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March 12, 2005

How Not to Complain About Taxes (IV): Productive Contributions, Self-Sufficiency, and Individualism

Anderson on Political Economy, Anderson on Taxes, Elizabeth Anderson: March 12, 2005

My previous posts on taxation have been negative:  they've argued that certain arguments against taxation don't work.  It doesn't follow from them (nor do I believe) that the state really owns everything or that it can tax as much as it likes.  Despite having embraced capitalism, along with a list of Lockean constraints as a minimal starting point, it seems I must say something stronger to prevent readers from leaping to conclusions like this.  So, I'll drop a hint as to my positive view:  while pre-tax conceptions of property do not set legitimate constraints on taxation, the practical requirements of establishing a free society do set constraints on taxation.  More precisely, we can move from considerations of what it takes for each person to live freely, to a joint specification of constraints on both private property and taxation.  I hope that's tantalizing enough to keep you reading my subsequent posts on political economy, without trying to stick me with crazy views. (Further hint: I'm going to endorse F. A. Hayek's argument for a system of pure procedural justice.) For this post, however, I'm still clearing the ground with a negative argument.

In my series of posts on taxation, I've also been exploring the nature of capitalism and the rationale for social insurance.  I've been looking for a sound argument that people have such a strong claim to their pre-tax income that it would be wrong to tax it to fund social insurance.  I have previously argued that the none of these claims support that conclusion:  that "it's mine," that "it's mine by a natural property right," and that "I deserve it."  This time I'll be looking at 2 related arguments for the same conclusion. One asserts a claim of justice, based on a quasi-Lockean labor theory of value:  "I'm entitled to my pre-tax income because it's what I've produced."  The other asserts a claim of virtue:  people ought to be self-sufficient.  On this view, which I have criticized before, social insurance is bad because it undermines individual self-sufficiency.

My argumentative strategy is the same as with the prior claims:  I'll argue (1a) that our capitalist economic system does not in fact reward people according to the proposed principle--in this case, according to their individual productive contributions.  Far from tying each individual's fate solely to his or her own personal productive contribution (or to the pooled product of each individual's family, plus whatever they can beg from charity), capitalist markets commit us, at a deep structural level, to (b) extracting uncompensated benefits from others, (c) imposing involuntary costs on others, and (d) sharing our fates with one another.  (2) Nor should we revise the system of rewards so that it does conform to the proposed principle, because such revisions (supposing they were possible) would be incompatible with advanced capitalism and destroy its virtues.  (3) The self-sufficiency critique of social insurance implicitly relies on the view that the market rewards people in accord with their productive contributions.  Since that view is mistaken, so is the self-sufficiency critique.

1a. The claim that people are entitled to what they have made has strong intuitive support.  In a world of independent, non-cooperating producers, it's easy to see what this entails: as Locke famously argued (Second Treatise of Government, ch. 5, par. 27-30), I'm entitled to the nuts I have harvested from trees in the commons, to the previously unowned land I have cleared and prepared for cultivation, etc.  (This principle is distinct from the principle of desert, since it allows the justice of claiming a bumper harvest produced with the help of undeserved good weather.)

How do we translate this principle to cooperative production under an extensive division of labor? How do we measure each person's productive contribution to the outcome jointly produced by all participants working together?  P.T. Bauer, in Reality and Rhetoric: Studies in the Economics of Development, argued that individual productive contributions are measured by the marginal product of their factor (labor, land, capital) times the number of units of that factor they dedicate to production.  Since, in equilibrium, markets equate the price of a factor with its marginal product, markets therefore reward people in proportion to their productive contributions.

This idea doesn't work.  The sum of the marginal products do not add up to the total product under increasing or decreasing returns to scale.  Moreover, the ubiquity of declining marginal returns means that the nth unit of labor generally contributes less than the (n-1)th unit.  More fundamentally, the function of factor prices is to direct production decisions at the margin, not to reward people for their total productive contributions.

b. When the division of labor is efficient, we are systematically enhancing each other's productivity.  The situation is like that observed by a high school field hockey coach, who once had the top two players in the league on his team.  While both were fine players, he thought the second-ranked player was not as good as she was ranked:  she was scoring lots of goals because the defensive players on the other team were ganging up on her first-ranked teammate, giving her more opportunities to score.  On a more mediocre team, she wouldn't have ranked that highly.  In the economy at large, lower-ranked workers enhance the productivity of higher-ranked ones as well as vice-versa:  big-time executives couldn't be cutting so many lucrative deals if they didn't have secretaries to screen their calls.  Even the unemployed contribute to the productivity of employed workers.  If firms couldn't count on being able to hire quickly from a pool of readily employable people, they'd have to hire more of them up front in anticipation of expansion, so as to avoid bottlenecks later on.  But doing so would dilute the productivity of all workers in a firm before the expansion has taken place.  Many people not in the labor force also contribute.  Full-time homemakers relieve their partners of the time, stress, and bother of managing the household themselves, thereby enabling them to be more productive at work.  Full-time parents contribute to production by raising the next generation of workers.

It might be argued that these positive productive externalities that people are conferring on others are captured by each person's market wage.  The cases of the unemployed and unpaid homemakers and parents show otherwise. Their productive contributions are not rewarded by the market.  The contributions of the unemployed are not rewarded by any private orderings.

More generally, market wages don't track any physical measure of positive productive benefits conferred on others, since they vary with factors independent of the firm's production technology.  Wages vary with the number of other people competing for the same job, the power of competitors to hold out for better terms, the costs to the worker of changing jobs, the availability of alternatives, and the costs the worker can impose on the firm by quitting.  These factors don't track physical measures of a worker's contribution.  Rather, they track people's bargaining power.  "It's my productive contribution" sounds like an intuitively compelling ground for recognizing an entitlement of people to keep their market-derived income.  "It's my threat advantage" doesn't sound so compelling. (Thanks to fellow-blogger Don Herzog for that phrase).

c. Not only are we systematically contributing benefits on one another, many of them uncompensated, we are also imposing involuntary costs.  Negative externalities such as pollution and traffic jams are pervasive.  Notably, capitalism imposes its worst negative externalities on those least able to avoid or afford them.  Poor people are subject to considerably higher levels of pollution than the well-off.  Our negligence system of torts entails that people are imposing costs on others without having to pay for them, as they would in a system of strict liability.

d. Capitalism, through its business cycles, forces us all to share each other's fates.  Our fortunes rise and fall together (albeit unequally) in virtue of our interdependent interactions.

2. Should we try to arrange our laws so as to ensure that people reap only the productive contributions attributable to their own factor inputs, and internalize all their negative externalities? Such a system would promote the individualist dream of each living only off of their own production, none being a net uncompensated creditor or debtor to others.  The objection to this is the same as Hayek's objection to distributing rewards according to deserts:  trying to jigger rewards according to an external standard of justice such as productive contribution will distort prices away from their critical informational function.  It would destroy the virtues of capitalism.  Moreover, just as Hayek argued that the idea of just deserts is illusory in the case of factor compensation, so is the idea of individually assignable productive contributions.  There is no physical fact of the matter regarding what any individual's productive contribution is, in an economic system structured by an extensive division of labor rather than by indepedent producers.

The libertarian Richard Epstein, following through on individualist intuitions about justice, has argued in favor of replacing our negligence system of torts with a system of strict liability ("A Theory of Strict Liability," 2 Journal of Legal Studies 151 (1973)).  Such a system would ensure that whenever one person caused damage to another, they'd have to compensate them for it.  Long before we reached this point, I'd be joining the critics of the tort system in crying "crisis!"  The problem wouldn't be frivolous lawsuits.   It's that when negative externalities are systematic, it's grossly inefficient to deal with them on a case-by-case basis, as the tort system does.  The costs of litigation are too high, not in the amounts of judgments, but in lost production opportunities, as the valuable time of defendants and plaintiffs gets sopped up in lawsuits.  That's why I prefer alternatives to litigation, such as regulations for worker safety and pollution, workers' compensation, and no-fault auto insurance, to cover systematic costs imposed on people by our advanced capitalist system of production.  Excessive reliance on Individualized solutions puts too much sand in the gears of capitalist production.

3. These reflections offer support for my much-maligned post on social insurance and self-sufficiency.  The self-sufficiency critique of social insurance implicitly relies on a rugged individualist ideal.  According to this ideal, each person should rely only on their individual production, none being a net lifetime debtor to others. The self-sufficiency critique supposes that pre-tax capitalist distributions embody this ideal, in that they reward people according to their personal productive contributions.  If this were true, and the ideal were sound, then it could make sense to call upon each person to rely only on their market income to survive.  But as Hayek has argued, market prices don't track any notion of virtue.  Once we detach market rewards from any moralized conception, such as deserts or productive contributions, it's hard to see how they could set a coherent standard of self-sufficiency.  What's the virtue in living within the constraints of one's threat advantage?  (What's the virtue in exercising one's threat advantage so as to drive the less fortunate to the wall?)

