Sunday, February 22, 2009

Best weekend ever! My climate change paper is being published!

So on top of getting admitted into the University of Arizona PhD program on Friday, I just received an e-mail from Dr. Robert Higgs informing me that my paper, "Justice and Climate Change: Towards a Libertarian Analysis," has been accepted for publication in The Independent Review (tentatively in the Fall issue)! So all of you loyal readers out there (do I have loyal readers?) should watch out for that to come out!

Thanks are due especially to my senior honors thesis advisor Dr. Harry Brighouse, Dr. Daniel Hausman, and Dr. Lester Hunt, without whose endless patience and availability the paper would not have been possible. Thanks also go to Dr. Jack Williams for helping me to understand the science behind the climate change issue, to Gene Callahan, Dr. Anthony Carilli, and "Anonymous Referee #2" for their comments in helping me to revise the paper, and to Geoffrey Lea, Joseph Onorati, and Tom Duncan for being excellent resources on economic theory as I worked towards a finished product. And thanks particularly to my wonderful friends who managed not to strangle me to death while I was researching and writing the paper, and droning pedantically about climate change the whole while.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Walter Block on Sexism: Straddling the Line Between Thin Libertarianism and Vulgar Libertarianism


Dmitry Chernikov left a comment on an earlier post directing my attention to an essay by Dr. Walter Block which basically just railed on several thinkers with whom I identify for various reasons. The essay appears to be a work in progress, as Dr. Block's typically clear and thorough writing style is conspicuously absent, but as the main points seem to be there, I think it would be fair to critique them. The essay covers a wide array of topics and it would not do to address them all here. I will focus here, therefore, on Dr. Block's response to Dr. Roderick Long on the issue of feminism.

In piece cited in the essay, Long's main point is built on the idea that treating women differently than men simply because they're women fails to give them their due, and that where we can see sexism embodied in wage structures, we should decry it. He engages an objection to this view which he attributes to Austrian economists and particularly Block himself, which is that the free market naturally ensures that women are not mistreated, since their wages would naturally be brought into line with their marginal productivity by the workings of the market process.

Long argues that in spite of the equilibrating tendency of the marketplace to bring wages into line with workers' marginal productivity, we cannot say with any degree of certainty that prevailing wages at any particular time will actually satisfy that equilibrium condition (e.g., because of imperfect knowledge, lack of entrepreneurial actions, etc.). Accordingly, even if employers were solely dedicated to maximizing monetary profit, there would be no guarantee that wages would equal workers' marginal productivity.

He then argues that on top of this, there are many reasons to believe that employers are not perfectly rational monetary-profit-maximizers, acting on influences like prejudices, presumptions, etc. So even if the market were providing an incentive through the profit motive to bring workers' wages into line with their marginal productivity, other factors could be providing a skewing counterweight that would make markets tend towards unfair wages for women.

So essentially, Long is saying that it simply isn't true that the free market naturally ensures that women are paid their fair wages, and that in fact we have good reason to believe that women are not being paid fairly. Therefore, he concludes that one can't create problems for the claim that there are sexist wage structures, and that they should be condemned, by arguing that the market naturally eliminates sexist wage structures.

Block offers no less than nine objections to this argument, which I perceive to take three basic forms: 1) Long's economic arguments are incoherent and there is evidence that he happens to be wrong; 2) The wage structures to which Dr. Long objects are not coercive, and therefore are not unjust and have nothing to do with libertarianism; and 3) There is no reason to object to people paying women differently than men, or to cultural institutions that demean women. I will discuss each of these objections in turn.

I. Are the economic issues discussed by Long dealt with improperly?

Block's first question is:
But why would there be a bias in the market such that entrepreneurship necessarily results in lower female wages in disequilibrium? Why not wages higher than MRP when the market is not in its equilibrium or evenly rotating state? Long, let alone not furnishing us with an answer to this absolutely crucial implicit claim of his, does not even seem to recognize that there is a need to do so.

In passing, I should note that budding young philosophers out there should be aware of what's about to happen here. Block has engaged in some very clear PhilosophyFTW!! If he is wrong -- and I think he is -- then this will be embarrassing for him, whereas if he had been nice about his objection, it would be totally okay for him to be mistaken. So here's the tip: If you're going to argue that someone made a very obvious mistake, don't be a jerk about it.

And here's Long furnishing us with just such an answer, quoted from Block's own paper:
Even if women are not generally less productive than men...there might still be a widespread presumption on the part of employers that they are, and in light of the difficulty of determining the productivity of specific individuals, this presumption would not be easily falisified, thus making any wage gap based on such a presumption more difficult for market forces to whittle away.

But there is no reason to rule out the possibility of deliberate, profit-disregarding discrimination either. Discrimination can be a consumption good for managers, and this good can be treated as part of the manager's salary-and-benefits package; any costs to the company arising from the manager's discriminatory practices can thus be viewed as sheer payroll costs. Maybe some managers order fancy wood paneling for their offices, and other managers pay women less for reasons of sexist; if the former sort of behaviour can survive the market test, why not the latter?

Now, Block disagrees with the attribution of the wage gap to these phenomena, but that doesn't mean that Long does too. Clearly, Long believes that the answer to the question of why the wage gap favors men (even when productivity differences are taken into account) lies in some combination of unfortunate social stereotypes and sexism. Not only does Long apparently recognize that one would need to explain this, but he basically devotes 2 paragraphs of a 9 paragraph argument to doing so. So I don't think that Block's criticism is on the mark here.

Block's next piece of evidence that Long's economic reasoning is bad is to point out that lesbians apparently make more money than straight women. The article Block cites is no longer at the linked location, but I would have to wonder...aren't there a lot fewer lesbian housewives and stay at home moms? And is it impossible that lesbians -- who have often had difficult, character-building upbringings -- are typically more productive than straight women? I'm not saying that this isn't evidence against Long's point, but it seems like more needs to be said.

Block moves on to suggest that Long is on a slippery slope that will commit him to suggesting that minimum wage laws are not all bad. But Long specifically said that he didn't necessarily support government intervention, and concluded his argument with the claim that the wage gap is: reason to gripe about 'market failure.' Such failure is merely our failure. Instead, we need to fight the power - peacefully, but not quietly.

So Block seems to miss the mark here as well.

Block's next point is that Long's argument sounds like the "cluster of error" of Austrian Business Cycle theory, and: we know from our study of business cycles, any such conglomeration of error cannot long endure without continued statist interference with markets. It would be dissipated by the market's profits and loss weeding out process.

Now, anyone who's been paying attention will realize that Block has objected to Long's critique of a particular argument by simply reiterating that argument. Accordingly, the best response would be to simply reiterate Long's critique: A) The market's "profits and loss weeding out process" is a process and can be hampered by a number of factors which appear to be at work in this instance (e.g., entrenched prejudice, a lack of clear information about the marginal productivity of individual workers); and B) There are other examples of unprofitable business strategies that have survived the market test (e.g., fancy wood paneling in managers' offices), and the market is not a perfect mechanism for weeding these strategies out. I would beg the question if I suggested that this rebuttal wins the point for Long, but it is at least clear that Long has a response which this particular objection does not preempt. So again, Block somewhat misses the mark.

Block's final objection to Long's economic arguments is that he simply doesn't believe that sexism operates in the way that Long suggests: he thinks that sexism may actually benefit women where it does occur. He suggests that:
...when it comes to pay, my own informal assessment is that it works mainly in the direction not of increasing the pay gap between men and women. Rather, it is all in the direction of paying attractive women a beauty premium.

He goes on to suggest that:
...if they [men's tastes] are in opposition to anyone, it is to other males who are seen as competition.

Now I don't have the empirical evidence to go to battle on this point. So it will have to suffice to say that it seems very unlikely to me that the underlying productivity difference between women and men is being underrepresented by the existing wage gap because hot women are being paid more than their labor is worth. I mean think about it: Long is saying, "Women make 75% as much as men for the same work," and Block is saying, "And lucky them! They'd be making even less if they weren't so damned cute!" Ummm...somehow that I could be wrong to think that negative sexism plays a more significant role than positive sexism, but...well...I just don't think I am.

