies when there is probably a gang of thugs working together, and the process of isolating controls in order to study them scientifically prevents one from finding the synergies when multiple factors influence one another? How can one use science to protect oneself against dangers that are yet to be scientifically proven?

When a person distrusts the current social order, conservative internet bloggers are quick to accuse them of belonging to the "tin foil hat club". I'm reminded of the climactic scene in Bedlam, where a sane person insisting on her sanity becomes an example of a lunatic in an insane asylum. I keep my cool, I have faith in science, and my faith in science tells me that many things that are currently deemed safe will ultimately be scientifically proven to be quite dangerous. But, sure, I agreee: tin foil hats do not make much sense. Perhaps tin foil body armor? Tin foil lined houses?

How can we escape low-level radiation, if we unwilling to court the social ostracism that follows aluminum clothes? The national lands are not only a place to feel a connection with nature unmediated by a "natural right" to property, but, by avoiding economic development, they remain some of few places in the country that are not flooded by low-level radiation. As such, they are an important baseline for any studies of the effects of low-level radiation on living matter, and are a sanctuary for the rest of us. And we're talking about selling national lands to pay for income tax breaks and imperial adventures?

Wow.

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