Bleeding Heart Libertarians

Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts

Liberty rights are represented in the Founders’ trinity of “unalienable Rights“: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These really constitute a unitary right, which I simply call liberty. The liberty right is unitary because liberty (as a separate right) is meaningless without life, and liberty implies the latitude to pursue happiness.

Libertarians, for the most part, think of liberty as the enjoyment of the negative right to be left alone in one’s peaceful pursuits, that is, the right not to be robbed, attacked, murdered, and so on. But in a society or polity that values and enables liberty, the right to be left alone is only half the story.

The right to be left alone is the negative sub-rule of the Golden Rule, a good formulation of which is “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” That formulation implies a positive sub-rule, which could be stated as “Be kind and charitable to others, and they (or most of them) will be kind and charitable to you.”

The positive sub-rule is prudential, not mandatory. But that does not lessen its importance, for liberty cannot prevail absent widespread observance of the positive sub-rule. Such observance creates the conditions of mutual trust and respect that foster mutual forbearance, that is, leaving others alone in their peaceful pursuits. (For more in this vein, see Richard Epstein’s refutation of the view that libertarianism is all about “me” in “No ‘Sachs Appeal’,” Defining Ideas (a Hoover Institution journal), January 24, 2012.)

Let me be clear about the applicability of the Golden Rule in an ideal libertarian society or polity: Both sub-rules — negative and positive — are to be observed voluntarily. But one of them — the negative sub-rule — may be defended by force. Observance of the positive sub-rule may not be coerced, however, because that would violate the negative sub-rule.

The negative sub-rule must be defended because negative rights will not always be respected, human nature being what it is. On the issue of how to defend negative rights, libertarians split into two camps: anarchists and minarchists. These two camps differ about the necessity of the state, which is an independent entity and not an agent of particular members (or groups of members) of a society or polity.

Anarchistic libertarians maintain that negative rights can and should be defended without the intervention of a state. In the anarchistic view, individuals and groups of individuals can contract with each other about rules of interpersonal behavior, and can empower agents to enforce the rules.

Minarchistic libertarians (or this one, at least) maintain that the existence of agents who are empowered by various members of a society or polity is nothing more than warlordism, wherein might makes right. To say that no one would use force to do more than defend one’s negative rights is to make a patently false claim about human nature. (Anarchists, after all, acknowledge the necessity of self-defense.) Minarchists therefore believe that a state should be created and empowered specifically, and exclusively, for the purpose of defending negative rights. Such a state must be generally accountable to the populace, and it must have no power other than to protect the populace from harm. (For more about anarchists, minarchists, and the inevitability of the state, go here.)

Minarchists, nevertheless, tend toward a superficial view of the state’s minimal role, namely, that the job of the state is to see that everyone is left alone, as long as his pursuits are peaceful. That is, the job of the state is to enforce the negative sub-rule of the Golden Rule. So far, so good. Even an anarchist might go along with the idea of such a state.

But here is the rub. What are peaceful pursuits, that is, pursuits which do not harm others?  Who defines them? It cannot be everyone for himself; A’s peaceful pursuit may be a nuisance (or worse) to B.

In sum, harm cannot be defined willy-nilly by individuals, nor is it the abstraction that most libertarians make it out to be with their simplistic invocation of the “harm principle.” Rather, the definition of harm must reflect broad agreement about the rules of interpersonal behavior: social norms. Those norms are not mere abstractions; they are specific rules about permissible and impermissible acts. (Caution to readers: Do not mistake state-imposed rules for social norms, though some state-imposed rules may reflect social norms.)

Like it or not, evolved social norms constitute the foundation of a libertarian society based on mutual trust and respect. And if those evolved social norms specifically proscribe such “libertarian” causes as abortion and homosexual “marriage,” where does that leave the typical “libertarian”? It leaves him wanting to repudiate or overturn social norms, without regard for the effects of doing so on social comity. (See this and this, for example.)

But the ranks of “libertarians” also number a strange breed, often self-described as left-libertarian.  These “libertarians” actively root for the violation of negative rights in the cause of “social justice.” What is “social justice”? The short answer is that it is whatever anyone wants it to be, but it is never restricted to the enforcement of negative rights. The term “social justice” may be taken confidently as code for the enforcement of positive rights by a coercive state.

