Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice

A merit good is said to be something that

an individual or society should have on the basis of some concept of need, rather than ability and willingness to pay…. [T]he concept … lies behind many economic actions by governments…. Examples include the provision of food stamps to support nutrition, the delivery of health services to improve quality of life and reduce morbidity, subsidized housing and arguably education….

Sometimes, merit … goods are simply seen as an extension of the idea of externalities. A merit good may be described as a good that has positive externalities associated with it. Thus, an inoculation against a contagious disease may be seen as a merit good. This is because others who may not now catch the disease from the inoculated person also benefit.

[M]erit … goods can be defined in a different way…. The essence of merit … goods is [has] do with … information failure…. This arises because consumer[s] do not perceive quite how good or bad the good is for them: either they do not have the right information or lack relevant information…. [A]merit good is [a] good that is better for a person than the person … realizes.

Other possible rationales for treating some commodities as merit … goods include public-goods aspects of a commodity…

A merit good, in short, is something that someone believes that the state should cause to be given to certain individuals, as a “positive right,” for various reasons: perceived need, externalities, and market failure among them.

But the “right” to something that is not earned or freely given is not a right, as the term is properly understood. It is an extortion by force or the threat of force, either directly (as in the case of outright theft) or though the coercive power of the state. Only a fool or a dishonest person can say that something obtained through extortion is obtained by right, unless that person believes that the victims of extortion are less deserving — less human — than the intended beneficiaries of extortion.

If a right is anything, it is something that all members of a polity can enjoy equally. If some members of a polity are placed above others through force or the threat of force, then the polity has no system of rights; it has a system of arbitrary privileges, dispensed by the state according to the whims of the faction then in power.

Given that a right must be something that all can enjoy equally, a right can only be negative:

  • the right not to have one’s life taken if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right not to be deprived of liberty if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right to the peaceful enjoyment and use of one’s property in the pursuit of one’s life and livelihood.

These negative rights come down to this: the right to be left alone as one leaves others alone.

If “obligations” accompany the right to be left alone, they do so only in the context of voluntary social (and economic) relationships, wherein acts of kindness and charity flow readily among persons who trust and care for each other and do so, in good part, because they observe the right of others to be left alone. These “obligations” are incurred and honored voluntarily, not because a person or group invested with the power of the state decrees them.

Merit goods (“positive rights”), by contrast, are the products of presumption — judgments about who is “needy” and “deserving” — and they are bestowed on some by coercing others. These coercions extend not only to the seizure of income and wealth but also to denials of employment (e.g., affirmative action), free speech (e.g., campaign-finance “reform”), freedom of contract (e.g., mandatory recognition of unions), freedom of association (e.g., forced admission of certain groups to private organizations), freedom of conscience (e.g., forced participation in abortions), and on and on.

The list of “merit goods” that forms the basis for the many and various forms of state-sponsored coercion may not be infinite, but it is exceedingly long. And its length is limited only by the perverse ingenuity of the seekers of “cosmic justice.” What is cosmic justice? I like this example from Thomas Sowell’s speech, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice“:

A fight in which both boxers observe the Marquis of Queensberry rules would be a fair fight, according to traditional standards of fairness, irrespective of whether the contestants were of equal skill, strength, experience or other factors likely to affect the outcome– and irrespective of whether that outcome was a hard-fought draw or a completely one-sided beating.

This would not, however, be a fair fight within the framework of those seeking “social justice,” if the competing fighters came into the ring with very different prospects of success — especially if these differences were due to factors beyond their control….

In a sense, proponents of “social justice” are unduly modest. What they are seeking to correct are not merely the deficiencies of society, but of the cosmos. What they call social justice encompasses far more than any given society is causally responsible for. Crusaders for social justice seek to correct not merely the sins of man but the oversights of God or the accidents of history. What they are really seeking is a universe tailor-made to their vision of equality. They are seeking cosmic justice.

To be a practitioner of cosmic justice, a person must set himself up as a judge of the merit of other persons, without really possessing more than superficial information about those other persons (e.g., that they are “rich” or “poor” by some standard). As I once said of two founders of modern “liberalism,” T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, they are

accountants of the soul….

…(presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up [or put them down] through the blunt instrument that is the state.

This is done on in the service of concepts that do not bear close examination, such as externalities, public goods, market failure, and social justice, social welfare, and positive rights. I will not repeat my asseessments of those concepts, but refer you to some of them instead:

Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Social Justice
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Externalities and Statism

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