For one thing, many beautiful women will tell you that it can be difficult to be taken seriously for top positions as an attractive woman because many managers believe that beautiful women have only gotten to where they are on the basis of their looks. Beauty premiums, then, may well be counterbalanced somewhat by beauty handicaps. And even if beauty premiums really did outweigh the lower wages generated by demeaning sexism, that wouldn't mean that we should call the whole thing a wash. Surely Long would object to sexism in the workplace even if it didn't show up in aggregate wage statistics.

II. Is sexism an issue on which libertarians should opine?

This brings us to the next kind of objection that Block raises to Long's argument, which is that sexism embodied in wage structures and social conventions is not coercive, and therefore is not an appropriate domain for libertarian inquiry. Block writes:
Of course, there are other problems [besides coercive violence] that libertarians are involved in combatting: bad breath, the heartbreak of psoriasis, losing chess games, cancer, the list goes on and on. But here, libertarians who do so are not acting qua libertarians. This is a distinction that is crucial for a clear understanding of this philosophy.

This objection is an instantiation of Dr. Block's longstanding argument against so-called "thick" libertarianism, a view which holds that libertarians ought to be concerned not only with matters involving coercive violence, but also a wide range of other issues which are in one way or another connected with their views on coercion. Block's argument is that these other issues are certainly important and worthy of discussion, but they have nothing to do with libertarianism, per se. Libertarianism, according to Block, is a philosophical view which is directly concerned with opposing coercive violence, and that's pretty much it.

Now, at first glance, this would seem to be an argument about semantics. If it's really such a big deal for libertarians to talk about other issues "while wearing their libertarian hats," then for the sake of discussion, Dr. Long could just say, "Fine. I'm not talking about sexism as a libertarian. I'm talking about it as a feminist who happens to be a libertarian as well." But more substantively it seems like we should ask why Dr. Block is objecting to the use of the term "libertarianism" in talking about things like sexism, and try to decide whether there's really a deep difference between, say, being a libertarian and being a feminist.

What Dr. Block seems to have in mind is that libertarianism is, at its core, built around the concept of "justice," where justice is defined as turning on the legitimacy of initiation of coercive force. This seems to me like a naked move to entrench the non-aggression principle in a piece of terminology by warping the normal meaning of justice to conveniently allow for a clean distinction between coercive and peaceful behaviors to be labelled "unjust" and "just," respectively. But no matter; that's how Dr. Block seems to want to use the term, and we can grant it. On this view, then, we should notice that the fact that something is "just" need not mean that it is desirable, aesthetically pleasing, reflective of what people deserve, impartial, or even morally acceptable. It just means that no one has "thrown any punches" yet in a way to which we object, and therefore there cannot have been any injustice.

If we define libertarianism as a school of thought focusing on "justice" as defined above, then we will be led to the position advocated by Dr. Block:
Why is this [inequality in wages for equivalent work] unjust is this unjust from a libertarian perspective? It is not.

That is not to say that individuals who are libertarians have no business objecting to these inequalities. To reiterate Block's point, quoted above:
Of course, there are other problems that libertarians are involved in combating: bad breath, the heartbreak of psoriasis, losing chess games, cancer, the list goes on and on. But, here, libertarians who do so are not acting qua libertarians.

The point is, these things are objectionable for reasons which have nothing to do with justice, as defined above. Therefore, they have nothing to do with libertarianism, which is a philosophy that deals only with justice.

I think that this view is mistaken. To see why, we should note that in the above, I did not say anything about what position libertarians actually take on positions of justice (as I defined it); I only said that Block's view limits libertarianism to matters of so-called "justice." If my familiarity with Dr. Block's views serves me correctly, I believe that he would want to say that the libertarian view of justice has something to do with the non-aggression principle, such that initiating coercive violence is "unjust," and anything else is "just." Since I don't believe that the non-aggression principle is correct, and I want to be charitable to the libertarian position (particularly since I consider myself to be a libertarian), I will rephrase this position to say that the initiation of coercive force is prima facie unjust, and that (to the extent that we accept the definition of "justice" with which we are working here) anything that does not involve an illegitimate initiation of coercive force is just (for a discussion of this view, check out this post). If I'm wrong, and the non-aggression principle is true, then we can simply say that only illegitimate initiations of coercive force are unjust, but all such initiations are unjust. In other words, coercion is prima facie wrong, and there are no considerations which would cause us to find it legitimate. The way I've phrased it, we just get to include more views under the umbrella of "libertarianism" (most importantly, mine).

But libertarianism would be an empty shell of a position if it were simply a vague claim that "If and only if a view has only to do with the initiation of coercive force and views it as at least prima facie wrong, then it is a libertarian view." It would seem to behoove us as libertarians to say that a part of libertarian philosophy has to do with explaining why people should hold that kind of view. That is, it should explain why we should care so much about the initiation of coercive force, and why we are generally disposed to object to it as a matter of principle.

Now a complication arises here because (again if I correctly recall his views), Dr. Block believes that the initiation of force is unjust as a matter of undisputable logical fact. His view, following in the tradition of libertarian thinkers like Dr. Hoppe, is that one cannot advocate, condone, or engage in the use of coercive force without committing oneself to a contradictory position. The only position that one can reasonably defend, according to this view, is the libertarian view that the initiation of coercive force is incorrect. The reason that this is a complication is that for reasons I have discussed here and here, I think that this position is flat wrong (as was brought to my attention after writing those pieces, Dr. Bob Murphy and non-quite-Dr. Gene Callahan made some similar arguments as well). It is simply not true that any other position besides the non-aggression principle is incoherent.

But other libertarian views, including the one to which Dr. Long ascribes as well as the one to which I ascribe, resist coercion because of a fundamental belief that each of us is a valuable individual with his or her own life to lead. We suggest that it would therefore be disrespectful and unbecoming of us to force others to live according to plans that are not their own or to destructively interfere with their ability to pursue theirs. We see ourselves as having moral significance, and we acknowledge that the things that make us important also make others important. It is out of this deep appreciation and respect for individuals -- and the separateness of individuals' unique lives -- that we demand justification from those who would interfere with their neighbors' lives (or condemn them out of hand, for those libertarians accepting the non-aggression principle).

If we accept that something like this is at the root of the libertarian position on the issue of justice (still within our provisional definition), then it seems reasonable to say that an inherent part of libertarianism is an attitude of respect for individuals. And it is for this reason that I believe Dr. Block to be in error. If libertarianism is built upon a foundation of respect for others, then it would seem that libertarians would be committed to opposing any view which contradicts that paradigm of respect. And what Long is doing in leveling this argument is contending that sexism against women is indeed at odds with a view which sees all people as worthy of respect, as it is built upon subordination and dehumanization. So by incorporating feminism into libertarian philosophy, Long seems to be contending that feminism represents the position which follows from the consistent application of the ideas that make coherent the libertarian position on so-called "justice". In my opinion, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing for a libertarian to be saying qua libertarian.

So what, then, of Block's point that:
Of course, there are other problems that libertarians are involved in combating: bad breath, the heartbreak of psoriasis, losing chess games, cancer, the list goes on and on. But, here, libertarians who do so are not acting qua libertarians.

This point seems intuitively right (except for the part about losing chess games; surely Block doesn't think that the world would be a better place if all chess games ended in stalemates). But whereas there is a reasonably strong connection between the ethical underpinnings of libertarian political philosophy and feminism, there is no such connection with bad breath, psoriasis, or cancer. The analogy simply doesn't work, and for reasons that I believe vindicate Long.

III. There is nothing wrong with sexist wage structures or demeaning social conventions

There is a third sort of objection appearing throughout Block's argument which basically suggests that beyond being a non-libertarian issue, Long's objections speak to a problem that isn't a problem. In doing this, I believe Block skirts the line between merely "thin" libertarianism and "vulgar" libertarianism.