Left-libertarians will jump through hoops, turn somersaults, and stand on their heads to deny that they favor the enforcement of positive rights by a coercive state. But they do. A post by Kevin Vallier (one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians) exemplifies their acrobatics:

Libertarians Great and Small (LGS): At some point in the future a group of committed libertarians establish a libertarian free zone called Libertarian Paradise. In LP, all property is acquired and transferred in line with traditional self-ownership political theory. Deviations from these norms are quickly corrected by private and non-profit legal organizations (call them the Cops).

…Due to LP’s unbridled capitalism, its economy booms, making its inhabitants spectacularly wealthy, so much so that charity easily provides for its poorest citizens.

However, through no one person or group’s deliberate action, prosperity ebbs. Perhaps because of resource depletion, climate change or natural disaster, a class of individuals becomes systematically deprived of basic resources (call them the Small). But while they are regularly hungry, they do not starve. And while they cannot secure many basic health resources, they do not die from easily preventable diseases. However, their poverty substantially sets back their well-being.

But the trouble in LP strikes the best-off as well (call them the Great). They too grow poorer, though they remain very well-off, more than wealthy enough to maintain a high standard of living. Yet they no longer feel secure enough to donate to charity. While the Great continue to donate to charity, LP’s charitable institutions no longer have sufficient resources to adequately provide for the Small….

At first the Small petition the Cops to require the Great to pay higher service fees and to use the proceeds to provide a social safety net. But the Cops reject the Small’s petitions for fear of offending their Great clientele.

Eventually the Small grow tired of petitions and begin to occupy local banks, demanding that a small portion of the fortunes of the Great be used to provide the Small with enough food and medical care to be able to get on with their lives. The Small do so non-aggressively, organizing a poor people’s campaign to nonviolently resist LP’s property regime.

But the Great are frustrated. After all, they still give to charity and they too have grown poorer. So the Great demand that the Cops coercively remove the Small from their local banks on the grounds that the Small are violating the self-ownership principle. The Cops comply.

The Small resent the coercion and complain that it is unjustified because they are merely trying to secure basic resources for them and their children. The Cops, acting on behalf of the Great, violently prevent the Small from securing a minimally decent future for themselves and their offspring.

Vallier maintains that

Traditional libertarianism solidly endorses the coercive actions of the Cops. The Cops and their Great clients may be insufficiently benevolent but they act justly.

But social justice libertarians (Strong BHLs) have a different reaction. On their view, the Small are not criminals. In fact, their demands are justified. First, the Small have only occupied local banks after petitioning the Cops to charge higher fees. Second, by occupying local banks, the Small are merely asking the Great to provide them with a very mild safety net that, if institutionalized, would in no way prevent the Great from leading excellent lives.

The social justice libertarian can go further and argue that the property claims of the Great are illegitimate. Their claims are illegitimate because the coercion required to maintain them cannot be justified to the Small given that their well-being is substantially set back by a lack of basic food and healthcare. On the social justice view, the Small’s complaints provide legitimate grounds to revise the property rights recognized in LP to permit (and perhaps require) the Cops to provide a safety net out of the proceeds of legal fees paid by the Great.

…In this case, I’m with the Small. How about you?

And, in an effort to seal his case, Vallier adds

Pre-emptive Remarks:

(1) Please don’t respond with “That will never happen.” The purpose of LGS is to draw out your intuitions about what makes coercion and property regimes morally legitimate. That is why it is a thought experiment.

(2) Please don’t respond with “You’re a statist.” Nothing in LGS assumes that a state controls LP or that the Small want a state. These disputes are possible in a market anarchist social order and can be remedied in the name of justice through polycentric legal organizations.

(3) Please don’t respond that the Small aren’t really being coerced. Many libertarians want to determine what counts as coercion entirely by whether property claims are made in line with the self-ownership principle. But that’s implausible. Even private police forces have to use coercion to protect legitimately held property. Just because a piece of property is rightfully yours doesn’t mean your security forces don’t use coercion to protect it.

(4) Please don’t respond with a slippery slope argument. I was extremely circumspect about the sort of justification the Small employ. They reject as unjustified the coercion used against them because it requires that they remain impoverished through no fault of their own when the Great can easily aid them without any significant risk to their life prospects. To side with the Small, you don’t have to adopt any strongly prioritarian or egalitarian distributive principle.

Remark (1) is unexceptionable; I take LGS as a thought experiment, though a failed one.

As for (2), Vallier should read what he has written. When the Small petition the Cops to force the Great to come across with more money for the Small, it is evident that the Small consider the Cops to have state-like power. That is, the Small want the Cops to act like agents of the state by taking up against their own “clients,” the Great. Further, it is clear that Vallier wants the Cops to assume state-like power when he says that “the Small’s complaints provide legitimate grounds to revise the property rights recognized in LP to permit (and perhaps require) the Cops to provide a safety net out of the proceeds of legal fees paid by the Great.”

