If you’re a libertarian, how come you’re so mean?

by Chris Bertram on June 14, 2005

At Samizdata the other day, Natalie Solent wrote :

In Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose it says:
Of course, an egalitarian may protest that he is but a drop in the ocean, that he would be willing to redistribute the excess of his income over his concept of an equal income if everyone else were compelled to do the same. On one level this contention that compulsion would change matters is wrong – even if everyone else did the same, his specific contribution to the income of others would still be a drop in the ocean. His individual contribution would be just as large if he were the only contributor as if he were one of many. Indeed, it would be more valuable because he could target his contribution to go to the very worst off among those he regards as appropriate recipients.
I have a question for all the protestors planning to give up their time and money by going to Edinburgh for the G8 summit. Why is what you are doing better than just giving your spare money to the poor?

Later in comments to the same post she adds:

They could do both: go to Edinburgh and give their spare money away. That’s all their money above what is required for subsistence, of course, because by their own account the Third World is poor because they are rich and money transfer is the way to correct that situation.

I don’t find it unreasonable Solent to ask of leftists why we don’t adjust our personal behaviour to fit their principles. But to clear the ground I think we ought to set aside some issues. So Solent isn’t entitled to her assumption that those protestors are egalitarians under any strict definition of that term. They may, for example, simply people who believe that the depth of poverty that we seen in Africa ought to be responded to by those in the opulent North. Nor is she entitled to attribute to all of them the simple and unqualified claims that “the Third World is poor because they are rich” and “money transfer is the way to correct that situation.” They may, of course, believe the true claims that some Third-World poverty is attributable to the action of wealthy nations and that money transfer can be part of a solution to that problem. Solent, believing as she does that protectionist regimes like the CAP are partly responsible for Third World poverty can agree with the protestors on the first of those propositions, and, whilst she may disagree on the second, many of us wouldn’t. But I digress.

Many of the protestors will take the view that personal contributions are irrelevant to the basic structural inequalities of wealth and power that exist between North and South. Bono said something along these lines on the BBC last night. But even if giving away our money won’t solve the big problems, it might solve some problems and, as Solent says in her later comment, there’s no reason not to both give and campaign politically at the same time. Solent’s original post, though, seems motivated by the thought that the protestors are in some sense hypocrites , that if they are true to their principles they should give much more than they are giving. Which raises the question, how much should they give? “All their spare money” is Solent’s answer, which she says means “everything they own above basic subsistence”. A rather demanding requirement, but not to be dismissed just for that.

There is, in fact, a literature on this question: the question of how much we are obliged to sacrifice to bring about justice, or further morality, or the good, in a world that is very far from ideal. Jerry Cohen takes a fairly demanding view of what the socialist rich should do in his If You’re an Egalitarian How Come You’re So Rich? Another strand of thinking has been explored by Liam Murphy in a number of places (but see especially his paper The Demands of Beneficence [link to JSTOR —academic libraries only, probably] ). Murphy’s view is that we should see morality as a collective project. Suppose our moral aim is to relieve hunger, provide people with education and clean water etc, and put them into a position where they can take proper responsibility for their own fate. Murphy’s line of thinking suggests that we should work out what our share in that collective project is and then see ourselves as strictly obliged to do only what we would have to do if everyone did their part. (That doesn’t mean that we can’t do more, of course!)

How much would it cost to finance those urgent measures (hunger, education, clean water etc)? On one view I’ve read, it would take about 1 per cent of the GDP of the advanced economies. Of course,that’s assuming that we can find a way of transferring that money in an efficient manner so that those goals are achieved: no small problem . But it gives us a rough and ready estimate of how much Solent’s protestors are obliged to give on the Murphy view of things: either they must see to it that their state transfers 1 per cent of GDP for these purposes or they must privately give 1 per cent of their own income, or they must make up the difference between what the state gives and what it ought to give with their own private contributions. The British state does make some transfers (about 0.36 of GDP), but 1 per cent of an individual’s personal income is not a lot to ask anyway, so let’s take that as a benchmark reasonable contribution. A typical British academic might end up giving as little as the price of one mid-range CD every week! My guess is that most of those Edinburgh protestors give such an amount anyway, and that therefore Solent’s implied charge of hypocrisy is not just misconceived but also false.

Whilst I think that one should make good one’s share of the shortfall, given that the state isn’t doing what it ought to, I also believe that what we ought to do and what the state ought to do both flow from a general duty all of us have to aid to those suffering serious harm. My view is that the state should enforce that duty. Instead of giving my share, with no assurance that others would do theirs, I would thereby be assured that everyone was making a contribution: a collective project of preventing serious harm would not be undermined by free-riders and curmudgeons. So I’m happy both to pay, and to try to get the state to force me and others to pay. Of course, being a libertarian, Natalie Solent doesn’t believe that there are enforceable positive duties like the one I’ve just suggested. Unlike me, she doesn’t believe that the state has the right to force people to do good. It is up to her, she thinks, to do whatever good she chooses to do, uncoerced. But that doesn’t mean that others can’t raise questions about what she does choose to do, including, of course (and again), her own question: “Why is what you are doing better than just giving your spare money to the poor?”

{ 93 comments }

1

theCoach 06.14.05 at 2:27 pm

What about the moral hazard that private giving creates in offering second best and only partial relief to problems that are better solved by government? Libertarians understand moral hazard don’t they.

2

theCoach 06.14.05 at 2:31 pm

As an additional aside, why one should be required to take libertarians any more seriosly than communists is beyond me. The best thing Libertarianism has going for it is that it has been such a spectacular political failure that it has not been able to fail in the way that Communism’s political triumphs, in the Soviet Union and others, has forced a realization between the principles and any real world implementation.

3

Jim Henley 06.14.05 at 2:35 pm

I can’t help but set your description of Cohen’s estimate of his own obligations against the recent statistics about officer fatality rates in Iraq compared to historical officer fatality rates. (See Flit among other places.) IOW, Cohen’s politics make him a leader in any campaign for wealth redistribution. Shouldn’t he be “leading from the front,” as it were? At a bare minimum, surely Cohen doesn’t believe in a flat tax. So by any reasonable measure, shouldn’t his personal contribution track his income and wealth as a share of national income and wealth?

4

bi 06.14.05 at 2:37 pm

Libertarians place too much faith on the free market, to the point that their “free market will eventually solve all the problems and create a giant utopia” has become an unfalsifiable mantra, and that any private attempts to reduce the rich/poor gap will actually be seen by them as a triumph of the free market.

But even if the free market _will_ eventually eradicate poverty, it must be remembered that poor people just can’t wait for their poverty to go away “eventually”, because they need to eat right now.

5

Chris Bertram 06.14.05 at 2:38 pm

Jim, the view I gave an account of was Murphy’s one (not Cohen’s, which I just mentioned).

6

washerdreyer 06.14.05 at 2:42 pm

why one should be required to take libertarians…seriously

Many libertarians are fun to read. One of them commented right above me (as I was writing, at least). Another wrote Anarchy, State and Utopia. They are in fact more fun to read if you take them seriously. No one has claimed that one should be required to take them seriously. A libertarian would hopefully be the person least likely to claim that.

