Merit Badges

Brad Delong, favorably citing Matthew Yglesias and Max Sawicky on why stealing from the hardworking and talented is a-ok:

Jim Mirrlees covered this in one of the most entertaining public finance lectures I ever listened to: one in which society attained the utilitarian optimum by imposing extremely heavy lump-sum taxes on the capable and industrious that they had to work like dogs to pay off, while everybody else lived the leisurely life of Reilly. For any reasonable social welfare function this tax-and-subsidize scheme was better than a more "traditional" one in which the industrious and capable lived well and the others lived less well.

Didn't someone write a really long book about this? Something about Galts and Gulches? I forget.

Shorter version:


The ants were spending a fine winter's day drying grain collected in the summertime. A Grasshopper, perishing with famine, passed by and earnestly begged for a little food. The Ants inquired of him, "Why did you not treasure up food during the summer?' He replied, "I had not leisure enough. I passed the days in singing." They then said in derision: "If you were foolish enough to sing all the summer, you must dance supperless to bed in the winter."

So simple, even a child can understand.

Will Wilkinson injects a hearty dose of common sense into this mix with his recent TechCentralStation article, Meritocracy: The Appalling Ideal?

Material inequality is one kind of inequality among many. Political inequality is more troubling by far, for political power is the power to push people around. Coercion is wrong on its face, and so the existence of political inequality requires a specially strong and compelling justification. However, if the luck argument cuts against moral entitlement to material holdings, it cuts equally against any moral entitlement to political power.

The justification for political power is generally sought in the "consent" of the people through free, fair and open elections. Yet the fact that someone has gained power by a democratic ballot can be no more or less relevant than the fact that Warren Buffet gained his billions through a series of fair, voluntary transactions. John Edwards (who, by the way, is a mill worker's son) didn't deserve his luxuriant tresses and blinding grin. Reagan didn't deserve movie-star name recognition. Bushes don't deserve to be Bushes. Kennedys don't deserve to be Kennedys. Kerry's war medals? Please.

If the luck argument is any good, then democratic choice and the resulting distribution of coercive political power is also, as Yglesias says, "chance all the way down." And if luck negates the moral right to keep and dispose of one's stuff, it also negates the right to take and dispose of others' stuff.

Roderick Long makes an even stronger argument in Equality: The Unknown Ideal, in which he argues that libertarians are the true egalitarians. Long rejects both equality of socioeconomic opportunity and socioeconomic outcome, and also rejects legal equality and even equality of liberty. Long finally settles with equality in authority: the prohibition of any "subordination or subjection" of one person to another. That is true equality, and one with which socialism of all flavors is ultimately incompatible.

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Micha, Thanks for mentioning

Micha, Thanks for mentioning Rod's paper on equality. It definitely influenced my thinking in the passage you excerpted, and I'd also recommend it.

I don't see how "Coercion is

I don't see how "Coercion is wrong on it's face..." can be common sense if right and wrong are subjective. It seems to be widely held that there's nothing wrong with this kind of coercion.

I know this is continued harping on one note, but I don't see why Micha should get to sneak morality in the back door every other post without comment.

One does wonder what

One does wonder what Mirrlees considered "reasonable social welfare functions". If you smuggle in sufficiently egalitarian premises about the nature of the ultimate good, and take them as givens at the outset without bothering to examine their philosophical foundations, you can (as Yglesias, the Timberites, etc. repeatedly do) prove the justice of forced redistribution as often as you want.

"And if you asked your

"And if you asked your average person why it was wrong to commit murders,...

...and if you asked Micha Ghertner?

John, Most people do

John,

Most people do consider coercion wrong on it's face - in the vast majority of interactions with other people in their daily lives. Yet they have been conditioned to believe that it's okay for politicians to use coercion in pursuit of the "public will", whatever that may be.

Bryan Caplan makes the argument well:

Well, it is a common observation among libertarians that everyone follows libertarian principles in his or her private life; it is only where government is concerned that they grant a moral sanction to the initiation of force. And if you asked your average person why it was wrong to commit murders, or rob, or defraud others, one popular answer would be: "That's just common sense." Indeed it is; the principle of non-initiation of force is just common sense; which is to say, that even the simplest mind, if it honestly and critically turns itself to the proposition that it is wrong to use violence against peaceful persons, or rob them of what they have produced, can immediately grasp its truth.

All that would then be required to establish libertarian moral theory
would be to couple this everyday insight of direct reason with the
premise, derived from observation, that governments habitually violate
the non-initiation of force principle, and then use deductive reason to
draw the final inference that most, if not all, of what government does
is wrong and must be stopped at once.

I disagree with Caplan that this is anything more than basic common sense derived from intuition, but his point still stands: people who support political coercion are being inconsistent relative their own values.

Oops, Caplan's second

Oops, Caplan's second paragraph should read:

All that would then be required to establish libertarian moral theory
would be to couple this everyday insight of direct reason with the
premise, derived from observation, that governments habitually violate
the non-initiation of force principle, and then use deductive reason to
draw the final inference that most, if not all, of what government does
is wrong and must be stopped at once.

Notice Caplan's answer,

Notice Caplan's answer, John: "That's just common sense." No empirical evidence, no complicated chain of deductive reasoning, just pure intuition. Is that what you mean when you talk about objective morality?