The self-sufficiency critique imagines that capitalism embodies a society of rugged individualists, like some imagined self-sufficient isolated producers in the state of nature.  In fact, capitalism embodies a society of deeply interdependent people who share one another's fates.  Social insurance simply makes this fact explicit.

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» Property and taxes from Basal Questions
I've blogged before about the property-based obection to income taxation. Elizabeth Anderson at Left2Right is now up to her fourth post on the topic. Read them all for a much deeper treatment of the question that mine: one, two, three, [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 14, 2005 1:01:23 AM

» Private lawsuits and systematic externalities from PointOfLaw Forum
Elizabeth Anderson, writing at Left2Right (scroll to heading # 2):The libertarian Richard Epstein, following through on individualist intuitions about justice, has argued in favor of replacing our negligence system of torts with a system of strict liab... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 20, 2005 11:32:47 AM

» Private lawsuits and systematic externalities from PointOfLaw Forum
Elizabeth Anderson, writing at Left2Right (scroll to heading # 2):The libertarian Richard Epstein, following through on individualist intuitions about justice, has argued in favor of replacing our negligence system of torts with a system of strict liab... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 21, 2005 11:16:31 PM

Comments

Posted by: No Labels Please

"The self-sufficiency critique imagines that capitalism embodies a society of rugged individualists, like some imagined self-sufficient isolated producers in the state of nature. In fact, capitalism embodies a society of deeply interdependent people who share one another's fates. Social insurance simply makes this fact explicit.


Party on Liz...this is truly...deeply... ahhhhh....not sure what to say.


Moving smartly along...to really see what's wrong with the country, let's stop thinning the herd:

"Lawmakers behind the power hour bills say that only criminalizing the midnight binge can stop it. "I'm not in the goody-goody business, but I thought if we can remove a kid from a situation that is potentially fatal with a small change, we should," said Rob Eissler, the Texas state representative proposing to make the official drinking age there begin seven hours after men and women turn 21."


Maybe if tenure began 7 hours after the hiring process ended we'd get more intelligent posts on this blog?

Posted by: No Labels Please | Mar 12, 2005 5:22:54 AM


Posted by: Literally Retarded

Wow! Where to start? I suppose that if I were a philosopher-economist, I'd have to make some assumptions about systems and how they work, but I would imagine that I would impose strict limits on those assumptions and confine my remarks within those limits.

Professor Anderson inadvertantly (I hope) has set up rather porous assumptions and uses them to range all over the real world.

To start, there are 4 factors of production, not three. If you ignore, and therefore assign zero-value to management, then some of your conclusions might be right in a Marxian dogma kind of way. But if you then try to explain real-world occurences thereby, then I am afraid you may have sped off a cliff like Wile E. Coyote (you'll be fine, just don't look down).

Labor, for example, is not fungible, not fixed, and not static. Any given worker manages his own choices based on the market opportunities available. Declining marginal returns on labor only exist in basic econ texts. If that executive underpays that secretary, the secretary will go elsewhere. If the secretary doesn't earn his/her keep, the exec will replace the secretary (perhaps, in this case, with an answering machine). Both the secretary and the exec are managing their personal earning powers.

Business cycles only occur (in real life) from changing tastes, competition, and scarce resources. Society may feel a need to compensate the buggy-whip laborers and managers, but that need comes from compassion, not economics.

So Professor Anderson's point eludes me (and that is usually the case). Does society have an economic debt to its citizens? Is capitalism "wrong?" Are the Lumpenmensch incapable of running their own lives? Has she ever studied the actual effect of no-fault auto insurance (try paying for insurance in New Jersey; no, try to find an insurer in New Jersey). What does she want? And why won't she come out and say it?

Posted by: Literally Retarded | Mar 12, 2005 9:13:37 AM


Posted by: john t

Oh God,not again. Elizabeth,you share my fate. Upon reading this EFS $1,000 to yours truly.cut out the gov'ts 20% to 30% vig,and count yourself blessed as a pure altruist. Why always the rugged individualist bit? Why not individuals,hopefully and really as self supporting as possible while still avoiding the horrors of anarchy? When do we get to the good parts or is EA just tantalizing us.

Posted by: john t | Mar 12, 2005 9:32:24 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Society, not capitalism, embodies interdependent people who share, in the sense that they are affected to varying degrees by, each other’s fate. Capitalism, or more properly market economics, provides the most efficient method of creating and distributing the wealth required for civilized existence consistent with (1) the observed truth that individuals are largely (though not tautologically) self-interested, and (2) the moral claim that coercion of others is prima facie wrong. Taxation is a form of coercion in that it extracts wealth (earned or not) under threat of force. Because the requisite conditions for market economic cannot exist except through the aegis of minimal government, arguably including the provision of police protection, court enforcement of certain private transactions and interactions (contracts and torts) and national defense, taxation sufficient to meet those minimum needs is a necessary feature of any civil society any rational person would choose to live in and is in that sense and to that extent and in that sense and to that extent alone morally justified notwithstanding the fact that it nonetheless remains coercive.

As I have noted previously, one need not assert an absolute right to one’s property in order to assert a morally sufficient relative right vis a vis others’ claims to it. Ms. Anderson’s debunking of notions of absolute or natural property rights are thus unavailing in establishing the moral force required for collective appropriation beyond minimal social needs. Neither does her contention now that our interdependence (the “we’re all in this together” theory of government) is a “fact” made “explicit” by social “insurance” lead to any such conclusion. Herewith, a few comments in that regard:

1a. I don’t think anyone seriously believes Locke’s labor theory of property any more than anyone takes his social contract seriously, at least at face value. The former may be a useful way of characterizing why material objects not subject to prior property claims should be considered the property of whoever by first ‘mixing his labor’ with them turns them into goods, but not much more than that. Of course, most people are required to exchange their labor in return for purchasing power in order to buy goods. However, it is insofar as they do so voluntarily that they are entitled to the benefit of their bargains and hold a superior claim to that benefit vis a vis others’ claims upon it.

b. I thought we were going to get Ricardo here. Instead we get, among other confusions, the failure to recognize the difference between wealth creation and nominal income earning. Homemakers of course create wealth for their households. The fact that its real value is not monetarized (until the divorced wage earner has to hire a housekeeper) and thus, say, captured in the GDP is irrelevant and, by the way, the source of much mischief when it comes to measuring such problematic concepts as poverty. For that matter, households are not firms. The purpose of a firm is the creation of wealth. The purpose of a household is the enjoyment that comes largely from or at least is made possible by the consumption of wealth (including, by the way, such intangible wealth as leisure time.) In other words, life is not a business. I’ll leave it to others to dissect the old “capitalism relies on high unemployment” canard.

Insofar as people are relatively free, subject to their talents, abilities and interests, to decide for themselves what sort of producers they will be and also free, beyond the necessities of life, to decide what to consume, it is hardly surprising that a physician’s “threat advantage” in the market is greater, on the one hand, than a dish washer (lower supply) or, on the other hand, a philosopher (lower demand). “Threat advantage” in a free market may sound less compelling morally than “productive contribution,” but it certainly sounds less morally dubious than the sort of compulsion any individual faces from the “will of the majority.”

c. Negative externalities do, indeed, exist. At the risk of sounding glib, we shouldn’t be surprised that the poor are less able to avoid them simply because the avoidance of negative externalities can often be characterized as a form of luxury consumption and the wealthy can afford more such consumption. Property values will be lower next to the city dump or airport because people would prefer not to experience the smell, let alone risk of toxic exposure, or the noise. But the garbage and airports have to go somewhere and the rich can better afford to distance themselves from them. The wealthier a nation becomes (and it only gets that way through productive free markets), the more environmentalism as a luxury good it can afford.

Many, though not all, negative externalities and “tragedy of the commons” problems are the result of a failure to privatize property (e.g., endangered species in Africa) and thus properly incentivize private mitigation or avoidance. Some positive externalities are not captured or compensated by market forces and free rider ‘problems’ thus exist. My neighbor’s meticulous front yard adds “curb appeal” to the neighborhood and increases my property values whether I follow suit or not. Life is unfair.

The problem with the tort system is the tort bar’s understandably aggressive lobbying to prevent reasonable tort reform. (If you want tort reform, don’t vote Democratic. Sorry, but it’s just about as simple as that.) Strict liability makes some sense as private law when it comes to inherently dangerous activities. As public law it becomes the bludgeon of the nanny state. Regulations are onerous, expensive and, once regulators are captive to the regulated industries, ineffective. Even if this were not so, none of these sorts of problems lend any apparent support to what Ms Anderson continues inappropriately to call social ‘insurance.’

d. Business cycles continue but they appear to be far less severe in recent history. Perhaps this is the result of better monetary policy, perhaps because the information age and more efficient technology has enabled industry to avoid gluts and shortages better, perhaps both, perhaps neither. It isn’t, strictly speaking, true however that we all gain in booms and lose in busts. If, as the old saying goes, Wall Street is motivated solely by fear and greed; prudent people get fearful when everyone else is greedy and greedy when everyone else is fearful.