7

Brian 06.14.05 at 2:52 pm

Jim makes a good point I think (though maybe not the one he intended to make). If we think that rich countries should be giving about 1% of GDP, then what each individual should give would be as much as what their extra tax burden would be if the government raised the money for this aid in a just way. For some people this may be 2 or 3 percent of their income. Still not exorbitant (indeed I bet a fair proportion of CT readers do this already) but perhaps a little higher than Chris’s estimates suggest.

(Disclaimer: I haven’t read Murphy’s paper, so I don’t know whether he already makes this point.)

8

theCoach 06.14.05 at 2:55 pm

washerdryer,
I agree with everything you are saying. Libertarians, in general (probably not unlike communists in the 1920s), are smart and interesting and often hint at good solutions to existing problems, but the underlying logic is potentially dangerous (if ever implemented) and wrong.

9

Chris Bertram 06.14.05 at 2:59 pm

Yes Brian, I’m guilty of oversimplifying massively. But as I recall Murphy’s general view is that the burden of realizing the collective project should be equally shared. Given that the same cash amount will be less burdensome for the rich than for the not-so-rich, it would follow that the rich should pay more. But imho the important thing to focus on here is the contrast between (a) an obligation to do as much good as one can and (b) an obligation to do one’s share of realizing the good. How we justly calculate that share is a further question.

10

abb1 06.14.05 at 3:03 pm

Some good question from Ms. Solent and some, IMO, rather weak answers in the post. This is, I think, the main weakness of what liberals advocate – market capitalism alleviated by massive redistribution.

I don’t think it’ll work, the contradictions are too great. You have to gradually move towards some sort of socialist economy, some form of collective ownership of the means of production. Then you don’t need any transfers anymore.

11

Brian 06.14.05 at 3:10 pm

I agree entirely with the distinction Chris, and indeed that it is what’s important here. Just quibbling over what a fair share for an academic might be.

12

Michael H. 06.14.05 at 3:29 pm

I find it quite amusing that so many commenters here are taking as granted that the government is the best place to solve social problems. Who controls the government in the U.S.? Will the Republicans use your tax dollars to spend for things you want to spend money on? Why wouldn’t you be interested in ways of spending your money to solve collective problem that does not require the government. Here is a suggestion for how we could leverage charity to solve our collective problems.

13

mc 06.14.05 at 3:36 pm

Chris – I don’t know Murphy’s work so don’t know how he gets from ‘seeing morality as a collective project’ to ‘we should work out what our share in that collective project is and then see ourselves as strictly obliged to do what we would have to do if everyone did their part’ – but do you agree that as the contribution in question gets more demanding, it becomes more persuasive to think we are only obliged to make it if everyone else does so too? And if so are there any interesting general observations about when we should shift from one way of thinking to the other?

14

engels 06.14.05 at 3:50 pm

I think it’s hard to resist the conclusion that we ought to do much more than ‘our share’, although I don’t know Murphy’s arguments. To use Peter Singer’s example, if I was walking past a pond, in which a child was drowning, and I could save him, then I would be obliged to do so, as long as there was no risk to me. But this is the situation we are all in all the time with regard to children in absolute poverty. It does not seem to change the conclusion if we alter the example so that others are also present, who refuse to act. As long as the risk to me is negligable, which it would remain far beyond a 3% loss of earnings, then the obligation to assist appears absolute.

15

James Kroeger 06.14.05 at 3:53 pm

From the Taxwisdom.org website:

“As things stand now, rich Americans who act on their generous instincts make a real sacrifice when they choose to give to charities or civic causes. Why? Because those rich people who choose not to give—or who give less—end up improving their purchasing power in real terms—relative to their more generous peers—for no reason other than because they choose not to be generous (or as generous). When you give money privately to others, it reduces the size of your disposable income RELATIVE TO the disposable incomes of all other rich people.”

“The bottom line? Individual acts of charity can re-order the hierarchy of disposable-income distribution in favor of non-givers. This means that individuals face a market-based incentive to ignore the needs of others because they stand to gain a real purchasing power reward if they do so. Rich people who believe that economically privileged citizens ought to help finance the Common Good should be especially annoyed by this state-of-affairs. It’s not that they aren’t willing to make a personal sacrifice if it’s needed. They obviously are. It’s just that it is difficult to psychically tolerate the continued existence of perverse institutional incentives that reward indifference toward others when it is NOT NECESSARY.

The article also provides an extensive explanation of why “no rich person ends up having to make any material sacrifice” in terms of purchasing power when all rich citizens are compelled to pay the same high tax rates.

16

mpowell 06.14.05 at 4:01 pm

One of the problems w/ libertarians is that they do a poor job of self-identifications. A lot of people who are self-described libertarians also think of themselves as Hayekian, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There is a difference b/w a philosophical adherence to libertarian ideals and a practical agreement w/ some of them, just like there is a difference b/w a properly constructed market and a simple libertarian free market. I wish there were more people distinguishing b/w the two and defending the former. Nonlibertarians tend to avoid disagreeing w/ Hayek, but unfortunately I don’t think they take him seriously enough. Libertarians, on the other hand, always seem to end up misusing him.

17

engels 06.14.05 at 4:08 pm

I think the problem is, you can allow that by acting one is creating perverse incentives for others not to act, but still maintain that, all things considered, one has no alternative but to act alone. Can anyone really make the argument, in terms of costs and benefits, that you get a better outcome by refusing to act alone?

18

Isaac 06.14.05 at 4:23 pm

The protesters at Edinborough may also believe that what ails the developing world isn’t lack of transfers, but the rules of the game. I may think that direct transfers are useless but still wish that international institutions functioned differently, or that G8 countries lowered tariffs on farm goods.

19

engels 06.14.05 at 4:24 pm

Of course Hayek’s argument is worthless as a moral argument. At best, and I know this complaint is overused on this site, it’s an ad hominem attack on egalitarians. As such it does not offer any serious reasons for rejecting egalitarianism.

20

Brian 06.14.05 at 5:41 pm

To use Peter Singer’s example, if I was walking past a pond, in which a child was drowning, and I could save him, then I would be obliged to do so, as long as there was no risk to me.

Murphy discusses this example, and argues it is consistent with his theory. His idea is that you should do things that would lead to morally acceptable outcomes if everyone else pulled their weight. If you’re walking by a pond and there’s a child drowning, then pulling your weight means diving in and saving him. The point is that you’re in a unique position of being able to save the child. When it comes to world poverty, none of us is in this kind of uniquely privileged position – you can write a cheque to Oxfam just as easily as I can.

21

Kimmitt 06.14.05 at 5:49 pm

I want everyone in the world to enjoy at least a nice middle-class lifestyle with a pleasant place to live, interesting work, and money for travel and troubles. I am delighted to give away as much money as is consistent with me personally enjoying the lifestyle which I am putting some effort into helping the rest of the world enjoy.

22

fifi 06.14.05 at 6:11 pm

here’s an idea that’s stood the test of time: what you won’t give we’ll take.

23

Dan Simon 06.14.05 at 6:26 pm

Of course,that’s assuming that we can find a way of transferring that money in an efficient manner so that those goals are achieved: no small problem.

Moreover, if this ginormous, as-yet-utterly-intractable problem were solved, then in all likelihood the Western public–the vast majority of whom are generous-spirited non-libertarians who just don’t like seeing their hard-earned tax dollars flushed down a massive foreign-aid toilet–would shift strongly from cynical opposition to heartfelt support for foreign aid.

