Leif Wenar and the resource curse: a Frankenstein proposal?

by Chris Bertram on May 14, 2008

Cato Unbound is currently carrying an interesting contribution from Leif Wenar on how to combat the “resource curse”. Leif proposes a two-stage strategy for attacking the problem of kleptocrats who use the state monopoly of violence to extract resource revenues whilst their population lives in poverty. The first step is to prosecute (in American, and presumably also European courts) traders in goods stolen from peoples by their rulers. The second step is to go after stolen natural resources that get incorporated into manufactured goods elsewhere (say in China) and then imported into the US. Here Wenar advocates a tariff on those goods, the proceeds of which would be paid into a fund to be held for the benefit of the people whose resources have been stolen, with the fund to be disbursed to them when their government meets minimally acceptable standards.

Well it is a stimulating piece. But it also has quite a few problems, in my view, both philosophical and practical. One philosophical problem is with its central moral intuition that a country’s resources belong to its people. I can’t say I find this entirely compelling since I struggle with the notion of a “people” anyway, and I can’t see why the notion of their collective ownership of resources is more persuasive than other possibilities (left possibility – collective global ownership with local users subject to a Georgist tax; right possibility – only individuals have full property rights). But I think it best to accept Leif’s view for the sake of argument here. (As he points out, he does have the human rights treaties, ratified by most nations, on his side.)

The practical objections also seem formidable. Leif makes much of the fact that all kinds of different people could support his proposal (libertarian property-rights absolutists, democratic human rights campaigners, protectionist labor unions …). All this amounts to, though is the claim that Leif can see a line of argument from each of these positions to support for his proposal. It clearly doesn’t follow that such a political coalition would emerge. More likely is that those who support trade restrictions for other reasons would jump on his idea (if it ever made it out of the Cato website into real political discussion) as an extra point in their favour; whilst those who oppose trade restrictions would ignore it. I guess that’s the political cynic in me. And then if the idea ever got off the ground, we can well imagine the fund being used or abused by its American holders to secure policy leverage in third-world countries. Concrete example: if a government like Hugo Chavez’s one in Venezuela or (worse) something like the current Iranian regime (or a Hamas regime in Palestine) were to replace a kleptocratic dictatorship, would it be deemed to have met the criteria for being “a minimally decent, unified government”? My guess is that , defective though these states would be, Leif’s view would be “yes”. But actually, it isn’t hard to anticipate all kinds of lobbying not to disburse the fund, with looser criteria being applied to allied states (“Saudis”) than to hostile ones (“Iranians”).

In other words, there’s a whole raft of trouble attendant on such a policy. Now Leif is, like me, a political philosopher. Sometimes when we get out into the world we can have a positive impact on policy-makers via a really practical proposals (such as Thomas Pogge’s Patent 2 initiative), and sometimes we have ideas that sound nice, and just, but are a million miles away from anything that will happen soon (example: global basic incomes funded by global Georgist property taxes). I’m happy discussing either kind of idea in the seminar room. Leif’s proposal strikes me as the kind of thing that sits somewhere in between: the kind of thing that might make it out of the seminar but not in the form its creator intended.

{ 44 comments }

1

Sk 05.14.08 at 7:07 pm

Hypothetical (though realistic) example:

The Saudi Arabian ‘kleptocracy’ is stealing the Saudi people’s goods and selling them to US consumers.

We add a tariff on gas and oil from Saudi Arabia.

Gas and oil costs more (to US consumers).

The money is put in a fund to be given to the Saudi people’s hands when the kleptocracy is overthrown in the hypothetical future.

So, the system punishes one set of people (the American consumer) who don’t deserve punishment, doesn’t punish another set of people (the kleptocracy) who is by definition the bad guys in this scenario, and does nothing (well, perhaps in the indeterminate ‘some day,’ when the government is overthrown) for a third set of people (the oppressed Saudi masses) who are the victims in this scenario, and helps a 4th set of people (the bankers/lawyers/accountants administering the hedge funds) who have nothing to do with the situation, but are experts in managing money.

