Answers for a statist moralist

In a blog entry on the New York Time website Amia Srinivasan asks some questions for “free market moralists”. She starts by summarising Rawls:

 In 1971 John Rawls published “A Theory of Justice,” the most significant articulation and defense of political liberalism of the 20th century. Rawls proposed that the structure of a just society was the one that a group of rational actors would come up with if they were operating behind a “veil of ignorance” — that is, provided they had no prior knowledge what their gender, age, wealth, talents, ethnicity and education would be in the imagined society. Since no one would know in advance where in society they would end up, rational agents would select a society in which everyone was guaranteed basic rights, including equality of opportunity. Since genuine (rather than “on paper”) equality of opportunity requires substantial access to resources — shelter, medical care, education — Rawls’s rational actors would also make their society a redistributive one, ensuring a decent standard of life for everyone.

There is a very large assumption in this first paragraph smuggled in under the term “equality of opportunity”. Srinivasan doesn’t explain what it consists of or why anybody should be interested in it. Rawls on p.63 of the book she refers to writes (you can get the book in pdf by searching “rawls theory of justice pdf” it’s the first hit):

More specifically, assuming that there is a distribution of natural assets, those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system.

This is unclear and doesn’t make much sense. Let’s suppose that Jim is born into a poor family and he cleans toilets for a living but yearns to be a poet. Note that the mere fact that Jim wants to be a poet doesn’t imply he would be a good poet. So then Jim should make some effort to persuade people to pay him for poetry. And if he can’t persuade people and he is still unhappy with cleaning toilets then there is a problem. It’s not clear what the problem is exactly or how to solve it because if that was clear, Jim wouldn’t be unhappily cleaning toilets: the problem would have been solved. And if you’re going to force people to pay Jim to write poetry then you have no check on whether the poetry is any good.

What we need is to set up institutions to make it easy for people to change how they spend their time and money. That way, if you want people to spend their time and money on what you’re doing they can choose not to and give you some information about whether you’re doing stuff badly. If you don’t get time and money from people you’re doing something that’s not persuasive.

She then summarises Nozick:

In 1974, Robert Nozick countered with “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” He argued that a just society was simply one that resulted from an unfettered free market — and that the only legitimate function of the state was to ensure the workings of the free market by enforcing contracts and protecting citizens against violence, theft and fraud. (The seemingly redistributive policy of making people pay for such a “night watchman” state, Nozick argued, was in fact non-redistributive, since such a state would arise naturally through free bargaining.) If one person — Nozick uses the example of Wilt Chamberlain, the great basketball player — is able to produce a good or service that is in high demand, and others freely pay him for that good or service, then he deserves to get rich. And, once rich, he doesn’t owe anyone anything, since his wealth was accumulated through voluntary exchange in return for the goods and services he produced. Any attempt to “redistribute” his wealth, so long as it is earned through free market exchange, is, Nozick says, “forced labor.”

I’m not going to defend Nozick specifically partly because I don’t remember much about him so he might suck.

Wilt Chamberlain “deserves” to get rich? “Deserve” is the moral equivalent of “justify”. That is if Wilt Chamberlain deserves the money that means he can show that it is true he should have it or he should probably have it or something like that. But justification is impossible, so it is impossible to show that somebody deserves something. So if that was the only free market position it would be wrong.

The real reason Wilt Chamberlain should get to keep his money is just that you haven’t offered an alternative other people consider better. A contract n a free market is a means of testing whether a person consents to be legally bound to the terms of a particular exchange. See Randy Barnett’s papers 1 and books on contract law for a detailed discussion. The enforceability of laws required for the operation of a free market has nothing to do with whether they arise through free bargaining. Rather, it has to do with whether the law in question is required to deal with other people consentually. See Randy Barnett’s The Structure of Liberty.

I’m going to skip a bit because there’s a lot of boring stuff and get on to the bit where she demands that free market people answer a load of questions:

 1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

If you say yes, then you think that people can never be coerced into action by circumstances that do not involve the direct physical compulsion of another person. Suppose a woman and her children are starving, and the only way she can feed her family, apart from theft, is to prostitute herself or to sell her organs. Since she undertakes these acts of exchange not because of direct physical coercion by another, but only because she is compelled by hunger and a lack of alternatives, they are free.