Of course, there would still be that tiny minority of people who are partially persuaded by abstract libertarian arguments, and they might find Chris’ rebuttal compelling, leaving the remaining even tinier minority of really hardcore libertarians soundly defeated on this issue. Well done, Chris!

24

engels 06.14.05 at 6:28 pm

Brian – take this example then. We are both walking past the pond and there are two children drowning. Either of us could save both by ourself, but it’s easier to just save one. I refuse to do anything. As I understand it, on Murphy’s view, you are only obliged to save one of the children, whereas my intuition is that you are obliged to save both.

25

Natalie Solent 06.14.05 at 7:45 pm

I have a response up here.

26

rea 06.14.05 at 7:49 pm

Can anyone say, “false dichotomy”? I knew you could!

It is perfectly possible to have a respectable middle position between radical libertarianism and mindless egaltarianism–to want equality of oportunity, a social safety net, curbs on abuses of economic power, and a general recognition that, for many purposes, we’re all in this together, while still leaving room for talent to earn its reward.

Somewhere on the planet is a mute, inglorious Milton, with all of Friedman’s talent, but without his advantages of birth and luck. I doubt that guy is a libertarian.

27

Aaron 06.14.05 at 7:51 pm

Something that has yet to be mentioned is the issue of free riders and imperfect information.

A libertarian world could result in a huge amount of free-riding becuase everyone will externalize the problem onto someone else and less money would be given.

If everyone voted in a government that agreed to confiscate some wealth and re-distribute it, then the government is not technically coercing it out of them.

As for information, the free market ideal requires perfect and complete information, and this is a fault introduced into neoclassical economics. The market is not perfect because information is not perfect.

So maybe the people who travel to G8 are more informed about the suffering of others. Just a suggestion.

28

Natalie Solent 06.14.05 at 8:51 pm

As the person addressed in Chris Bertram’s original post, I am sorry I don’t have time – I need to sleep – to respond to comments on it. But I can’t stop myself on this one from Aaron.

“As for information, the free market ideal requires perfect and complete information, and this is a fault introduced into neoclassical economics. The market is not perfect because information is not perfect.”

Come off it. I have never met any free marketeer who believed the market gave perfect outcomes.

We just believe that markets gives *better* outcomes than government action. The sort of things that cause markets to fail also cause bureaucrats to fail. But markets have the advantage that they transmit information far better than the alternatives (such as surveys or form-filling or bosses asking subordinates to make reports). Far from requiring perfect information they *are* information.

29

Matt 06.14.05 at 8:52 pm

I think Natalie has overanalyzed the situation. The point of the protests is to have some fun and hang out with the hip people. The people who go to protests are much more interested in looking cool, picking up, and getting buzzed than they are in the ostensible reason for the protest.

Geldof gets it: it’s going to be one hell of a party.

30

Aaron 06.14.05 at 10:20 pm

“I have never met any free marketeer who believed the market gave perfect outcomes.”

But I bet you’ve met libertarians who believe in perfect outcomes.

I know I’ve read plenty of economic theory papers that simply assume such a condition as the basis for the entire theory to work.

And yes, I recognize that they are models of reality and that we make simplifying assumptions which we later break down to check the model’s robustness, etc.

And you still have not addressed the issue of free-riders and charity.

I know that if it were up to me whether or not to give money to pay for charity and the well-being of others, I’d probably shirk a bit. Wouldn’t you?

If everyone shirks on giving their 1% in a voluntary scheme, then I doubt that the outcome would be optimal.

31

abb1 06.15.05 at 12:12 am

What Isaac said:

The protesters at Edinborough may also believe that what ails the developing world isn’t lack of transfers, but the rules of the game. I may think that direct transfers are useless but still wish that international institutions functioned differently, or that G8 countries lowered tariffs on farm goods.

Exactly. Not everyone is obssessed with the silly transfers – taking money from western taxpayers and giving them, in effect, to western corporations.

People want a fair system, not your freakin charity.

32

floopmeister 06.15.05 at 12:15 am

I’d be more than willing to believe in the ability of the free market to reach equilibrium and therefore create a just world if someone could just tell me about the just world that was created the last time it did.

33

Yarrow 06.15.05 at 1:05 am

Solent: “They could do both: go to Edinburgh and give their spare money away. That’s all their money above what is required for subsistence…”

The percentage of people at such actions who actually do give away everything above subsistence is astoundingly high. (More accurately, they don’t aquire spare money in the first place.) I am not one of those people, but I’ve rubbed elbows with them. I’m puzzled by Solent’s assumption that they don’t exist.

34

Juke Moran 06.15.05 at 2:03 am

Providing food to starving slaves is a good thing. But it’s not the best thing. The best thing is setting them free.

35

Natalie Solent 06.15.05 at 4:16 am

floopmeister – perfect world, no. But capitalism has the best record in making the transition we are interested in, from a country where most of the babies die to one where they don’t.

Yarrow – we should feel profound respect for a person who has truly given all they own to the poor. (I’ve met libertarians who disagree with that but since you and I don’t disagree, never mind.) Call me a cynic, though, but plenty of the activists I used to meet who presented themselves as being too pure to acquire money were just dole scroungers. The state funded their hobby of going from protest to protest.

36

Natalie Solent 06.15.05 at 4:26 am

Aaron said, “I know that if it were up to me whether or not to give money to pay for charity and the well-being of others, I’d probably shirk a bit. Wouldn’t you?

If everyone shirks on giving their 1% in a voluntary scheme, then I doubt that the outcome would be optimal.”

1) *How* do you know? You and I and everyone have always been forced. We all of us have a slightly servile character as a result. I cannot know either, but it seems likely to me that, just as many oppressed groups who had been assumed to be incapable of responsibility turned out to not to be, people who have hitherto assumed to be incapable of generosity will turn out better when given more choice.

2) A very important point (made by Bombadil in the comments to my response) is that the state makes particular choices as to who and how to help. I think these are likely to be bad, inefficient and arbitrary choices.

3) When force is used, transaction costs must be high.

37

Natalie Solent 06.15.05 at 4:36 am

My last post was not clear. My phrase “turned out not to be” is intended to mean “turned out not to be incapable of responsibility.”

bi says, “But even if the free market will eventually eradicate poverty, it must be remembered that poor people just can’t wait for their poverty to go away “eventually”, because they need to eat right now.” So send them money now. Free markets are much quicker than getting the G8 leaders to alter the CAP. And as michael h says, the people you entrust with distributing government aid will be, for much of it, Republicans. I had the impression from somewhere that CT readers did not think Republicans very wise or responsible.

38

Chris Bertram 06.15.05 at 5:05 am

I think the point raised by Engels at #14 and subsequently is a very powerful one. As Brian says, it is addressed by Murphy in his paper, but I don’t think Murphy is satisfied by his response (and nor am I). Better not to pretend that I have a knock-down answer! But suppose you encounter a drowning child every day of your life, and there are hundreds of bystanders, and we’re now on day 100, or day 1000, or day 5000. Are you still obliged to dive in, given that no-one else will do what they should? Perhaps most of us will say yes, but I can’t say I’m happy with that answer either.

39

Slocum 06.15.05 at 6:06 am

I want everyone in the world to enjoy at least a nice middle-class lifestyle with a pleasant place to live, interesting work, and money for travel and troubles. I am delighted to give away as much money as is consistent with me personally enjoying the lifestyle which I am putting some effort into helping the rest of the world enjoy.

