Opportunities and outcomes

by John Q on December 16, 2003

Among the many points raised in the discussion of Chris’s thread on Sen was the old distinction between equality of outcomes (like life expectancy) and equality of opportunity. This distinction has long been a staple of debates between market liberals and social democrats, and now defines a central point of distinction between supporters of a Third Way (such as Blair) and modernising social democrats (such as Gordon Brown), who may be indistinguishable on issues like privatisation that formerly acted as litmus tests.

A look at the evidence suggests that a position supporting equality of opportunity while accepting highly unequal outcomes is not sustainable. The most important observation is that, contrary to popular belief, there is less mobility between income classes in the United States than in European social democracies. A good, and fairly recent study in this is The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism by Goodin, Headey Muffels and Dirven, which I reviewed here, along with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.

There’s plenty of other evidence suggesting that high levels of inequality naturally perpetuate themselves, most obviously through unequal access to education, but also through more subtle channels like health status – Ehrenreich gives plenty on the plight of the uninsured working poor in the United States, but this isn’t only a US problem.

Turning to the theory, a good starting point is Richard Arneson’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As is appropriate for an encyclopedia, the Stanford encyclopedia generally seems to encapsulate the conventional wisdom, and its accessibility on the web makes it an ideal subject for blogging.

Arneson starts with what he calls ‘formal equality of opportunity’, which prohibits things like nepotism in the distribution of public office, and racial or gender-based discrimination. Arneson asserts that a market-based economy is a natural setting for formal equality of opportunity (though not the only possible one) but defines out of existence the central problems that arise in such an economy as a result of inequality of wealth. He wants to ignore, as a ‘private’ matter, nepotistic appointment practices by private businesses, while perhaps prohibiting racial or gender-based discrimination.

To summarise, in Arneson’s treatment “formal equality of opportunity” means, primarily, the absence of officially sanctioned discrimination on the basis of group membership . This is important, but it is not equality of opportunity.

The discussion here is blurring two different concepts. One is the notion that requirements for formal equality of opportunity apply only in relation to the state. The other is some sort of distinction between different types of legitimate and illegitimate discrimination. For example, nepotism is OK in the private sector but not in the public sector.

To sharpen up the analysis, consider the case when public offices are sold, with any qualified person being able to bid. This was the case, for example, with commissions in the British army in the 19th century. This is, I think, a breach of formal equality of opportunity. Suppose then that instead of filling the relevant offices by, say, competitive examination, the government privatised the appointment function, taking a lump sum cash payment from the buyer, who then acquired the rights to sell the offices as they saw fit (perhaps subject to rules about racial and gender discrimination). This would make no difference to the actual inequality of opportunity, but would, at least arguably, satisfy the requirements for formal equality of opportunity.

But the problem doesn’t arise only, or most severely, in employment. If places in schools or universities are available only, or preferentially, to those able to pay for them, equality of opportunity is clearly not present. The same is true if ownership of businesses is passed on by inheritance. The idea that these are not ‘formal’ violations of equality of opportunity makes sense only if market wealth inequality is taken as, in some sense, natural. Although never explicit, this assumption clearly underlies Arneson’s discussion.

An obvious implication is that the smaller the economic role of the state, the smaller is the scope of the notion of formal equality of opportunity. In a fully privatised state, everything that was formerly a public office or service would be the subject of private property rights, and therefore heritable, and yet formal equality of opportunity would apply by definition. This is essentially the ideal position favored by Nozick

The really interesting part of Arneson’s discussion relates to “substantive equality of opportunity” and particularly the notion of “equality of fair opportunity” due to Rawls, which is satisfied if “

any individuals who have the same native talent and the same ambition will have the same prospects of success in competitions that determine who gets positions that generate superior benefits for their occupants

This is the only definition considered in the article that seems to correspond to a reasonable notion of equal opportunity. However, as Arneson points out, achievement of substantive equality of opportunity appears to require substantial and intrusive government intervention to prevent parents passing on advantages to their children.

The crucial unstated assumption here is that social outcomes are substantially unequal. The more equality prevails among parents, the less intervention is required to ensure a substantive equality of opportunity among children.

The complementarity between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes is particularly important when we move from ideal definitions to practical possibilities. It is, no doubt, impossible to achieve perfect equality on either definition. But,social-democratic states can get reasonably close, and have done so, though something close to full employment is needed. I have some ideas on this, but not for this post.



epist 12.16.03 at 6:10 am

In the ‘bringing it home’ category, I just had a daughter, and as a result, I now pay $400/month for health insurance for my (now unemployed) wife and infant. In Canada, I would pay nothing for much better coverage. And I don’t need to wonder how much more I would pay in taxes in the two situations, since I had worked in Cnada for 10 years before moving to the states. Short answer- unless you make more than $60K a year or have a comprehensive plan where you work, you pay more in the states. For worse coverage.



Katherine 12.16.03 at 6:19 am

Do the conservatives reading this think there is equality of opportunity already in the United States; that reducing equality is not a worthy goal at all; or that it’s a problem but the cure is worse than the disease? Or something else?

(I’ve heard all three myself, but don’t know which is the prevailing view.)


Doug 12.16.03 at 8:47 am

Will just note that in Germany, presumably a social-democratic state, only 8 percent of children of parents without university degrees currently go on to get university educations themselves. Clearly the gap between theory and practice is not confined to the United States.

Also, the condition of something like full employment is a long, long way from reality in the large social-democratic polities in Europe.


John Quiggin 12.16.03 at 10:39 am

Do you have a source for this, Doug? I suspect it’s at least in part a statistical artifact arising from Germany’s focus on technical education.


Brett Bellmore 12.16.03 at 11:01 am

1. Equality under the law is all the government should provide. That is to say, the government should not discriminate. This is because the government has no liberty interests on it’s own behalf, and people are forced to interact with it.

2. Unequal treatment by people in the private sector, while it can be morally offensive, is an aspect of liberty. And the government exists to safeguard liberty, not equality.

3. See the short story, Harrison Bergeron, for how we view more expansive efforts at equality.


Anthony 12.16.03 at 11:02 am

As a somewhat conservative libertarian, I’ll answer katherine’s question:

I believe that there is a reasonable distribution of opportunity in American society, and that further government intervention to reduce the inequalities which now exist will generally make matters worse. Certainly, there still exists racial discrimination and nepotism in large, and even small, institutional settings. However, success in America is not only acheivable by obtaining an office job for a large corporation or government agency, and doesn’t even require a college degree (though illiteracy and innumeracy are nearly insurmountable barriers). Plenty of Americans find economic success by creating their own job.

Most liberal proposals designed to increase equality of opportunity end up limiting opportunities for people to succeed outside large organizations, or failing to actually acheive their stated goals. Sending a teenager to college to obtain a degree in an unmarketable subject while filling his head with prejudices and attitudes which make him unsuitable for a work environment does not give him any realy better opportunities. Allowing a child to coast through school and emerge with a diploma he can’t read, because nobody ever bothered to test his knowlege of the subjects he was supposed to have been educated in is not a recipe for reducing inequality of opportunity.