The term "vulgar libertarianism" can best be understood by going back to our distinction between "just" and "unjust" from earlier, which defined as "just" anything that doesn't involve illegitimate coercion. Recall that we said that just because something is "just" by this definition does not mean that it is good, or even morally acceptable. Vulgar libertarian views, we will say, function essentially as "capitalist apologetics" by jumping to the conclusion that because something does not involve the illegitimate use of coercive force, it is not objectionable. The vulgar libertarian is the sort of thinker who, when presented with a lamentation about the outcomes generated by a free society, automatically reacts by saying, "Oh, but here's why that outcome isn't lamentable at all!" The vulgar libertarian, for example, might put down Dr. Block's Defending the Undefendable and proceed to argue that actually, the man who cheats on his girlfriend with a prostitute is doing nothing wrong, since no one has been coerced and the transaction was actually beneficial to both parties. Or that all poor people deserve to be poor, since they haven't produced anything for society that others have found to be worth paying any more to obtain. Or that the pervert who seduces the child is blameless, as both parties are simply doing what they want to be doing.

Let me be clear: I do not believe that Dr. Block is a vulgar libertarian. It is because I do not believe this that I am even making the argument that his views here seem to border on vulgar libertarianism. If Block were a vulgar libertarian, it would surely do little good to show that his arguments indeed sound like those that a vulgar libertarian might make.

So what in Block's paper am I talking about? Block first writes:
Perhaps most important, we must hark back to the biblical story where people are paid different amounts of money for doing precisely the same job; or what is the same thing, the same compensation for doing very different amounts of work...These disparities can be interpreted as a differential gift giving. That is, the employer pays everyone equally for equal productivity, but then makes a freely given donation to some but not to others.

For those not familiar with the story, there's a story in Matthew 20 about a vineyard owner who hires a group of workers to work at his vineyard, promising them a fair wage. Later in the day, he sees another group of workers who have not found any work for the day, and hires them to come help as well. At the end of the day, he pays all of the workers equally, to the consternation of the workers who had worked all day. Block's implication is captured by the differentially-paying vineyard owner in Matthew 20:13-16:
Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn't you agree with me to work for the standard wage? Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?

The first thing that one should notice is that in the vineyard parable, all of the workers were paid at least the "standard wage." A controversy might be raised, then, about whether the parable would apply to situations where capitalists were levering their advantaged position in negotiating with applicants to drive their wages below "fair" levels, which is presumably what Long thinks is going on when women are paid "unfairly." But even broaching the subject of "fair" wages opens up a can of worms all on its own, and the issue here is about sexism, not some form of wage egalitarianism.

The more substantive point is that when we consider the action of the vineyard owner, we see that he has acted out of generosity towards the late-coming workers. In the story, the reason for the generosity is not suggested to be some sort of prejudice against the early-coming workers, nor is the account stated in terms of some kind of malice, scorn, dismissiveness, or ill-will towards the early-comers. If these factors were involved in the story, then presumably Dr. Long would be uncomfortable with this example as well.

It seems pretty clear to me that when employers pay their male employees disproportionately higher wages, they are not doing so out of the generosity that the vineyard owner showed towards the workers who had not been able to find work. For that reason, I think that the analogy somewhat fails, though it is a valuable insight that unequal treatment does not necessarily have to objectionable. It's unequal treatment because of prejudice or sexism that should draw the ire of feminist, not unequal treatment as such.

Hopefully it will be clear, then, why I find this argument to be at risk of vulgarity. The feminist complains that sexist or prejudiced employers treat women badly by paying them less, and Block responds with an example of seemingly legitimate differential pay, with the implication that sexist and prejudiced employees are in the clear on its weight. In doing so, he conveniently defends the status quo and the employer, while comparing the feminists to grumbling and envious characters in a well-known story. But as the principle of charity compels us to assume that Dr. Block didn't perceive the disanalogy we discussed above, and did not intend vulgarity, we must keep in mind that we are not trying to argue that Dr. Block is a vulgar libertarian, but only that this particular position seems like it is wrong for reasons that are reminiscent of the vulgar paradigm.

Dr. Block's next point is entwined with the "thin" libertarian view discussed in the previous section:
...Long is going to have to decide whether his primary allegiance lies with feminism or libertarianism. This author does indeed touch on one aspect of this when he discusses the possibility that the wage gap between males and females might be due to in effect employer consumption [sic]: paying males more than females just for the sheer joy of doing so. If so, is this not the employer's right? And if so, from whence springs any possible libertarian objection to the wage gap?

That this argument borders on vulgarity can be seen by examining the first sentence. Remember, Block's argument for "thin" libertarianism is that the kinds of issues that concern the feminist here have nothing to do with libertarianism, and that the libertarian cannot talk about them qua libertarian. But why, then, would Dr. Long have to choose between these positions? If these are issues which really have nothing to do with libertarianism, then one should be able to be a libertarian while holding substantively any view on the issues that concern the feminist in this instance.

What seems to be going on here, as evidenced by the accommodating tone that Dr. Block takes in talking about "paying males more than females just for the sheer joy of doing so" is that Dr. Block has gone beyond his "thin" libertarianism in favor of a "thick"-er view in the opposite direction. That is, it's not just that sexism is not violent, and therefore is not "unjust," but rather, it seems like Block is flirting with saying that there is nothing wrong with sexism. But this is not thin libertarianism. It is vulgar libertarianism.

This sort of thing vaguely seems to reappear when Dr. Block writes:
What is this business of criticizing the freely made decisions of women to stay home and take care of babies? It matters not one whit that this is done "on moral grounds (or) prudential grounds." The libertarian qua libertarian simply has no business in criticizing "women's (choice of) greater responsibility for household work." It is no business of the libertarian, none whatsoever, to "combat" the "sexism" implicit in "the cultural expectations that lead women to assume such responsibility."

I don't want to get involved in saying something like "Well no, he didn't say that there is nothing wrong with these cultural expectations, but don't you think that's what he meant?!" But I do want to point out that if this argument is intended to promote "thin" libertarianism and not "vulgar" libertarianism, it seems like one would expect some kind of qualification along the lines of, "Of course, none of this is to say that these cultural norms should be embraced or even countenanced silently. They are simply not within the providence of libertarian discussion." And yet not only is such a disclaimer not offered, but what is written seems like it could be easily interpreted as an argument that "criticizing the freely made decisions of women to stay at home and take care of babies" "on moral grounds (or) prudential grounds" would be misguided, even if done from outside the realm of libertarian theory. Such an interpretation would be vulgar, even though it is not at all entailed by what Block actually says, and I think offers another example of Dr. Block straddling the line between thin and vulgar libertarianism, even if it does not technically cross it.


Having evaluated all three kinds of objection raised by Block to Long's discussion, and found each of them somewhat wanting, I think that a few closing words are in order. It will surprise no one to discover that I sided with Dr. Long in this argument before reading Dr. Block's piece, and therefore my response must be taken in that light. Further, there is no reason to expect that Dr. Block would have nothing to say to the points that I have raised here; this debate has been going on for a very long time, and presumably Dr. Block has heard most of the objections that can be offered against his position. Accordingly, it may well be that my points here have missed their mark.

That being said, I do think that I have raised some important questions here about Dr. Block's position and arguments, and that my analysis was both thorough and fair. Dr. Long's arguments cannot, I think, be dismissed as easily as Dr. Block's piece makes it sound.

Hopefully this has been as valuable and interesting for you to read as it was for me to write!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Arizona Here I Come!

I just got a phone call from Dr. Richard Healey of the University of Arizona offering me admission into the philosophy graduate program there. The world is a beautiful place. Thanks goes to my family, my philosophy professors at Wisconsin -- especially Harry Brighouse, Dan Hausman, and Lester Hunt, my amazing friends who have somehow managed to put up with my ramblings all these years, my FEEple, and all of the folks on the internets who have helped me develop into who I am today. And the academy. And whoever else people thank. Am I supposed to even be thanking people? Whatever, I'm happy and want everyone who made this possible to know that I appreciate everything you've done for me and that I love you. Time to celebrate!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On the "Other" Kind of Left-Libertarianism

Update: See the bottom of this post for further discussion.