So do I, but I don’t believe a system of redistribution is what is going to make that work. I don’t even believe that redistribution is going to enable countries to make the transition to that state. Many millions of people are have and are making that transition–but through trade and economic liberalization and growth, not through foreign aid. And the major recipients of foreign aid remain basket cases where foreign aid is not infrequently wasted or even actively harmful (enriching and helping entrenching the tyrants that cause the misery in the first place).

People are now starving in what was, until recently, the breadbasket of Africa. Is this because of a lack of food aid? No–it is because the psychotic government intentionally destroyed the country’s agricultural sector. Should the international community provide aid even though doing so will further strengthen the tyrannical government (which government has used and will use the aid as a way to reward supporters and punish opponents)?

Far better, I think, to send in a multinational force to remove said government (which, I believe, would fall like a house of cards with not much of a shove). Which would make it possible to deliver aid in the short term but also to reconstitute the farm sector so food aid is not needed.

What poor countries need above all is effective government and the ability to trade with out barriers. I would much rather see wealthy people and countries focus on these than to persist in the idea that charity is the key.

40

abb1 06.15.05 at 6:47 am

People are now starving in what was, until recently, the breadbasket of Africa. Is this because of a lack of food aid? No—it is because the psychotic government intentionally destroyed the country’s agricultural sector.

Well, in fact, what’s destroying agricultural sector (and other sectors) is, for the most part, economic liberalization. I agree that aid is not a solution.

41

Bill 06.15.05 at 8:21 am

Well, in fact, what’s destroying agricultural sector (and other sectors) is, for the most part, economic liberalization. I agree that aid is not a solution.

Good Grief!! I have heard a lot of ways to describe what Mugabe is doing to Zimbabwe especially since he started clearing out Harare. “Economic Liberalization” is NOT one of them.

42

bi 06.15.05 at 8:35 am

Natalie Solent: and _why exactly_ should I trust some random private organization which to I send my aid to be a thousand times more trustworthy than the Republican government? Governments are comprised of people. Private groups are also comprised of people. Why oh why do libertarians have this idea that one group of people is inherently more correct and more virtuous than another group of people?

Me, I’d advocate giving money _and_ asking the G8 to get off the backs of poor countries _and_ getting the governments of poor countries to implement sane policies. Of course, if the last two succeed, then perhaps nobody needs to give any money at all.

43

Joe 06.15.05 at 8:37 am

Chris, in conceiving your personal moral conundrum you automatically condemn
your actions by the nature of your question. In asking whether you yourself will save a drowning child, day after day, while other onlookers do nothing, you create your own version of Groundhog Day complete with a stick to beat yourself with.

The best answer to any such a question is often not what it appears: How can your original question be answered if you do not tackle the question of “Why”- there is always a drowning child needing to be rescued.

44

kth 06.15.05 at 10:01 am

Suppose no one had ever sought state relief for poor people, domestic and abroad, but instead had spent their excess time and money on directly alleviating the miseries of the poor. Would the poor be better off?

Can’t imagine that anyone, other than Charles Murray and maybe Natalie Solent, believes that they would.

45

Slocum 06.15.05 at 10:29 am

Well, in fact, what’s destroying agricultural sector (and other sectors) is, for the most part, economic liberalization. I agree that aid is not a solution.

Huh? In Zimbabwe? Where owners of productive lands have been violently driven off their farms and the confiscated properties have been distributed to ruling party cronies? The problem is ‘economic liberalization’?!? WTF?

46

Chris Bertram 06.15.05 at 10:38 am

OK some responses ….

I’m struck by the number of people (from both sides) who say that charity isn’t “the answer” and who also know what the problem is, and the solution ….

“Charity isn’t the answer” is a complete red herring. Just about nobody thinks that all Africa’s problems will be solved either by charitable giving or by increased foreign aid. On the other hand, most sane non-ideologues think that giving money to Oxfam or MSF (or some other NGO) to fund projects giving people education or supplying clean water or medical services is a good thing and doesn’t demean the recipients.

Those who think that markets are either the solution to everything or the root of all evil should go away and read Peter Griffiths’s The Economist’s Tale (see the “summary by DSquared and a chapter earlier on CT”:http://crookedtimber.org/2005/02/08/how-economists-kill-people/ )

Those who say that giving aid is pointless because the problem is one of good governance are saying something that is half true. Half true because many projects can do good even if governance is bad. The suggestion that bad governance is “the explanation” for Africa’s plight is also highly misleading if it is taken as a wholly satisfactory endogenous explanation of Africa’s failure to develop. Nigerian generals (to pick but one example) are highly incentivized to seize power by the fact that if they do then we’ll buy oil from them and make them rich. And the fact that they are so incentivized means they have to be paid off so they don’t seize power.

Natalie discusses the question of why governments are likely to do the aid job better than private organizations. Fair question, but I didn’t see anyone arguing that all development projects should be managed by governments. What governments do have, though, is the legal power to raise money by compulsory taxation.

47

Jack 06.15.05 at 11:18 am

Natalie Solent says “But capitalism has the best record in making the transition we are interested in, from a country where most of the babies die to one where they don’t.”
What doesn’t count as capitalism in this case? Almost everything that isn’t a pure command economy I imagine. Who are the current champions in inducing positive transitions? China from low to middle and the EU from middle to upper is my guess. Singapore is another candidate. These cases might be described as capitalism but are hardly pure. With only that kind of evidence to go on, drawing strong conclusions is a bit like saying “This omlette neds more salt so this omlette would be best if it was entirely made out of salt”. I’m fairly sure that Natalie doesn’t believe that but there is no guide in her argument as to how much is enough salt. Generally I think this is a Utopian “grass is greener” kind of argument that attributes travails that would face any system only to the system that obtains at the moment.

In any case, what is it to Solent if people want to go to protest at G8? It seems odd for a libertarian to be concerned by the free movement of self motivated people and not about the dirigistes they wish to protest against. That seems consistent with a corporate capitalist point of view but I don’t see how the issue arises from a libertarian argument.

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abb1 06.15.05 at 11:23 am

Well, Slocum, Zimbabwe is a special case; in a vast majority of cases local industries – agriculture in particular – are destroyed by opening the local market to cheap imports.

That’s by far the most common and efficient method of destroying industries; confiscating properties is a one off event.

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abb1 06.15.05 at 11:48 am

National government is a bureaucracy representing interests of its constituencies.

You can’t seriously expect a national government to pursue interests of some starving foreigners, it’s just not going to happen, it’s an impossibility.

The best you can expect from a national government is some kind of a quasi-scam where the government, for example, will use taxpayers funds to pay, say, their national phrama companies for shipping AIDS drugs to Africa. The drugs that cost nothing to produce and this happens at the moment when the Africans are about to start ignoring patents and producing these drugs themselves.

So, it’s a scam. Helping Africans has nothing to do with it; it’s all about giving your money to the pharma executives and shareholders. And it’s always like that.

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drscroogemcduck 06.15.05 at 11:59 am

The argument given on the taxwisdom.org site is terrible. From the assumption that people earning the same amount are taxed the same it concludes that people’s relative purchasing power isn’t changed by taxation. However, this analysis ignores the relative purchasing power of the government compared to its citizens which is clearly affected by the tax rate.

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Scott 06.15.05 at 12:32 pm

Solent’s comment is funny coming from a site that limited itself to political activity calling for govt to ‘free’ Iraq, while none of the healthy adult males writing for it went themselves.