2. Hayek is correct that virtue is irrelevant to free market compensation and that attempts to redistribute wealth in accordance with some arbitrary sense of what things are worth would undermine the efficiency of the market system. It behooves Ms Anderson to explain why that claim is not equally true if one substitutes “virtue” with “need” and “things are worth” with “people require.”

If it is true that litigation is too expensive (and I think it is), the solution is to find less expensive methods of litigation, not to turn private law into public law. In any case, litigation should be at least somewhat expensive because it should be the resolution method of last resort.

3. Ms Anderson rhetorically asks, “What's the virtue in living within the constraints of one's threat advantage? (What's the virtue in exercising one's threat advantage so as to drive the less fortunate to the wall?)” The virtue of efficiency lies in encouraging individuals to increase their “threat advantage” because in doing so they become not only more relatively self-sufficient but also more productive to society’s overall advantage. Encourage efficiency and you’ll get more. Discourage it and you’ll get less.

If one is to be fair to Ms Anderson, one must presume that her parenthetical question presupposes she actually believes that exercising one’s “threat advantage” in a free market economy necessarily or even probably or typically “drive[s] the less fortunate to the wall.” It should suffice merely to state that this is not the case at least for the vast majority of people the vast majority of the time. On the other hand, no one has ever seriously argued that there are not economic losers as well as winners in free markets. It remains an open question how we might be obligated either as individuals or as a society to meet the needs of blameless losers in such an economy. Nothing that Ms Anderson has argued leads me any closer to the belief that coercive state action is the preferred answer to that question.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 12, 2005 9:35:44 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Note: I should have been more clear that the reason physicians earn more than dish washers is because there is a smaller supply of physicians than dish washers, if only because of the extensive human capital investment required to become a competent physician. It may well take the same investment to be a competent philosopher but the demand for such services nonetheless remains lower. (People prefer health to wisdom: go figure.) Also, while I used Ms Anderson’s (or Mr. Herzog’s) “threat advantage” phrase in my earlier comments, the notion that productivity is divorced from or irrelevant to compensation is both false and absurd. I may personally value the product (and, hence, the productive capabilities) of a philosopher over, say, a pop singer or, for that matter, of a good housekeeper over a philosopher. The fact that housekeepers earn considerably less than (employed) philosophers or that the highest earning philosophers earn vastly less than highly successful pop singers doesn’t invalidate my own preferences any more than my preferences illegitimate their relative market values. Ms Anderson confuses the marginal cost of production in an efficient market and the relative productivity of labor as a factor in that production with the value to society of the finished end product. The most efficient employee in a firm that produces something nobody wants has created zero or negative wealth. The only rational way to judge the value to society of a finished end product is its market price.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 12, 2005 11:15:27 AM


Posted by: Mona

Thank you Liz for another post that generates much interesting and provocative discussion. While I (unsurprisingly) agree with virtually all of Mr. Ridgely's dissent and analysis, your intelligent post gives us the opportunity to have the conversation.

Liz writes: Full-time homemakers relieve their partners of the time, stress, and bother of managing the household themselves, thereby enabling them to be more productive at work. Full-time parents contribute to production by raising the next generation of workers.

And she seems to believe that home-making is among the uncompensated benefits "extracted" from people by capitalism. Of course, there is something the free market could do to (at least partially) offset this "problem," but I expect Ms. Anderson's egalitarianism (not to mention current anti-discrimination law) would foreclose it.

At the conservative Roman Catholic law school I attended, many of the faculty had far more than the standard 2.1 children of the typical American family. It was reported by my feminist labor law prof that one of the con law profs, a Thomist, had proposed at a faculty meeting that private institutions should be able to compensate breadwinners whose spouse is at home raising a family at a higher level than those who are single and/or childless. She, my labor law prof, was aghast by this notion.

But rather than resort to any coercive means of the state taking money from all to remedy whatever market deficiencies are perceived in the lack of compensation for homemakers, why not permit private entities to have a compensation bias in favor of those with a stay-at-home spouse? (Yes, I can see the disincentives for hiring sole breadwinners this might entail, altho it does not seem to occur much in the realm of the higher cost for a family insurance plan paid substantially or entirely by the employer. But my inquiry is why, in principle, permitting such compensation bias should not be allowed?)


Posted by: Mona | Mar 12, 2005 11:44:13 AM


Posted by: Tad Brennan

Mona--

Interesting proposal; I'm not sure liberals ought to be reactively opposed. I am all in favor of figuring out *some* way of compensating homemakers. And I am suspicious of the tendency to make the benefits of the free market end at the boundary of the home--some versions of that bias tend to systematically disadvantage women.

But I don't think you are *disagreeing* with L.A.'s claim that homemaking is an uncompensated benefit extracted by the current system, only disagreeing about the forms of redress you might be willing to consider (or rather, you are anticipating a disagreement; let's see what L.A. says).

Suppose we go your route, and pay employees higher amounts if they have more children, as a means of compensating homemakers. Doesn't that involve deviations from the ordinary labor market just as extreme as anything proposed by L.A.? I.e., two employees who yielded equivalent value to their employer would be compensated differently, without regard to their economic contribution.

"But there's no departure from the free market, because employers and employees would still have liberty of contract--so if the childless employee didn't like being paid less, they could take their labor elsewhere."

True, but already true without your pro-natalist proposal. What other changes--legislative, cultural, etc.--would be needed to make your proposals stick?

(But this whole line of questions is a bit off topic, so don't respond if you don't want to).

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Mar 12, 2005 12:23:15 PM


Posted by: David Velleman

All this talk of taxation as "coercive" will need to be justified at some point.

Mr Ridgley says:

Because the requisite conditions for market economic cannot exist except through the aegis of minimal government, arguably including the provision of police protection, court enforcement of certain private transactions and interactions (contracts and torts) and national defense, taxation sufficient to meet those minimum needs is a necessary feature of any civil society any rational person would choose to live in and is in that sense and to that extent and in that sense and to that extent alone morally justified notwithstanding the fact that it nonetheless remains coercive.

This statement is multiply problematic. If you agree that "any rational person would choose" to live under an arrangement, how can you say that "it nonetheless remains coercive"? You must have a very expansive conception of coercion -- a conception so expansive as to raise doubts as to whether "coercion" as you understand it is necessarily wrong. And do you mean to say that the only justification for government is that it is necessary for "the requisite conditions for market economic [activity]"? Surely, any rational person would agree to live in civil society for reasons that go far beyond its conduciveness to a market economy.

What these comments suggest is that today's tax-complainers just don't believe in representative self-government.

Posted by: David Velleman | Mar 12, 2005 12:26:18 PM


Posted by: Tad Brennan

Sorry--I mangled my point about the thing that's already true even in the absence of Mona's pro-natalist proposal.

What's already true is that I or any other parent with mouths to feed can already go to our employer, ask to be paid more money than a childless colleague, and take our labor elsewhere if the request is not granted.

So I'm still wondering what would be different in the proposal she makes--would I *automatically* get a larger check? Regulation enforced by whom?

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Mar 12, 2005 12:42:27 PM


Posted by: Mona

David V. writes: All this talk of taxation as "coercive" will need to be justified at some point.

Allow me. To quote Hayek (The Constitution of Liberty, p. 137) "True coercion occurs when armed bands of conquerors make the subject people toil for them, when organized gangsters extort a levy for 'protection,' when the knower of an evil secret black-mails his victim, and, of course, when the state threatens to inflict punishment and to employ physical force to make us obey its commands. (emphasis mine)

I submit that collection of municipal, state or federal income taxes is effected by the threat to inflict punishment and to employ physical force (armed agents of the state and prison) to make us obey its command to ante up. Thus, taxation, certainly American income taxation, is coercive.

Posted by: Mona | Mar 12, 2005 12:52:35 PM


Posted by: Mona

Tad Brennan writes: So I'm still wondering what would be different in the proposal she makes--would I *automatically* get a larger check? Regulation enforced by whom?

(fighting the vapors) Egads, sir, surely you know that my libertarian heart would stop before I'd advocate a "regulation" enforcing larger compensation packages to sole breadwinners. No, what I am wondering, is why religious and other private entities should not be merely allowed to offer such benefits.