Burdening businesses with rules requiring them to hire an $80,000 specialist to ensure that their $40,000 jobs are “fairly” distributed creates opportunites for people with graduate degrees, but destroys twice as many opportunities for people without a degree.

A liberal movement which offered suggestions which didn’t erode people’s ability to find success by striking out on their own, and which had a track record of successfully accomplishing its aims when implementing social programs would have something useful to offer in a discussion of equality of opportunity. There is not now such a liberal movement in the United States.


Doug 12.16.03 at 11:22 am

The 8 percent figure was reported in Time in summer 2003, in a story with “Class” prominently in the title. (“Class Division” or something like that; web version has disappeared into pay-per-view, and the memory is not the steel trap I remember it being earlier.)

Yes, partly a relic of old structures in the educational system, but that’s pretty much the point, isn’t it? A society that chooses a 19th century education model for the 21st century is going to have sub-optimal outcomes. (Tracking kids into college prep or non-college prep curricula at about age 10 is a particularly egregious practice.) To say nothing of guild-like structures in different trades and professions that are even older.

German universities (to my knowledge) also don’t grant degrees in things that American universities do, such as nutrition, but that can’t explain the full difference either. And someone who goes to a university to study nutrition (which I am picking on for no good reason at all) can gain from the overall environment and has an easier time switching into something which, for the sake of easy argument, we can call more demanding.

IIRC, the article drew on an OECD study that looked at these things across the membership and found Germany particularly wanting.

Lange Rede, kurzer Sinn. Social democracy is having a hard time living up to its theoretical promise, too.


Matt Weiner 12.16.03 at 1:56 pm

Sending a teenager to college to obtain a degree in an unmarketable subject while filling his head with prejudices and attitudes which make him unsuitable for a work environment does not give him any really better opportunities.

Brad DeLong:
“[T]he earnings gap–even after controlling for every other factor that labor economists can think of–between those who have and have not been to college now approaches fifty percent.”

That’s from a TV spiel–you won’t find any breakdown of what the other factors are. Still, I’d trust him on this; you don’t have to go to college to be reasonably successful in the U.S., but it seems to help.


Nicholas Weininger 12.16.03 at 2:00 pm

I’m a libertarian who would not describe myself as right-wing, but I’m often pegged as such here, so I’ll respond too. I agree with most of what the previous responders had to say, BTW.

Equality of opportunity, in my view, is as much a chimerical goal as equality of outcome. Parents who are more responsible, more provident, and/or luckier than the average will always find ways to give their children a better start than the rest. Good choices and good luck are ineradicably self-perpetuating, as are bad choices and bad luck.

Furthermore, redistributing opportunity by force always involves significant intrusions on core aspects of individual autonomy, like the right to retain the fruits of one’s free trade and the right to raise one’s children as one sees fit. I regard such intrusions as repugnant on their face, because for me liberty (in the negative sense of non-coercion) is the primary political value, and equality of outcome has no moral value whatsoever. In fact, I consider myself a Social Darwinist in the original sense of Sumner and Spencer, and regard the expression of natural inequality as a good thing.

The most one can legitimately ask of a social system, with regard to opportunity or outcomes, is that it provide some decent minimum of opportunity to almost everyone (“almost” added because there are, in practice, no truly universal guarantees). Modern capitalist society, however unequal, generally provides to nearly all its members– including the working poor– a level of opportunity far greater than most people have gotten in any of the known alternatives. And when it fails to provide such opportunity, the cause can often (not always, but often) be found in lack of sufficient adherence to the principles of capitalism; there are a great many regulations that destroy opportunity, often for the benefit of labor unions and/or large businesses, and eliminating these is a far better path to increasing opportunity than is forced redistribution.


raj 12.16.03 at 2:40 pm

What doug reports regarding the German educational system may be accurate, but it is hardly the whole story. German universities are generally liberal arts institutions. For technical–engineering, for example–education, one typically goes to what is referred to as a Technische Hochschule–literally “technical high school,” although one would go there after one graduates from the Gymnasium, the US analog of high school.

Moreover, many people in Germany go the apprenticeship route. Apprentices–Lehrlings–in Germany are not just thrust into on-the-job training–there is still a rather substantial educational component provided by the schools. Unlike “vocational training” in the US.

BTW, more than a bit of the “channeling” of students that doug might be suggesting in Germany is self-imposed.


Ophelia Benson 12.16.03 at 2:43 pm

One of the subjects of Sen’s book is just this matter of various conflicting freedoms, and how to ascribe value to which, and how expanding some can reduce others. He is by no means a straightforward egalitarian in the usual sense – by no means arguing that governments should necessarily interfere with markets in order to attempt to get equality of outcomes. For one thing, Sen argues that market activity is itself a kind of freedom – that is, that markets are good not just instrumentally, as means to a robust economy, but good in themselves, as a liberating form of human activity. That transaction and exchange are simply activities that flourishing humans want to do and on the whole should be allowed to do.


Matt 12.16.03 at 2:46 pm

Nicholas Wrote:
“redistributing opportunity by force always involves significant intrusions on core aspects of individual autonomy, like the right to retain the fruits of one’s free trade and the right to raise one’s children as one sees fit.”

Would you really consider, say, a real estate tax “intrusions on core aspects…of autonomy”? That seems pretty over the top to me. And, it seems that a real estate tax could go a log way towards paying for the “decent minimum of opportunity to almost everyone”, which is surely lacking now. (If you think not, you should look harder. I don’t mean to be insulting, but really, if you think everyone has this “decent minimum” now in the US, you are either not looking hard, or have very low standards. I’d be interested to know if you honestly think everyone has such a chance here. And recall that even Hayek called for a much larger socal system that we have now.
(Also, I’d recommend against aligning one’s self w/ Spencer’s ideas of “social darwinism”, as mixed up w/ eugentics, racism, and so on as they were. I suspect you don’t mean that, so you might want to avoid it.)


Mikhel 12.16.03 at 2:48 pm

Katherine asked:

Do the conservatives reading this think there is equality of opportunity already in the United States; that reducing equality is not a worthy goal at all; or that it’s a problem but the cure is worse than the disease?

I think the problem with a term such as, “Equality of opportunity”, is that it can be taken in two ways:

One, the way many liberals take it: to mean, an equality of starting position to with more certainty attain success.

Two, the way many conservatives take it: to mean, the ability regardless of starting position to attain a high level of success without retribution.

If you’re asking if conservatives really believe there is an equality of opportunity in the sense of number one, then I would reply, probably not. People like myself don’t deny that the US is economically rigid, nor do we deny that it is very difficult for some people to attain a higher level of success.

If you mean how I defined number two, then I would say, yes, they probably do think that. I think that number two is true; something doesn’t have to be the norm nor does it have to likely to be true. What conservatives fear is that by compensating for the inequality in my definition of number one, you limit the equality of opportunity in the sense of two.

Lots of things are worthy goals, but conservatives and libertarians (I would argue) feel that the limiting of peoples’ equal opportunity — regardless of initial economic position — to achieve economic success, should not be limited in the hope of compensating for inequality of initial position. It is possible to start in a low economic position and achieve high economic position.

If I didn’t address your question, feel free to ask my for clarification.


