desert

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.

A Short Course in Economics

In which I begin with pithy statements of principles and work my way toward more complex (but brief) explorations of selected economic issues.

1. Self-interest drives us to do good things for others while striving to do well for ourselves.

2. Profit is good because it entices invention, innovation, and investments that yield new and better products and services.

3. Incentives matter: Just as self-interest and profit drive progress, taxation and regulation stifle it.

4. Only slaves and dupes can be exploited. (Wal-Mart employees are not exploited; they are not forced to work at Wal-Mart. Anti-Wal-Mart activists are exploited; they’re dupes of the anti-business Left.)

5. There is no free lunch, all costs (including taxes) must be covered by someone, somewhere, at some time.

6. The appearance of a free lunch (e.g., Social Security, tax-subsidized health insurance) leads individuals to make bad decisions (e.g., not saving enough for old age, overspending on health care).

7. Paternalism is for children: When adults aren’t allowed to make economic decisions for themselves they don’t learn from mistakes and can’t pass that learning on to their children.

8. All costs matter; one cannot make good economic decisions by focusing on one type of cost, such as the cost of energy.

9. The best way to deal with pollution and the “depletion” of natural resources is to assign property rights in resources now held in common. The owners of a resource have a vested interest (a) in caring for it so that it remains profitable, and (b) in raising its price as it becomes harder to obtain, thus encouraging the development of alternatives.

10. Discrimination is inevitable in a free society; to choose is to discriminate. In free and competitive markets — unfettered by Jim Crow, affirmative action, or other intrusions by the state — discrimination is most likely to be based on the value of one’s contributions.

11. Voluntary exchange is a win-win game for workers, consumers, and businesses. When exchange is distorted by taxation and constrained by regulation, the losers are workers (fewer jobs and lower wages) and consumers (higher prices and fewer choices).

12. Absent force or fraud, we earn what we deserve, and we deserve what we earn.

13. The economy isn’t a zero-sum game; for example:

Bill Gates is immensely wealthy because he took a risk to start a company that has created things that are of value to others. His creations (criticized as they may be) have led to increases in productivity. As a result, many people earn more than they would have otherwise earned; Microsoft has made profits; Microsoft’s share price rose considerably for a long time; Bill Gates became the wealthiest American (someone has to be). That’s win-win.

14. Externalities are everywhere.

Like the butterfly effect, everything we do affects everyone else. But with property rights those externalities (e.g., pollution) are compensated instead of being legislated against or fought over in courts. Relatedly . . .

15 . There is no such thing as a “public good.”

Public goods are thought to exist because certain services benefit “free riders” (persons who enjoy a service without paying for it). It is argued that, because of free riders, services like national defense be provided by government because it would be unprofitable for private firms to offer such services.

But that analysis overlooks the possibility that those who stand to gain the most from the production of a service such as defense may, in fact, value that service so highly that they would be willing to pay a price high enough to bring forth private suppliers, free riders notwithstanding. The free-rider problem isn’t really a problem unless the producer of a “public good” responds to requests for additional services from persons who don’t pay for those services. But private providers would not be obliged to respond to such requests.

Moreover, given the present arrangement of the tax burden, those who have the most to gain from defense and justice (classic examples of “public goods”) already support a lot of free riders and “cheap riders.” Given the value of defense and justice to the orderly operation of the economy, it is likely that affluent Americans and large corporations — if they weren’t already heavily taxed — would willingly form syndicates to provide defense and justice. Most of them, after all, are willing to buy private security services, despite the taxes they already pay.

I conclude that there is no “public good” case for the government provision of services. It may nevertheless be desirable to have a state monopoly on police and justice — but only on police and justice, and only because the alternatives are a private monopoly of force, on the one hand, or a clash of warlords, on the other hand. (See this post, for instance, which also links to related posts.)

You may ask: What about environmental protection? Isn’t it a public good that must be provided by government? No. Read this and this. Which leads me to “market failure.”

16. There is no such thing as “market failure.

The concept of market failure is closely related to the notion of a public good. When the market “fails” to do or prevent something that someone thinks should be done or prevented, the “failure” is invoked as an excuse for government action.

Except where there is crime (which should be treated as crime), there is no such thing as market failure. Rather, there is only the failure of the market to provide what some persons think it should provide.

Those who invoke market failure are asserting that certain social and economic outcomes should be “fixed” (as in a “fixed” boxing match) to correct the “mistakes” and “oversights” of the market. Those who seek certain outcomes then use the political process to compel those outcomes, regardless of whether those outcomes are, on the whole, beneficial. The proponents of compulsion succeed (most of the time) because the benefits of government intervention are focused and therefore garner support from organized constituencies (i.e. interest groups and voting blocs), whereas the costs of government intervention are spread among taxpayers and/or buyers of government debt.