Perhaps it is the case that sole breadwinners (and c'mon, we know it is usually going to be men) in marriages, raising children, and who value the home and kinder enough to sacrifice the luxuries of a dual income, may also make a better employee. Why not let employers experiment with trying to lure such people, which has the additional benefit of improving the lot of the uncompensated homemaker. (And some institutions, especially religious ones, might adopt the policy purely out of principle, regardless of any aid to their bottom line in terms of worker productivity.)

As it stands, such a policy would almost certainly be challenged as unconstitutional and contrary to the CRA. So, the market is being interfered with in a way that might ameliorate one of the problems Ms. Anderson attributes to it.

Posted by: Mona | Mar 12, 2005 1:09:30 PM


Posted by: Dale Miller

While all of Professor's Anderson's work is deeply instructive, I do have a small quibble about the claim that the market does not reward homemakers for their productive contribution. Some mention ought to be made of the fact that if a homemaker makes a wage-earning partner more productive then their household will have a higher income and the homemaker will presumably share in the benefits this entails. I'm not suggesting that this is just the same as getting a paycheck in one's own name. Still, if the household itself practices distributive justice then the differences may be more psychic than material.

Something may also be a bit odd about the claim that the unemployed contribute to the economy, although I can't quite articulate what this is. Anderson's explanation seems to be that if no one were unemployed then businesses would have to hire more workers long term. If no one was unemployed, though, where would these extra workers be found? Maybe a slightly better explanation is that without a "reserve army of the unemployed" businesses would have to demand more hours out of their existing labor force at busy periods, which is more expensive than hiring temps.

Posted by: Dale Miller | Mar 12, 2005 1:26:11 PM


Posted by: mikec

I'm becoming increasingly disenchanted with this series of essays. At first I was intrigued, but with each addition the whole exercise seems more silly. While it may be fun, and even good intellectual exercise, to set up straw men and then try (often ineffectually) to knock them down, it really doesn't accomplish much.

But I'll keep reading them, waiting for a lengthy rebuttal to some real argument. E.g., "practically everything would work better, and practically everyone would be happier, if we had a 10% flat income tax with the only deduction being a $10,000 deduction for each dependent." But that would probably require more than historical reviews and logic chopping to refute.

Posted by: mikec | Mar 12, 2005 2:37:17 PM


Posted by: David Velleman

If Mona's definition of coercion is right, then taxation is the least of our worries: all law and regulation is coercive, since it is all ultimately enforced by the power of the state. This conception of coercion can have one of two consequences: either it defines coercion so broadly as to undermine the assumption that coercion is wrong; or it establishes that all government is illegitimate. As I said, you're not opposed to taxation; you're opposed to representative self-government. Why not just admit that you're anarchists?

Posted by: David Velleman | Mar 12, 2005 2:47:19 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Velleman’s logic is impeccable even if he chooses to personalize his objections with sneering phrases like “tax-complainers.” The fact is that I have never found a way around the notion that some minimal level of coercion is required for civil society, nor do I know of anyone else who has. Thus, my phrase “any rational person would choose” cannot be taken literally except in the sense that I, personally, believe that no one would not feel compelled by his own reasoning to agree, however grudgingly. As Mr. Velleman correctly points out, that isn’t coercion. On the other hand, unlike, say, Rawls, I am unwilling to claim that anyone who doesn’t agree with me (or me hiding behind the veil, as it were) is to that extent irrational. I simply can’t bring myself to believe a rational person would so choose, but my belief is no argument, let alone proof. The point doesn’t undermine my general position, however, except among those who care more deeply than I do about insisting upon the universal application of a principle that generally works very well.

Mr. Velleman’s other principle objection merely conflates society with the state. His suspicions regarding what I may happen to believe about the very open-ended and undefined phrase “representative self-government” are irrelevant. If he wishes to defend state action, especially including the threat of force, to compel individual compliance with his or Ms Anderson’s various social welfare schemes, he bears the burden of proof and persuasion. So far, he has not met that burden and neither has Ms Anderson.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 12, 2005 2:52:52 PM


Posted by: Mona

David V. writes: This conception of coercion can have one of two consequences: either it defines coercion so broadly as to undermine the assumption that coercion is wrong; or it establishes that all government is illegitimate. As I said, you're not opposed to taxation; you're opposed to representative self-government. Why not just admit that you're anarchists?

Now, now, it is a logical fallacy to impose only two alternatives, when there obviously are more. Like Hayek, my position is that coercion is bad, but not illegitimate when it is meant to defend against or punish the initiation of force. (See the unbolded examples of coercion offered by Hayek in my above post for examples of the initiation of coercion.) It is not improper to grant the state a monopoly on, to return to Hayek's language, "threaten[ing] to inflict punishment and to employ physical force to make us obey its commands," when those commands are prohibitions on rape, robbery, fraud or murder of one's neighbor, that is, when the command is: "thou shalt not initiate force."

Libertarians are not anarchists, and neither was Hayek, as we agree that the state should be vested with a monopoly on coercion and force in order to protect us from individuals who would initiate it against us. We all have the right to self-defense, but to keep that within the rule of law and to maintain a stable society, it is best to turn that right (except in the few cases in which it is infeasible) over to the state. In other words, in a world in which there is going to be some coercion, it is best and civilized to grant the state the limited power to coerce non-coercion.

But, I have no right to my neighbor's money, just because I think I need it more (and I truly may). And, I cannot (in justice) transfer a right-of-coercion which I lack to the state.

Posted by: Mona | Mar 12, 2005 3:23:12 PM


Posted by: David Velleman

Mr. Ridgley: I apologize for the phrase "tax-complainer" if you find it personally offensive. I was using it as shorthand the intended target's of Liz's posts, all of which have been entitled "How Not to Complain About Taxes".

Now, it's fine to use the word 'coercion' in such a way that all law and regulation enforceable by the state are coercive. But if one uses 'coercion' in that way, then one must believe that a lot of coercion is justified, lest government itself turn out to be illegitimate across the board. And then the question will be why some instances of coercion are legitimate while others are not. Merely calling taxation coercive won't yield any conclusions about it one way or another, since the crucial distinction will be between justified and unjustified coercion.

You suggest that "welfare schemes" involve unjustified coercion because they are mine or Liz's -- as if two lousy philosophy professors had taken it upon themselves to play Robin Hood, robbing the rich and giving to the poor, or robbing from the young to give to the aged. But that's where you are mistaken. The schemes in question have been adopted and maintained over decades by successive democratically elected governments, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative. You may think that they are ill-advised; you may vote for candidates who oppose them. But they are America's, not mine or Liz's.

The question is how you distinguish between these acts of democratic self-government and others. The distinction cannot be that they are "coercive". So what it is the distinction that makes them, not just ill-advised in your opinion, but illegitimate?

Posted by: David Velleman | Mar 12, 2005 3:34:16 PM


Posted by: AdamH

D.A. Ridgley:
If someone attempts to tonight to get into your house and sleep on the couch, they are likely to be ultimately evicted with the forceful aid of the police. In other words, they'll be coerced.
Presumably, you think this is all well and good, since this particular form of coercion is well justified. But then what's all this business about the "burden of proof" - you can't be saying that Velleman wants there to be coercive institutions and you don't, you just want there to be a different pattern of coercion.
Presumably you'll reply that the institutions you endorse only require coercion at "the minimal level" (as you put it) whilst those involving any redistribution will involve a higher "level" of coercion and that this is why the burden of proof is on Velleman. But this is far from obvious. There's not space here to argue the details but consider the following: The poor are constantly at risk of coercion. Since they don't own much, there's very little they can do, very few places they can go, without being coerced for violating someone elses (legal) property rights. At the extreme, the completely destitute and homeless can do almost nothing without getting coerced. One would need to give a pretty good argument to show that a state which enforces property rights with no redistribution would coerce less than a state which did redistribute.

Posted by: AdamH | Mar 12, 2005 3:50:24 PM


Posted by: AdamH

Sorry there's some repetition in my last post - I wrote that before David V had replied.

Posted by: AdamH | Mar 12, 2005 3:52:13 PM


Posted by: David Velleman

Mona:

Sorry, but the state cannot have a monopoly on the use of coercion to protect individuals from coercion without also having the right to yours and your neighbor's money, since its monopoly cannot be exercised without resources. And if, as you say (and I agree), the state obtains its monopoly on coercion because we collectively surrender to it our individual rights of self-defense, then we can collectively surrender to it other rights as well, and for precisely the same reasons. The arguments showing that it's rational for us to assign our rights of self-defense to the state are no stronger than arguments showing that it's rational for us to assign to the state the power to define the extent and limits of property rights, which are hopelessly indeterminate otherwise, as well as the power to require individual contributions toward the provision of public goods that otherwise would go unprovided.

Posted by: David Velleman | Mar 12, 2005 4:00:02 PM


Posted by: Mona

David V. writes: Sorry, but the state cannot have a monopoly on the use of coercion to protect individuals from coercion without also having the right to yours and your neighbor's money, since its monopoly cannot be exercised without resources.