Nicholas Weininger 12.16.03 at 3:22 pm

matt: it does depend on what you consider “decent”, doesn’t it? Anyway I didn’t argue for the current state of things being “decent”, just for its being “more than most people have had for most of history.” I’d like to see more people have more of a chance here, sure. As I said, I think there are ways of doing that that are freedom-enhancing (in the strict negative-liberty sense of freedom) rather than freedom-limiting.

If you’ve got to have a government, then a real-estate tax (you mean something like the Georgist Single Tax on unimproved value, right?) is certainly one of the least nasty ways of funding it. I consider all taxation to be theft, and I’d rather see taxation and the State eliminated altogether, but I’d take a Single Tax over the present system any day.

As to Spencer and eugenics: many of the associations you mention are smears perpetrated by his detractors, most recently Edwin Black. See for example Roderick Long’s defense of Spencer in his review of Black’s book, at:



DJW 12.16.03 at 3:28 pm

Based on the definition provided by Mikhel (and he’s correct, I think, to identify this as a prominent strand of American thinking on the subject), I’d say that conservatives (of this stripe) ought to admit that when they say equality of opportunity, they don’t really mean that at all. It would seem that if person A’s chances for success* were roughly 95 percent and person B’s were 1 percent, they would be OK with that. They mean “Some chance, however slim, at success,” but not “equality of opportunity” based on the definitions of component parts.

Now, you needn’t resort to Harrison Bergeron to discuss people who think measure should be taken toward shrinking that gap, while acknowledging that we ought to be aware that many of these measures will reduce the liberty of some and as such should be treated and evaluated as tradeoffs. That’s were I see Sen, and it’s not a particularly controversial position. The controversy is in the details–which methods? How vigorously pursued?, etc. The H.B. card should only be played for those who argue that substantive EO must reach 100% for the conditions of justice to be met. Sen certainly isn’ there, and neither is just about everyone who thinks hard about this issue.

*assuming success were operational–let’s say, for the purposes of discussion, an above median income with a fair amount of security and insurance


loren 12.16.03 at 3:28 pm

Brett: “see the short story, Harrison Bergeron, for how we view more expansive efforts at equality.”

Heh. I invoke this story when I teach Rawls’s informal argument for his two principles of justice, and there’s always been at least one person who has either (a) read the story, or (b) seen the not-too-bad Canadian film version.

Rawls is committed to liberty, yet he labours mightily to accommodate the intuition that, if we are worried about unequal opportunities grounded in unchosen inherited resources (trust funds, better neighborhods and schools), then we’re bound to be just as suspicious of unequal prospects grounded in unchosen inherited talents that seem somehow deeper, less obviously redistributable, than the money our parents put toward our upbringing (i.e. a scarce talent and marketable penchant for picking up languages, or extraordinary manual dexterity, or a voice that’s gentle on the ears). But Rawls takes this intuition seriously without resorting the the sort of “dumb ’em down” violations of bodily integrity ridiculed (correctly, in my view) by Vonnegut in”Harrison Bergeron”.

This is why I keep coming back to the informal argument, even though the formal argument has the imagery that animates first-time readers (“a veil of ignorance? seriously!?”)


Doug 12.16.03 at 4:56 pm

Attention conservation notice: Continues using Germany and its education system as an example of social-democratic states not living up to the promise claimed for them in the initial post. No position is taken on whether this is an inherent or merely empirical problem.

Thanks, raj, for strengthening two of my points. That many people go the apprenticeship route means that many of them have opportunities for significant advancement closed off at the beginning of their working lives, because the number of former apprentices landing in the ranks of management is minimal. This is precisely one of the “subtle channels” John is talking about in the third paragraph of his post. Look at the board of any publicly traded company, and it’s one Dr. after another; the former apprentices aren’t part of the intake that leads to the middle levels, much less the upper ones.

(For real devotees of German corporate governance, there is the matter of the supervisory board, which has mandatory worker representation. That’s a slightly different matter.)

Second, to speak of channeling being self-imposed at age 10 is expecting a bit much of a fifth-grader. Kids do what their parents did. That’s a key reason that the unequal structure gets perpetuated.

On the definition of Hoschschule versus university, I would broadly agree. However, all of them are now under the umbrella of the Rectors’ Conference, and a substantial share of the former Higher Technical Schools now call themselves Technical Universities. TU Munich and TU Berlin, for example, are working on positioning themselves as competitors of MIT and CalTech. Thus, I suspect that the FHs and the THs are counted in the university statistics, at the very least since the major reform of 1998 but probably for longer.

Anyway, without the article and the underlying data it’s impossible to say for sure. However, with Germany coming not percentage points lower, but rather multiples lower than comparable countries, it’s still fair to say that social democracy a la allemagne shows formidable structural barriers in practice that would not be expected from the theory put forward in John’s posting.


Katherine 12.16.03 at 5:19 pm

Ok. So you only want technical legal equality, never mind the facts on the ground. Never mind that my opportunities are nowhere comparable to a kid below the poverty line in rural appalachia or inner-city Detroit, and any honest person has to admit that, and the fact that you explain this with “stupid parents” is both irrelevant (is that the kid’s fault?) and at least mildly offensive.

Never mind that these wonderful examples of liberty, corporations, are created by the state. (Not that I am opposed to their existence, they’re very good at driving economic growth, but they didn’t spring organically into being). Not to mention their benefits from intellectual property laws, police and fire protection, an educated workforce, and things like roads. (Again, not saying any of the above are bad; just that their existence should be acknowledged.)

Never mind either, that our justice system does NOT give true legal equality, provides horrible lawyers who mount an inadequate defense for many poor people accused of crimes–that we’ve certainly imprisoned innocent people and if we haven’t executed one it’s sheer luck. Never mind that your conviction and sentence are more likely to reflect your lawyer than your crime in many states if not all. (Compare Delma Banks and Robert Blake). “Some people drive Lexuses, some people drive Toyotas.”*

Never mind that this current Supreme Court finds that all of this is fine under the Equal Protection clause, but the rights of Republican presidential candidates are sacrosanct.

Never mind the role the government had in creating a lot of this inequality–and I am not only talking about the Jim Crow laws in the south. Read Kenneth Jackson’s “Crabgrass Frontier” on how the Federal Housing Administration deliberately and very successfully promoted segregation & suburbanization in awarding mortgages after WW2.

No, all of that is irrelevant, because there’s a scary Kurt Vonnegut story that must be avoided at all costs. Of course what liberals fear actually existed in this country for 50 years or more, and we remain far closer to that than we are to “Harrison Bergeron” or Communism. Sure, almost every other western country provides more government involvement in the economy without the sky falling in–but Communism and Harrison Bergeron are SCARY.

* actual argument heard in criminal law class.

Whew. Must have woken up on the wrong side of bed this morning–but I stand by all of that.


wetzel 12.16.03 at 5:19 pm

There is a tendency in these kinds of discussion to mistake our condition as human beings on this earth for some kind of game. In this mindset, we imagine that if only we can design society along the lines of ‘equality of opportunity’ then the distribution of rewards will be ‘fair’. The poor want this because they know the current state is not fair, and the rich want this because they want relief from claims on their stuff.


dsquared 12.16.03 at 5:32 pm

Doug: But of course, remember that other kinds of equality come into play; to be a non-graduate technical worker in Germany is not at all the same thing as to be a non-graduate technical worker in the USA, particularly in terms of job security.