(And the left’s response is equally funny for exactly the inverse reason – see the ‘chickenhawk’ comments they make about warpundits).

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Scott 06.15.05 at 12:33 pm

Natalie Solent: and why exactly should I trust some random private organization which to I send my aid to be a thousand times more trustworthy than the Republican government? Governments are comprised of people. Private groups are also comprised of people. Why oh why do libertarians have this idea that one group of people is inherently more correct and more virtuous than another group of people?

If govt is just another group of falible people, there goes its claim to being special enough to justify powers like taxation that private organizations are forbidden.

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Bill 06.15.05 at 12:55 pm

confiscating properties is a one off event.

I REALLY have to disagree with that. Yes, you only have to confiscate a productive farm *once*. You then hand it to those who cannot manage it because they lack the expertise and institutional memory. Its productivity then tanks and it is no longer able to provide national-scale subsistance, letalone exports for profit. At that point, both cashflow AND foodflow reverses and a source of funds and basic life support become sinks for aid managed by that “special case” otherwise known as Mugabe.

You can make the same argument for confiscating industrial infrastructure from the Haves/Can-Dos to the Have-nots/Not-Quite-Sure-What-We’re-Doing-But-At-Least-We-Are-The-Capital-P-People since that will eventually tank the economy, but attacking the local subsistance chain will send things down the hole much faster. However, take it will thanks to all those other “special cases” out there who run dictatorships and kleptocracies.

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Bill 06.15.05 at 12:57 pm

“take it will” = “tank it will”

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donna 06.15.05 at 1:04 pm

Libertarians believe in an ideal: that people are rational. Obviously this isn’t true. It’s not in anyone’s rational interest to have and keep more than they need, and yet people do. This is the side of the libertarian equation that doesn’t make sense.

I’m registered libertarian myself. I believe in freedom of choice – for rational people. Obviously if you are so irrational that you think you must hoard your wealth that you cannot possibly use and not share it with others, then you have no business calling yourself a libertarian, because you aren’t a rational person. ;^) Nyah nyah.

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Perry de Havilland 06.15.05 at 1:25 pm

Why oh why do libertarians have this idea that one group of people is inherently more correct and more virtuous than another group of people?

Beacause if a charity proves to be untrustworthy, I can stop giving my money to it. If a government proves to be untrustworthy on the other hand…

Simple really.

Libertarians believe in an ideal: that people are rational.

Really? I sure don’t! And that is exactly why I like the idea minimising the amount of power that the people who run the state have at their disposal… as so few people are rational it makes no sense to concentrate vast powers over others in ANYONE’s hands.

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Natalie Solent 06.15.05 at 1:40 pm

Abb1,

I am impressed by your consistency and thoroughness but the chasm between us is so enormous it is difficult to argue beyond “aagh you are so wrong.”

Jack
Of course I support the right of the G8 protestors to peaceful protest.

Scott,

Funnily enough the further post that I was going to write before being pre-empted by Chris’s was called “chickenhawks and rich egalitarians: the arguments compared.” I have lost traction on it rather, but in summary it said

- I think the British Army would be a bit startled if I turned up in Basra and asked for a gun and directions to the front. Money can be split into tiny parcels; people cannot be. Money can be put to new uses at a moment’s notice; trained soldiers cannot be. One can send small amounts of money but one cannot send small amounts of self. If some of your donated money is wasted or wrongly spent that is not too bad but if you’re dead you’re dead. A society in which only those who had done military service were listened to on military issues would be rather fascistic (tough luck on pacifists, too) whereas a society where only taxpayers were listened to on budgetary questions such as aid would be much more likeable. (I am not advocating such in any serious way.)

I note that you say you find the chickenhawk argument funny for “exactly the inverse reason.” While I find the chickenhawk argument to be very naive, I don’t quite get what you mean by that.

Chris (re drowning child post) The difference between your analogy and reality lies in how definite it is that your action or inaction will be the difference between life and death.

I haven’t thought about your second post yet.

Bi says, “libertarians have this idea that one group of people is inherently more correct and more virtuous than another group of people?” More virtuous, certainly not. More correct, yes. The groups of people calling themselves “governments” and having by custom certain powers over their neighbours, labour, for that very reason under greater temptations and worse incentives than other people. This boils down to something very like what Scott said.

Kth, yes, exactly that. It is a minority belief but not that small a minority.

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bi 06.15.05 at 1:41 pm

_If govt is just another group of falible people, there goes its claim to being special enough to justify powers like taxation that private organizations are forbidden._

Um, no. With power comes responsibility. A private organization isn’t obliged to always act in the interests of its countrymen. But a government is. The question then is how to institute controls over the government so that it always acts in the best interests of the citizens.

_Beacause if a charity proves to be untrustworthy, I can stop giving my money to it. If a government proves to be untrustworthy on the other hand…_

…you can rebel against it, no? Why else will you need the right to bear arms? :) Seriously, if you get scammed by a Nigerian scammer, I’m sure you won’t just sit back and say “oh, I’ll just stop giving them any more money.” Dollars to doughnuts you’ll actually fight to get your money back.

… _as so few people are rational it makes no sense to concentrate vast powers over others in ANYONE’s hands._

Private organizations can and do have lots of power on their hands. One word: monopolies.

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bi 06.15.05 at 1:44 pm

_The groups of people calling themselves “governments” and having by custom certain powers over their neighbours, labour, for that very reason under greater temptations and worse incentives than other people._

Again, with greater power comes greater accountability. Governments can be held accountable for a lot more things than private groups, because governments by definition are supposed to work in the best interests of citizens at all times.

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Uncle Kvetch 06.15.05 at 1:44 pm

In any case, what is it to Solent if people want to go to protest at G8? It seems odd for a libertarian to be concerned by the free movement of self motivated people and not about the dirigistes they wish to protest against.

It’s a part of the libertarian creed that hasn’t been touched on yet in this thread: “In a perfectly rational world governed by perfectly free and open access to information, everyone would think exactly like me.”

Why oh why do libertarians have this idea that one group of people is inherently more correct and more virtuous than another group of people?
Beacause if a charity proves to be untrustworthy, I can stop giving my money to it. If a government proves to be untrustworthy on the other hand…

…you can participate in the democratic process by organizing with your fellow-citizens and elect a different government. Unless, of course, organizing with your fellow-citizens is anathema to the “I got mine, Jack” ethos of libertarianism.

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Scott 06.15.05 at 2:02 pm

I think the British Army would be a bit startled if I turned up in Basra and asked for a gun and directions to the front.

I think the British Army is institutionally capable of handling Perry re-enlisting, and the US Army could handle RC Dean showing up at the recruitment center at the local mall. This argument is bullshit.

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Scott 06.15.05 at 2:12 pm

Money can be put to new uses at a moment’s notice; trained soldiers cannot be.

Which makes money different from soldiers, but doesn’t demonstrate why that difference is relevant.

If some of your donated money is wasted or wrongly spent that is not too bad but if you’re dead you’re dead.

The same can be said for the troops Samizdata wanted sent.

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Aaron 06.15.05 at 2:39 pm

NATALIE Said:

“1) How do you know?”