But of course. I have the right to defend myself from enemies foreign and domestic, and if I am going to transfer that right to another entity, private or governmental, I must pay for it. Those who do not wish to pay for it must be coerced to do so if we are going to avoid the free-rider problem. I see no way around coercion if we are to live under the rule of courts and law, as opposed to vigilante justice, and if we are to have a coordinated military to repel enemies. But frankly, before I would extend coercion beyond this role, I would rather exempt bona fide pacifists from paying for police protection. If that is the "consistency" price to paid in order to wall the damn of demands that once you allow minimal coercion, all is allowed if a majority votes for it, exempt the pacifists. (Altho, some public health programs certainly also fall into the category of common defense, and so I suppose we would have to offer exemptions to Christian Scientists, as well.)

And if, as you say (and I agree), the state obtains its monopoly on coercion because we collectively surrender to it our individual rights of self-defense, then we can collectively surrender to it other rights as well, and for precisely the same reasons. The arguments showing that it's rational for us to assign our rights of self-defense to the state are no stronger than arguments showing that it's rational for us to assign to the state the power to define the extent and limits of property rights, which are hopelessly indeterminate otherwise, as well as the power to require individual contributions toward the provision of public goods that otherwise would go unprovided.

Now, there you go again. Denominating some undefined somethings "public goods" does not demonstrate that these are either (1)anything I have a right to compel you to pay for in order that I might have them, or (2) that they would not be provided if the state did not provide them. You have no duty to pay for my food and shelter, and I have no right to put a gun to your head (or the IRS's guns) to coerce you to do so. You do have an obligation to refrain from stealing my worldly goods, and I have a right to employ force against you if you try, and that is a right I may farm out to others, including the state.

Posted by: Mona | Mar 12, 2005 4:57:26 PM


Posted by: David Velleman

There you go again. You just accepted that the state acquires the right to exercise coercion because individuals find it rational to endow it with their rights of self-defense. But then you go pretending that public goods are things that one individual is trying to force another individual to pay for -- as if it didn't matter than individuals would find it rational to agree to endow the state with the right to levy contributions toward their provision.

The same description that you (mis)apply to public goods can be (mis)applied to the functions of the night-watchman state. You have no duty to pay for my defense, any more than you have a duty to pay for my food and shelter. So where do I get the right to compel you to pay for collective defense, so that I can enjoy its benefits?

Posted by: David Velleman | Mar 12, 2005 5:18:07 PM


Posted by: David Velleman

Mona says:

You do have an obligation to refrain from stealing my worldly goods, and I have a right to employ force against you if you try, and that is a right I may farm out to others, including the state.

In "farming out" your right of self-defense, you are giving it up: so long as the state exercises coercive defense on your behalf, you may not do so. (That is, you may not engage in vigilantism.) You transfer your right of coercive self-defense to the state on the condition that others do likewise.

But just as you can transfer your right of coercive self-defense to the state on the condition of others' doing likewise, so you can transfer some of your property rights to the state on the condition of others' doing likewise -- that is, by agreeing to be charged for public goods if everyone is similarly charged. And just as you would be irrational not to join others in transferring your rights of coercive self-defense to the state, so you would be irrational not to join them in transferring some property rights to the state -- especially if you retain a voice, via representative government, in which goods are to be collectively provided.

The argument is the same in both cases. It's only by misdescribing the cases that you manage to make them look disanalogous.

Posted by: David Velleman | Mar 12, 2005 5:37:35 PM


Posted by: David Velleman

(In the foregoing arguments, I am waiving consideration of the respects in which property rights would be limited in the state of nature -- for example, by the requirement not to appropriate natural resources to an extent that leaves others no means of sustaining themselves. Some social provisions by the state may be justified by the need to satisfy such requirements, in order to preserve the legitimacy of property rights overall.)

Posted by: David Velleman | Mar 12, 2005 5:55:04 PM


Posted by: Rob

Professor Anderson,

incidentally, "To each according to his threat advantage" is first described, to my knowledge, as a principle of justice, in Rawls's Theory of Justice.

Posted by: Rob | Mar 12, 2005 6:25:09 PM


Posted by: Perseus

Two more criticisms of Prof. Anderson's post:

1) Prof. Anderson's reading of Locke is entirely flawed.

Here's what he says in the Second Treatise, Par. 28:

"Thus the Grass my Horse has bit; *the Turfs my Servant has cut*; and the Ore I have digg'd in any place where I have a right to them in common with others, become my Property, without the assignation or consent of any body."

Having a servant (notice: Locke mentions a servant, not a slave) already implies a social condition in which there is already some division of labor. In exchange for transferring the right to the fruits of his labor (the turfs) to his employer, the servant receives a wage. Thus there is no need to translate Locke's principle to cooperative production under an extensive division of labor. All that matters is that the labor used by an employer to produce the output was properly his to use (i.e. contracted).

2) Prof. Anderson's approach to externalities is essentially Pigouvian. She only indirectly hints at the neoclassical alternative with her mention of Richard Epstein. More specifically, she fails to mention the Coase Theorem, which challenges the notion that "capitalism" is simply at fault for negative externalities (e.g. is too much pollution the fault of capitalism (individuals) or the government, which fails to define property rights adequately?) as well as her easy acceptance of the idea that externalities frequently require government action (also, many externalities such as unpaid homemakers are not obviously *Pareto-relevant* in any significant way). She also tends to assume that government action is generally less costly and superior to non-government action (or inaction). Public choice economists would beg to differ.

Posted by: Perseus | Mar 12, 2005 6:26:01 PM


Posted by: Dave Schuler

If he wishes to defend state action, especially including the threat of force, to compel individual compliance with his or Ms Anderson’s various social welfare schemes, he bears the burden of proof and persuasion. So far, he has not met that burden and neither has Ms Anderson.
I'm sorry and please correct me if I'm wrong but isn't this burden-shifting? Aren't Mr. Velleman and Ms. Anderson merely defending the status quo? That's not an affirmative argument. Don't those who propose that we abandon what we're doing now bear the burden of proof?

Posted by: Dave Schuler | Mar 12, 2005 6:30:53 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Velleman:

As between not being characterized as a “tax-complainer” and not having my name fairly frequently misspelled, I think I’d prefer the latter. After all, I do in fact frequently complain about taxes in rather the same way I complain about vile tasting medicine I nonetheless grudgingly swallow because I recognize its necessity. I trust my doctor not to prescribe any more of the stuff than required, however. Would that I had the same confidence in my “representative, democratic” government.

Since my position is that the overwhelming majority of government is illegitimate (or, at the very least, that its legitimacy has not been satisfactorily established) and that whatever is not per se illegitimate is nonetheless highly suspect and morally dubious precisely because of its ultimately coercive nature, but that we’re nonetheless stuck with it, illegitimate or not, I have little to add to your critique of the concept of coercion except, yep, that’s about right. The question is how little coercive government we can not merely survive but flourish with. However close that position puts me to anarcho-capitalism and thus qualify for your appellation of “anarchist” is indeterminate; but it isn’t as though I just this moment started espousing libertarian positions on this blog, now is it?

I was laboring under the impression that I was disagreeing with what has been asserted by one philosophy professor, whom I certainly have no reason, by the way, to deem lousy. (Nor would I say such a thing about you. Often exasperating, but never lousy.) You’re perfectly welcome to make it a tag-team event, but I think both sides would be ill served by recourse to what “America” thinks or does or has thought or done regarding such matters. I, for one, wouldn’t be willing to put the Bill of Rights up to popular referendum today. Would you?

AdamH: Your argument, more tersely and ironically phrased, is that the law in its justice forbids both rich and poor from sleeping under bridges. And so it does. I would phrase my difference with Mr. Velleman more in terms of our wanting different levels of coercion and my not wanting even the lower level but finding no viable alternative; however, you’re both right that even in my preferred (in the sense of least objectionable) minimal government some coercion would exist.

Alas, politics is the art of the possible, not the pursuit of the ideal. Any political philosophy that does not recognize the inherent limitations of social organization resulting from what, for lack of a better phrase, I’ll call human nature is fundamentally flawed. So is any political philosophy that claims (like the dentist who tells you “You’re going to feel a little pressure” before the pain begins) “Oh, you really agreed to all of this because [trot out your favorite social contract theory here.]”

In any case, your argumentum ad misericordiam aside, I can assure you that whoever seeks to break into my house to sleep on my couch will indeed be forcibly evicted. Whether or at what point the police might be summoned to assist is another matter entirely.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 12, 2005 6:35:52 PM


Posted by: wil

A community can have full employment, can at the same time have the rate of capital formation it wants, and can accomplish all this compatibly with the degree of income-redistributing taxation it ethically desires..........Paul Samuelson.