Matt 12.16.03 at 6:11 pm

“I consider all taxation to be theft, and I’d rather see taxation and the State eliminated altogether”

Well, okay then. Just so long as we know where one is coming from, and that this is _really_ an extreme position, and not a very plausible one. (Again, even Hayek and Milton Friedman are _very much_ to the left of this). This is a position which requires all sorts of pretty implausible metaphysical assumptions to get off the ground (much more implausible than anything Rawls talks about, I’d think)or is best the sort of “every-day libertarianism” which Nagel and Murphy point out deform political discussion so much in the US. It’s hard to take that seriously. Such a view is much closer to Feudalism than anything else, after all.


Jeremy Osner 12.16.03 at 6:13 pm

Adding on to what d-squared says, that is indeed the difference between a German-style Social Democracy and whatever you would call the current state of affairs in the US. In a Social Democracy one can be successful (as defined above by djw) without being a member of the managerial class — this makes Doug’s complaints about inequality in the German educational system a bit beside the point.

I would add that in the U.S. at the present moment, it is possible to be successful without a college degree if one is good at creating a business; I know some plumbers and contractors and home inspectors, for instance, who are well off and secure. I do not know how this plays into the point under discussion.


Decnavda 12.16.03 at 6:40 pm

“Never mind that these wonderful examples of liberty, corporations, are created by the state. (Not that I am opposed to their existence, they’re very good at driving economic growth, but they didn’t spring organically into being).”

Libertarians REALLY need to addess this. Recognition of this fact is what began my personal break with (right) libertarianism. A proper libertarian analysis of corporations should lead to one of two conclusions:
1. The government, which charters corporations, should treat them as cash machines, or
2. Corporations should not exist.
No add two facts:
1. The vast majority of our ecconomy is run by corporations.
2. There exists in the U.S. two political parties. One is more dedicated to reducing taxes on corporations, and the other is more dedicated to spending money on welfare for the poor.
Given those proper libertarian conclusions, and those two facts, the proper libertarian aliance to combat the greatest injustice would be to vote for the welfare raising party in order to stop the rich from looting the public of the true value of the privledges granted to corporations.

Yet in practice, most right libertarians vote with the rich looters against the poor looters. Why is that?


Matt Weiner 12.16.03 at 6:48 pm

Phoo, Katherine, no one said “stupid” here. I take it you’re responding to nicholas, but he did explicitly mention luck. Let’s not let this turn into that other thread*–people here seem to be trying to make legitimate arguments.

I strongly agree with your points, and also djw’s, by the way–I generally favor liberty, but I think that someone who can’t find a good job is less free than someone who has to pay taxes. (On my view, people’s liberties will conflict. No all-purpose rule for that.)

*and yes, no one died and appointed me moderator.


Decnavda 12.16.03 at 6:52 pm

Might I gratuitously use this opportunity to point out how my above post shows what a neo-Georgist analysis can do for ecconomic justice? Henry George may have squandered his theories in the “Single Tax” movement, but if you apply his form of analysis the entire eccomony, you begin to see all the ways in which the community can have a free market eccomony but still recover the market value of what the community provides far beyond just site monopolies.


Katherine 12.16.03 at 7:07 pm

Sorry, I skipped right over “luckier” and would therefore edit out the part of my post about “parents are stupid” if I could. I stand by the rest. I apologize for the accusatory tone, but I can’t think of a way to forcefully make those points without it.

I’ve encountered too many libertarians and Federalist Society members, I suppose, because however legitimate they are–my tolerance for certain of those arguments is close to nil.


Sebastian Holsclaw 12.16.03 at 7:07 pm

“It would seem that if person A’s chances for success* were roughly 95 percent and person B’s were 1 percent, they would be OK with that. They mean “Some chance, however slim, at success,” but not “equality of opportunity” based on the definitions of component parts.”

I think we are engaged in a social science fallacy here. The suggestion by conservatives is that those who desire success, can find a large part of it if they work at it. I’m not willing to work at being a multi-millionaire, but I could do it if I wanted to. The fact that many or most choose not to do so, is irrelevant. The ‘opportunity’ is available to work from almost anywhere on the financial ladder to almost anywhere else. You might not be able to get to the top 1% from here, but I’m confident that are very large percentage of people could get into the top 20% if they wanted.


Russell L. Carter 12.16.03 at 7:45 pm

“You might not be able to get to the top 1% from here, but I’m confident that are very large percentage of people could get into the top 20% if they wanted.”

Right. Like about 20%, say? Jeebus, this is so innumerate it’s scary. And the idea that entire philosophies use this sort of thing for a foundation…

And CT people, do we really have to be civil to self-avowed social darwinists?


Nicholas Weininger 12.16.03 at 7:53 pm

decnavda, I actually agree with some of your analysis. I don’t think limited-liability corporations should exist, and certainly they wouldn’t without a State, and if you proposed to eliminate individual income taxation in return for an increase in corporate taxes I’d be all for it. And I continue to be mystified by the arguments some libertarians make for the Republican party, which systematically discredits free-market ideas by paying lip service to them in its rhetoric while pursuing policies that have nothing at all to do with freeing up markets, resulting in people blaming free-marketeers for the failures of Republican corporate statism.

I doubt that Democratic welfare statism is actually an improvement, though. I think you grossly overestimate the value of “community privileges” and the desirability of using the State as an agent to determine and recapture that value.

matt: certainly, Hayek and Milton Friedman (but not David!) are much more statist than me. We’ll have to agree to disagree, I guess, on the philosophical desirability of anarcho-capitalism; in some sense it is a moot point anyway as I do not expect to see the end of the State in my lifetime.

katherine: I’m quite aware of the many ways that government has acted to forcibly create inequality. I don’t, however, believe that you can redress injustice by doing injustice. And I think that the fact that government has so often abused its power to forcibly create inequality is one of many good arguments for taking power *away* from government.


Ophelia Benson 12.16.03 at 8:16 pm

“or is best the sort of “every-day libertarianism” which Nagel and Murphy point out deform political discussion so much in the US.”

Indeed it does. However extreme that ‘taxation is theft’ line is, it’s very, very common over here. There are lots and lots of people who really believe it, and get all red in the face about it, too. No matter how enormously they benefit from the system as it is, complete with taxes and gummint, they are firmly convinced that every red cent of their money is their own doing and they don’t owe one red cent of it back. It’s quite remarkable.


Ophelia Benson 12.16.03 at 8:25 pm

And apart from the innumerate aspect of the ‘lots of people could get into the top 20% if they wanted to’ line – what of the need for all the people who do the work that can’t possibly get them up there? You know, nurses, teachers, chicken pluckers, bus drivers, factory workers, plumbers, construction workers, farm workers? If we can’t function without them, why is it okie dokie to rig things so that their work is paid so much worse than other kinds of work? Is everything really so exquisitely calibrated that everyone’s pay precisely matches the utility of her work? Are movie stars really that much more useful than teachers? If not, what remedy is there other than a progressive or mildly redistributive tax system? None that I can ever think of.