Isn’t the main problem with this proposal that it makes no sense?

Sk

2

Timothy Burke 05.14.08 at 7:16 pm

I appreciate that he’s at least trying to think about a real issue, though: that the rulers who are presently treated as having a legitimate and contractual right to dispense with the resources in question are often historical accidents whose moral authority to represent anyone but themselves is thin to non-existent and whose legitimacy is largely an epiphenomenon of the postwar interstate system itself. The practical problems, as Chris notes, are many–and yes, the idea would surely be scurrilously abused to punish regimes that the US and EU dislike but that possess considerable social legitimacy in their home nations. (Whatever you think of Chavez, for example, he’s not a kind of rentier parasite like Obiang.)

3

Rich B. 05.14.08 at 7:17 pm

There’s a general principal that you cannot have a law (and enforce it) that prohibits something that more than half the people do on a regular basis.

That’s why Prohibition didn’t work, outlawing securities fraud or murder does, and the Drug War limps along somewhere in the middle.

Add up the Kleptocracies, add in the states that use their products to make cheap goods for America (multinational corporations, China, India, and the rest of the Third World) and we’re kind of left with a whole lot of potential Defendants.

Sure, “Protectionist Labor Unions” will support the idea, but it will be opposed by every country in the world that is not a lover of Protectionist Labor Unions for the very same reason. The Vietnamese don’t want their non-union businesses losing out to the Unions either.

4

dsquared 05.14.08 at 7:25 pm

Isn’t it a bit hard on the current generation of oppressed citizens, who now have to put up with the added hardship of the collapse of their local minerals industry?

5

abb1 05.14.08 at 7:38 pm

I didn’t know the Saudi people (citizens, that is) are living in poverty. I hear they’re doing just fine. And one could argue that a strong kleptocracy is, in fact, a better option than its Congo-style common alternative.

6

Brian Schmidt 05.14.08 at 8:14 pm

The question isn’t whether the idea would work exactly as intended on an apolitical basis if it made it out of the seminar room. It’s whether the imperfect result would be better than our current system.

Our current system. Stinks.

I think this is an interesting idea that balances our inevitable desire to acquire resources controlled by dictators with some amount of regard for the people in those countries. Even the imperfect result would better than the callousness of what currently exists.

7

Slocum 05.14.08 at 8:18 pm

Hypothetical (though realistic) example:

The Saudi Arabian ‘kleptocracy’ is stealing the Saudi people’s goods and selling them to US consumers.

We add a tariff on gas and oil from Saudi Arabia.

Gas and oil costs more (to US consumers).

Probably not. Oil is fungible. We impose a tariff, so the Saudis sell their oil to countries without tariffs and U.S. importers switch to cheaper, tariff-free oil from other producers. End result: little or no effect.

FWIW — as it is, on a percentage basis, the U.S. doesn’t really buy all that much oil from the Saudis or the Middle East as a whole:

http://news.mongabay.com/2007/0222-oil.html

On the other hand, if we imposed a tariff on Venezuelan oil, that would have an effect, both on the U.S. and Venezuela, at least for a few years, because we’re the ones with the special refineries that can process heavy Venezuelan crude:

http://seekingalpha.com/article/25485-heavy-crude-why-venezuela-and-the-u-s-need-each-other

And it’s a lot easier and cheaper for Venezuela to ship oil to the U.S. than China.

8

seth edenbaum 05.14.08 at 9:09 pm

Who defines the terms? Who defines the meaning of the word “Kleptocrat” Is land redistribution theft? In what context? In what country?
Dissolve the Security Council and give the UN police authority over the entire planet, limit the ability of any member states to act unilaterally, and then we’ll talk.
And may I suggest we begin by killing all the libertarians?
Just a thought.