Posted by: wil | Mar 12, 2005 6:36:06 PM


Posted by: Mona

David V. writes: But just as you can obligate yourself not to engage in vigilante justice on your own behalf, provided that others obligate themselves likewise, so you can obligate yourself to pay for public goods on the condition that others obligate themselves likewise. And just as you would be irrational not to join with others in undertaking obligations to refrain from vigiliantism, so you would be irrational not to join with them in undertaking obligations to pay for public goods.

The argument is the same in both cases. It's only by misdescribing the cases that you manage to make them look disanalogous.

But it most emphatically is not the same in both cases. The need to defend myself exists, and must be undertaken, or many of the stronger would just take my things, my body and/or my life. My need is the same as that of every other citizen, and is an entirely common one. When I agree that we will all be obligated to have the state pay for common defense, to which we all have a right, domestic or foreign defense, I am preserving the rule of law on which civilization is based. I am accepting some coercion, and that is a regrettable and bad thing, but there seems no alternative if the rule of law is to be preserved and all of our rights protected. But I absolutely am not claiming anyone else has a duty to pay for my right of self-defense, or that a majority vote could create such a duty; I am merely saying I see no way out of coerced pooling of the costs, so that the state may have a (near) monopoly on sanctioned violence.

Now, if you wish to argue that those with more stuff disproportionately benefit from the pooling of the costs, then we could discuss that a higher tax should be levied on them for police protection. But that is not the same case as arguing that those with more have a duty to provide to those with less, and may justly be coerced to do so, because 51% of the voting public says so. Indeed, few things could be more harmful to civilization than that a majority may vote to just take things from minorities.

Posted by: Mona | Mar 12, 2005 6:42:07 PM


Posted by: paulc

I have a question for D.A. Ridgely. My reading is that you have suggested two grounds for thinking that more taxation is - other things constant - a bad thing. One is coercion and the other is efficiency. Apologies if I have neglected others. I think that an account based on coercion will really end up being an account based on entitlement, so I'll call them the entitlement and efficiency grounds.

Here is my question. Finally. How would you go about deciding, when efficiency and entitlements are in tension. You gave some sort of clue above - i.e., that entitlements can be violated in some change, if any rational person would agree. Is this really the bottom line? What about if there was only one rational person who objected - say someone who would be better off not paying taxes to pay for police services. He might own much better weapons than everyone else. We might as well assume that efficiency (in the sense of higher total surplus) would be higher with police protection.

You see what I am trying to do? I am trying to get you to choose between pragmatism and taking a hard line on redistribution. Perhaps you think this kind of choice is unlikely. But why not answer it anyway?

Posted by: paulc | Mar 12, 2005 8:35:13 PM


Posted by: AdamH

D. A. Ridgely,
Perhaps I was completely unclear (I find this format hard), but you seem to have completely ignored my second point. The first was: even where there's a "minimal state" there will still be some coercion. The second was: it is not the case (or at least it's far from obvious) that people will be less subject to coercion where there is a "minimal state" than where there is one which engages in redistribution.
Your problem with the minimal state is that it makes some people (those who are taxed) liable to coercion - if they fail to pay up they will be forced to. But what property you own (and, more generally, how much money you have) determines what you can do without being coerced. Someone who owns some vast acres can walk around them without being coerced. Some other person who tries to walk the same acres will be coerced to stop them doing so by a state of the sort you hope for. Suppose only a handful of people owned all the property in a nation - if there's just a "minimal state" enforcing these people's property rights then everyone else would be able to go almost nowhere without being coerced. If we redistributed some of the property in this nation, the poor would be able to do more things without being coerced (though those who previously owned all the property will now be coerced if they try to use that which they no longer own).
We are arguing about the distribution of liability to be coerced, not about how much coercion there should be.

Posted by: AdamH | Mar 12, 2005 8:46:40 PM


Posted by: bakho

Yes folks, humans are social animals. We live in societies. We are not individualists. Humans have culture that is passed on to the next generation. The previous generation builds infrastructure that is left for the next generation. None of us in the US today are rugged individualists. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before. We stand on the shoulders of the native Americans who did the major breeding of our food crops like corn, potatoes and tomatoes. They built the original villiages, cleared the first farms and established the first trails. We stand on the shoulders of those who built the wilderness road, then the canals, the railroads, the interstates, our cities and skyscrapers and even our institutions of higher learning. Without these intergenerational gifts, we would be but primative hunter gatherers with an economy only a fraction of today's economy, no accumulated wealth and a paucity of knowledge.

These intergenerational gifts are distributed to the next generation in a way that is unequal and reflects legacy and plutocracy, not meritocracy. The distribution of these gifts and the distribution of the wealth of society is governed by the rules of society. All we have is due to our society and our ability to work within that society. That we have possessions at all that we call our own depends on the rules of society and our ability to protect our possessions and enforce society laws. Without the infrastructure of our society, we are all poor.

So that we might all be richer, we must contribute to society. In the USA, the laws of society are a contract designed by its citizens through our elected representatives. Through these rules, we determine that corporations can pay a pathetic minimum wage of little more than $5 per hour with no health benefits or retirement and certainly not enough money for an individual to purchase either. In return for accepting this pathetic wage, workers are guaranteed Social Security as a part of the social contract. Ending Social Security, or allowing the wealthy to opt out of their responsibility under the social contract can and must be accompanied by a renegotiation of the other parts of the contract.

The danger in allowing too much personal discretion in any society is "the tragedy of the commons". When resources are limited, distribution through personal discretion is often much less efficient than a negotiated social contract. There will always be a tension between unfettered capitalism an obligation to the society that allows capitalism to thrive. Too much independent capitalism leads to misues and abuse of resources and deterioration of infrastructure. Too little independent capitalism and society deprives itself of its engine of growth and change. It is a complicated balance that requires an elaborate set of rules and management to keep the economy at its most efficient. Those that take a dualistic approach of either no capitalism or no social contract fail to appreciate the nuances that are vital to any economy.

Posted by: bakho | Mar 12, 2005 9:43:22 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Okay, briefly in response to paulc and then AdamH, after which I think Ms Anderson’s own topic deserves more current attention than my defense of libertarianism. (If the authors wish to discuss libertarianism, per se, or the moral justification of government as a topic, I’d be happy to discuss it at length. All I have been attempting to do here is bring my admittedly libertarian perspective to the topic at hand.)

paulc: you are correct that I oppose the welfare state on what I would term both prudential and deontological grounds; that is, I don’t think it works well and, in any case, it is generally wrong to coerce other people. I also acknowledge that these two different sorts of moral consideration can come into conflict. I am no utilitarian, but I am strongly influenced by questions of relative efficiency or utility (whatever the latter means) and I am inclined (but only inclined) to say everyone must pay for the minimum state, period. On the other hand, it is certainly possible that a Bill Gates type could afford his own mini-state and choose to opt out of society entirely, and I’d have to think about that sort of hypothetical more than I admit I have thought about it to date. I don’t have strong intuitions (for whatever they are worth) one way or the other. Somehow, however, I think my answer would be related to my response to AdamH.

AdamH: I strongly suspect that if we redistributed all the wealth in the world into exactly equal shares among the world’s population it would take less than one generation for there to be significant inequality in its distribution again without constantly “re-leveling the playing field.” The first redistribution is probably impossible and the second constant sort surely is. On the other hand, I find the notion of vast wealth concentration in a tiny plutocracy over any extended period of time highly unlikely, contrary to Ms Anderson’s earlier notion of contract ‘feudalism.’ If anything, free market economies tend to spread wealth and grow middle-classes, not a handful of plutocrats and masses of paupers. However, changing your hypothetical just a bit to, say, the case of a single owner of the water supply, I would have no hesitation in denying or refusing to support that sort of monopolistic control. As the old joke about the Constitution goes, so also no social organization is a suicide pact. Furthermore, tentatively granting your sense of coercion to include the negative impact one suffers from not having access to the property of another private party, I think that is a significantly lower level threat than the sort of power of coercion to which the state is entrusted. Ultimately, much of how we prefer one social organization to another has to do with how we are willing to trade off between freedom and security and with how much we either trust or fear the role of the state.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 12, 2005 11:18:29 PM


Posted by: David Johnson

I've enjoyed Professor Anderson's recent posts on Locke, and so I wanted to make a comment related to them that isn't directly on topic.

Locke dominates our discussions of private property, and rightly so as the primary influence over thinking of it in terms of rights.

It is a shame, however, that Aristotle hasn't had a greater place in discussions of private property, because he provides an appealing alternative route to its justification, namely a broadly consequentialist one grounded in a realistic conception of human nature. (I rediscovered my admiration for Aristotle on this topic only this past week, in discussing it with my Aristotle class. Most of the relevant arguments are in POLITICS II.5, in the context of a critique of the communism of Plato's REPUBLIC.)