Vallier resorts to doublespeak in (3) when he says that “the Cops coercively remove the Small from their local banks.” The Cops (as agents for the Great) are employing force in defense of property rights — rights that the Small had acknowledged by virtue of their membership in the Libertarian Paradise. If there is any coercion in the scenario painted by Vallier, it is committed by the Small, when they occupy the banks in an effort to compel the Great to cough up more money.  Vallier’s use of “coercively” is gratuitous and does not belong in the phrase quoted above.

Remark (4) is slipperiness itself. Having misapplied “coercively” to the Cops defensive actions (as agents for the Great), Vallier recycles it in the statement that the Small “reject as unjustified the coercion used against them.” (As Lenin said, “A lie told often enough becomes truth.”) The Small may “reject as unjustified” their removal from private property, but that does not make their removal unjustified. (See my comments about (3).) Moreover, it is clear that Vallier adopts some kind of “distributive principle,” other than the libertarian principle upon which LP was founded, when he writes that the Small will “remain impoverished through no fault of their own.” The implied principle is that those who are better off owe something to those who are worse off. How much they owe, and under what circumstances is, of course, determined arbitrarily by “social justice” libertarians like Vallier and out-and-out statist redistributionists like Barack Obama. Their principles are the same, they just articulate them differently.

It is understandable the Vallier roots for the “little guy,” most people do; but the “little guy” is not necessarily the “good guy.” In any event, a libertarian society is impossible if the fundamental tenets of libertarianism can be overthrown simply because the “little guy” wants more than the “big guy” is willing to give. It is not as if the Greats have insisted on a narrow, “leave me alone,” kind of libertarianism; their embrace of the positive sub-rule of the Golden Rule is evident (and realistic). Vallier — like any statist — simply wants to enforce his preconceived notion of how the positive sub-rule should be applied. But the enforcement of any such notion, however well intended, is incompatible with liberty. Moreover, as I have shown, the end result of confiscation through taxation and regulation is general impoverishment; the “have nots” suffer, along with the “haves.”

Left-libertarianism is not libertarianism. And its unintended consequences are dire because slippery slopes are real. State power erodes the societal bonds upon which liberty depends, because — as subjects of the state — individual develop the habit of looking to the state for guidance about proper behavior, instead of consulting their consciences and their fellow men. One misuse of state power leads to another, eventually destroying the fragile bonds of mutual respect and forbearance that undergird liberty. (Regarding the reality of slippery slopes, consider how much the contemporary interpretation of the Constitution diverges from its real, original meaning because of accretion of wrongful interpretations; see especially “Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution,” by Michael Stokes Paulsen, University of St. Thomas School of Law.)

For proof of this, one need look no farther than America. America’s slide into statism began in earnest with with Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” accelerated with Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” and has been compounded since through the steady accretion of power by the central government.

All in the name of “social justice.”

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
Inventing “Liberalism”
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
The Price of Government
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
The Real Burden of Government
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Principles of Actionable Harm
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Price of Government Redux
The Near-Victory of Communism
The Mega-Depression
Abortion and Crime
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Discounting and Libertarian Paternalism
The Mind of a Paternalist
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
The Unreality of Objectivism
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Rahn Curve at Work
Is Liberty Possible?
The Left
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
Undermining the Free Society
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
The Bowles-Simpson Report
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
The Stagnation Thesis
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Government Failure: An Example
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
Understanding Hayek
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
About Democracy
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Externalities and Statism
“Occupy Wall Street” and Religion
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”
The Morality of Occupying Private Property
Society and the State
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
In Defense of the 1%
Prohibition, Abortion, and “Progressivism”

On Self-Ownership and Desert

INTRODUCTION

Fernando Teson, one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians, addresses self-ownership:

Self-ownership is the property right that a person has over her natural assets, that is, over her mind and body. As is well known (and nicely summarized in Matt [Zwolinski]’s post,) Lockeans think that this right can, under appropriate circumstances, justify ownership over external assets.  Most libertarians endorse the idea of self-ownership. Some progressives do too, but an important line of progressive thought rejects self-ownership.  According to John Rawls (in A Theory of Justice,) natural assets are collective property. That is, they belong to society, not to the person who possesses them. The reason for this, Rawls thinks, is that just as we do not deserve being born rich or poor, so we don’t deserve our natural talents. For this reason, societal arrangements that reward talented persons are only justified if they benefit the least talented.