9

Jon Mandle 05.14.08 at 9:37 pm

In his Philosophy and Public Affairs article on this topic, “Property Rights and the Resource Curse”(v.36, n.1), he proposes using the Freedom House ratings of civil liberties and political rights. “We can say with confidence that a Freedom House rating of ‘7’ on either civil liberties or political rights should be conclusive for establishing that the citizens of that country cannot have sufficient information about resource sales, or sufficient opportunity to dissent from those sales, or sufficient freedom from political manipulation. A Freedom House rating of ‘7’ should therefore be a decisive indication that no regime can legitimately sell resources from that country.” (p.25) His examples of countries that score a 7 are: Burma, North Korea, Somalia, and Sudan (on the civil liberties list) and Burma, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe (on the political rights list).

10

a 05.15.08 at 5:31 am

I have always thought the best solution is to go after debt. (These nations don’t need it? Well Saudi Arabia had a lot of debt a little ways back.) Establish a list of non-democratic nations, and say to the Investment Banks and others that if they loan money to these nations, they will have no recourse over the nations’ goods or services, should there be default.

11

A. Y. Mous 05.15.08 at 7:30 am

Since oil, oilseed, rice, wheat, gold, silver, sticks, carrots, iPods, chick-flicks, guy-things, money, well, OK, all but geography and history are fungible, why not have uniform population density across the world? A lot of human capital gets dispersed, naturally resources are equally (at least equitably) apportioned, so no large scale rape and plunder by national entities a la Iraq. Everybody wins. No?

Ooops! Sorry. There is that niggly rider on time and space. History & Geography. Both have taught us time and again that kill or die is the only thing that will work since there are no objective levels of human dignity or success markers, mid-18th and early 19th century white skinned poofters waxing eloquent about “humanity” notwithstanding, and regardless of the consequent masking of masturbatory self-delusions under a cloak of rape that was extant in the mid 19th upto the mid 20th centuries.

Mons montis quod flumen.

12

abb1 05.15.08 at 7:30 am

I vaguely remember a Sherlock Holmes story I read when I was kid, something about a large diamond that caused many-a deaths and sufferings until it was thrown into the Thames – to put an end to it.

The thing about extremely valuable natural resources is that they are, well, extremely valuable. Plenty of power individuals, entities, organizations and institutions are eager to lay their hands on these resources. Thus the ‘curse’, it corrupts everything and everybody, causes war, violence, and mayhem. Human nature.

In the current geopolitical environment I doubt there’s much anyone can do about it; this tariff solution seems extremely naive; any status quo that is relatively stable should be considered a blessing. The Saudi rules specifically certainly seem to be doing fine, considering that their stated mission is to guard their holly cities and facilitate the hajj.

13

Martin Wisse 05.15.08 at 9:14 am

Leif Wenar is being an useful idiot here, writing a high minded but mindboggingly naive article which will be used to justify future US foreign policy. We’ve already had Hillary Clinton promising to sue OPEC as an unlawful cartel and this fits in perfectly with the new American awareness of how much their economy depends on oil and how to deal with that fact with the least cost to America.

14

chris armstrong 05.15.08 at 9:16 am

I think it’s a really good piece. Like some of Pogge’s work, it cottons onto an important idea, which is that the way property rights / privileges work in our contemporary world, there are large incentives (for corrupt local leaders, and for Western corporations prepared to deal with them) in favour of despotism in weak states; it then seeks to work out how, by changing the property rules, we can transform the incentives (for Western economic actors, principally, but also for local leaders) so that more or less legitimate government becomes incentivised. And I think there’s a lot to be said for that idea, despite the details of implementation being difficult.

