Archive for the ‘redistribution’ Category

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there have been some interesting posts recently on moralized and non-moralized conceptions of freedom. Jason Brennan says defining liberty to mean only negative liberty is “linguistic revisionism” without philosophic import. He then makes the case that bleeding-heart libertarianism (or Rawlsianism or various other non-traditionally-libertarian conceptions of property rights) does not necessarily violate the “non-aggression axiom.” Finally, he argues against moralized conceptions of freedom. I agree with the first two posts but not the last one.

It’s true that people use “freedom” to mean different things. Hobbes infamously defined it as the absence of physical constraint. Jason prefers something like “ability to realize one’s ends.” Both of these definitions are non-moralized. As Jason makes clear, positive liberty is not only not good by definition, it is not always good. My freedom to swing my fist into your nose unprovoked does not deserve respect — but it’s still freedom, in this non-moralized sense.

Now, Jason is absolutely right that nothing substantive turns on how we define our terms. He’s also right that simply defining freedom as justice (that which is, in the final analysis, right) abuses ordinary language and is tautological. On the other hand, I will note a tension between the claim that positive liberty is not always good and this claim:

The thing that Marxists and others mean by “positive liberty” is valuable and worth promoting. One of the best arguments for classical liberal institutions is that as a matter of fact they do a good job getting people positive liberty.

But if positive liberty is not only not good-by-definition but is also not good-by-inference, then the mere fact that a system tends to promote positive liberty is not a point in that system’s favor. The fact that system X makes it easy for people to swing their fists into other people’s faces whenever they want, thus helping them achieve their ends, is not a point in favor of the justice of system X. Now, the claim might be that swinging fists into people’s faces hurts the positive liberty of those victims, and I agree — but I don’t agree that we can simply sum up positive liberties across people and truthfully say that everyone ought to try to maximize that sum. That’s a controversial moral claim. Indeed, Matt Zwolinski refutes the view strongly here, and even says, “No serious libertarian intellectuals think about libertarianism in terms of maximizing liberty.” I don’t know how this statement squares with what Jason says he and David Schmidtz are arguing about how we ought to evaluate the regime of negative liberty.

Furthermore, I don’t think we can rule out all moralized conceptions of freedom as tautological. People in ordinary language use freedom in a moralized but non-tautological sense all the time. When someone says, “I can say what I want, it’s a free country,” she’s not saying, “It’s a country where I can realize my ends.” She’s saying something like, “In this country, we are not supposed to be subject to the arbitrary domination of others’ wills.” Freedom as non-domination means a great deal to people, arguably more than the mere ability to realize one’s own ends. The reason slavery is so repugnant is not really that it makes the slave unhappy, but that it enshrines an extreme form of inequality and domination. (I’m making a substantive, controversial moral claim here.)

But freedom as non-domination is also not the whole of justice. Marxists like G.A. Cohen arguably accept non-domination just as much as libertarian anarchists like Murray Rothbard. They just disagree about the proper conception of property rights, which also belongs to the domain of justice. Now, if you are persuaded about the libertarian account of property rights, then a Marxist regime imposed without consent looks like unjust domination, un-freedom. Still, even if we read back into “freedom” claims about justice, freedom-as-non-domination is not tautological: it doesn’t simply define freedom as justice. Yet it is a moralized conception of freedom common in everyday discourse.


Jason Brennan responds by e-mail:

Thanks for posting that. Does this clear up things?

1. I don’t literally mean that positive liberty is always good, but rather that it tends to be good and tends to be worth promoting. Schmidtz and I talk at some length in BHOL about how there’s not clear measure of positive liberty, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make good estimates. If people are living longer, have more options, have more money, have more technology, etc, they will usually have more positive liberty.

2. I prefer to use non-moralized definitions of liberty: Neg lib = absence of obstacles, pos lib = power or capacity. But Schmidtz and I note that in common language, we often mean much more specific ideas when we use the terms “liberty” or “freedom”. If someone says, “X is a free country,” we assume she means they protect a wide range of negative liberties. My raise gave me the freedom to enjoy life, we assume she means positive liberty as capacity/power. And so on.

Schmidtz and I would agree with Matt Z and Nozick that negative rights are side constraints–we shouldn’t have a utilitarianism of rights. But negative and positive liberty are different. Negative liberty first and foremost should be respected, and then promoted. Positive liberty is to be promoted (when it’s good, and if doing so is consistent with our rights).

My response to Jason:

Thanks for the response. It clarifies a great deal. I clearly misread your position on positive freedom. I can’t quarrel with your description of the conceptual landscape below. Substantively, too, we’re not far apart, though I don’t think it’s generally morally impermissible to refrain from promoting the positive liberty of humanity in general (for instance, in order to focus on one’s own life projects).

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“Imagine that a Wall Street billionaire is passing a bag lady on the street. She begs for a dollar. Should the billionaire give it to her? It’s just plain obvious that the bag lady would benefit more from the dollar than the billionaire. The donation would detract from his happiness less than it would add to hers. Therefore, interpersonal comparisons of utility are possible, and these comparisons ground our eleemosynary duties.”

So runs a familiar thought experiment beloved of utilitarians and consequentialists about property (like Rawlsians). Indeed, to deny that interpersonal comparisons of utility are ever possible seems willfully obtuse. Moreover, to deny that there are any eleemosynary duties is heartless and wrong. What I wish to challenge here is the idea that interpersonal comparisons of utility ground those duties.