So earlier today I wrote a post about why consider myself a left-libertarian if I disagree with the views of some of the most prominent thinkers who call themselves left-libertarians, and a fellow named Dan Waxman asked:
I'd be interested to know your rationale for rejecting the Steiner/Otsuka/Vallentyne style left-libertarianism (i.e. self-ownership coupled with a very stringently egalitarian proviso regarding the initial acquisition of external worldly resources).

I feel as though temperamentally I am in a similar position to you - I also have a problem with oppression and mistreatment, and I think that in a libertarian society - including (especially?) the ones which reject common world ownership - these evils would be far less common. But I don't think I have worked out a satisfactory answer to my own conflicted intuitions about the initial acquisition of property, and, to be perfectly honest, I don't think it helps that the literature is notably thin on actual *arguments* either way. At most we get a bald assertion that the earth is originally unowned from Nozick and co, then we get people like Cohen and Otsuka complaining that this assertion is 'blithe,' without putting forward any argument whatsoever for their alternative! So like I said, I'd be interested to know your thoughts, especially if you've come to some kind of stable reflective equilibrium on the issue

I think that's a great question, and want to take the opportunity to post a few thoughts in rejection of the resource-egalitarian liberarian point of view (though in actuality, it is not a single point of view; these objections may variously miss the mark when applied to specific views which preempt them). I might try to flesh these objections out a little bit in a future post (or series of posts), but for now I just want to put them out there. If they don't make sense, I'll be happy to try to clarify. I'm going to put off for now the task of trying to justify a particular alternative view of property rights, and confine this post to attacking this view. Without further ado:

1) Freedom disrupts patterns. The point of an egalitarian distribution would be to secure liberty for all, but it seems clear that any kind of real, effective liberty would produce inequality. In order to maintain equality, constant coercive redistribution would be needed. If the resource-left-libertarian is truly committed to liberty and effective self-ownership, then she must countenance the inequality that would result even if there was at one point an egalitarian distribution of resources. This was Cohen's argument in Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality. But if the resource-egalitarian libertarian is comfortable with this, then her position seems to reduce to some claim that the thing that's wrong with our property regime is merely that it doesn't have the right sort of history. Is this a reasonable basis for a political philosophy? Is the problem with our society really just that a hundred years ago, things weren't alotted equally? I just don't think there's anything there.

2) Society is not like a situation where everyone comes to a negotiating table to claim their fair share, or where we all move away from a starting point to pursue our individual lives. The system of resource ownership is a dynamic and evolving system, with new participants coming and going all the time and different allocations of resources every day. If we wanted to ensure that everyone got a particular share of natural resources (regardless of what rule is used to determine what kind of share it would be), and we refused to engage in coercive redistribution (as this would seem to impinge upon effective self-ownership), we would seemingly need to have coercive enforcement of use limits. But these measures would require us to make projections about the future which we simply cannot make, and to make assumptions about the availability of natural resources which can't be based on anything besides speculation. The resource-egalitarian libertarians want this to be a rationalistic framework, but there's simply no objective way to do anything like this. Do we save a bunch of the gold for future generations? How much? Are we sure that someday people won't be able to make gold out of other stuff, making our non-use unnecessary?

3) Value and wellbeing do not come from access to natural resources. The value of natural resources is subjective, changes over time with different circumstances, and is not directly related to the value of the things that are made with those resources. Treating them like a commodity with timeless value doesn't make sense. And if they lack this special kind of status, then it's not clear why we should focus our entire political theory on them as if a proper way of dealing with them would fix all of our problems.

4) The original objection to the appropriation of the natural commons was based on the idea that natural resources provided the means for production. In today's society, the means of production are increasingly detached from natural resources. The lack of access to the means of production is not a lack of access to natural resources, and most people complaining about the former would look at you pretty strangely if you "solved their problem" by dealing with the latter. If lack of access to the means of production is a problem, then the solution will not be found in an egalitarian resource distribution.

There are probably other reasons I could offer in favor of rejecting this view, but I think those four will do for now. Hopefully that helps! [Note: I apologize for the sloppiness of this post; I wrote it right after I finished work...can you tell? If something is confusing in an interesting way, please let me know.]


Please see Joel Davis' critique of this post, as well as my reply.

Why Do I Call Myself a Left-Libertarian?

I received a very fair comment on my previous post, "On Distributive Justice and the Indeterminacy of the Market Process," from an anonymous reader, asking:
Reading this post, I am quite baffled why you name your blogspot How can you say that you work in the Left Libertarian tradition, when in this post you completely reject the ideas of all the most famous Left-Libertarians including Henry George and Steiner and Otsuka and Vallentyne? How can you say that you "attempt to incorporate concepts such as equality, opportunity, and need into my framework", when this post seems to be arguing that they cannot be incorporated to your libertarian framework? I cannot find aything leftist about your ideas. Exactly what distinguishes your beliefs from Right-Libertarianism pure and simple?

I thought it might be worthwhile to give that question a thorough answer, since I anticipate that it may come up again, and others might find this answer interesting.

There is definitely a tension within the world of libertarian thought regarding the meaning of the term, "left-libertarianism." One school of thought identifying itself as left-libertarian describes its ideas as upholding the libertarian conception of self-ownership while insisting that a just society would distribute worldly resources according to some egalitarian principle. This is the tradition into which writers like George, Steiner, Otsuka, and Vallentyne fall. As you rightly notice, I am clearly not a part of this camp [Update: I discuss this position in this post].

The other interpretation of the term "left-libertarian" has been offered by Roderick Long, building on Rothbard's (and later Samuel Konkin's) idea that libertarianism is more naturally allied with the political left than with the right. Dr. Long gives a really good explanation of his views in this interview. And as you might have gleaned from my description of this site on the sidebar, I basically agree with his approach.

I've been very conflicted about using the term "left-libertarian" to describe myself, as it's unquestionably true that the first meaning is more widely acknowledged and used today, and I'm not a big fan of inherently confusing terminology. But I'll offer two points in my defense. The first is simply that I chose the name for my website before realizing how deeply I disagreed with the folks in the Steiner camp, and the status quo has thus become somewhat entrenched.

But secondly, and more substantively, I don't think that left-libertarianism of the Steiner mold has much to do with leftism, except to the extent that it has something to do with egalitarianism and, in some sense, it views a non-egalitarian property regime as oppressive. The bread and butter of the left, I think, has always been to root out oppression and mistreatment in society and demand its rectification. And that has been my concern as well, as I search for different ways to think about the respect to which people are due and build ideas about living together that try to embody that respect.

Now, an important part of the commenter's question was this:
How can you say that you "attempt to incorporate concepts such as equality, opportunity, and need into my framework", when this post seems to be arguing that they cannot be incorporated to your libertarian framework?

This, I think, is a somewhat unfair reading of my earlier post. In the last section of that post, I wrote:
Perhaps it is the case that, as individuals who appreciate each other's value and moral worth, we owe it to each other to lend a helping hand in times of need. And if we did not lift a finger when others were facing crisis, that we would be failing to uphold our duties as morally responsible people. To say this implies no injustice in the market system which brings about unfortunate outcomes, nor does it imply that somehow we need to find some point in the past to serve as a "source" of injustice. Rather, we can think of distributive injustice as a recognition that in a community or society where so many live free of need, there are individuals among us who struggle to survive, without so much as a helping hand from their neighbors.