Nicholas Weininger 12.16.03 at 8:34 pm

Strawman descriptions of libertarianism are also, alas, all too common. I will point out that:

1. it is not necessary to believe that “every red cent” you have is your own doing in order to believe that the State has no right to take any of it;

2. likewise, you may do well in the current system and nevertheless believe that in a less-governed system you could do better.

I’ve seen this “they think they got where they are without help from anyone else” line a million times from leftists. I’ve never once, in many years as an active, argumentative libertarian, seen any actual libertarian make such a claim. Indeed, most libertarians I know talk up the importance of voluntary social networks in helping people succeed, and talk about how the State crowds out these crucial modes of voluntary cooperation in favor of its coercive schemes. Maybe I’ve traveled in a better class of libertarian circles. :-)


DJW 12.16.03 at 8:57 pm

S.H., we’ll have to agree to disagree, since we’ve now reached an empirical dispute neither of us (or anyone else) is in a position to resolve authoritatively. Notice I defined success quite modestly. I suspect that the vast majority desire, and indeed strive for this. There are, of course, structural constraints that prevent many/most disadvantaged people from rising to this state. Your strong methodological individualism limits the way the question can be considered. But again, I can’t “prove” you’re wrong, nor you me.

Ophelia, the popularity of the taxes are theft line is even more popular than you can imagine here in the rural US west. One book I would consider posting on the “books not read” thread tht seems quite relavent here is the recent volume by Holmes and Sunstein: The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes. As I understand it, they go after the negative/positive rights dichotomy by making the case that all rights are, for all practical purposes, positive rights since they various interventionist schemes to effectively protect them. Has anyone read this book? Any thoughts on it?


Antoni Jaume 12.16.03 at 8:58 pm

Were I a criminal, I’d claim to be a libertarian.

No matter how a public state is bad a private state is worse. That why the British did the Magna Charta: to limit the proprietor rights of the King.



Brett Bellmore 12.16.03 at 9:21 pm

Nothing enumerate about that. Clearly, what is meant is that most people are capable of achieving what only 20% have achieved.

Re calling taxation theft being so outrageous: This is a crucial point, IMO; Necessary evils do not, by virtue of being necessary, cease to be evil. And it’s enormously important to keep this in mind, because if you let the fact that something is necessary blind you to it’s evil, you’ll resort to it when it ISN’T necessary! Liberals (and some conservatives) fall prey to this mistake all the time. The need for a defense department doesn’t justify taxing people to pay for performance art. Each and every thing you propose to spend taxes on must INDEPENDENTLY be proven to be necessary.


Ken 12.16.03 at 9:26 pm

There are many ways that a less intrusive state can be more hospitable to the lower end of the economic scale.

For instance, planning commissions, “smart growth” initiatives, and over-restrictive zoning ordinances drive up the cost of housing, with disproportionate impact on the poor.

The wealthy get to require everyone else conform to their aesthetic preferences, while the poor find themselves priced out of the market.

Strict limits on the number of doctors, and the FDA’s habit of suspending sales of new drugs until its Assent should be obtained, and while so suspended, utterly neglecting to attend to them, drives up the cost of health care.

There are plenty of opportunities to increase everyone’s personal and economic freedom while at the same time improving the material well-being of the poor. While such opportunities exist, I see no reason to pursue strategies that reduce anyone’s economic freedom (even rich people’s economic freedom) in the name of improving the material well-being of the poor.

“And apart from the innumerate aspect of the ‘lots of people could get into the top 20% if they wanted to’ line”

Lots of people could raise themselves up so that they’re making an income that would get them into today’s 20%. If more than 20% of the population do so, then of course they won’t all then be part of tomorrow’s 20%, but they’ll still be as well off as today’s upper 20% are.


Ophelia Benson 12.16.03 at 9:30 pm

Well, I think I can almost imagine how popular the taxes are theft line is.

I for one have not read that Sunstein, although I do have a different book by Sunstein which I have also not read.


Decnavda 12.16.03 at 9:34 pm

If I conceed the point about “necessary evils”, could you please answer my point about “unnecessary goods”: Why should only people rich enough to buy stock benefit from the government’s creation of limited liability corporations?

Nicholas bit both bullets quite admirably: Limited liability corporations should not exist, and Republican corporate statism gives the free market a bad name. Do you agree on both points? (I agree with point two, but not point one.)


Ophelia Benson 12.16.03 at 9:36 pm

“it is not necessary to believe that “every red cent” you have is your own doing in order to believe that the State has no right to take any of it;”

Okay, I’ll bite. If you don’t believe that every cent you have is your own doing – does that mean you do recognize that you wouldn’t be able to make it at all without that State? That State which educates your workforce and the consumers who buy your stuff, which builds roads, which pays for armies and cops to protect your property and keep people from taking it away from you, which pays for courts and judges to enforce contracts as well as protect property – and so on and so on? Or is it some other force you’re recognizing that I’m not aware of. If it is the State – how can you profit from it so handsomely and yet think it has no right to tax you to support the whole system that you do so well out of? Why is that not a case of wanting all the goodies without paying for them?


Ken 12.16.03 at 9:51 pm

“Why should only people rich enough to buy stock benefit from the government’s creation of limited liability corporations?”

First of all “people rich enough to buy stock” constitutes a large majority of the population. Some of them might not be able to buy a whole lot of stock, but they still benefit from being able to buy even a smaller amount of stock without risking all of the assets that they didn’t put into the stock in the process.

How would you like it if one of the corporations represented in your 401(K) went bust in a big way and its creditors hit you up for a share of the money?


Chris Bertram 12.16.03 at 9:57 pm


_liberty (in the negative sense of non-coercion) is the primary political value, and equality of outcome has no moral value whatsoever._

Hmm. If you value liberty and see it primarily in terms of the absence of constraint then you’ve presumably noticed that the property rights you enjoy place limits on the freedom of others (they can’t mess with your stuff). Their property rights likewise limit your freedom. A very unequal society doesn’t maximize freedom in this sense, it redistributes it to the disbenefit of those with least. Which is a good reason for (counter)redistributive taxation if you care about everyone having a significant zone of freedom where they are unconstrained by others.


Brett Bellmore 12.16.03 at 10:00 pm

Decnavda, I assume that dead end link isn’t your subtle way of declaring “unnecessary goods” to be an empty set? ;)

I can’t really say that I’ve thought in depth about limited liability corporations, though the concept does make me uncomfortable. I’d absolutely agree with point #2, though. Both major parties do a remarkable job of discrediting the ideals they purport to champion. I say “purport”, because while the activists within the parties may care about those ideals, by and large the candidates do not. Both parties are firmly in the grip of “professional” politicians, to whom the distinction between Democrat and Republican has all the ideological significance of “Shirts vs Skins”.

I will note, however, that limited liability corporations supposedly have economic benefits, and if they do, it’s scarcely only the stockholders who benefit. There IS such a thing as a positive externality, after all.