Just as the original scenario resorts to the intuition pump, I shall do the same. This scenario is likewise intended to illustrate clear differences in utility across persons.

Imagine that you have been fairly well-off. Two formerly well-off friends of yours have, however, fallen on hard times. They have lost their jobs and run through their savings. They have sold their houses, moved into cramped, run-down apartments, and are generally living a hand-to-mouth existence in which they lack some of the “primary goods” needed for a decent life, such as the ability to save for the future. One friend bewails his condition constantly; he is clearly deeply unhappy due to his financial circumstances (but not suicidal). The other friend seems to accept his lot with relative cheerfulness; while he regards his financial circumstances, which are just as bad as those of the other friend, as a serious difficulty, he maintains an optimistic view on life and on the whole is not terribly unhappy.

Which of these friends is more deserving of your support, or are they equally deserving? For the utilitarian, the answer is clear: the unhappier friend deserves more financial assistance, as financial assistance will do more to raise his spirits. But is that the right answer? Intuitively, it is not. Intuitively, the second friend deserves as much support as the first, and we might even be more favorably disposed to aid the second friend — while we pity the first, we admire the resilience of the second and want to see that character trait rewarded.

Is there any principle beside the principle of utility that our intuition would support? I suggest (more…)

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Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have a thought-provoking piece entitled, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism,” in the latest Cato Unbound. They criticize postwar libertarians (specifically mentioning Mises, Rand, and Rothbard) for seeing property rights as absolute and, in their view, regarding the welfare of the working poor as irrelevant to moral justifications for capitalism:

In the remainder of this essay, we will discuss one particular way that neoclassical liberalism has a better grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the libertarianism of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. It is not the only contrast, but one of the clearest and most important differences between these two schools of libertarian thought has to do with the proper nature of concern for, and obligation to, the working poor. On this issue, the neoclassical liberal position is that the fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system. And this position, we will argue, has a far more solid grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the justificatory indifference to which the postwar libertarians are committed.

They go on to cite John Locke, Adam Smith, and Herbert Spencer (yes, Spencer!) as classical liberals who would be more sympathetic to the neoclassical-liberal project of justifying markets partly on the basis of their consequences for the welfare of the least well off. However, they also argue, plausibly, that Rand and Rothbard in particular were not indifferent to the fate of the poor, simply that they viewed the coincidence of respect for individual property rights and a better life for all as a happy fortuity. (Mises was more of a consequentialist and perhaps after all a comfortable fit within neoclassical liberalism.)

I would stress that (more…)

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I agreed with the first half of Jessica Flanigan’s essay on “A Feminist Libertarian Dilemma,” but then nearly choked on my invisible coffee when I read this:

Bleeding heart libertarianism doesn’t rule out public policies that help women with families succeed in the workforce, like affordable public childcare, subsidized family leave, elder care, or a universal basic income.

So how exactly does bleeding-heart libertarianism differ from mushy-pated, Swedish-style social democracy?

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Andrew Breitbart has posted a video (HT: Phil Arena) showing liberal, pro-income-redistribution students rejecting out of hand the concept of redistributing grade point averages (GPAs) from the best-performing students to those less fortunate, saying things like “It’s not fair” and “I worked for my grades.” Does their position constitute hypocrisy, and does this experiment show that something like the libertarian conception of property rights (“from each as she chooses, to each as she is chosen”) is somehow more “natural” to us humans? One argument might go something like this: Being committed to income redistribution requires being committed to redistribution of grades. Being committed to redistribution of grades is unlikely to be justified. Therefore, being committed to income redistribution is unlikely to be justified.

To put some flesh onto the problem, it’s useful to narrow down possible justifications for redistribution, so I’ll focus on John Rawls’ Difference Principle, which states that all inequalities in a society must work to the advantage of the representative least well off person in that society. In other words, the baseline assumption should be perfect equality, and deviations from equality (in income, wealth, prestige, and anything that might constitute “social bases of self-respect”) have to be justified by their benefit to all. One common objection (see, e.g., Lomasky’s Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community) to Rawls’ Difference Principle is that it would require the more physically attractive or talented to compensate the less attractive or talented. Rawls’ prior Equality Liberty Principle potentially prohibits actual redistribution of body parts, but Rawls is certainly open to redistribution of wealth from those who enjoy psychic benefits from their natural abilities and characteristics to those who are less well off psychically. There is nothing in Rawls’ Difference Principle that limits unjust inequalities to uncompensated financial inequalities.

Breitbart’s experiment seems to me to raise similar concerns. One’s intelligence and hard work may yield financial rewards, but they also yield psychic benefits. Obtaining a high GPA confers prestige, status, and a greater sense of self-esteem. No one “deserves” intelligence or a penchant for hard work, since these are things we’re either born or raised with. So should GPAs be redistributed? One might object on practical grounds. Redistribution of GPAs might discourage student effort (but redistribution of income also discourages worker effort). Redistribution of GPAs might interfere with correct productivity assessments in the marketplace (but so might redistribution of income, since it is always accomplished through a highly complex tax code). Even if these practical objections decide us against redistributing grades, if we are committed to the Difference Principle, we must remain in principle committed to compensating those who earn lower GPAs for their “unfair” disadvantages (perhaps financially). If we find this conclusion absurd, then so must we find the Difference Principle.

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