Of course, the mere existence of need and want surely cannot entail the presence of injustice. The same respect for the value of life which commands us to care about our neighbors also commands us to recognize the importance of living our own lives according to our own goals and desires. Earlier, we noted an idea from F.A. Hayek that coercion is evil because it "eliminates an individual as a thinking and valuing person and makes him a bare tool in the achievement of the ends of another." We suggested that the tragic need which drives individuals into exploitative labor relationships is evil for this reason as well. But we must now acknowledge that the attitude which places on the successful individual the burden of caring after the world's needy is evil for exactly the same reason (I discussed this in a previous post). Addressing one evil through the introduction of another seems like a questionable way to proceed. But it does not seem that either extreme -- ignoring the suffering of others or sacrificing oneself for the good of those in need -- is the correct one. What is needed is a balance between the two.

In saying this, I had hoped to address what I felt to be some of the important and relevant concerns that people on the left might have had in response to my argument. And I certainly didn't mean to suggest that other leftist concerns (e.g., about the proper social response to inequality, oppression, lack of opportunity, etc.) "cannot be incorporated into my libertarian framework."

My point was that these concerns cannot coherently be levelled as a moral objection to the market process itself. It was my hope to convey that a just society would not simply accept the often arbitrary, sometimes lamentable, and always sub-utopian products of the market process, insensitively brushing the unpleasant bits under the rug. The market process, I think, is just, and cannot be condemned wholesale because of its inherent potential to generate undesirable outcomes for some people. But I think that there is more to living together than the market process, and that the concerns of the left are valid reasons for searching for solutions outside of the typical consumeristic market paradigm. That, I think, is where the "left" in my "left-libertarianism" comes through.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An Introduction to Economics and Political Philosophy

So a number of people have recently asked me about a reading list to get better acquainted with economics and political philosophy, and I've thus far had quite a difficult time responding. There's just so much to read, and it's sort of hard to say where to start! Accordingly, I think I'd like to try to maintain a list on this blog, changing it as I read new things and become exposed to new ideas, with the intention of appealing to the non-philosopher and non-economist who wants a background in those areas, but doesn't have the time or the interest to read everything that anyone has ever written.

I'm going to approach this project somewhat differently than I think a lot of other people might, in that I'm going to leave a lot of history unexplored in favor of getting people up to speed on the current state of discussion (as I understand it). Though a lot of people might immediately understand why I'm doing this, it will be worth explaining the choice for the sake of those who don't. Those who don't care about my life's story should just skip down to the list.

I taught myself guitar, and I have been playing since I was 13. Some of my friends who took up guitar around the same time took formal lessons, where they learned scales, chord structures, proper strumming technique, and all the rest. Most of them quit, and those who still play are permanently scarred by the passionless regimentation that characterized their musical upbringing. They know the techniques, but they don't feel the music. I, on the other hand, learned power chords and palm muting and spent the first few years of my playing career thrashing out punk rock and generally having a fantastic time. 9 years later, I still hold the pick wrong, my thumb doesn't rest properly on the back of the neck, and there are a number of techniques I can't do with even average proficiency. But I love the music I play, and I defy you to find me a guitarist who will scoff at my capabilities.

I also taught myself economics and philosophy before I started taking substantive classes in those subjects in college. Even though I no longer believe almost anything that I held to be unquestionably true in those early days, I maintain the passion and excitement for the subject that the experience ingrained in me. I can't imagine that I would feel this way if my introduction to philosophy had been in the History of Philosophy courses I took in college, where most of our time was spent determining what someone important said once, what they meant, and why they were wrong. Even with my existing foundation in philosophy and enthusiasm for the subject, I often found those classes soul-deadeningly boring and difficult to stomach (though in retrospect, I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have taken them; they were invaluable). I won't inflict that on someone else, even if it is technically the "ideal" foundation. Just like an understanding of all the scales is the foundation to proper soloing, and yet (I think) is the wrong thing to learn first, a deep familiarity with the history of philosophy is indispensible for proper philosophical though, and yet should be left for later.

So with that in mind, here's the list, along with notes explaining why everyone should read these things.


Part 1: Honing the Instincts, Libertarian Style

1. Anthem by Ayn Rand

The first book clearly needs to be a dystopia, and anyone who doesn't see why needs to get a life. The choice of Anthem was a tough call, because I'm pretty sure that I don't think that Anthem is the best dystopia. But where Anthem's preachiness makes it a worse book than some of the others in the genre, I think it makes the book better as a tool for philosophy. It's super short and pretty well written, so it should be easy to get through quickly.

2. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

This is another short book, but it's definitely a little drier. Nevertheless, I think it remains one of the most powerful cases for liberty that has ever been made. It deals with a lot of issues that are immediately relevant in thinking about life, and is generally a good starting point for political thinking. This book is important historically, and Mill's ideas will come up in later readings, so it will be helpful to have read this book. But it also stands on its own as a worthwhile introduction to political philosophy.

3. Gorgias by Plato (Socrates)

*Whew!* You made it! Your reward is a thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile jaunt even further into the past, where Socrates takes on a number of interesting characters in one of the most educational (and in my opinion, entertaining) conversations ever had. This is another short, quick read.

4. The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality by Ludwig von Mises

After Socrates' distinction between what's good for people and what they think they want, it seems appropriate to move on to a book which argues that what people think they want is actually bad for them. Anyone on the Left will rightly consider this book to be the king of bourgeois apologetics. And I agree. But whereas the reasons why Mises' analysis falls short are complex and require a great deal of nuance, the reasons why Mises is right are simple and immediately recognizable. This book will take you from an appreciation for the value of individual liberty to a celebration of the power of the free market to promote that liberty, as well as the prosperity that goes with it. Again, it's not that long, so it shouldn't be too hard to get through.

5. "A Petition" by Frederic Bastiat

This essay is near and dear to the hearts of many economists, and for good reason. It is entertaining and relevant, and makes its point quickly and accessibly. You'll be glad you read it. If you hate it, then there's something wrong with you.

6. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt

Put simply, this book is awesome. By the end of this reading, you will have a very good claim to having a bona fide understanding of libertarianism, and a solid foundation in free-market economics (assuming you've read the above recommendations as well). Hazlitt's writing is fantastic, and there's a reason for the title. It really is that good, and it's a pretty quick read (I think).

Part 2: Building a Foundation in Economics

7. "I, Pencil" by Leonard Read

This essay is one of the most famous in the history of popular economics, and deserves every bit of its reputation. It's written in a lively manner and makes its point with incredible effectiveness. Best of all, it can be read easily in one sitting without breaking a sweat.

8. "The Use of Knowledge in Society" by Friedrich Hayek

This essay takes the points made in Read's essay a few steps further, and presents them in a way that's slightly more rigorous. Some people find Hayek's writing to be dry, but this is unquestionably one of the most important essays in the history of economic thought. I think that it is indispensible for a thorough understanding of economics and political philosophy, so just get through it; it's not that long!

9. Animal Farm by George Orwell

Your reward for finishing Hayek's essay is a book you may have seen before, Animal Farm. Even if you've already read it, going through it again with the level of insight which you have obtained from the previous readings will be valuable. Plus, it's an awesome book. Enjoy!

10. "Public Choice" by William Shughart II

This brief introduction to the Public Choice school of economic thought helps to give form to Orwell's story, and provides a balance for the knowledge problems discussed by Hayek. Where Hayek's analysis shows why governments fail even when they try to do good, Public Choice economists point out that it's not even always true that governments are trying to do good. At this point in the reading list, you should be noticing that you understand a whole lot about economics and public policy, and it wasn't even really that hard to learn. This calls for a celebration, I think.

11. Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy by Daniel Hausman and Michael McPherson

Having gotten this far, though, I think it will be worthwhile for you to commit to an all-out assault on economic philosophy. This book is the motherlode, and after reading it, you'll be better versed than anyone you know who hasn't reached the graduate level in economics (and many of those who have). I know it's a lot to get through, but the writing is good, and it really is worth the effort. Plus, Dr. Hausman was my professor at the University of Wisconsin, and he's the man.