My problem with the proposal is the ‘what happens in the meantime?’ issue. Assume that all Western governments and corporations simultaneously refuse to buy any goods whilst the government of Equatorial Guinea is despotic. This produces an incentive, over the long term, for legitimate government to replace despotism. But the long term might be a very long way away, given that military despotisms are not simply going to concede the logic of the situation and go quietly. In the meantime we have – what? Total economic collapse? Humanitarian catastrophe? And a large stack of funds to be disbursed, but only when a legitimate and more or less well-functioning government arrives? For me, at best the argument is incomplete. Wenar needs a solid account of the middle-term implications of his model, and whether it needs to be supplemented by a robust form of humanitarian distribution, and if so of what form (and that last issue isn’t going to sit easily with the rest of the account – for the aid may assist the despotism’s survival, and the incentives are thereby made more complex).

15

soru 05.15.08 at 10:15 am

Say there is somebody who is in the habit of wandering round town with a gun, and any time they see a car they like, they kill it’s current owner and take it.

What is the proper response?

1. Nice car, dude.

2. Sorry, as you don’t have papers for the car, I can’t fix that dent. Well, maybe if you made it worth my while…

3. Police! National Guard! Helicopters!

I’ll join the consensus that I can’t see the middle ground working – the viable options are pretty much limited to 1 and 3.

16

abb1 05.15.08 at 10:36 am

The problem is that there is no national guard, no police, just a bunch of competing street-gangs. The real options are: a permanent gang-war (another world war, possibly, if you shake it too much), or relative peace, maintaining the existing spheres of influence, the status quo. For now.

17

Z 05.15.08 at 10:57 am

Before taking active measures, such as establishing tariffs, initiating prosecutions or starting wars, I feel that stop participating in the injustice is already a big step. So before doing anything against kleptocracy (with all the potential risk of abuse that may come with actions), maybe ceasing to help them steal from their people would be a good idea. Among the examples I have in mind, the French army very recently fought on behalf of Idriss Déby in Chad. Total used slaved labor in Burma. The US is a strong ally of Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. I don’t know much about the relationship between the US and the Saudi monarchy, but I am quite sure that the US is rather on the side of the kleptocrats.

Stop participating in it. Then we can start a good faith discussion about what to do with the remaining cases (the same is true about wars to depose dictators by the way).

18

Great Zamfir 05.15.08 at 11:01 am

Soru, if they drive through the Pay&Spray, all wanted stars will disapear.

19

Thom Brooks 05.15.08 at 11:13 am

I cannot genuinely see what the problem is. Leif’s proposal is sensible and it clearly lays out a strategy for ‘what to do next’. If there is a real test, then perhaps it is in a test case in the courts. However, that there is a case to be argued for seems clear.

20

chris armstrong 05.15.08 at 11:20 am

But Thom, don’t you think the sudden refusal of outside parties to stop buying the goods of nations with corrupt governments – however legitimate that refusal would be – might lead to desperate consequences for the ordinary citizens of those nations, at least in the short term? I see how Leif’s proposal helps ordinary citizens in the long term, once transition to legitimate government is complete – I would just like to know more about what happens before this, before the tariff and trust funds start being spent.

21

Chris Bertram 05.15.08 at 11:22 am

Can I just interject a comment on comments here …

Leif’s paper is indeed a serious piece and it merits serious discussion. My purpose in posting was (a) to give the piece some publicity and (b) to give an immediate reaction. Some commenters here contribute to that, but many don’t. We may have to think about commenter registration or something similar soon.

22

Pete 05.15.08 at 11:23 am

How on earth do you _define_ “stolen” in this case?

23

soru 05.15.08 at 12:46 pm

Before taking active measures, such as establishing tariffs, initiating prosecutions or starting wars, I feel that stop participating in the injustice is already a big step.

That’s sound advice on a personal level, but it’s not obvious how to turn it into a mass collective strategy that works, even at the minimal level of ‘making things better’ as opposed to ‘making things acceptable’. ‘I won’t do that’ is simple, but ‘we must stop doing that’ implies you know what ‘we’ means.