- I don’t give to every bum on the street because I don’t know if their story is reliable. There’s bums making 200 dollars a day by exploting people’s charity in my city. Same with Tsunami aid – the Asia Development Bank was saying that Indian authorities were simply inventing false fishing boats in order to get more $$. Your idealized outcome would only happen if there was a high degree of trust in the economy, and all info was fairly reliable. It’s not, so people will shirk. I know I’d be a free rider, just because there’s nothing preventing me from that.

“2) A very important point (made by Bombadil in the comments to my response) is that the state makes particular choices as to who and how to help. I think these are likely to be bad, inefficient and arbitrary choices.”

-Inefficient compared to what? Sounds like the Leviathan theory to me (Buchanan, et. al). If the state is decentralized, however, it can lose economies of scale in service delivery. One principle of public finance is to delegate rederal, state and county responsibilities to the level of governance that can capture economies of scale. This is why the federal government doesn’t deliver your garbage – the local government does. Oh, and Swedish studies found that privately delivered garbage services cost more than government delivered. Odd. I can give you the reference if you want.

“3) When force is used, transaction costs must be high.”

Doesn’t follow. Force minimizes transactions costs – whether force is legitimate or not – by eliminating negotiation. Companies call in the pinkerton guards to bend the unions to end the strike. The state does not coerce you in order to get your money out of you, but punishes you if you fail to pay. There’s a fine line. If you don’t want to pay your taxes, then just don’t do it. Make yourself costly to govern. My barber doesn’t pay txes because he makes $30,000 a year and his defence at his trial was that the government eliminates $30,000 in GDP by imprisoning him and it costs them $40,000 per year to jail him. When you do the calculations, it’s worthwhile to not pay taxes and go through the hassle.

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Slocum 06.15.05 at 3:09 pm

“Charity isn’t the answer” is a complete red herring. Just about nobody thinks that all Africa’s problems will be solved either by charitable giving or by increased foreign aid. On the other hand, most sane non-ideologues think that giving money to Oxfam or MSF (or some other NGO) to fund projects giving people education or supplying clean water or medical services is a good thing and doesn’t demean the recipients.

I see the focus on charity as the primary means of aleviating the suffering of the poor as the red herring. Which is precisely the framing of this thread–‘The poor are suffering, how much should one donate’? What we’re saying is that’s the wrong question.

I NGO-provided aid an unalloyed good? I don’t think so, for example:

- alleviating immediate needs reduces the sense of urgency to actually do something about the underlying problems

- aid can damage or destroy the livelihoods of local producers, distributors, and vendors. I’ve seen, for example, complaints about ultra low-priced donated clothing that gets shipped to 3rd-world countries by the container load. How do local producers possibly compete with that? Here, we call that kind of thing ‘dumping’.

- NGOs have been known to cause resentment–roaring around in white landcruisers, hogging scarce resources, bidding up prices–without even realizing it.

But it’s the mindset that’s the problem “What do we do about the poor” leading inexorably to “What percent should we give?” and “Should the giving be private or governmental (e.g. voluntary or coerced)?”. This kind of thinking, I’m afraid, is what has lead to us asking the same discussion about Africa now as 20 years ago and, probably, 20 years from now too.

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abb1 06.15.05 at 3:13 pm

…but the chasm between us is so enormous it is difficult to argue beyond “aagh you are so wrong.”

Really? Hmm. I see less of a gap between anarchocapitalism and anarchosyndicalism (which is the position I’ve chosen to defend in this thread), than between anarchocapitalism and this ‘benevolent statism’ thing Chris and others advocate here.

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Taxwisdom.org 06.15.05 at 3:14 pm

drscroogemcduck:
“this analysis ignores the relative purchasing power of the government compared to its citizens which is clearly affected by the tax rate.”

Actually, it does not.

The government does not generally compete with consumers for the same final product, so it is not going to “outbid” consumers for the same consumables. In those instances when it does, there is normally enough excess capacity in economy to provide for the demands of both the government & the privste sector.

The article does acknowledge that the government and the private sector can end up ultimatelly competing with each other for scarce resource inputs, but points out that this only happens when the economy is booming, there is zero unemployment, and hyperinflation is threatening.

This topic is addressed in parts of the article that you apparently chose to skim over. For more on the Government vs. Private Sector canard, read the responses to the last two visitor emails on the Taxwisdom.org Visitor Comments page.

James Kroeger

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bi 06.15.05 at 3:23 pm

Oh, don’t get me started on anarcho-syndicalism.

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Donald Johnson 06.15.05 at 3:47 pm

“Don’t get me started on anarchosyndicalism”.

Why not? Start now–it might be interesting.

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JR 06.15.05 at 3:58 pm

People seem to be taking the Solent argument seriously as if her point is worth talking about. It’s not. It’s an ad hominum argument: “the protesters are hypocrites and therefore their arguments can be ignored without further consideration.”

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Scott 06.15.05 at 4:39 pm

People seem to be taking the Solent argument seriously as if her point is worth talking about. It’s not. It’s an ad hominum argument: “the protesters are hypocrites and therefore their arguments can be ignored without further consideration.”

This is what I was talking about when I mentioned the chickenhawk argument. Are ‘chickenhawks’ hypocrites who can be ignored w/o further consideration? I think so, but I think that about the protesters, too.

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Greg 06.15.05 at 6:40 pm

Seems to me that Ms. Solent is just making mean-spirited excuses for not doing more herself by condemning as insincere those who even want something done other than exploiting the situation to their own advantage. Donating to charity may be a duty in some moral systems, or might only convey nonspecific “blessings,” but the distribution by the charitable organization of the money and material collected will have a positive result, even if only relatively small when compared against the scale of the overall problem. Which is where I’d say government comes in. The revenues funding government beyond its own subsistence, to use Ms. Solent’s equation, including all physical and political management of the state, are well beyond the ratio of most individual’s income-to-expenses ratio, and insofar as government exists to serve the population, then its own charitable efforts must at least match that of its constituents proportionately.

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Publius 06.16.05 at 12:09 am

*sigh*. When the discussion drifts to the merits of the free market, I long for the return of Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and also Jefferson and Franklin.

Human beings, alas, are assholes. Power corrupts, and all that. And those guys had a very pragmatic grasp of that unfortunate fact.

A completely free market, like a “populist” direct democracy, would after a brief period of exciting near-libertarian utopia, quickly end in utter tyranny. I believe the framers of the American Constitution understood that quite clearly. Unlike today’s Americans, they had a grasp of their recent history; the ghost of Oliver Cromwell was rumoured to have been present in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention.

It’s irrelevant whether the unit of exchange is money or votes: a huge economy of scale with no barriers will lead not to an equitable distribution, but to a winner-take-all monarchopoly. And that’s what modern globalisation is all about: massive corporations breaking down all trade barriers, so that they can dominate not just a few fragmented markets, but one enormous and homogenous global market, and thus crush with pure marketing might, massive economies of scale, and/or punitive enforcement of patents/copyrights, any insolent competitor who might dare to sprout up in some local market. “Barriers to trade” do not disappear, they are simply replaced instead with “barriers to entry”.

Where libertarians get off arguing that businesses are any more moral than bureaucracies is beyond me. They’re both made up of people… and people suck.

Perhaps the fatal flaw of both communism and libertarianism is their willful ignorance of this unfortunate but well-documented fact.

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JR 06.16.05 at 12:37 am

The fire rages as the mayor and his aldermen hide in their island retreat in the lake. The people entreat the mayor to call out the fire brigade. “Hypocrites!” cries Solent. “Instead of making demands on the mayor, you should go piss the fire out!”