To be continued! Get started on this stuff, and by the time you're finished, there will be more. Good luck!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Mankiw's Decentralized Approach to Stimulus

Yesterday, Greg Mankiw pointed out that perhaps the federal government is not the right entity to be charged with repairing the diverse and complex system of interrelationships that is the national economy:
When designing a fiscal stimulus, there is no compelling reason for one size fits all. Let each governor make a choice and answer to his or her state voters. It is called federalism.

After spending the last week or so despondently sifting through the House and Senate Stimulus Bills in search of energy industry-related cash, I almost stood up and cheered. But then I remembered that nobody listens to ethics-free Republican hacks.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On Distributive Justice and the Indeterminacy of the Market Process

This turned into a long, long post. But I really like it a lot, so hopefully you will too!


This post started out as not much more than a stream of thought. But I'm pretty happy with where it went, so here's an introduction to help you figure out what the heck is going on. In this post, I wanted to explore the idea of distributive justice, basically just to get a handle on how I felt about it. I started by hammering out a few thoughts on the simple fact that we're not actually talking about the justice of an act of distribution, which has led some thinkers to reject distributive justice. In that section, I offer some reasons for thinking distributive justice can still make sense without an actual distributive act. I then consider what I take to be the most obvious objection to my argument, which comes from Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia. In the process of thinking about distributive justice through the lens of Nozick's argument, I end up rejecting Nozick's position, but I nevertheless arrive at a conclusion that I think might be unpalateable to most proponents of conceptions of distributive justice. I then offer some closing thoughts about why I think we can satisfy the desires of those who hold these views without depending on the idea of distributive injustice. Because I basically wrote this off-the-cuff, there might be a little less organization than normal, but I hope it will still be readable enough to get through.

Distributive Justice Without Distribution

The concept of distributive justice is an interesting one. After all, social resources are never actually distributed. So what can distributive justice mean when resources are never distributed? Some thinkers are quick to say, "nothing." But notice that there is more sense of the word "distribution". There is the sense where we take a distribution to be an outcome of an act of distribution, but there is also the sense of a statistical distribution. If the word "distributive" in "distributive justice" is to be understood coherently, I contend that it will need to be the statistical sense of "distribution" which informs our understanding of the term.

But how can a statistical distribution be just or unjust? After all, our normal conceptions of justice tend to apply between individual human beings, not vague statistical aggregates. Imagine a man who, after his ship struck a reef and sank, managed to swim to safety on a small, uninhabited island. Surely he would be at the far low end of the distribution of social outcomes. But could he coherently get upset at the reef for wronging him? At the island for being unjustly hospitable? At the cosmos for not preventing the shipwreck from happening in the first place? I don't think so. It seems important in thinking about justice that the problem be one where people could coherently have had a say in determining the outcome.

So injustice needs to involve people somehow, but does it need to be the result of human design? In "The Atavism of Social Justice," Hayek writes (58):
Justice has meaning only as a rule of human conduct, and no conceivable rules for the conduct of individuals supplying each other with goods and services in a market economy would produce a distribution which could be meaningfully described as just or unjust. Individuals might conduct themselves as justly as possible, but as the results for separate individuals would be neither intended nor foreseeable by others, the resulting state of affairs could neither be called just nor unjust.

Surely it is true that each individual's fate in our spontaneously organizing society is not the intended outcome of the market process. And it also seems true that in most cases, no one would have been able to foresee exactly how things were going to turn out for each individual over any considerable time scale. Accordingly, we might think that Hayek is right to say that we cannot consider the outcome of a market process to be unjust. The outcomes of the dynamic market process are simply not within our control, and when thinking about its products, we might say that (to take a line from George Reisman [13]) "the proper way to regard them is as the equivalent of acts of nature."

But in Progress and Poverty, Henry George notes (7):
...just as...a community realizes the conditions which all civilized communities are striving for, and advances in the scale of material progress--just as closer settlement and a more intimate connection with the rest of the world, and greater utilization of labor-saving machinery, make possible greater economies in production and exchange, and wealth in consequence increases, not merely in the aggregate, but in proportion to population--so does poverty take a darker aspect. Some get an infinitely better and easier living, but others find it hard to get a living at all. The "tramp" comes with the locomotive, and almshouses and prisons are as surely the marks of "material progress" as are costly dwellings, rich warehouses, and magnificent churches. Upon streets lighted with gas and patrolled by uniformed policemen, beggars wait for the passer-by, and in the shadow of the college, and library, and museum, are gathering the more hideous Huns and fiercer Vandals of whom Macaulay prophesied.

If George is right to note that the same forces which promote progress in society also explain the emergence of poverty, then it will be a seemingly hollow position to argue that the undesirable outcomes produced by spontaneous ordering mechanisms are unforeseeable and unintended. Surely we could not predict or intend that each individual consequence were going to occur, nor could we foresee exactly who would be affected, and how and when. But we could nevertheless predict with relative certainty that someone would be affected by the dark side of the market process. Consider this observation from Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson (59-60):
Yes, we should keep an eye on Joe Smith. He has been thrown out of a job by the new machine. Perhaps he can soon get another job, even a better one. But perhaps, also, he has devoted many years of his life to acquiring and improving a special skill for which the market no longer has any use. He has lost this investment in himself, in his old skill, just as his former employer, perhaps, has lost his investment in old machines or processes suddenly rendered obsolete. He was a skilled workman, and paid as a skilled workman. Now he has become overnight an unskilled workman again, and can hope, for the present, only for the wages of an unskilled workman, because the one skill he had is no longer needed. We cannot and must not forget Joe Smith. His is one of the personal tragedies that, as we shall see, are incident to nearly all industrial and economic progress.

It seems to me that it is for this reason -- that is, it is because we can foresee that there will be undesirable consequences in a free market society, even if we can not foresee exactly what they will be -- that it can make sense to talk about distributive justice at all (I am here taking the opposite position as I did in this earlier post). As I discussed before, we cannot coherently do so if we have in mind an act of distributing, as no such act ever occurs. But to the extent that conceptions of justice apply to human conduct, and to the extent that a free market system is one way in which humans can conduct themselves in a social setting, it seems fair to think that we might be able to criticize the foreseeable statistical outcomes of the market process and ask whether something ought to be (or ought to have been done) about them.

But Wait! A Challenger!

Now in saying this, I will immediately be faced with an important objection, captured by Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia (161):
If D1 was a just distribution, and people voluntarily moved from it to D2, transferring parts of their shares they were given under D1 (what was it for if not to do something with?), isn't D2 also just?

In other words, it's important to notice that when we lament any of the outcomes of spontaneous free-market organization, we lament circumstances which seem to arise without anyone doing anything that we could coherently point to as having been wrong, or wicked. The problematic outcomes are typically either emergent, or the consequences of people doing things that we generally think they have every right to do (where there is blatant mistreatment, we generally wouldn't think of the problem as being one of distributive injustice).

So does that mean that the outcomes are just? There are three ways to dispute Nozick's argument: a) to argue that the starting point at which people find themselves in a market society is not actually just, b) to argue that what arises from a just initial position from just steps is not necessarily just, and c) to argue that, contrary to intuition, the consequences of market organization do not necessarily arise from just steps. I will consider each in turn.

What Makes a Starting Point Just?

In thinking about Nozick's D1, we will encounter two very different issues, which we will need to separate in order to proceed sensible. The first issue is whether any starting point in our market society can be legitimately pointed to as being, or having been, just. But the second issue, which is somewhat more important for our purposes, is whether the problems which are contained in the idea of "distributive injustice" are the products of unjust starting points -- that is, whether it would be helpful in disputing Nozick's conclusion to pursue this kind of argument. Because I think that the answer to the second issue is "No," I will only have a few words to say about the first issue, even though it is certainly worthy of a much more thorough discussion.

So is there a "just" starting point from which we can think of a market society as having proceeded? Clearly there is nothing that is literally a starting point which is relevant to our purposes. The free market is an organic, constantly evolving ecosystem of human activity. It started when people started working together (or more accurately, when primates or their predecessors started working together), and continues on until now. It has been characterized through its history by countless injustices, atrocities, and oppressions. These past wrongs have so thoroughly influenced the current state of the system that it would be incoherent to talk about "reversing the damage" that they caused. The people who are alive today would not even exist if history had not proceeded the way that it did.