There are so many examples of so-called public goods that arise from putative market failures that I won’t essay anything like a comprehensive list. There are, of course, protective services and environmental “protection,” both of which I mentioned in No. 15. Then there is public education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Affirmative Action, among the myriad federal, State, and local programs that perversely make most people worse off, including their intended beneficiaries. Arnold Kling explains:

[T]he Welfare State makes losers out of people who want to get ahead through hard work, thrift, or education. Those are precisely the activities that produce economic growth and social wealth, and they are hit particularly hard by Welfare State redistribution.

The Welfare State certainly has well-organized constituencies. The winners, such as the AARP and the teachers’ unions, know who they are. The losers — the working poor, children stuck in low-quality school districts — have much less political clout. The Welfare State has friends in both parties, as evidenced by the move to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

As the Baby Boomers age, longevity increases, and new medical technology is developed, the cost of the Welfare State is going to rise. Economists agree that in another generation the share of GDP required by the Welfare State will exceed the share of GDP of total tax revenues today. The outlook for the working poor and other Welfare State losers is decidedly grim.

17. Borders are irrelevant, except for defense.

It is not “bad” or un-American to “send jobs overseas” or to buy goods and services that happen to originate in other countries. In fact, it is good to do such things because it means that available resources can be more fully employed and put to their best uses. Opponents of outsourcing and those who decry trade deficits want less to be produced; that is, they want to shelter the jobs of some Americans at the expense of making many more Americans worse off through higher prices.

For example, when Indian computer geeks operate call centers for lower salaries than the going rate for American computer geeks, it makes both Indians and Americans better off. Few Americans are computer geeks, but many Americans are computer users who benefit when they pay less for geek services (or the products with which geek services are bundled). Those who want to save the jobs of American computer geeks assume that (a) American computer geeks “deserve” their jobs (but Indians don’t) and (b) American computer geeks “deserve” their jobs at the expense of American consumers.

See also this, and this, and this.

18. Government budget deficits aren’t bad for the reason you think they’re bad.

Government spending is mostly bad (see No. 15) because it results in the misallocation of resources (and it’s inherently inflationary). Government spending — whether it is financed by taxes or borrowing — takes resources from productive uses and applies them to mostly unproductive and counterproductive uses. Government budget deficits are bad in that they reflect that misallocation — though they reflect only a portion of it. Getting hysterical about the government’s budget deficit (and the resulting pile of government debt) is like getting hysterical about a hangnail on an arm that has been amputated.

There’s no particular reason the federal government can’t keep on making the pile of debt bigger — it has been doing so continuously since 1839. As long as there are willing lenders out there, the amount the amount of debt the government can accumulate is virtually unlimited, as long as government spending does not grow to the point that its counterproductive effects bring the economy to its knees.

For more, see this, this, this, and this.

19. Monopoly (absent force, fraud, or government franchise) beats regulation, every time.

Regulators live in a dream world. They believe that they can emulate — and even improve on — the outcomes that would be produced by competitive markets. And that’s precisely where regulation fails: Bureaucratic rules cannot be devised to respond to consumers’ preferences and technological opportunities in the same ways that markets respond to those things. The main purpose of regulation (as even most regulators would admit) is to impose preferred outcomes, regardless of the immense (but mostly hidden) cost of regulation.

There should be a place of honor in regulatory hell for those who pursue “monopolists,” even though the only true monopolies are run by governments or exist with the connivance of governments (think of courts and cable franchises, for example). The opponents of “monopoly” really believe that success is bad. Those who agitate for antitrust actions against successful companies — branding them “monopolistic” — are stuck in a zero-sum view of the economic universe (see No. 13), in which “winners” must be balanced by “losers.” Antitrusters forget (if they ever knew) that (1) successful companies become successful by satisfying consumers; (2) consumers wouldn’t buy the damned stuff if they didn’t think it was worth the price; (3) “immense” profits invite competition (direct and indirect), which benefits consumers; and (4) the kind of innovation and risk-taking that (sometimes) leads to wealth for a few also benefits the many by fueling economic growth.

What about those “immense” monopoly profits? They don’t just disappear into thin air. Monopoly profits (“rent” in economists’ jargon) have to go somewhere, and so they do: into consumption, investment (which fuels economic growth), and taxes (which should make liberals happy). It’s just a question of who gets the money.

But isn’t output restricted, thus making people generally worse off? That may be what you learned in Econ 101, but that’s based on a static model which assumes that there’s a choice between monopoly and competition. I must expand on some of the points I made in the original portion of this commandment:

  • Monopoly (except when it’s gained by force, fraud, or government license) usually is a transitory state of affairs resulting from invention, innovation, and/or entrepreneurial skill.
  • Transitory? Why? Because monopoly profits invite competition — if not directly, then from substitutes.
  • Transitory monopolies arise as part of economic growth. Therefore, such monopolies exist as a “bonus” alongside competitive markets, not as alternatives to them.
  • The prospect of monopoly profits entices more invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship, which fuels more economic growth.

20. Stay tuned to this blog.