I am exasperated by claims, like Teson’s and Rawls’s, that appeal to abstract principles which adduce to human beings abstract, Platonic attributes. One such attribute is “natural rights” — a close kin of self-ownership. I am especially exasperated when such attributes are bestowed by third parties speaking from a position of judgmental omniscience. Desert is an excellent case in point.

The attribution to humans of ethereal characteristics (like self-ownership and desert) exemplifies the fallacy of reification:  “the error of treating as a “real thing” something which is not a real thing, but merely an idea.”

Self-ownership is in a class with “natural rights” as a condition that somehow inheres in a person by virtue of his status as a human being. I have dealt with “natural rights” at length (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here), and will not repeat myself. The rest of this post takes up self-ownership and desert.

SELF-OWNERSHIP

The argument for self-ownership, as forumalated by Robert Nozick, goes like this (according to R.N. Johnson’s summary of the political philosophy of Robert Nozick):

The self-ownership argument is based on the idea that human beings are of unique value. It is one way of construing the fundamental idea that people must be treated as equals. People are “ends in themselves”. To say that a person is an end in herself is to say that she cannot be treated merely as a means to some other end. What makes a person an end is the fact that she has the capacity to choose rationally what she does. This makes people quite different from anything else, such as commodities or animals. The latter can be used by us as mere means to our ends without doing anything morally untoward, since they lack the ability to choose for themselves how they will act or be used. Human beings, having the ability to direct their own behavior by rational decision and choice, can only be used in a way that respects this capacity. And this means that people can’t be used by us unless they consent.

The paradigm of violating this requirement to treat people as ends in themselves is thus slavery. A slave is a person who is used as a mere means, that is, without her consent. That is, a slave is someone who is owned by another person. And quite obviously the reverse of slavery is self-ownership. If no one is a slave, then no one owns another person, and if no one owns another person, then each person is only owned by herself. Hence, we get the idea that treating people as ends in themselves is treating them as owning themselves.

In summary:

1. I own myself because I am capable of making rational choices for myself.

2. If someone else “uses” me without my consent (e.g., enslaves me or steals food from me), he is denying my self-ownership.

3. Therefore, when someone else “uses” me he is treating me as a means to an end; whereas, I am an end in myself because I own myself.

Oops. I went in a circle. I own myself; therefore, I cannot be used by someone else, because I own myself.

Nozick’s proposition amounts to nothing more than the assertion that everyone must act from the same principle. Immanuel Kant made essentially the same assertion in his categorical imperative:

Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

Well, what if the person making that statement believes that his end is to be a slave-owner — and that he has the power to make me a slave?

The fact is that people, all too often, do not act according to Nozick’s or Kant’s imperatives. As Dr. Johnson said, I refute it thus: Look around you. Rights are a social construct. They exist only to the extent that they are reciprocally recognized and enforced. There are very good reasons that rights should be only negative ones (here and here, for example). But those reasons do not trump the realities of human nature (follow the links in the final paragraph of the introduction).

The concept of self-ownership, as with many ideals, arises from the ideal world of “ought” instead of the real world of “is.”

DESERT

Desert is a more infuriating concept than self-ownership. Self-ownership, at least, is an attribute which supposedly inheres in me by virtue of my humanity. (That it does not inhere in me can be seen readily by looking at my 1040, my real-estate tax bill, and the myriad federal, State, and local regulations that govern my behavior and transactions with others.) Desert, on the other hand, is mine only if someone else says that it does.

The Wikipedia article about desert gives this illustration:

In ordinary usage, to deserve is to earn or merit a reward; in philosophy, the distinction is drawn in the term desert to include the case that that which one receives as one’s just deserts may well be unwelcome, or a reward. For example, if one scratches off a winning lottery ticket, one may be entitled to the money, but one does not necessarily deserve it in the same way one would deserve $5 for mowing a lawn, or a round of applause for performing a solo.