Since Aristotle takes a broadly consequentialist approach, he is directly attuned to the negative aspects of private property: it can lead to gross disparities in wealth and to widespread poverty. This is why he notes repeatedly in his discussion that legislators must take care to minimize its negative consequences. (For example, he praises the practice of "common meals" in some societies for the purpose of feeding the hungry. He urges legislators to establish public moral education that instills benevolent dispositions in its members, so that they will be willing to share their property with those in need.)

Contrast the Lockean approach: since private property is a right, any restriction on private property is necessarily an infringement unless it secures the consent of the right holder. Such restrictions always require a sort of indirect justification on the basis of consent. That society as a whole may be worse off with such robust property rights is no direct strike against them. (This is not to say, however, that many restrictions on private property cannot be justified on Lockean grounds. Professor Anderson has shown in previous posts how such restrictions may be justified.)

The worry with consequentialist approaches is that they violate individual autonomy. However, since Aristotle has a realistic view of human nature and what the individual can tolerate in terms of outside infringements, his approach is less susceptible to this type of objection. Since we naturally take great pleasure in owning our own property (as an expression of our natural love of self) and exercising control over it, and since love of self and the free exercise of choice are central to our good, there are definite limits to what we can tolerate in terms of property restrictions without substantial harm to our good that outweighs the alleged benefits of such restrictions.

Putting Aristotle aside, my general point is that it is unfortunate that discussions of private property inevitably assume a Lockean background. If you agree that Locke's dominance exerts a distorting effect on such discussions, then the inclusion of other classical philosophers or philosophical traditions may provide needed benefits.

Posted by: David Johnson | Mar 13, 2005 3:34:35 AM


Posted by: Rob

Perseus,

as I remember the second treatise, that discussion comes before the invention of money, so the servant couldn't have been being paid a wage, except in kind. Locke's state of nature before the invention of money probably envisages large extended families doing a little subsidence farming. It's also worth noting, in the context of a discussion of Locke, that a) although he does think the restrictions disappear once money is developed, the rights of appropriation he grants are not absolute and b) a representative government has the right to appropriate private property for the common good. Both of these flow from the fact that his justification for property depends on the theological premise that God placed humankind on the earth to be fruitful and multiply.

Posted by: Rob | Mar 13, 2005 5:33:33 AM


Posted by: Perseus

Like others, I'd like Prof. Anderson to explain this whopper of a non-sequitur: "In fact, capitalism embodies a society of deeply interdependent people who share one another's fates. Social insurance simply makes this fact explicit."

Rob: True, the wage was not necessarily monetary: it could have been barter, but barter also implies a social relationship. Locke's argument does not, however, depend on any theological premise (which was rhetorical window dressing). As he states at the very beginning of his chapter on property, "Whether we consider natural Reason...Or Revelation..."

As for Aristotle, David Johnson presents a skewed picture of Aristotle's criticisms of private property. Here's what Aristotle also says in Book 2 of the Politics:

"For one ought to level desires sooner than property...For the property of the citizens to be equal, then, is indeed an advantage with a view to avoiding factional conflict between them, but it is by no means a great one. For the refined may well become disaffected, on the grounds that they do not merit equality, and for this reason they are frequently seen to attack [the many] and engage in factional conflict." (1266b30-1, 1267a35-40) So much for the alleged virtues of redistributive taxation.

"Further, the wickedness of human beings is insatiable: at first the two obol allowance [a subsidy paid to Athenian citizens to attend the theater and public festivals] was adequate, but now that this is something traditional, they always ask for more, and go on doing so without limit." (1267b1-1267b5) Sounds a lot like modern entitlement programs, err, "social insurance."

Posted by: Perseus | Mar 13, 2005 6:36:57 AM


Posted by: paulc

D.A. Ridgely.

Thanks for replying. It is certainly reasonable to be unsure about which way to go. But I think that your (or indeed any) defense of libertarianism is very much relevant to Anderson's agenda. She has been confronting potential arguments against taxation. And getting a lot of complaints about straw men. The implication is that she is not addressing the arguments that some (such as you) would rely on. It would make for a more interesting debate if it was clear where she should aim.

If you, or someone else, wants to rest their case on deontological grounds, then let's hear about them. Maybe not right now. But some time. In the interests of being a clearer target. ;) But if you can accept that `coercive' taxation can sometimes be justified to benefit someone else, then it seems that the dispute is really about where to draw the line. The two defenses for libertarianism seem call for quite different arguments from the `left'.

Posted by: paulc | Mar 13, 2005 11:57:09 AM


Posted by: David Velleman

Mona:

Our need to protect ourselves from the depredations of others is no greater than our need to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, house ourselves, and so on. And the rationality of our collectively investing the state with a monopoly on coercion so that it can address the former need, by providing police and armed forces, is no different from the rationality of collectively transferring some property rights to the state so that it can address the latter needs, by providing the infrastructure and other conditions for a productive economy. These are the public goods to which I have been referring. And as you concede, there is reason to apportion the economic burden of providing these goods according to the benefits received (and, I would add, in a way that reflects the diminishing marginal utility of money). So where is the disagreement?

You say that your objection is to the proposition "that those with more have a duty to provide to those with less, and may justly be coerced to do so, because 51% of the voting public says so." But who ever asserted such a proposition? Not I.

Here is a slightly different proposition that I do assert: those with enough have a duty to provide to those without enough. And where does this duty come from? It comes from the nature of property rights, as they must be even in the imagined state of nature. No defensible conception of property rights will allow people to appropriate resources in a way that destitutes others. (In Locke, this limitation takes the form of the proviso that one must leave "as much and as good" for others to appropriate.) Of course, we live in a world where there are virtually no unclaimed natural resources to appropriate; but our currently holdings still depend on some earlier appropriation of resources, which was subject to the limitation. A scheme of property rights that leaves some without the means to sustain themselves is therefore illegitimate.

The duty to provide for others is thus a condition on the legitimacy of our property rights -- a condition imposed, not by majority vote, but by the logic of property rights themselves. We cannot invest the state with the power to protect our possession of holdings that leave others destitute, for the simple reason that we cannot have the right to such holdings, in the first place. By collectively providing for those who cannot sustain themselves, we collectively vindicate the legitimacy of our property rights.

Note that I am here disagreeing with Liz, who denies the existence of natural property rights. I agree that not all property rights can be natural. Indeed, I agree that natural property rights are unworkable without a state to define their limits and adjudicate the inevitable conflicts among them. But the fact that parties in the state of nature would have to create a state to regiment their natural property rights does not show that they wouldn't have such rights, vague and unworkable as such rights might be.

I am also disagreeing with David Johnson about the resources of a Lockean theory of property. As I interpret Locke, his theory is also based on "a realistic conception of human nature" -- specifically, on the fact that human beings must sustain themselves by means of extended projects, which would be pointless if people couldn't somehow be guaranteed of enjoying the fruits of their labors. The scheme of property rights that can by justified on the basis of this conception is fairly limited, in my view, and it provides an independent reason for the creation of a state -- a reason that's independent, that is, from the need for there to be a neutral monopoly on the use of coercive force.

Posted by: David Velleman | Mar 13, 2005 1:24:59 PM


Posted by: David Johnson

In response to comments...

David Velleman writes: "I am also disagreeing with David Johnson about the resources of a Lockean theory of property. As I interpret Locke, his theory is also based on 'a realistic conception of human nature'"

I was not criticizing Locke in that comment. Rather, I was attempting to explain how Aristotle's view may be defended against standard criticisms of consequentialist theories.

Perseus cites two passages that allegedly show I presented a skewed view of Aristotle.

In both, the context is his criticisms of Phaleas of Chalcedon, who proposed equalization of property. Aristotle claims this is a heavy handed proposal that does more harm than good.

Instead of equalization, Aristotle proposes that "the legislator ought not only to aim at the equalization of properites, but at moderation in their amount." (1266b26-7)

So the fact that Aristotle opposed equalization of property does not imply that he would oppose any policies of restriction on or redistribution of property (i.e. policies aimed at moderation in amounts of property).

I suspect (although I'm not sure... I'll have to check a commentary) the two obols mentioned in the second passage (1267b1) refer to the compensatory payments made to average Athenian citizens for sitting on juries. As a critic of democracy, Aristotle did not approve of opening juries to all. His point in the passage is to ridicule the consequences of opening juries to all and sundry, including those who lack virtue. [As a native Los Angeleno, I happen to share his skepticism about peer juries.]

At any rate, my point was not to hold Aristotle's views as ideal (just as Professor Anderson does not hold Locke's views as ideal), but to cite him as a classical example of a consequentialist approach to the problem and to recommend the advantages of such an approach. On such an approach, poverty and gross inequality are directly seen as evils that must be rectified -- there is no need for an indirect justification for rectificatory policies on the basis of the consent of property rights holders.