Decnavda 12.16.03 at 10:00 pm

a libertarian free market system can be designed so as allow the state to recapure the market value of most to all of those advantages. Nicholos thinks I overestimate the value of these community priviledges, I think he underestimates them. It would be nice for the system to get back the market value of these benefits so we could see who is right. Until then, I for one will align myself with those who propose to take from the rich looters and give welfare to those denied their citizen’s dividend.


Decnavda 12.16.03 at 10:04 pm

What the?!? Sorry about the empty link – I have no idea how I did that. I have never known how to put links in comments, and I only meant to put that in quotes. I have put a lot in quotes in comments, though, so I am quite baffled.


Decnavda 12.16.03 at 10:11 pm

“I will note, however, that limited liability corporations supposedly have economic benefits, and if they do, it’s scarcely only the stockholders who benefit. There IS such a thing as a positive externality, after all.”

This is precisely why, unlike nicholas, I believe that that they should exist. That still does not justify giving away the benefits for less than market value. The intercontinental railroad in the 19th produced tons of positive externalities, and it was probably better run privately than publicly. That still does not excuse the government just giving away all that damn land.


BigMacAttack 12.16.03 at 10:17 pm

Most of the posters on this thread seem to accept the notion that what is needed/required is not Equality of Opportunity but some Minimum Level of Opportunity.

I agree. Implementing perfect Equality of Opportunity would not only involve wholesale violations of individual liberty it would also severely impact the incentive to work.
Any attempt to implement anything approaching perfect Equality of Opportunity would result in
less overall social utility, even assuming lost liberty does not equal lost social utility. So we must not only consider the trade off between individual liberty and attempts to implement some level of Equality of Opportunity, we must also consider the trade off between overall social utility and attempts to implement some level of Equality of Opportunity.

I would go further and suggest that any level of Equality of Opportunity that results in less social utility is not desirable. As a starting premise I accept that a redistribution of income from those who enjoy some level of income above the median to those who fall below some semi-absolute(huh?) level of income that reduces the overall income level(disincentive to work) increases rather than decreases social utility. I also accept that such a redistribution can help to increase Opportunity. This is often an unquestioned assumption. Such a redistribution might be good but not increase Opportunity. The goal is the implementation of some agreed upon Minimum Level of Opportunity that does not decrease overall social utility.

As a lot of people have pointed out, the devil is the details. How much liberty of your liberty are you willing to sacrifice? How of someone else’s liberty are you willing to sacrifice? (They tend to be different) What level above the median income? What level of redistribution? What semi-absolute(huh?) level of income? How do we know we are not reducing social utility? What is our definition of an acceptable Minimum Level of Opportunity? Etc.

So the questions –

Does the US or how close does the US come to meeting some Minimum Level of Opportunity? If the US does not meet the Minimum Level of Opportunity how much closer can increased income redistribution bring the US to the required Minimum Level of Opportunity?

The answers –

The US does not fully provide a Minimum Level of Opportunity.

No amount of simple income redistribution that did not result in less overall social utility would meet the required Minimum Level of Opportunity.

Even unquestioningly accepting the findings of studies desperate to prove that income determines academic achievement


income redistribution could at best only improve such achievement by 50%.

Now consider the following


In almost 1/3 of the roughly 7 million families who lived in poverty last year no one worked any amount of time. Not a single hour. Unless you labor under the delusion that finding minimum wage employment is difficult you will quickly realize that these adults chose not to work. They chose to be poor. If you look at the numbers in more detail it will quickly become clear that at least half of all poor families where poor because the heads of household chose not to work. The number is most likely far greater than half.

If you consider choices about family structures the percentage who chose to be poor becomes even greater. Since only about 3 million families with two parents lived in poverty and only 1 million families with two parents where one parent worked full time lived in poverty.

Now clearly we can say that poverty for these adults is not the result of a lack of Opportunity. Poverty is the result of choices. Choices that lead to single parent households. Choosing not to work.

We cannot say the same for any children in these families.

It also appears that by increasing the income level for these families these children would improve their academic achievement. I would imagine we would at least need to increase it above the poverty line, if not more. They would be granted an increased level of Opportunity. They would still be outperformed by at least 50%. But they would certainly enjoy an increased level of Opportunity.

Unfortunately the consequences of any such policy would result in less overall social utility. Only a fool would think that such a policy would not drastically reduce the incentive to work. A policy that was so totally disconnected from the idea of accountability would certainly result in less work, an overall decrease in the income level, and a decrease in overall social utility.

So simple income redistribution will not work.

However if we tied redistribution to behavior we could safely insure that al least the children of one million families would enjoy some increased level of Opportunity and it is unlikely that this would result in less overall social utility.

Unfortunately the left would call you a fascist and heartless for making such a suggestion. The manifestly obvious roll choices play in creating poverty and unequal outcomes would be denied. No serious attempt would be made to identify some reasonable semi-absolute(huh?) income level that would increase opportunity. Instead a preposterous relative level would be the target.

And the right would just state that no problem exists and redistribution is never the solution.


Nicholas Weininger 12.16.03 at 10:19 pm

Ophelia: I think much of my success comes from a chain of choices made, and lucky opportunities taken, by people in my immediate social network– my family, friends, co-workers, and so forth. These people relied in turn upon the choices and opportunities of others around them. There are myriad non-governmental social mechanisms by which people cooperate to make each other better off, some based on the market, many based on personal affinity. I think these are more important than the State.

I believe, furthermore, that the State is actually a hindrance to my success and that of others. The schools it supplies educate the workforce very poorly and much worse than private schools would in a free market. The roads it builds could likewise be privately built. Even security and arbitration can be provided privately (besides which, State interventionism creates most of the threats it claims to protect me from).

What I owe to other people is what I have freely contracted to owe them. I freely contract for many goods and services now and happily pay the providers, and I would likewise pay for roads, schools, courts, etc. privately in the absence of the State. The State, like any protection racket, provides me services I did not ask for and then holds a gun to my head to make me pay for them. Many of those services I would not take at all if asked– cops arresting marijuana smokers, for example.


Decnavda 12.16.03 at 10:20 pm

You are arguing for the existence of limited liability corps, which I agree with. But to the extent that the corporation recieves benefits free of charge from the state, it takes from an entity owned equally by all individuals, and gives to entity owned more by wealthier people, thus redistributing wealth upwards. I like the market. I just want to end the free give-aways.


Nicholas Weininger 12.16.03 at 10:28 pm

Chris: Liberty as I see it is the ability to do what you want, uncoerced, with what you rightfully have– where what you rightfully have is your self-ownership plus what you have gained in free exchange. No one is born entitled to anything but their self-ownership.

No guarantee of a minimum amount of property for all can be achieved without forcibly taking from some what they have gained in free exchange. This taking I regard as axiomatically evil, because I don’t believe in “the greatest freedom for the greatest number”; I think people’s rights are *incomparable*, not equal. If A has amassed a great deal (without force or fraud) while B has amassed very little, B’s failure is not A’s fault and is therefore not a good reason to take from A by force.