There are two common alternatives:

1. the collective ‘we’ is based on national political institutions, perhaps to the US, or the west in general.

2. the collective ‘we’ applies to anyone who is the kind of person who is likely to listen to and accept this type of argument: perhaps ‘liberals’, ‘progressives’, ‘leftists’ or just ‘nice people’.

A lot of the sub-text in disagreements on this site is between people who favour the first strategy over the second.

24

john b 05.15.08 at 1:16 pm

“Some commenters here contribute to that, but many don’t.”

Eh? Aside from the GTA joke @ 18, the comments here all seem to engage with the proposal in a reasonably sane way… Are you suggesting Wenar’s article shouldn’t be taken apart in comments like a normal blog post just because he’s a serious academic and a decent chap?

25

Buck Theorem 05.15.08 at 1:49 pm

I thought the GTA joke @ 18 served as a excellent metaphor for tactics a “Kleptocracy” could adopt… strike deals, re-vamp, re-spin, re-accepted.

It’s a very informative thread to me.

26

Kaveh Hemmat 05.15.08 at 2:20 pm

So before doing anything against kleptocracy (with all the potential risk of abuse that may come with actions), maybe ceasing to help them steal from their people would be a good idea.

I am amazed that you’re the first person to bring this up. (Unless I missed somebody?)

US policy in Middle East revolves around supporting kleptocrats or regular dictators. We don’t just leave kleptocrats alone, we consistently undermine democratic governments. Mosaddeq in Iran (if you don’t know this name, google it), and in very different circumstances, Hamas in occupied Palestine. The Iraqi government before Saddam Hussein. For that matter, Musharraf in Pakistan, whom Bush has been very supportive of even as he gutted democratic institutions. Suharto in Indonesia. I’m not aware that Qaddafi is any less of a kleptocrat now that he’s cutting deals with the US, but since he doesn’t “support terrorism”, suddenly our government loves him. (And one could probably say similar things about China’s relationship to the Sudan and Burma.)

The US is highly committed to supporting kleptocrats in the Middle East, and probably elsewhere too. And other powerful countries aren’t much different. So yes, the issue is not (just) how to fight kleptocrats but to actually get the US and other governments to even want to do this, to stop promoting them.

27

Barry 05.15.08 at 2:23 pm

Posted by soru:
“Say there is somebody who is in the habit of wandering round town with a gun, and any time they see a car they like, they kill it’s current owner and take it.”

Please note that this describes much behavior of the US government over the decades, except that the US generall prefers to make a small payment to some useful third-party, who does the actual killing and stealing. This third-party then sells the car to the US at favorable rates.

IOW, what Leif Wenar is complaining about is behavior aided, abetted and encouraged by the USA. The only reason that the US would sign on to such a deal is to legitimize the removal of uppity third parties, who are being a pain (e.g., Noriega, Hussein).

28

John Meredith 05.15.08 at 2:27 pm

“Are you suggesting Wenar’s article shouldn’t be taken apart in comments like a normal blog post just because he’s a serious academic and a decent chap?”

Oh god, let’s not start that all over again.

29

seth edenbaum 05.15.08 at 2:40 pm

“A Freedom House rating of ‘7’ should therefore be a decisive indication that no regime can legitimately sell resources from that country.” (p.25) His examples of countries that score a 7 are: Burma, North Korea, Somalia, and Sudan (on the civil liberties list) and Burma, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe (on the political rights list).”

What’s the statute of limitations of simple theft, as in the case of Empire. Does the law cover the expropriation of land from the native americans? The Balkans? Ireland? Does it cover Palestine?
What the authors of these absurdities fail or refuse to understand is that there is no one definition of justice, there is only the possibility of acceptable shared definitions. Justice systems, like tax systems, only function within systems of representation. Without representation, they’re perceived as tyrannical.