Posted by: David Johnson | Mar 13, 2005 2:54:56 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Our need as individuals for protection may not be qualitatively different from our need for food, shelter, etc., but the former cannot effectively be provided except by at least some minimal state while the latter can be otherwise met. Thus there is a difference between what we cannot do without and therefore require the aegis of the state to provide and that which arguably the state could provide but is not needed to provide. It is one thing to coerce others and permit ourselves to be coerced where there is no viable alternative, quite another to coerce others into participating in a method of meeting individual needs to which alternatives exist.

I don’t find the notion of natural property, as opposed to mere possession, as useful as it is confused. Nor do I agree with Mr. Velleman and, apparently, Mona regarding the propriety of apportioning the cost of state provided services insofar as the same services are being provided according to means any more than I think the rich should pay more than the poor for the same loaf of bread or medical treatment or pair of shoes. (Of course, if more state resources are required to, say, protect the greater holdings of the rich it would make sense to charge a proportionally higher usage fee, but I don’t think it makes sense to claim that a rich person’s life should cost him more to protect than a poor person’s. Indeed, since the rich typically can afford more private security, the protection of the poor person may be a greater burden to the state. Should the poor therefore pay more, or should we just consider it a wash? There, that ought to stir the pot a bit!)

I agree with Mr. Velleman that the comparatively rich have a moral obligation to assist the desperate poor. I disagree that society has the moral right to compel any individual to meet that obligation. Indeed, I question whether meeting a moral obligation under threat of punishment ever constitutes a moral act. Thus, while I have absolutely no objection whatever to people collectively pooling their resources to meet their individual needs voluntarily, our disagreement lies in whether and under what circumstances the power of the state should be used to require such participation.

Finally, I forgot earlier to withdraw my objection to “tax-complainer” following Mr. Velleman’s explanation of his intent. I hereby withdraw it. On that note, I also withdraw from this particular discussion, having droned on too long already.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Mar 13, 2005 3:21:59 PM


Posted by: David Velleman

My claim was not that the rich have a moral obligation to help the desperately poor. My claim was that property rights give out in the face of such poverty. The state is not enforcing your moral obligation to help others. On the contrary the state is preserving your property rights, by ensuring that the conditions for their legitimacy are fulfilled.

Posted by: David Velleman | Mar 13, 2005 3:36:09 PM


Posted by: Perseus

DJ: As you are aware, Aristotle's approach to property--and virtue--is entirely alien to the modern concept of individual rights. So I'd be more than happy to adopt his approach to property if we adopted it in toto--which would allow me to own some slaves--and if we also adopted his more general approach to political rule (e.g. rule by cultivated gentlemen). However, I doubt that the modern egalitarian democrat could stomach the inequality that results from his approach.

(My explanation of the 2 obol allowance comes from the Lord translation. I don't know if he's right. Regardless, the point is that Aristotle is also critical of the bread and circuses view of government held by the many.)

Posted by: Perseus | Mar 13, 2005 4:31:15 PM


Posted by: Don Herzog

Perseus, I sure hope you're joking. If you're not, shall I ask what makes you sure that you'd own a slave and not be one? Shall I ask if you think slaveowners are actually better off than people who don't own slaves? Shall I ask what makes you think you'd be a cultivated gentleman -- the translation has all kinds of inappropriately aristoratic overtones, but let it go -- picked out to exercise the rights of citizenship?

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 13, 2005 5:01:45 PM


Posted by: David Johnson

Perseus,

Despite his rights approach, Locke wasn't too great on slavery either.

Your point that "Aristotle is also critical of the bread and circuses view of government held by the many" fails to address his endorsment of common meals and was based on a passage that is far narrower in intent that the use you want to put to it.

More importantly, my general point was narrow: there are problems with the rights approach to private property that a consequentialist approach does not have. I used Aristotle as a classical example to develop this point. In no way did I mean to endorse everything in Aristotle (!).

Posted by: David Johnson | Mar 13, 2005 5:12:17 PM


Posted by: David Johnson

Perseus,

Despite his rights approach, Locke wasn't too great on slavery either.

Your point that "Aristotle is also critical of the bread and circuses view of government held by the many" fails to address his endorsment of common meals and was based on a passage that is far narrower in intent that the use you want to put to it.

More importantly, my general point was narrow: there are problems with the rights approach to private property that a consequentialist approach does not have. I used Aristotle as a classical example to develop this point. In no way did I mean to endorse everything in Aristotle (!).

Posted by: David Johnson | Mar 13, 2005 5:12:44 PM


Posted by: Mona

D. A. Ridgely writes: Nor do I agree with Mr. Velleman and, apparently, Mona regarding the propriety of apportioning the cost of state provided services insofar as the same services are being provided according to means any more than I think the rich should pay more than the poor for the same loaf of bread or medical treatment or pair of shoes. (Of course, if more state resources are required to, say, protect the greater holdings of the rich it would make sense to charge a proportionally higher usage fee, but I don’t think it makes sense to claim that a rich person’s life should cost him more to protect than a poor person’s. Indeed, since the rich typically can afford more private security, the protection of the poor person may be a greater burden to the state. Should the poor therefore pay more, or should we just consider it a wash? There, that ought to stir the pot a bit!)

My time is limited once again, but I wanted to clarify that you and I are not in disagreement on the above point. The rich do have, as you say, greater holdings requring protection, so I am simply not foreclosing that taxation for police services might properly be calibrated by the greater benefit confered and resources deployed to the protection of their assets.

Posted by: Mona | Mar 13, 2005 6:18:39 PM


Posted by: Perseus

DJ: My objection to your use of the classical version of the consequentialist approach to private property was it that suggests that classical political philosophy is particularly egalitarian, which it is not (e.g. its toleration of slavery). Also, the two sets of practices come from the same general approach and thus cannot be easily separated--they're the opposite sides of the same coin. So you may have all the redistributive taxation and common meals for the poor you want if the poor are excluded from rule and citizens may own slaves.

(The common meals were intended to promote harmony as much as to feed people, and after the endorsing the practice at Crete, he says that the legislator should ensure "a beneficial scantiness of food.")

Don Herzog: I don't know if I'd be a slave or selected to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship (Aristotle's cultivated gentleman is indeed aristocratic; after all, his best regime is an aristocracy), but your rhetorical questions don't exactly prove the injustice of such practices. Whether non-slaveowners are on balance better off than slaveowners would depend in large part on how you view egalitarianism and the modern substitute for slavery, technology (which enslaves nature instead of human beings).

Posted by: Perseus | Mar 13, 2005 7:58:36 PM


Posted by: Don Herzog

Perseus, "aristocracy" in English doesn't summon up the social or cultural arrangements Arisotle had -- or could have had -- in mind, except in the fuzziest or most general ways. Just to start, think about titled nobility.

I have nothing further to say to you about your affection for slavery and a radically exclusive franchise. But I will ask those still reading this far down into the thread to comment on it. Am I alone in thinking Perseus is out on a remarkably extreme and remarkably undesirable limb here?

Posted by: Don Herzog | Mar 13, 2005 8:22:20 PM


Posted by: David Johnson

Perseus,

Last comment...

At this point I have the impression you are just inventing reasons to criticize. I mean, of course Aristotle isn't an egalitarian, and in no way did I mean to suggest that (!). This didn't stop Mill, for example, from deriving some philosophical mileage from his approach to various ethical and political issues.

Again, the primary purpose of my comment was to suggest the advantages of a consequentialist approach to private property, using Aristotle's approach as a classic example. In no way was I trying to rewrite Aristotle or cite him as an ideal (just as Professor Anderson in no way thinks of Locke as ideal).

My three points: (1) On a consequentialist approach to private property, poverty and disparaties in wealth are directly seen as evils that need to be rectified. Aristotle in II.5 clearly registers this line of thought. However, on a Lockean rights-based approach, any rectificatory measures must be justified indirectly via securing consent from the rights holder.

(2) Aristotle's view of human nature and the human good gives due weight to the importance of respecting individual autonomy with respect to private property. So his approach avoids the traditional objection against consequentialist theories that they fail to respect autonomy.

(3) Here's what I take to be an Aristotelian view: For the sake of promoting the common good, people should be free to own private property and pursue wealth, but that pursuit and ownership should be moderated to avoid the negative consequences of poverty and gross disparities in wealth.

I agree with (3). I hope you do too. More importantly, I hope you see that we can embrace (3) as an Aristotelian ideal without endorsing slavery.

[I'm sorry if I've taken the discussion off track. My primary purpose was to question the use of the Lockean framework as the single way to approach the question of private property.]

Posted by: David Johnson | Mar 13, 2005 11:26:37 PM


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