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abb1 06.16.05 at 1:35 am

No, Jr, this is a little different: to put the fire down is mayor’s jurisdiction and responsibility. To feed the poor in cities and towns far away is not; moreover: it’s in direct contradiction to mayor’s responsibilities.

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Natalie Solent 06.16.05 at 4:47 am

Jr writes, “The people entreat the mayor to call out the fire brigade. “Hypocrites!” cries Solent. “Instead of making demands on the mayor, you should go piss the fire out!””

Sigh. And there I was, so proud of my little aphorism, “When my house is on fire I do not wait for the evolution of private fire brigades.”

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Natalie Solent 06.16.05 at 4:52 am

abb1,
I wrote in haste. I got the impression from comment #10 that you sought to eliminate the contradictions between market capitalism and redistribution by eliminating market capitalism entirely.

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bi 06.16.05 at 5:40 am

_When my house is on fire I do not wait for the evolution of private fire brigades._

…instead, I wait for men with guns to show up outside my burning house and tell me to give them everything I still have, including my shirt. Or something.

Well, that’s libertarianism for you. Governments can be 100% evil (“men with guns”) or 100% good (“fire brigades”), depending on the libertarian’s mood at the rtime of writing.

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Natalie Solent 06.16.05 at 5:43 am

Jr again (#69), I’ve said plenty on why I think what the G8 protestors advocate is mostly wrong and harmful to those they wish to benefit. Just not in the Samizdata post that Chris Bertram discussed. In that post I added hypocrisy to the rest of the charge sheet, so to speak. Judging from the account CB gives of the book “If you’re an egalitarian how come your so rich” this charge is also sometimes made from the left.

True, hypocrisy does not necessarily make a person wrong but it is certainly worth pointing out as making it more likely that they are wrong.

Publius, Your view of human nature (“people suck”) is as inaccurate as its foolishly optimistic opposite. One of the reasons I like libertarianism is that it has a *reasonably* positive view of human nature. (Granted, so do several other ideologies.)Given power over others people are capable of awful cruelty. They are also naturally cooperative and friendly, especially when motivated by the benefits from free exchange.

Scott (#62), perhaps I didn’t make myself clear on the chickenhawks thing. Or perhaps I did and you like stirring. Money is divisible, people aren’t. Let’s say an imaginary person in late 1939 supported for separate reasons the Finns against Soviet Russia and the Allies against Nazi Germany. He can’t fight for both, but he could send money to both. The same goes sequentially. An imaginary person of either left or right born in 1900 could in the course of the twentieth century have broadly supported fifteen or twenty wars. But it is unreasonable, and not good for society, to expect him (or her) to spend a lifetime as a touring warrior.

I honour those who do join the army for being willing to risk their lives. (Disclosure: I tried to become an officer in the Royal Signals twenty-plus years ago. I was turned down. But I suppose you will say I ought to have kept trying or joined the ranks or something because I should have guessed I’d support a war sometime in the future.) But I note that soldiers are not given the option of picking and choosing which wars to fight.

And that’s quite enough from me on that subject.

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Natalie Solent 06.16.05 at 5:47 am

bi, give over. The whole point I was trying to make is that governments are *relatively bad*. 63-97% bad depending on circumstances.

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Natalie Solent 06.16.05 at 5:52 am

Or 21.7% bad if you take the Aldwych shuttle off the Picadilly line.

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Scott 06.16.05 at 7:26 am

Scott (#62), perhaps I didn’t make myself clear on the chickenhawks thing. Or perhaps I did and you like stirring. Money is divisible, people aren’t. Let’s say an imaginary person in late 1939 supported for separate reasons the Finns against Soviet Russia and the Allies against Nazi Germany. He can’t fight for both, but he could send money to both. The same goes sequentially. An imaginary person of either left or right born in 1900 could in the course of the twentieth century have broadly supported fifteen or twenty wars. But it is unreasonable, and not good for society, to expect him (or her) to spend a lifetime as a touring warrior.

You can’t volunteer to fight all wars. Nobody can volunteer to help every person (or give money to every worthy cause). Since you can’t do everything, do nothing. Bullshit. Chickenhawks and college protesters call for others to make sacrifices they choose not to themselves.

I honour those who do join the army for being willing to risk their lives. (Disclosure: I tried to become an officer in the Royal Signals twenty-plus years ago. I was turned down. But I suppose you will say I ought to have kept trying or joined the ranks or something because I should have guessed I’d support a war sometime in the future.)

You can open your wallets and voluntarily pay extra for your war, can’t you, and not stick the rest of us taxpayers with the bill?

But I note that soldiers are not given the option of picking and choosing which wars to fight.

It is hard to get good help these days, isn’t it? Taxpayers aren’t given the option of what govt activities to support and which not to – is that just peachy, too?

And that’s quite enough from me on that subject.

Run on home to where you can avoid anyone who disagrees with you – typical Samizdatista.

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jet 06.16.05 at 8:05 am

Scott,

Taxpayers aren’t given the option of what govt activities to support and which not to – is that just peachy, too?

You just seem sour grapes over the fact that you live in a Democracy and you had to share decision making with everyone else. Poor guy, Democracy not good enough, want to be King? How sweet.

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bi 06.16.05 at 8:34 am

Natalie Solent: in a free market, rich people do have more power than poor people. Their power comes precisely from — guess what — their money. They can choose to give their money to people they like, and withhold their money from people they dislike. That’s an awful lot of power, really.

Ask yourself, why do we have this phenomenon of *bootlickers*? Is it because there are mythical “men with guns” waiting outside the gate? No, it’s simply because those who are poor know that they have to please the higher-ups to get the money to feed themselves.

You’re right, give someone a lot of power over other people, and he’ll do lots of cruel things. The same holds for private groups. In _no way_ are private groups inherently more virtuous, more correct, or more free than governments.

And besides, I’ve already emphasized that _with power comes accountability, and governments can be held accountable for many more things than private groups_. Don’t make me repeat that.

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Scott 06.16.05 at 8:38 am

You just seem sour grapes over the fact that you live in a Democracy and you had to share decision making with everyone else. Poor guy, Democracy not good enough, want to be King? How sweet.

So if 51% of the voters supported the religious right (you do remember who won the past few elections, don’t you?), then we all have to share decision making w/ everyone else and bring on censorship and sodomy laws? After all, that’s just us all collectively deciding what we will read or what we will do in our bedrooms.

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Scott 06.16.05 at 8:40 am

Natalie Solent: in a free market, rich people do have more power than poor people. Their power comes precisely from—guess what—their money. They can choose to give their money to people they like, and withhold their money from people they dislike. That’s an awful lot of power, really.

…And besides, I’ve already emphasized that with power comes accountability,

So rich peoples’ money, by definition, makes them accountable just like govt is, so who needs govt to make them accountable?

If govt has enough power to make these ‘powerful’ rich people accountable, it has enough to avoid accountability itself (since it would have more power than the rich people you think have too much power to be held accountable by anyone else).

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Uncle Kvetch 06.16.05 at 10:05 am

Given power over others people are capable of awful cruelty. They are also naturally cooperative and friendly, especially when motivated by the benefits from free exchange.