So our starting point, no matter where we arbitrarily place it, will not represent a perfectly "just" starting point. But does that matter? To an extent, yes. But also, to an extent, no. As David Schmidtz writes in his book, Elements of Justice (212):
Dwelling too much on the past is wrong for the same reason that ignoring the past altogether is wrong: Excess in either direction reduces stability in transactions, thus making it harder to go forward in peace. A routine title search when buying a house (to verify that the seller's holding of the deed is in fact uncontested) is one thing; going back as many centuries as the land has been occupied is another.

But some will not object to our modern starting point because of mistreatment in the past, but rather because of the structure of the society in which we begin. Such a perspective is characteristic of the left-libertarians in the Steiner/Otsuka/Vallentyne mold, where the idea is that non-man made natural resources ought to be initially distributed according to an egalitarian principle.

It's here, however, that I want to pull the plug on this conversation, because as G.A. Cohen points out in Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality (105):
I believe...that no such constitution is to be discovered: no egalitarian rule regarding external resources alone will, together with self-ownership, deliver equality of outcome, except, as in the case of joint ownership, at an unacceptable sacrifice of autonomy. There is a tendency in self-ownership to produce inequality, and the only way to nullify that tendency (without expressly abridging self-ownership) is through a regime over external resources which is so rigid that it excludes exercise of independent rights over oneself.

In other words, the problems which concern those focused on distributive justice do not find their roots in the starting point from which social evolution proceeds. Lamentable market outcomes are not simply the outcomes of unjust or unequal initial distribution, or of historical injustice and oppression. Rather, they are a product of that evolution itself. So it will do the proponent of distributive justice no good to focus on this aspect of Nozick's argument. Accordingly, I will move on to the next avenue of objection.

Do Just Steps Preserve Justice?

The next way to object to Nozick's argument is to contend that something that arises as the result of just steps is not necessarily just, even if we don't want to object to the initial set of conditions. On its face, it seems pretty uncontroversial to say that if there's no problem with an initial condition, and all of the changes from that initial condition were perfectly legitimate and just, then we don't really have grounds for calling the outcome "unjust." We may lament them -- as Hazlitt above lamented the fate of the workman who was displaced by the machine -- but we may not have reason to say that the outcome is unjust. Perhaps it is merely unfortunate. This is the intuition which Nozick seeks to capture, and does.

But consider this: In his essay, "The Institution of Property," David Schmidtz suggests:
Note a difference between justifying institutions that regulate appropriation and justifying particular acts of appropriation. Think of original appropriation as a game and of particular acts of appropriation as moves within the game. Even if the game is justified, a given move within the game may have nothing to recommend it. Indeed, we could say (for argument's sake) that any act of appropriation will seem arbitrary when viewed in isolation, and some will seem unconscionable. Even so, there can be compelling reasons to have an institutional framework that recognizes property claims on the basis of moves that would carry no weight in an institutional vacuum.

If a game can be justified even though individual moves, when taken in isolation, might not seem justified, then why couldn't we say that a game can be unjustified even if none of its moves seem problematic? I see no reason why not.

And this seems like exactly the kind of objection that is being raised by the proponents of distributive justice. That is, the problem with the market order is not that it is characterized by unjust moves, but rather that it is supposedly an unjust game -- it is a game which generates consequences that are unacceptable, even if none of the players do anything wrong at any particular time. In other words, the allegation is that market orders generate emergent injustices.

But do they really? Is it somehow unjust of us, as participants in a market order, to "play the game" that we do? Some libertarians and free-market thinkers will point out that all it means to "play the game" of market organization is to relate to each other in a purely voluntry way. By this conception, it would seem unreasonable to think of participating in a market order as contributing to injustice. After all, in a system of purely voluntary interactions, one individual's wealth is not gotten at the expense of anyone else's interests. No one, then, is made worse off in any way to which they do not assent. It might here be noted that a state of poverty is the natural state of man, and that it is wealth that is the surprising anomaly. Accordingly, we might think of the alleged "injustice" of capitalism as simply the product of some individuals being "left behind" by the rising tide of progress.

Taking this point of view, we might come to the conclusion that a free-market order is not unjust. People who "play the game" are participating in a process which generates wealth for those who are successful, and which simply leaves the unsuccessful in their original state. We might lament the fact that we don't all win, but we would be hard-pressed to contend that this inherent inequality of outcomes is unjust. By this view, capitalism is a game which individuals play at their own peril, if they so choose; it is a system which allows each individual to do things the way that she thinks is best, on the condition that she respects others' right to do the same. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (2):
This is what the modern concept of freedom means. Every adult is free to fashion his life according to his own plans. He is not forced to live according to the plan of a planning authority enforcing its unique plan by the police, i.e., the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion. What restricts the individual's freedom is not other people's violence or threat of violence, but the physiological structure of his body and the inescapable nature-given scarcity of the factors of production. It is obvious that man's discretion to shape his own fate can never trespass the limits drawn by what are called the laws of nature.

But G.A. Cohen disagrees with this way of looking at things, arguing in Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality that within a market society, a property-less proletarian "must either sell his labour power to a capitalist or die" (100), and accordingly "lacks self-ownership, in an effective sense" (ibid). Cohen is seizing upon the idea that if the choice is between voluntarily living according to someone else's plans at unfavorable terms on one hand, and starving to death or dying of exposure on the other, the sense in which one is free to choose one's own fate is "merely formal" (ibid; italics original).

This point can be more fully appreciated by calling on a definition from F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty (19):
By "coercion" we mean such control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another that, in order to avoid greater evil, he is forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another. Except in the sense of choosing the lesser evil in a situation forced on him by another, he is unable either to use his own intelligence or knowledge or to follow his own aims or beliefs. Coercion is evil precisely because it thus eliminates an individual as a thinking and valuing person and makes him a bare tool in the achievement of the ends of another.

Now, Cohen would not want to say that an individual employer forces a worker into his service -- that is clearly untrue. But he would likely want to contend that the market system, with its institutions of private property and endemic inequality, effectively coerces the proletarian with its choice between death and an emiserated survival by the grace of some exploiter. It is precisely because coercion is evil, by this point of view, that the so-called "free-market" system is unjust.

But if we are to condemn the system in which the proletarian is allegedly coerced, we must consider how the system supposedly brings about this state of affairs. Surely the objection to a market order is not raised to demand rectification for the fate of the person who led himself to financial ruin through bad decisions and poor judgment. Though we may lament such an outcome, it seems clear that we would not want to cite this sort of thing as an injustice. The critic of the market system is most plausible when targetting her objections at circumstances like the one discussed by Hazlitt above, where workers are displaced by the perpetual churning of the marketplace, or circumstances in which individuals are born into unfortunate lifestyles through an inherited lack of access to capital resources. We shall therefore examine each of these indictments in turn.

The destruction of existing order by dynamic market processes is indeed an inherent characteristic of a healthy market process. And it is therefore true that individuals may, as a result of this so-called "creative destruction" (to steal Schumpeter's term), find themselves in a position where they are effectively coerced by force of circumstances into a sort of proletarian existence. But I think that a good case can be made for the idea that this is simply a risk of participating in the market process. That is, it is surely a lamentable feature of that process that some people end up on the losing side, but I am unsure how we would justify calling this an unjust feature of the market. As F.A. Hayek writes in his essay, "Individualism: True and False" (21-22):
...if the individual is to be free to choose, it is inevitable that he should bear the risk attaching to that choice and that in consequence he be rewarded, not according to the goodness or badness of his intentions, but solely on the basis of the value of the results to others.

Perhaps I will need to think about this some more, but I can't see any reason for thinking about this sort of thing as anything more than an unfortunate characteristic of the market system.