Chris Bertram 12.16.03 at 10:40 pm

Right … so a world in which you own _everything_ except the bodies of your fellows so that they are obliged to work for you (or to starve) is unexceptionable just so long as it arose by a process of fair exchange (and acquistion)?

And from the point of liberty there is nothing to choose between that world and another one of roughly equal smallholders which also came about by such a process?

And in fact the first world is morally _better_ than a modified version of the second with just a tiny bit of coercive redistributive taxation (one ear of wheat taken from the richest peasant and given the the poorest)?

Just so long as you’re willing to bite the bullet!


Ophelia Benson 12.16.03 at 10:46 pm

Ah. I thought a libertarian had admitted something for once, but no. He admits the advantages that come from relatives and similar – what one might call the private sector – but not those that come from being embedded in a social structure. The one that to be sure none of us asked for, since we were all infants when we arrived in it, but nevertheless, I’d be interested to see someone manage to get rich – rich, hell, manage to survive – without it. So, no admission. So no conversation.


Decnavda 12.16.03 at 10:53 pm

“If A has amassed a great deal (without force or fraud)”

And how could that have happened, exactly? Hasn’t for example, all land on earth been transfered at some point through coersive means? You have in this thread denied the legitimacy of both money recieved from the state and money recieved from a limited liability corporation. How many wealthy people alive have clean hands?


Nicholas Weininger 12.16.03 at 11:34 pm

chris: well, if we’re comparing two fantastical hypotheticals, yeah, the first world is morally better than any world with coercive redistributive taxation. I’d prefer the second, sure, but I’d consider it immoral to steal in order to get there. There are many ways to make this real in-between world more like the second without stealing from anyone, and I’m as much in favor of those as you. The question here is of means, not ends.

ophelia: the network of social relationships in which I exist *is* “the social structure in which [one is] embedded.” People may relate to each other on a basis of affinity, trade, or force, or some combination; the sum of their relations constitutes society. The State is *not* society, nor is it somehow an expression of a fictitious collective will; it is the institutionalized and supposedly legitimized form of the forcible mode of relation, a mode which I think is evil and worth removing from our lives as much as possible.

decnavda: sure, original-position problems abound. Few have clean hands. And this may be grounds for *specific* claims against specific people. It is not grounds for a general claim on anyone wealthy. If we had a magical straightener-out of uncleanliness, we could redress all the many injustices of history in which people’s wealth is mixed up. As it is, the humble and decent thing to do is to leave well enough alone.


Decnavda 12.17.03 at 12:07 am

You have given me the classic right libertarian shrug of a response to the rectification problem. Given the socioecconomic status of the vast majority of libertarians, I refer to this as the “Let’s quit while I’m ahead” proposal. You provide a forcible justification for the absolute morality of private property based on past actions, and when confronted with the fact that the vast majority of private property in reality was not obtained this way, you shrug and offer a practical forward looking proposal that conviently leaves you holding your ill gotten gains.

I think the poor of the world should respond by saying, “Let the rich turn over their blood money first, and THEN we can discuss the terms of a truce!”

You seem upset that I am asigning collective responsiblity to the rich, but if you expect the government to protect their wealth, you are assigning them collective amnesty to them. Your answer reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s musings latter in life regarding the problem of slavery. He realized it was wrong, but it was also wrong, he thought for the government to take property without compensation, and many people had invested their hard-earned money in slaves. How could you free the slaves without creating an injustice with regard to property rights?

The delima he identified was real. His solution – stop the slave trade but let slaveholders keep current slaves, was a personally convinient amnesty program that perpetuated the status quo injustice.


Nicholas Weininger 12.17.03 at 12:22 am

decnavda: the slavery analogy fails because *every* slaveholder, without exception, was by definition a man-stealer. There were thus specific, easily identifiable injustices against specific individuals to correct. And those could be corrected without depriving anyone of their legitimate rights– as no one ever had a legitimate property right in a slave in the first place.

Plenty of the wealth now possessed by the rich people of the world is not blood money, but money gained through innovation and enterprise. A good deal of it is ill-gotten, too. You and I could argue forever over the relative proportions. But we’d still face the question of how to disentangle the two without trampling on the holders of the former.

The non-blood-money rich exist, and their right to their gains is real– as the right of slaveholders to hold slaves never was. Collective amnesty is better than collective responsibility when some are indeed blameless. This isn’t “quit while I’m ahead”– it’s “better to let ten guilty go free than convict one innocent”.

Furthermore, your ad hominem is not only irrelevant but inaccurate. Many, perhaps even most, of the anarcho-capitalists I know of are not rich; I can list you off some non-rich-an-cap blogs if you like. I assure you they condemn forced redistribution just as assiduously as I.


Matt Weiner 12.17.03 at 12:33 am

Few have clean hands. And this may be grounds for specific claims against specific people. It is not grounds for a general claim on anyone wealthy.

To join the pig-pile: I don’t think anyone has clean hands. If someone steals a lot of money and freely gives it to me, I hope I wouldn’t say that justice requires I get to keep it. And it seems unlikely that there’s a single piece of material property* that has passed through an unbroken chain of libertarian fair exchange since its original acquisition.

For instance, I’ve been paid by state universities for the past ten years; since those are funded by taxes, all my property is theft.

So the question remains–do we leave the people who benefit most from theft on top? Or, if the current distribution is based on theft, do we have the right/obligation to replace it with a better theft-based distribution?

*as opposed to intellectual property, a can of worms.


Matt Weiner 12.17.03 at 12:35 am

Eh, I posted that before your latest post. Obviously I’m disagreeing with your second and third paragraphs.


Thomas 12.17.03 at 12:57 am

Er, I like Nozick, you like Rawls.

Is there anything else to say?


Nicholas Weininger 12.17.03 at 1:01 am

Matt: it does, indeed, seem unlikely– but how can you tell, and against whom shall the claim be made, for any one piece of property? Again, I’m all for redressing specific, identifiable injustices against specific people. What I object to is the idea that the overall existence of injustice in history creates a collective claim that everyone holds against everyone else.

Any given piece of material property has probably seen, in its long chain of acquisitions, many based on theft and many based on free exchange. If A steals something from B and gives it to C_1, who doesn’t know it was stolen, and then C_1 passes it on to C_2, who passes it on to C_3 and so on, there exists an n such that C_n has at least as good a claim to it as does B’s nth descendant. Most of the time, in any case, the whole chain is impossible to trace. Likewise, any given person has been both a beneficiary and a victim of collective robbery– and also a real creator of wealth– and the two cannot be disentangled.

No distribution is, from the point of rights and entitlements, in and of itself better than any other. Any forcible redistribution will inevitably, and on a very large scale, steal from many people the fruits of their free exchange and give it to others from whom it was not stolen. That is enough to condemn such redistribution out of hand.


Nicholas Weininger 12.17.03 at 1:18 am

thomas: you have a very good point. :-)

A point which I missed seeing before my last post. I should, after all my logorrhea, thank the other commentators here for a civil discussion, and CT for letting me continue long after the comments section should probably have been closed. Reflective equilibrium (a Rawlsian concept! The horror!) is a nice and important pastime, and there are few more congenial places to practice it.