Whether or not one “deserves” one’s lottery winnings depends arbitrarily on who is making the judgment. The arbitrariness is readily seen in the opposing views of Rawls and Nozick (from the same article):

One of the most controversial rejections of the concept of desert was made by the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls, writing in the mid to late twentieth century, claimed that a person cannot claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments (such as superior intelligence or athletic abilities), as it is purely the result of the ‘natural lottery’. Therefore, that person does not morally deserve the fruits of his or her talents and/or efforts, such as a good job or a high salary. However, Rawls was careful to explain that, even though he dismissed the concept of moral Desert, people can still legitimately expect to receive the benefits of their efforts and/or talents. The distinction here lies between Desert and, in Rawls’ own words, ‘Legitimate Expectations’.[1]

Rawls'[s] remarks about natural endowments provoked an often-referred response by Robert Nozick. Nozick claimed that to treat peoples’ natural talents as collective assets is to contradict the very basis of the deontological liberalism Rawls wishes to defend, i.e. respect for the individual and the distinction between persons.[2] Nozick argued that Rawls’ suggestion that not only natural talents but also virtues of character are undeserved aspects of ourselves for which we cannot take credit, “can succeed in blocking the introduction of a person’s autonomous choices and actions (and their results) only by attributing everything noteworthy about the person completely to certain sorts of ‘external’ factors. So denigrating a person’s autonomy and prime responsibility for his actions is a risky line to take for a theory that otherwise wishes to buttress the dignity and self-respect of autonomous beings.”[3]

Jonathan Pearce, writing at samizdata.net blog, sorts it out:

[T]he idea of “deserving” poor or “undeserving” rich is, in my view, loaded with ideological significance, depending on who is using the term. Clearly, people feel a lot more relaxed about handing out money – either from a charity or from a government department – to people who are down on their luck but of good character, than they are about handing it out to the feckless. Similarly, it follows that there is more support for taxing supposedly “undeserved” wealth than “earned” wealth. The trouble with such words, of course, as has been shown by FA Hayek in his famous demolition of payment-by-merit in The Constitution of Liberty, is who gets to decide whether our circumstances came about due to “desert” or not. Such a person would have to have the foresight of a god. It is, as Hayek argued, impossible to do this without some omnipotent authority being able to weigh up a person’s potential, and then being able to measure whether that person, in the face of a vast array of alternatives, made the most of that potential. (“Desert according to whom?“)

Rawls and his fellow travelers (who are usually found on the left) simply cannot stand the idea of individual differences, and so they attribute them to “luck.” The idea of luck, as I have said elsewhere, “is mainly an excuse and rarely an explanation. We prefer to apply ‘luck’ to outcomes when we don’t like the true explanations for them.” In the case of desert, the idea of luck is used as an excuse for redistribution, even though it is an inadequate explanation for variations in economic and social outcomes.

I am “lucky” because I was born with above-average intelligence. I did not earn it, it just happened to me. So what? I had to do something with it, right? And I did do something with it, but not as much as I could have, because I lacked the temperamental qualities required to pursue great wealth and political power. I chose, instead, to earn just enough to enable an early retirement, which is comfortable but far from lavish. I could just as easily have chosen to earn less than I did.

There are many, many, many individuals whose IQs are lower than mine but whose earnings far exceed mine, and whose abodes make mine look like a shack. Do I begrudge them their earnings and lavish living? Not a bit. Not even if they are dumb-as-doorknob Hollywood “liberals” whose idea of an intellectual conversation is to tell each other that Bush is a Nazi.

By the same token, there are a lot of individuals whose IQs are higher than mine, and I am willing to bet that some of them did not do as well financially as I did. So what? Should they have done better than me just because they have higher IQs? I Where is that rule is written? I will wager that there’s not a Democrat to be found who would subscribe to it.

Everyone deserves what they earn as long as they earn it without resorting to fraud, theft, or coercion. Members of Congress, by the way, resort to coercion when it comes to paying themselves. Yes, there is a constitutional provision that congressional raises can’t take effect until the next session of Congress, but incumbents are almost certain of re-election, and most incumbents run for re-election. The constitutional provision is mere window-dressing.

Back to the topic at hand. Tell me again why I am where I am because of luck. I had to do something with my genetic inheritance. I did what I wanted to do, which was not as much as I might have done. Others, less “lucky” than me did more with their genetic inheritance. And others, more “lucky” than me did less with their genetic inheritance.

Well, I could go on in the same vein about looks, athletic skills, skin color, parents’ wealth, family connections, and all the rest. But I think you get the picture. “Luck” is a starting point. Where we end up depends on what we do with our “luck”.