More concerning, I think, is the state of affairs faced by the proletarian who is born into his situation -- forced by the nature of his upbringing into a sort of "wage slavery." The free-market proponent can undoubtedly point to a number of examples of such cases where through hard work, talent, and a little bit luck led the individual to a prosperous life. The critic can undoubtedly point to a larger number of such examples where no such thing took place. The point that the free-market critic makes in citing such examples is not that injustice cannot be overcome, as the free-market proponent's counterargument may often make it appear. Rather, the point is that such circumstances are unjust regardless of whether or not they can be overcome.

But how do these circumstances come about? The private property system itself seems like a popular target, given that the most obvious reason for the proletarian's state of affairs is her lack of access to the resources which would empower her to take better control of her life in order to direct it to her own ends, and the most apparent reason why she does not have access to those resources is a coercive set of institutions which will stop her if she tries to use them. As G.A. Cohen observes in Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality (55-56):
The banal truth is, if the state prevents me from doing something that I want to do, then it places a restriction on my freedom. Suppose, then, that I want to perform an action which involves a legally prohibited use of your property. I want, let us say, to pitch a tent in your large back garden, perhaps just in order to annoy you, or perhaps for the more substantial reason that I have nowhere to live and no land of my own, but I have got hold of a tent, legitimately or otherwise. If I now try to do this thing that I want to do, the chances are that the state will intervene on your behalf. If it does, I shall suffer a constraint on my freedom. The same goes, of course, for all unpermitted use of a piece of private property by those who do not own it, and there are always those who do not own it, since 'private ownership by one person presupposes non-ownership on the part of other persons.

But is the problem really that we have a society in which there are rules delineating who has the right of way with respect to the use of specific objects? As David Schmidtz writes in his book, Elements of Justice (157):
We cannot live together without rules that secure our possessions, thereby enabling us to plan our separate lives.

Even Karl Marx, in his essay on "Estranged Labour," allows that material possessions are critical to one's ability to find fulfillment and to shape one's own identity. Marx writes:
It his fashioning of the objective that man really proves himself to be a species-being. Such production is his active species-life. Through it, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of the species-life of man: for man produces himself not only intellectually, in his consciousness, but actively and actually, and he can therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself has created.

The problem with the market system, it seems, is not that it is characterized by property rules. Rather, the problem appears to be that the proletarian doesn't have property, and is therefore not able to pursue the self-defining ends which both libertarians and non-libertarians prize. In other words, the alleged "injustice" of the market system is not that there is property, but rather that the proletarian doesn't have any.

The critic of the market system must therefore build his case on the idea that the injustice caused by the market system is in bringing it about that the proletarian is born into poverty. But this is where the case crumbles. The case crumbles because it is decidedly not the fault of the market system that the proletarian is born into poverty. Rather, it is the fault of the proletarian's parents that she is born into poverty. Neither the market system nor its propertied participants can be blamed for the fact that the proletarian was put into a position where she had to choose between being a wage-slave and dying. The fact that the proletarian did not simply show up on the scene, but was rather brought to the scene by her parents, seems to absolve "the system" of guilt for the proletarian's position, at least in my mind.

Now there are two ways that I can imagine someone objecting to this conclusion. The first would be to pointedly ask, "Are you seriously saying that poor people shouldn't have children?," and then to rattle off a list of reasons why I am a heartless, evil jerk. To this I would respond that if it is true that it is an injustice for someone to have to live a life of wage slavery, and if it is further true that a parent can foresee that by having a child, she will be condemning him to a life of emiserated labor, in which he will be unable to pursue his own fulfillment, then perhaps that is what I am saying. But I would qualify this claim with the important point that even poor parents can prepare their children for an active and fulfilling role in society by raising them well, and would therefore be responsible for no injustice in having a child. My only claim is that if we find an individual whose life we wish to declare an injustice because of his upbringing and the circumstances of his birth, then it would seem odd to place the blame elsewhere than on the individuals who were directly responsible for that upbringing and birth.

The second kind of response I can imagine would be to insist that the system can be blamed for the state of the parents (or the parents' parents, and so on) because of some past injustice which explains the cycle of poverty in the midst of which we find our proletarian. And while that response is perhaps a legitimate one, I would have to point the responder back to the previous section for my reply.

So, then, it seems to me that in declaring a distribution to be unjust, one cannot blame the market system itself, or the society which participates in that system, for unjustly "playing the game." The game, it seems to me, is not at fault for alleged distributive injustices.

At this point we should pause and retrace our steps. The problem with which we are here concerned starts with Robert Nozick's claim that any outcome which arises through just steps from a just initial starting point is itself just. We were concerned because this claim is at odds with the concept of distributive justice, which suggests that some of the outcomes of market processes are disturbing for intuitively moral reasons. We first asked whether we could save our intuitions by rejecting Nozick's implication that the market process has a just starting point, but concluded that this would not help our argument. In this section, we objected to the idea that just steps preserve justice, pointing out that a system of institutions can itself be unjust. We then considered whether or not the market system is itself an unjust system, and concluded that in the cases where we might intuitively want to identify distributive injustice, we cannot coherently blame the market system for unjustly bringing about those outcomes. Accordingly, rejecting this part of Nozick's argument will not help us to defend our intuitions about distributive injustice.

At the outset of our discussion, we said that there were going to be three steps in our examination, which leaves one left: the claim that the outcomes to which we object do not actually arise from a just initial starting position through just steps. But because we have objected to the structure of Nozick's argument, it will be irrelevant for us to explore this question -- we have seen that just steps do not necessarily preserve justice, and that it is irrelevant whether an initial starting point is in some sense "just." But we can rephrase the issue in light of the conclusions that we have drawn so far.

Ought We Really to Rely Upon the Market Process to Ensure Desirable Outcomes?

We will therefore ask: Even if we do not wish to take exception to some past state of affairs from which our current circumstances evolved, and even if we do not wish to claim that the market system itself is somehow an "unjust game," is it really true that we have no reason to object to the social process by which people have ended up in undesirable circumstances? Another (I think) equivalent way to think about this question is, if it is the case that undesirable outcomes arise for certain individuals purely through the normal workings of the market process (to which we do not want to object), and if those undesirable outcomes are allowed to stand, will it necessarily be the case that everyone has a claim to moral blamelessness?

In his essay, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Peter Singer writes:
...if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

In the example, we are not supposed to assume that the individual walking past the pond has put the child in the pond. No crime is supposed to have produced the child's unfortunate circumstances. And further, it is by no systemic injustice of the complex web of social interrelationships that the child is drowning. Yet if we simply watched the child drown, would that not seem wrong?

Perhaps it is the case that, as individuals who appreciate each other's value and moral worth, we owe it to each other to lend a helping hand in times of need. And if we did not lift a finger when others were facing crisis, that we would be failing to uphold our duties as morally responsible people. To say this implies no injustice in the market system which brings about unfortunate outcomes, nor does it imply that somehow we need to find some point in the past to serve as a "source" of injustice. Rather, we can think of distributive injustice as a recognition that in a community or society where so many live free of need, there are individuals among us who struggle to survive, without so much as a helping hand from their neighbors.

Of course, the mere existence of need and want surely cannot entail the presence of injustice. The same respect for the value of life which commands us to care about our neighbors also commands us to recognize the importance of living our own lives according to our own goals and desires. Earlier, we noted an idea from F.A. Hayek that coercion is evil because it "eliminates an individual as a thinking and valuing person and makes him a bare tool in the achievement of the ends of another." We suggested that the tragic need which drives individuals into exploitative labor relationships is evil for this reason as well. But we must now acknowledge that the attitude which places on the successful individual the burden of caring after the world's needy is evil for exactly the same reason (I discussed this in a previous post). Addressing one evil through the introduction of another seems like a questionable way to proceed. But it does not seem that either extreme -- ignoring the suffering of others or sacrificing oneself for the good of those in need -- is the correct one. What is needed is a balance between the two.

With this realization, we can declare our analysis to be complete. I think I'm happy with this conclusion. Thanks for reading along!
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