In the discussion of Cambodia and the Vietnamese invasion, the argument against invasion, as bad precedent, is superior in legal terms. The fact that a neighbor went in and overthrew the government is probably for the best. The fact that a country halfway around the world did not see as their obligation, or that others reminded them that it wasn’t, is also for the best.

Laws do not make communities, communities make laws. Liberals and Libertarians replace communities with laws, both fail.

“Justice, like taxation, without representation is tyranny”
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Liberal and libertarian legal theory claims to be the search for non-foolish consistency, often claiming to be based on it.
That’s both foolish and often criminally self-serving,
This is empirically obvious, but rationalist rationalize.
Nothing stops them. Ever.

30

Tracy W 05.15.08 at 2:56 pm

And the other one about a “minimally-decent government” – as far as I can tell fair distribution of large amounts of money requires more than a minimally-decent government. Perhaps this may be a matter a definition, but getting large amounts of money to ordinary people is quite a difficult task for a government, there’s a big incentive for individual people in the government to either steal the resources outright, to spend them on pet projects, or to distribute them to marginal voters and other powerful interest groups, rather than to the general mass of people. For example, the US and the EC all operate schemes by which farmers, a small minority of the population, get a significant amount of subsidies, and as far as I can tell this is due to a small interest group being able to outlobby the great mass of taxpayers.

That’s the US and the EC, which have had centuries of government which, whatever its faults, do have societies so good that people are willing to risk their lives to get in, how long would it take a country currently ruled by a kleptomaniac government to develop a set of institutions strong enough to actually distribute a large amount of money to its citizens fairly?

31

abb1 05.15.08 at 3:23 pm

No, I think if the piece is to be judged as a purely theoretical, academic exercise, then it’s a very good piece, hard to disagree with anything, really.

Yes, the US government should crack down on Exxon. Definitely. Not just for Exxon’s profiting from stolen oil, but also, perhaps, for Exxon hiring thugs to murder people in Indonesia. Also Coca-Cola – for paying death squads in Colombia to murder labor organizers there (IIRC). Yes, it should, it must.

32

A. Y. Mous 05.15.08 at 4:36 pm

I am surprised that there is a consensus view here that the U. S. partakes in and of kleptocracy and that consensus extends to shutting up about the rest.

It is not the U. S. It is the whole lot of “enlightened democracies” that sprang out of the European cluster-fuck that happened a couple of centuries ago. The cause of it is the very thought of enabling resource availability, equally to one and all (including defining the right to demand state sanctioned violence) but at the same time fixing the “state” as the pivot, when it should be “people”. Chris Bertram very cleverly hid that bit in long OP and shrugs away the issue.

33

Chris Bertram 05.15.08 at 4:50 pm

#31. “Chris Bertram very cleverly hid that bit in long OP and shrugs away the issue.”

I’m totally in the dark about what you’re accusing me of here. Any chance of an explanation?

34

Thom Brooks 05.15.08 at 5:05 pm

To #20: I certainly see your concern, Chris. If we were to accept Leif’s arguments, then it strikes me that action of some kind is needed: we cannot let the current situation continue. If the alternatives are do nothing and continue to knowingly contribute to an injustice versus do something and act which may contribute to worries in the very short term but is what justice appears to demand and will benefit all in the mid-term, then I am all for acting. So I’m worried about the same potential problems, but perhaps more willing to accept them.

35

seth edenbaum 05.15.08 at 5:11 pm

Test:
I have one in “moderation.” Let’s see if this one goes through

36

a. y. mous 05.15.08 at 5:30 pm

Re: #32

Chris, No accusation.

“..since I struggle with the notion of a “people” anyway, and I can’t see why the notion of their collective ownership of resources is more persuasive..”

You can’t, because of your conditioning. Well, I can. So can we. ’cause of _our_ conditioning.