Not so fast, you say. What about family connections? Suppose Smedley Smythe’s father, who owns General Junk Foods Incorporated, makes Smedley the CEO of GJFI and pays him $1 million a year. If Smythe senior is the sole owner of the company, that is his prerogative. The million is coming out of his hide or, if consumers are willing to pay higher prices to defray the million, out of consumers’ pockets. But no one is forcing consumers to buy things from GJFI; if its prices are too high, consumers will turn elsewhere and Smythe senior will rue his nepotism. Suppose GJFI is a publicly owned company? In the end, it amounts to the same thing; if the nepotism hurts the bottom line, its shareholders should rebel. If it doesn’t, well…

Now what about those who are born poor, who are not especially bright, good looking, or athletic, and who are, say, black rather than white. Do they deserve what they earn? The hard, cold answer is “yes” — if what they earn is earned without benefit of fraud, theft, or coercion. Why should I want to pay you more because of the circumstances of your birth, your IQ, your looks, your athleticism, or your skin color. What matters is what you can do for me and how much I am willing to pay for it.

But what about individuals who are poor because they have been unable to “rise above” their genetic inheritance and family circumstances. What about individuals who are poor because they have incurred serious illnesses or have been severely injured? What about individuals who didn’t save enough to support themselves in their old age? And on and on.

Those seem like hard questions, but there is a straightforward answer to them. Such individuals may be helped legitimately, by private parties. As I say here,

Every bad thing that happens to an individual is a bad thing for that individual. Whether it is a thing that calls for action by another individual is for that other individual (or a group of them acting in concert) to decide on the basis of love, empathy, conscience, specific obligation, or rational calculation about the potential consequences of the bad thing and of helping or not helping the person to whom it has happened….

There is no universal social-welfare function. Therefore, it is up to the potential alms-giver to give or not, based on his knowledge and preferences. No third party is in a moral position to make that choice or to prescribe the criteria for making it. Governments have the power to force a choice other than the one that the potential alms-giver would make, but power is not morality.

Charity is a voluntary act that one commits without a sense of obligation; one helps one’s family, friends, neighbors, etc., out of love, affection, empathy, or other social bond. The fact that charity may strengthen a social bond and heighten the benefits flowing from it is an incidental fact, not a consideration. Duty, on the other hand, arises from specific obligations, formal or informal. These include the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, business partner to business partner, and the like. Charity can be mistaken for duty only in the mind of a philosopher for whom love, affection, and individuality are alien concepts.

What happens, instead, is that individuals — whether needy or not — are helped illegitimately through coercive government programs that draw on free-floating guilt, large measures of political opportunism and economic illiteracy, and coercive state action.

Except for criminals and “public servants,” we deserve what we inherit (or do not), what we earn (or do not), what comes to us by chance (or does not), and what is given to us voluntarily (or is not).

By what divine right do John Rawls and his followers make judgments about who is deserving and who is not? The “veil of ignorance” is a smokescreen for redistribution under the pretext of omniscience.

CONCLUSION

Self-ownership and desert belong in the pantheon of empty concepts, along with altruism.

More Social Justice

Matt Zwolinksi has a post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians in which he asks “What Is Social Justice?” He offers a couple of specific answers and alludes to others. One of his offerings is something he calls prioritarianism.

Prioritarianism, as I understand it from Zwolinski’s explanation, assumes that (a) the welfare of an individual can be quantified, (b) the welfare of individuals can be summed, (c) the welfare-value of a marginal dollar is inversely proportional to the initial welfare state of the recipient, (d) the inverse relationship is stronger at lower initial welfare-values, and (e) most importantly, in accordance with (b), the welfare gained by the person to whom a marginal dollar is given somehow cancels the welfare lost by the person from whom that dollar is taken.

If this is a valid prescription for “social justice,” it must be capable of implementation. Otherwise, it is no more useful than a map of the Kingdom of Oz.

And who should be in charge of measuring welfare, summing it, and weighing the gains and losses in order to arrive at a socially “just” distribution of income, whatever that is? Well, we know the answer to that question: It has to be the state — or more accurately — elected officials and bureaucrats: people not known for their perspicacity, objectivity, and even-handedness.

In the alternative, a just society could be one where individuals engage in voluntary, cooperative exchanges of goods and services for their mutual betterment, and from the fruits of which they voluntarily aid those whom they know to be in need of aid.

The alternative is inevitably attacked as “unjust.” But it should be noted that such attacks come from individuals (philosophers, politicians, do-gooders, etc.) who would impose their own views of “social justice” on everyone. How any such imposition can be considered more “just” than a regime of voluntary, cooperative, mutually beneficial behavior is beyond me.

I submit that what we now have in the United States is a statist, “prioritarian” regime, with all of real-life arbitrariness, scheming, and graft that inexorably accompanies statism. What we need badly is a reversion to the kind of constitutional order that would allow the alternative to flourish.

Related posts:
Economic Growth since WWII
The Price of Government
The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth