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Monday, August 07, 2017

Free Market Morality

In a column for The Stone ("[An NYT] forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless), philosophy professor Amia Srinivasan posed a set of questions for free-market moralists.

She prefaces them by juxtaposing John Rawls A Theory of Justice" against Robert Novick's subsequent Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

At the risk of doing unintentional violence to both arguments, here they are in summary:

Theory of Justice: Hypothesize an original position which requires devising principles of justice from behind a "veil of ignorance". That is, no foreknowledge of one's place in society. Because of that ignorance, subsequent principles anyone derives will be inherently fair, because the veil of ignorance prevent privileging any class of people.

Because there is no way of knowing a priori one's position in society, such principles of justice will recognize the risk of ending up badly on the other side of the veil: each member has an equal claim on societies goods; natural attributes, because they are down to luck, do not change this claim; therefore, the only allowable inequalities are those benefitting the worst-off members of society.

In reaction to Rawls, Novick argued for a minimal state (minarchist libertarianism) limited to protection of private property and mutual individual liberty. Such a state, by definition, could not extend to the sort of redistributionist policies inherent in Rawl's theory. According to Nozick, "[any distribution of wealth] is just if it arises from a prior just distribution by legitimate means". For our purposes, all voluntary exchanges, are, by definition, legitimate.

Consequently there is no a priori pattern (e.g., Marx's "from each according to ability, to each according to need") to which a just distribution will conform; whatever distribution results is just to the extent that it results from voluntary exchanges. Yes, there will be people who inherit wealth they didn't themselves earn, just as there will be those born into penury through no fault of their own, just as some will be born with more talent than others — which is really inheritance in a different form.

Moreover, because talents and motivations vary so much between people, no Rawlsian patterned principle of justice will persist without the state continually interfering in individual decisions.

Now, having walked the tightrope, probably falling off both sides, between tl;dr and summarizing Rawls and Nozick beyond recognition, here is the gist of Srinivasan's article: refuting Nozick through four questions:

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

I'm going with yes, yes, yes and yes, her ill-considered hypotheticals — which would be an insult to any serious forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless, although The Stone has never shown any sign of being such — notwithstanding.

19 comments:

Bret said...

To me, asking if a free market is moral is sorta like asking if a hammer is moral. To me, it's a nonsensical question. A hammer is a tool, a market is something that allows people to exchange goods and services, and that exchange often makes the people better off (in their own estimation) than they otherwise would've been. Neither hammers nor markets are inherently moral nor immoral.

Let's take hypothetical 1. It is no doubt true, that the circumstances of billions of people are such that their opportunities are extremely limited, and that their best economic opportunities really suck and are basically (barely) subsistence existences. But even if the markets that provide such poor choices for so many are free or even free-ish, that doesn't make the market immoral or the participants in the market immoral. It simply means that it falls far short of some utopian ideal.

The question to me then becomes whether or not the "collective" should do anything to help those in unfortunate circumstances and if so, how? Ms. Srinivasan assumes that the collective should do something, the government should specifically be the actor for the collective to do said things, and that those things should include redistribution and regulation (and probably lots and lots of both of those). However, group A (Ms. Srinivasan and like minded people) directing group B (the government) to forcefully take from group C (some collection of taxable people) to give to group D (the supposedly less fortunate) has some moral issues as well (for example, that "forcefully take" bit).

Perhaps a more moral approach is helping the less fortunate through charity, volunteering, paying employees who need some help a bit more when you can, etc., but unfortunately, especially with the weakening of families and the churches and religious organizations, the capacity to help those in need may fall short of what's needed.

So far are choices are: (a) some forced by circumstance to be miserable at bare (or even below) subsistence in a raw free market; (b) some forced by the government to pay and/or do things they'd rather not; or (c) a seemingly ineffective charity system.

Which brings me to the concept of "comparative advantage in deception and violence." From the beginning of humanity, the strongest tribes (as in most effective at wielding violence) and strongest kings subjugated the surrounding peoples and demanded (and got) "tributes" which basically was a bribe or extortion fee to keep the king from beating on them. These kings had a comparative advantage in violence. It was costly to maintain the weapons and the training, but the tribute made it worth it.

In the modern age, in the United States, or even a somewhat poorer country, the less well of have a comparative advantage in violence because they have less to lose and can co-opt the force of the State via the vote. So we end up with (b) above, a form of populism or collectivism. Not because it's moral, but because that's where the power lies.

Clovis e Adri said...

All good points Bret.

I offer another possibility closer to my experience in a "somewhat poorer country", where it is equally (or more?) probable the 'better off' group will co-opt the force of the State (by buying every pawn they need, be it politicians, judiciary and media). So you end up with both (a) and (b) above, but the ones forced to "pay and/or do things they'd rather not" are the poor subjects described in (a).


Clovis e Adri said...

Skipper,

Though I agree some of her hypotheticals are weak, her greater and final point hits home: people who claim their Nozick-like position to be "The Moral One" are assuming too much. They would do better by replacing it with "my particular moral code".

Hey Skipper said...

[Bret:] To me, asking if a free market is moral is sorta like asking if a hammer is moral. To me, it's a nonsensical question.

As it happens, I think you are on to something, but perhaps don't realize it -- to be fair, I didn't, either, until you read your comment a few times.

And what you are on to is one reason I keep rubbishing this faux-profound NYT series.

Both A Theory of Justice (ToJ) and Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU) are works of political philosophy, not ethics or morality. So throwing moral or ethical conundrums (at just one) is a serious category mistake that you would think even a mediocre philosopher would avoid. After all, we can take, say the concept of English Common Law, and create conundrums it can't handle.

This is true of any legal or political system; pointing out conundrums is a foolish exercise, and in so doing she misses some very, very critical points.

Before going any further, I have to admit that ToJ does provide some interesting insights. The veil of ignorance as the basis for a political philosophy does make a powerful case that certain things couldn't exist within a Rawlsian polity. For instance, say one could be born into a society where 10% of the people are slaves. Sure, the other 90% have it great, but the odds of being born into slavery are high enough to make the veil of ignorance an argument against slavery, regardless of whether it is "moral".

Of course, by its nature, ToJ is fodder for collectivists, because it is a political philosophy is tailor made for imposed solutions.

Throat clearing complete, there is a fatal flaw in ToJ: it has no limit; there all sorts of actions that aren't forbidden within Rawlsian space. (Her selection of hypotheticals not only indicates she didn't understand what she was dealing with, it also is diagnostic of a very selective blindness: harryopia.)

More soon, but the hotel executive lounge just opened, and free has a quality all its own ...

Hey Skipper said...

By way of caveats, the second G&T is nearly under my belt. And I'm typing on an iPad.

Per ToJ, anyone behind the veil of ignorance would want a system where no one was entitled to better health, because everyone deserves the same opportunity to be healthy.

Right?

Bret said...

Clovis,

Yes, a, b, and c are not mutually exclusive and some countries have managed to both make people miserable and force people to not do what they want. You are also right that I didn't mention that often b is done by powerful people supposedly "on behalf" of the poor, when, in fact, they mostly utilize b to line their own pockets.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "...there all sorts of actions that aren't forbidden within Rawlsian space."

In theory, his principles of justice limit a lot of possibilities. For example:

"First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all."

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "Per ToJ, anyone behind the veil of ignorance would want a system where no one was entitled to better health, because everyone deserves the same opportunity to be healthy."

I think the veil of ignorance has many flaws, but I don't think that necessarily follows. If you were voting behind the veil of ignorance, is that what you'd vote for?

Hey Skipper said...

[Clovis:] I offer another possibility closer to my experience in a "somewhat poorer country" …

Is your experience in a poorer country completely apt?

In Nozick's universe (NU), only mutually voluntary transactions are legal.

That's all well and good. However, it is a brute fact that even if NU came into being today, whether in Brazil or the US, it is obvious that many wealthy people (more so in Brazil than the US) can directly trace their wealth back to some decidedly non-voluntary transactions.

Two things. First, can't blame Nozick for that. Second, in NU, because reversion to the mean is far more the exception than the rule, over time, exclusively voluntary transactions should spread that ill gotten wealth around.

Yet in Brazil, this has clearly not happened. Again, Nozick cannot be blamed here, because Brazilian government is nowhere near miniarchist. Rather, the blame lies with exactly the kind of state Nozick was inveighing against.

… her greater and final point hits home: people who claim their Nozick-like position to be "The Moral One" are assuming too much.

Proving she has missed one significant point. NU has no moral component to it. Rather, the claim is that in NU, outcomes will be far more inclined to conform with what we view as moral than in Rawl's ToJ.

The other point she doesn't address, either because she didn't get that either, or her presentation was so one sided she didn't have to consider it, is the difference between "entitled" and "deserved".

ToJ relies upon what individuals behind the VoI think they deserve.

NU only considers to what individuals are entitled.

Huge difference.

Hey Skipper said...

[Bret:] In theory, his principles of justice limit a lot of possibilities. For example:

"First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all."

Hey Skipper wrote: "Per ToJ, anyone behind the veil of ignorance would want a system where no one was entitled to better health, because everyone deserves the same opportunity to be healthy."

I think the veil of ignorance has many flaws, but I don't think that necessarily follows. If you were voting behind the veil of ignorance, is that what you'd vote for?


Sounds good, doesn't it? We all equally deserve the opportunity to be healthy.

Yet that statement — as a statement of a positive right — is limitless.

Let's say you have two healthy kidneys, I will soon die of kidney failure, and we are a match. You can live just as well on one kidney as two, and I can't live at all without one of yours.

We both equally deserve to be healthy, therefore I deserve one of your kidneys.

According to the ToJ, I shall have it.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "We both equally deserve to be healthy, therefore I deserve one of your kidneys."

It's been decades since I read it, but I believe he specifically discusses slicing people up for body parts as violating "basic liberties." In other words, people behind the veil would reject hacking people up according to Rawls' analysis.

Hey Skipper said...

Then Rawls is copping out.

There is no way -- in the ToJ -- my loss of a kidney I don't need outweighs someone else's loss of life. The whole point of the ToJ is that there are things people deserve -- positive rights -- which a collectivist central government will fulfill, because anyone behind the VoI will desire that outcome.

Would anyone behind the VoI forego a kidney someone else doesn't need in order to remain alive? Really?

If not -- and I'm going with not -- then Rawls is engaging in mere handwaving to draw the line where he does. Either the VoI is dispositive, or it isn't. If he is going to have it both ways, then the ToJ is worthless.

Remember her answer to the fourth hypothetical, "are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?"

If you say yes, then you think the only moral requirements are the ones we freely bring on ourselves — say, by making promises or contracts. Suppose I’m walking to the library and see a man drowning in the river. I decide that the pleasure I would get from saving his life wouldn’t exceed the cost of getting wet and the delay. So I walk on by. Since I made no contract with the man, I am under no obligation to save him.

That answer is, of course, by way of contrast with the ToJ, which would impose an obligation to rescue a drowning person. What about the risk to the rescuer?

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote "Then Rawls is copping out."

The constraints of the blog comment format makes it difficult to defend someone who spent a significant fraction of a thousand page(ish) book discussing such topics.

But I still don't get your problem with Rawls. Apparently, if it was a bunch of Hey Skippers behind the veil, y'all would say, "Oh yeah, let's hack the hell outta each other if it makes the worst off among us better off." Then fine (though color me skeptical), that's how you structure your society by mutual consent and you can rip kidneys out of each other to your hearts' content.

Rawls and I behind the veil would, on the other hand, define a very simple line that inflicting significant pain or suffering or significantly injuring without consent is a violation of basic rights and is prohibited even if it would make the worst off better off. My belief is that the vast majority of folks would agree with that and that hacking someone's kidney out would clearly cross that line and by mutual consent would be prohibited.

Clovis e Adri said...

Skipper,

---
Again, Nozick cannot be blamed here, because Brazilian government is nowhere near miniarchist.
---
FYI, Brazilian society is nowhere near Rawlsian either.

