“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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A common libertarian and conservative response to questions about how beneficiaries of government programs will carry on after the removal of their subsidies is that charity should take care of them. This answer is often overly glib, even when combined with the observation that a lower burden of taxation might foster more giving (charity is already tax-deductible after all). Charity will always be insufficient to meet basic human needs, and in the absence of government programs, some people will fall through the cracks. (In the presence of government programs, some people will fall through the cracks.)
This aspect of charity is a feature, not a bug. Charity suffers from the same problem that government welfare programs do: the Samaritan’s Dilemma, as economists call it. The more you help those in need, the more need there will be, because people’s behaviors will change as they come to expect assistance. To the extent that libertarians and conservatives oppose welfare programs because of “dependency” issues, they must also oppose charity for the same reason. Of course, charity is superior to government programs in at least two respects: lower administrative expenditures and, more importantly, greater respect for the moral autonomy of the donor. To the extent that we can reduce extreme human deprivation, many of us will think it worthwhile to do so even if it somewhat reduces the productive efforts of those less deprived, whether through charity or through government assistance. Nevertheless, it is possible for charity to be excessive.
To see the point, consider the argument I made that libertarianism does not preclude mandatory health insurance for children. (more…)
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I was struck yesterday by a reader’s comment on David Brooks’ recent column. Self-identified “liberal” Elizabeth Fuller of Peterborough, NH gave a defense of leftist politics that was articulate, if not persuasive. Among other things, she said:
We love government not because it is always good, but because it is our only hope.
Really? Government is the only thing we have to hope in? Not our churches, our families, our neighbors, our work colleagues, our clubs and associations, ourselves? No, just government.
Fuller’s point is basically that life is hard and unfair for many hard-working people, and government can help. Fair enough. But what she doesn’t seem to get is that the more government steps in to fulfill the traditions of churches, families, neighbors, colleagues, clubs and associations, the less people feel a moral obligation to others, the less they have the ability to help others because of high taxes, and the less they feel a personal responsibility to provide for themselves. She and many other leftists see government providing hope. I see the heavy boots of government stamping out hope, as well as faith and charity and the social bonds that connect people together and lead them to depend upon themselves and upon one another.
I was told a story a few years ago about a situation in Finland where a religious group was doing a service project that involved cleaning up some public space to make it more usable and attractive. Some local citizens were angered because they felt that this volunteer effort might take away jobs from government workers.
Most libertarians (except for the anarchist whack-jobs) see a vital and necessary role for a strong but limited government. We don’t hate government. We just hate it when government stomps out our humanity.
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