37

Oliviero 05.15.08 at 6:36 pm

I still don’t get what is so special about “natural” resources. But, I mean what is relevant, when we think of involuntary material disadvantages, is the whole set of external means that affect people’s capacity to pursue their ends, irrespective of whether they are natural or produced. In this sense, rather than drawing the distinction between natural and produced resources (as Wenar, Pogge and others do) we should distinguish between inherited wealth and produced resources, where inherited wealth are those resources we (unjustly) inherit by some means from prior generations of fellow citizens, while produced resources are those resources that are produced through one’s own work or initiative.

38

Chris Bertram 05.15.08 at 8:45 pm

#36 – I think the point you’re making has merit (I’ve made it myself in the past). But I think it is somewhat orthogonal to the concerns about kleptocracy that Leif raises.

39

soru 05.15.08 at 9:47 pm

‘collective ownership of resources’

This deserves the name ‘socoilism’. Surprisingly, for an principle that defines the political economics of both Venezuela and Norway (and, to an extent, even the UK), not only is it a googlewhack, the only reference is a misspelling of old-fashioned socialism.

40

dsquared 05.16.08 at 6:20 am

I’m not sure that Oliveiro’s point is all that orthogonal. Consider the case of somewhere like Brazil, or pre-Chavez Venezuela, where there was a distribution of land which was wholly inequitable, had been made in the past by a despotic and/or colonial government and which there was no effective way for campesinos to challenge. Should we be suing anyone who deals in Brazilian agricultural products, placing tariffs on Brazilian sugar and placing the proceeds in trust for some point in the future when land reform is carried out? I suppose Wenar’s response would be that if the country gets 7/10 on the Freedom House scale or better, the peasants can throw out a neoliberal government and elect a Chavez figure. But as far as I can see, this really does rather show that Martin Wisse has a point and this is to some extent an example of the good old libertarian deck-stacking move, whereby once you give them their initial assumptions about property rights and liberty, everything else follows through.

41

Chris Bertram 05.16.08 at 6:57 am

#40 Right, I see the point, which is a good one, about why _this_ counts as theft but not _that_. But I guess what’s going on here (since Leif isn’t a libertarian) is a bit of coalition-building. Though we disagree about _that_ being theft, we all agree about _this_ (libertarians, Rawlsians, social democrats, etc.).

[You get the same dialectical move in Pogge’s work on the the harms inflicted by the global order and negative duties.]

42

abb1 05.16.08 at 7:13 am

Yeah, come to think of it, using this Freedom House scale seems a bit problematic. What about authoritarian (or even totalitarian) governments that distribute the wealth equally? Punishing them for stealing from their populations seems problematic.

We need some other scale. Ah! Eureka! What about the Gini index?! Let’s make 40 the threshold: any government ruling over a society with Gini coefficient above 40 is stealing from its citizens and needs to be penalized until it changes its ways and incentivized to do so.

Yeah, that’s it. I’m sure CATO and the US government will throw their considerable weight behind this proposal.

43

Tracy W 05.16.08 at 8:16 am

we should distinguish between inherited wealth and produced resources, where inherited wealth are those resources we (unjustly) inherit by some means from prior generations of fellow citizens, while produced resources are those resources that are produced through one’s own work or initiative.

They are different sorts of resources. For example, we have all inherited Newtonian physics, an incredibly valuable resource (or at least I’ve inherited it and everyone I know inherited it, perhaps you produced it through your own work or initiative). But that sort of inheritance is completely different to a natural resource, as no government can take Newtonian physics in the same literal way they can take oil out of the ground.

Also, generations overlap a great deal. If I work with a guy thirty years older than me, and together we produce a considerably valuable resource, was that resource inherited or produced by my own work and initiative?

44

seth edenbaum 05.16.08 at 8:21 pm

The police in any community are members of that community. Outsiders are not permitted that role.

“Laws do not make communities, communities make laws.”

I thought I was saying something obvious when I wrote that (comment #29), but now its a googlewhack. I forget sometimes how eccentric I am.
It’s depressing.

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