We have a welfare state and people do engage in prostitution and sell organs. The welfare state doesn’t solve that problem. So why is Srinivasan brining up flaws in her own position?

If a person doesn’t want to fuck or sell her organs she can ask for charity. That charity should come with strings attached. That is, if you’re going to get a charity’s money they should require you to gain skills of some sort so that you’re not stuck on their roles permanently. And the charity should be free to turn people down who are a bad risk.

Let’s suppose that every charity decides a particular person is a bad risk. She has chosen to have children. That is her responsibility. If she can’t raise them she should offer them up for adoption. The knowledge already exists to get children adopted by people who have better options than selling sex unwillingly.

Would I prefer to see a world in which the only people who engage in the sex trade are people who want to do that? Yes. But that requires the creation of better knowledge to help people avoid that. The government hasn’t done that and I don’t think it can since taxation makes it difficult for people to stop supporting bad government institutions that help create such problems. Also, it’s not my responsibility to do that unless I take on that responsibility and I shouldn’t do that unless I have a really kickass idea about how to do it and can raise money for it voluntarily.

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

If you say yes, then you think that any free exchange can’t be exploitative and thus immoral. Suppose that I inherited from my rich parents a large plot of vacant land, and that you are my poor, landless neighbor. I offer you the following deal. You can work the land, doing all the hard labor of tilling, sowing, irrigating and harvesting. I’ll pay you $1 a day for a year. After that, I’ll sell the crop for $50,000. You decide this is your best available option, and so take the deal. Since you consent to this exchange, there’s nothing morally problematic about it.

If we’re talking about a free market you have other options and can point this out to get a better deal. “Give me more than $1 a day or your crops will rot in the field and you get nothing.”

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

I’ve pointed out the flaw in the idea of desert above but let’s see what she has to say anyway.

If you say yes, you think that what people deserve is largely a matter of luck. Why? First, because only a tiny minority of the population is lucky enough to inherit wealth from their parents. (A fact lost on Mitt Romney, who famously advised America’s youth to “take a shot, go for it, take a risk … borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.”) Since giving money to your kids is just another example of free exchange, there’s nothing wrong with the accumulation of wealth and privilege in the hands of the few.

You don’t have to get money from your parents. If you have a good business idea you can persuade people to loan you the money.

Second, people’s capacities to produce goods and services in demand on the market is largely a function of the lottery of their birth: their genetic predispositions, their parents’ education, the amount of race- and sex-based discrimination to which they’re subjected, their access to health care and good education.

It’s also a function of what the market happens to value at a particular time. Van Gogh, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Vermeer, Melville and Schubert all died broke. If you’re a good Nozickian, you think that’s what they deserved.

If somebody hasn’t produced a good or service in demand on the market all you know is that there is some unsolved problem that prevents them from doing this. Srinivasan hasn’t got anywhere near to producing an explanation of why a monopolistic institution that threatens to imprison people who don’t give it money is a good solution to these problems.

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

If you say yes, then you think the only moral requirements are the ones we freely bring on ourselves — say, by making promises or contracts. Suppose I’m walking to the library and see a man drowning in the river. I decide that the pleasure I would get from saving his life wouldn’t exceed the cost of getting wet and the delay. So I walk on by. Since I made no contract with the man, I am under no obligation to save him.

I’m not entirely sure what obligation means in this context. Does it mean that if I walk past a man drawing in a rive I might be prosecuted for not saving him? That would be a bad idea. Perhaps I don’t know how to swim. Or maybe I have done any swimming for a long time and I think I would drown trying to save him. Or maybe I’m really tired that morning and fear I would drown trying to save him as a result of exhaustion.

If it means people who knew about the drowning would think worse of me that might be fair enough if I could easily have raised the alarm and got somebody else to come save him. Both I and other people are better off having another creative problem-solving person in the world than letting his drown.

If it means that in the case where I couldn’t easily raise the alarm I should take a large risk of killing myself to save him, then you can fuck off. I don’t know much about him so taking a large risk of killing myself trying to save him would be a bad idea since I have no idea whether it’s worth the risk.

Most of us, I suspect, will find it difficult to say yes to all four of these questions.

The rest of us, who know the questions are ill-formed, think that this illustrates the peril of taking bad questions for granted.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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