---
Proving she has missed one significant point. NU has no moral component to it.
---
Her whole premise is to show that claims of NU-moral worthiness being superior are misguided. In challenging those claims, she may have made the same mistake of forgetting that morals, there, are not very well defined for both parties.

Which also means her whole message could have been coded in a single phrase. If I were to criticize her essay, it would be for wasting our precious time in that way 'philosophers' usually take much satisfaction at.

Hey Skipper said...

I've been travelling, and had visitors, so this a very late response.

[Bret:] Rawls and I behind the veil would, on the other hand, define a very simple line that inflicting significant pain or suffering or significantly injuring without consent is a violation of basic rights and is prohibited even if it would make the worst off better off.

I disagree. The pain/suffering of the donor is minimal, particularly compared to death by kidney failure, and there is no injury to the donor, who is just as fit after the operation as before.

Moreover, it can't be a simple line because relying upon it guts Rawls veil of ignorance.

After all, Rawls VoI does serve as an excellent way of approaching moral questions without assuming some particular moral view. If one might come out the other side of the veil as a slave, then one's view of slavery will be very different than a slave owner's view, because the latter's view is contaminated by the position of being a slave owner.

But since none of us behind the VoI can foretell if we might die from kidney disease, then it would be perfectly reasonable to want a society where kidney donation is mandatory, since it costs the donor so little, and benefits the recipient so much.

There is no way around this except hand-waving.

Now, this, in and of itself, doesn't mean the ToJ is fundamentally flawed because mandatory kidney donations are one obvious consequence. In fact, the issue presents a real ethical conundrum. It is very easy not to find repellant mandatory organ donation, but it is very hard to argue against it on ethical terms. (For instance, giving a house to a homeless person would be an act of generosity, as would voluntarily donating a kidney. Yet giving a house to a homeless person in return for a kidney is illegal. How do two rights make a wrong?)

Unfortunately, I have again run out of time.

The fundamental contest is between the concepts of "deserved" and "entitled".

The former, as Rawls uses it should lead to "reasonable" moral outcomes.

The latter, as Nock uses it, merely defines how it is people are entitled to what they have, and doesn't involve morality at all.

Kind of like the difference between Marx and Smith.

Hey Skipper said...

[Clovis:] Her whole premise is to show that claims of NU-moral worthiness being superior are misguided.

That indeed is her premise; however, she cooks the books by only addressing NU, proposing preposterous hypotheticals, and ignoring the totalitarian beast lurking within the ToJ.

Clovis e Adri said...

Skipper,

Does she?

I don't think people would vote themselves to be under totalitarian control in the VoI. Notwhistanding your answer to Bret, I side with him on the organ donation example.

We could only settle that by making a stastistically significant run of the experiment. And such settlement would be only partial, with no guarantees that a similar experiment would not return a 'totalitarian beast' if done again later, or in other places.

But then you have no such guarantees in any system. If a sufficient number of your fellow citizens decide to install a 'totalitarian beast' as a system, no ToJ or NU will easily save you. I now live that conundrum here every day - I consider we are today a democracy in paper only, and a thin one at that - so I guess I can tell you.

Hey Skipper said...

[Clovis:] Notwithstanding your answer to Bret, I side with him on the organ donation example.

Why?

The VoI is a very interesting construct, in that it eliminates what is so common in life: where you stand on something depends on where you sit. It eliminates vested interests.

And it intrinsically poses ethical dilemmas. I don't see how, within the ToJ, mandated organ donation is anything other than a feature. And, taken on purely ethical terms, it is extremely hard to argue against.

In contrast, the NU completely puts such a thing out of bounds: entitled and deserved are two entirely different concepts.

----

I should have picked a different time for this post. As if being busy isn't bad timing enough, I'm leaving tomorrow for two weeks in Iceland. Internet won't be a feature, and I hate typing on my iPad in any event.

Clovis e Adri said...

Skipper,

In this case, have a good travel!

I will make my answer as short as possible: I don't think people would massively vote for mandated organ donation. I would not, Bret would not, you apparently would not. Unless you doubt our statistical sample here, I am proved right :-)