Decnavda 12.17.03 at 1:26 am

So, my slave analogy does not work because no one has a right to own a slave, including a person who freely invests legitimate hard-earned income in one. So freeing the slave deprived no one of legitimately held property.

Earlier you stated that limited liability companies should not exist.

So, we can just nationalize all private corporations, disolve them, auction off the assets, and distribute the proceeds in a Rawlsian manner.

Problem solved?


loren 12.17.03 at 1:34 am

thomas: “Er, I like Nozick, you like Rawls. Is there anything else to say?”

Yes: Rawls is more persuasive.

heh heh.

oh, this damn thing is on again …


Decnavda 12.17.03 at 1:46 am

“Furthermore, your ad hominem is not only irrelevant but inaccurate. Many, perhaps even most, of the anarcho-capitalists I know of are not rich; I can list you off some non-rich-an-cap blogs if you like. I assure you they condemn forced redistribution just as assiduously as I.”

1. It is not irrelevant. As I was trying to point out, you were not making a moral argument for amnesty, you were proposing a truce. This is negotiation, and the relative position of parties is relevant to any negotiation.

You have since made an argument I had not heard before – the let one innocent free rather than convict ten guilty. But I still agree with matt there there is no physical property free of coersive transfer, and I found nothing new in your response once again throwing up your hands at the inability of rectifying anything.

2. It is not innacurate. I am not suprised you think so however. I have traveled in many libertarian circles myself, and I know few consider themselves well-off. This is because they tend not to be as rich as their relatives, or as rich as they could be if they cared as much about making money as promoting libertarianism, and certainly not as rich as they in their capitalist dreams want to be. Most are underemployed suburban white men who mouch off of well off relatives instead of the government. They therefore take the invisible privledges of their socioecconomic background for granted, think of themselves as “poor”, and do not understand the situation of America and world’s REAL poor.


Decnavda 12.17.03 at 1:50 am

“I can list you off some non-rich-an-cap blogs if you like.”

This illustrates my point: These people have BLOGS!. I am an SSI attorney. In three years, I have had maybe two clients with an EMAIL address, and I live in frick’en San Francisco! If you have the time and rescources to blog, you are not REALLY poor.


Decnavda 12.17.03 at 2:01 am

Of course, I now fully expect someone to post a link to a blog maintianed by an unusually sofisticated homeless person whostops by the library each day to log on. I am sure they exist, but are not representative by a long shot.


Brett Bellmore 12.17.03 at 2:19 am

Decnavda, I prefer to think of it as, “Let’s quit before you clout me over the head, and take my wallet.”


Decnavda 12.17.03 at 2:40 am

You are, of course, refering to the wallet you just picked out of someone else’s pocket.


linden 12.17.03 at 7:26 am

Hey, decnavda, you may be interested to know that there are homeless people in the blogosphere. (!!!) Try telling them they’re not poor. Anyone can go to a FREE public library in the US and get a FREE email address.


linden 12.17.03 at 7:49 am

“You are, of course, refering to the wallet you just picked out of someone else’s pocket.”

The creation of wealth is not a zero sum game. The amount of wealth is not finite. Just because I get wealthy doesn’t mean others become poor. When this does happen, it is because the law is violated–Enron’s the perfect example.

Think of Bill Gates. The richest man on earth. How many millionaires has Microsoft made? How many jobs in non-US countries does information technology provide? Quite a few and it’s expanding every day.

I believe that providing equality of opportunity is vital to success in this country, but it will never be absolute because there are factors the government cannot control without greatly infringing on individual rights: the quality of parenting, cultural elements, chance, etc. Our greatest weakness is the failing public schools system. As a graduate of an American public school, I wouldn’t put a dog in an American public school.

I do not believe all taxes are theft; however, I do believe there is a point where taxes become punitive and regressive. They at this point become theft. I worry we are quickly approaching that point.


Doug 12.17.03 at 9:03 am

Continuing the examination of Germany, from way up-thread…

Doug: But of course, remember that other kinds of equality come into play; to be a non-graduate technical worker in Germany is not at all the same thing as to be a non-graduate technical worker in the USA, particularly in terms of job security. – dsquared

be successful (as defined above by djw) without being a member of the managerial class ? this makes Doug?s complaints about inequality in the German educational system a bit beside the point. – jeremy osner

I’m surprised that writers from the left would defend such a massive limitation on equality of opportunity in return for hoped-for security later.

What we’re talking about, in practice, is tracking children at around age 10 into educational opportunities that essentially replicate their parents’ background. Inherited privelige and greater opportunities (higher education) and inherited limitations (trade schools). Nevermind what the Americans are or aren’t doing, this is an undesirable approach.

Honor the smart people on the factory floor, or on the building site. But defend a system that has denied their full potential? Just because that factory floor job is supposedly secure? I thought equality of opportunity was what we were talking about how to achieve.

(We can sing the song of industrial restructuring and bankruptcy, too, and see how that security works in practice. Add that the presumed security in practice entrenches unemployment rates nearing 10 percent, and looks like a system even further from the claims made for it in the original post.)

On a non-German note, a brief word about limited liability corporations. At the ground level, they tend to increase opportunity for people of modest to moderate means who want to start a business. Incorporating lets you separate your business risks from your personal risks, and that encourages business formation and wealth creation.

Without this separation, only people who had enough money to be able to afford to lose it would be starting businesses, which is not exactly a way to get to equality of opportunity.


Brett Bellmore 12.17.03 at 12:23 pm

“You are, of course, refering to the wallet you just picked out of someone else’s pocket.”

And here we have the crux of the matter, which is that you can’t just assume that if somebody’s wallet is fatter than average, it must be stuffed with ill gotten loot, and can justly be taken from them. Guilt is an individual matter, which must be individually proven in each specific case. And income redistribution schemes don’t do that, do they?


Decnavda 12.17.03 at 5:23 pm

If you reread this thread, you will find that the only person to come out against the existence of limited liability corporations was a libertarian, nicholas.

Of course the creation of wealth is not a zero-sum game. When two individuals or entities for an ecconomic partnership, they do so because as a partnership, they can make more money than either can seperately. What to do with the extra wealth? It should be split, with each side getting the most they can freely negotiate. This splitting is a zero-sum game nesseled inside of the positive-sum game. If either partner just lets the other side take all of the newly generated wealth, they are giving away their fair share. Corporations are ecconomic partnerships between individuals and the state. Decreases in corporate taxes beyond what is designed to maximize revenue for the government are essentially the government giving away its fair share of the positive sum created wealth to the corporation.

As explained above, the current system redistributes wealth from the poor to the rich. If Robin Hood is wrong, Reverse Robin Hood is worse.


Doug 12.17.03 at 8:20 pm

Sorry, missed the new CT protocol that said it isn’t civil to say something a lone libertarian might not have thought about. For my penalty, I will now reread the whole thread three times.


Decnavda 12.17.03 at 10:58 pm

Actually, after I posted that, I regreted my comments to you as unnecessarily assuming an us vs them mentality. My apologies.


Doug 12.18.03 at 8:30 am

decnavda, no worries. I’ve often wanted an ‘edit comments’ ability to fix typos, bad italics, botched links, as well as more substantive things.

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