Without resorting to ad hominems, this makes no sense whatsoever. Unless, that is, NS is positing some kind of universe in which “power” and “free exchange” are polar opposites. If that’s the case, I hope she’ll enlighten us further.

Lawdy. Eighty-five comments in, and absolutely nothing’s been said here to make me reconsider my position that “libertarianism” is a big ol’ pile of unmitigated piffle. Give me those “hypocritical” G8 protestors–the contents of whose minds & souls Natalie Solent is somehow privileged to know with crystalline certainty–any day.

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Pablo Stafforini 06.16.05 at 10:37 am

Engels, the example you offer in your last comment (#24) is exactly the one Murphy discusses in his article: two children in need, two potential rescuers. This example is introduced at the very end of the paper, and it seemed to me at the time I read it to cast grave doubts on the plausibility of Murphy’s proposal. In his more sophisticated Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory, however, he makes an admirable, if not quite convincing, attempt to answer the objection (he invoked, if memory serves, Parfit’s notion of “blameless wrongdoing”).

That said, though, I think there’s a better answer to Solent. It is the one developed by Thomas Pogge in his World Poverty and Human Rights, a work of everlasting significance whose influence has yet to be fully felt (both within the philosophical community and in the world at large). Pogge suggests that we look at the poor not as the casualties of a natural catastrophe, but as the victims of human action. The worst-off should be conceptualized as individuals harmed by the unfair rules of a global system. Since we better-off, as voters and taxpayers, partake of this system, we have a duty both to change the rules and to compensate those harmed by those rules. Critically, the moral notion involved here is not a weak duty of “assistance”, but the robust obligation of reparation that even libertarians, mean or otherwise, already accept (cf., e.g., Nozick’s [third] “principle of rectification”). Thus, unlike Murphy’s, or Cohen’s, or Singer’s, Pogge’s theory can dispense with complex, and always debatable, arguments about the merits or demerits of alternative moral theories: unless you are one of those rare people entirely unmoved by moral considerations, you already believe the moral principles that Pogge requires you to believe -–and act upon.

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ken 06.16.05 at 11:17 am

It sure is stuffy in here.

Where in all of this discussion is the joy inherent in the individual who is motivated to wilingly give of himself/herself to meet the need of another?

Where is the grateful heart as expressed by the individual whose need is met by another?

Too much entitlement, too much coercion, too much selfishness, too much covetousness, too much greed, too much insensitivity, too much control.

Not enough initiative, not enough generosity, not enough selflessness, not enough kindness, not enough thankfulness, not enough hope, not enough joy.

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buermann 06.16.05 at 2:25 pm

“by their own account the Third World is poor because they are rich”

To be equally patronizing but more accurate: by their own account they are rich because the Third World is poor, not the other way around, as industrialized countries persistently block independent development in the third world to their own advantage..

Given the amount of aid that government-driven aid programs tend to funnel back to their countries – not least to reward political supporters – when devoting marginal funds to third world development and humanitarian programs, there might be a good argument made for focusing policy towards increasing individual contributions – much of which are only given for the sake of tax write-offs already. On that note stripping think tanks of their tax deductable/charitable-giving status would probably mean a lot more individual giving would go into actual assistance work.

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Javier 06.16.05 at 5:15 pm

The worst-off should be conceptualized as individuals harmed by the unfair rules of a global system. Since we better-off, as voters and taxpayers, partake of this system, we have a duty both to change the rules and to compensate those harmed by those rules.

Pablo, I’m an admirer of Thomas Pogge’s work. I agree with Pogge that any social system that allows the existence of severe poverty is unjust and that certain aspects of the world order harm the poor, although I think Pogge exaggerates to what extent this is true.

However, I begin to seriously disagree with Pogge when it comes to what should be done to rectify this injustice. Pogge seriously underestimates the difficulty of erradicating poverty and often ignores the criticisms of economists like William Easterly that aid has rarely been effective at spuring growth or reducing poverty. And while I agree with Pogge that trade barriers and agricultural subsidies should be gradually eliminated in the developed world, two points are worth keeping in mind: (1) the reason these high tariffs exist is that developing countries did not participate in early negotiations before the Uruguay Round and therefore were not subject to any liberalizing commitments and thus they are now saddled with higher tariff barriers on industrial products than are developed countries, (2) 45 of the world’s 49 least developed countries are net importers of food and 33 are net importers of agricultural products. The removal of subsidies might hurt, rather than help, these countries, because such a move would raise the prices they pay for their imports. My point is that Pogge often relies on a merely suggestive and one-sided analysis of which aspects of the global order harm the poor.

Aside from that, Mathias Risse has an excellent set of papers that rebut Pogge’s arguments here.

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Natalie Solent 06.17.05 at 8:31 am

Chris Bertram (#46), You say, “… the suggestion that bad governance is “the explanation” for Africa’s plight is also highly misleading if it is taken as a wholly satisfactory endogenous explanation of Africa’s failure to develop. Nigerian generals (to pick but one example) are highly incentivized to seize power by the fact that if they do then we’ll buy oil from them and make them rich. And the fact that they are so incentivized means they have to be paid off so they don’t seize power.” It seems to me that the starting point of that problem is that in Nigeria so many parts of the economy are either state-owned outright or the state has a big finger in the pie, so getting power brings oil money with it.

Jack (#47), you correctly said that countries/blocs like China, the EU, and Singapore have not become not pure capitalists, and in fact very few places are. I see that as support for my argument: crudely, capitalism works. It even works if you don’t do it perfectly. You are right that I cannot prove “this omelette should be entirely made out of salt” from “this omelette needs more salt”. But when I see a lot of omelettes getting better when more salt is added, I feel reasonably safe in writing “be generous with the salt” in the omelette recipe.

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Natalie Solent 06.17.05 at 8:56 am

Aaron (#63), You say that force minimizes transaction costs by eliminating negotiation. Perhaps, for a while. But in the end the costs of having an apparatus of enforcement (those Pinkerton goons have to be paid, you know) and the lack of creativity and productivity characteristic of coerced people will be greater.

I didn’t see the relevance of your example of your barber to this debate. He might make a good libertarian icon but I doubt if he’ll get away with it for ever.

Scott (#81), I meant the subject of chickenhawks.

bi (#83), mentions the phenomenon of bootlicking. Without wishing to deny that (for instance) seeing someone suck up to the boss to keep their job is not a pretty sight, it pales before seeing someone obliged to suck up to a person who can order them punished as well as lose them their job. The more statist or corporatist the economy the less power people have to go tell the boss to stuff it, there are plenty other employers out there.

I don’t see why you think the accountability of governments is greater than that of rich people or corporations. Once every five years I can vote for the least bad of one of several packages of proposed laws. This is certainly better than no accountability at all, as in a dictatorship, but it isn’t great. In contrast it is quite easy for individuals to dismiss or boycott corporations.

Don’t make *me* repeat that I don’t think the people in private companies are a better, or people in governments a worse, sort of human being. The of a flawed *system* causing people who are not necessarily bad sometimes do very bad things should not be unfamiliar to socialists.

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Natalie Solent 06.17.05 at 9:10 am

I should have written “The *idea* of a flawed system” in the post above.

By coincidence I see from my email box that Chris Bertram has just written a comment to my Samizdata response to his post saying, “No, what Chris Bertram (and possibly some of his friends) grasp is that virtue is not all that matters.”

He meant it in a different context but … precisely. Or, as Adam Smith put it, “But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them.”

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