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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Yes, Libertarianism Now!

As the author of a book chapter in Basic Income and the Free Market, in which I make an argument in favor of adopting either a negative income tax or, better, a basic income guarantee as a replacement for all of our current set of welfare programs (which would include the welfare programs we call subsidies), one may be surprised to learn that I disagree with Matt Zwolinski on this very topic.

The reasons I disagree with Zwolinski are expressed quite well by David Friedman, as quoted by David Henderson, with whose criticism I also agree. I do not buy into the argument that we must redress past grievances precisely for the reasons Friedman gives -- many of the descendants of past wrongdoers are themselves poorer than the descendants of those who had had the wrong done to them -- but also because there is absolutely no foundation in either morals or justice for punishing the children for the sins of their parents.

That, after all, is the logic of "reparations," no matter how they are laid out.

Suppose that there was a man who raped and murdered 20 women. He died before the police could catch him, but all of the evidence showed him to be the culprit. This man also happens to have a son who is over 18. Should the police go and arrest the son, try him for his father's crimes, and put him in prison for them (in Texas, he would get the death penalty as well)? We would rightly decry this as a horrible act of injustice. The son did not commit the crimes, and he is not responsible for his father's actions.

The same is true of the descendants of any crime. It is perhaps particularly true of something we consider a crime today that was not considered a crime in the past. You cannot even try someone for committing an act that was not a crime when they committed the act, but is a crime now. How, then, can one possibly justify then punishing this person's descendants?

I see the same argument against those with luck or those who "got there first" when it comes to property.

The first seems almost as bizarre, given the subjective nature of values and the fact that what can seem like bad luck can turn out to have good consequences later, and vice versa. Yes, it was probably luck that allowed Alexander Graham Bell to patent his telephone a day before that other guy who also invented the phone, and whose name nobody knows because of it. But so what? One might make an argument against intellectual property on that basis -- but still, what's luck got to do with it? The issue of luck is utter nonsense -- it requires a level of knowledge impossible for real human beings to have. Further, it points back to the point Friedman made about the African slave traders. The ones selling the slaves were the lucky ones, while the ones sold into slavery were the unlucky ones. The descendants of the former, though, are financially much worse off than the descendants of the latter. Would anyone like to defend the argument that the African-American descendants of slaves are the lucky ones?

Then there is the "got there first" complaint. Yes, as people moved around the globe, there were inevitably people who "got there first." But this is true of those who invent something as well. Is it "fair" that the Wright brothers "got there first" with the invention of the airplane? I'm not sure how to reasonably answer that. Fair to whom? To whoever else might have invented it later? How on earth would we be able to determine that? And never mind all the people who benefited from the airplane's invention, I suppose. But even then, it was early adopters who benefited most. Of course, they also spent the most early on. Should their descendants be paid back, since it was their willingness to spend a lot of money to be the first to fly that made it cheaper for others later? How convoluted this nonsense becomes!

Of course, when it comes to land, sometimes people got there second, and did away with the ones who got there first. Such is nature. But it is not justice -- at least, by our current definitions of justice. Perhaps there is a claim here?

I think not. The issue is precisely that these considerations are based on our current, prevailing ideas on what is just, on what is moral. Our ideas of what is moral and just evolve, and will continue to evolve. Yet it seems unjust to argue that someone should be held criminally responsible for actions not considered unjust, no matter when it happened. And more so the descendants of those who actually are responsible for those actions.

Judging past actions with today's morals is sloppy thinking. It's lazy and simplistic. It denies the evolutionary nature of morals. Yes, morals are rooted in our sentiments, as Adam Smith rightly observed, but at the same time, those morals evolve. Murder is and has always been immoral, if we define murder as the purposeful taking of a fellow human life -- what has evolved is the kinds of people we consider fellow human beings.

Political libertarianism is a view of justice, and views of justice evolve the same as do our morals. We cannot fix what we as libertarians perceive to have been past injustices, using our current ideas on justice, by imposing even more injustices upon the innocent descendants of those who committed the acts in question. But we can move forward. We can try to encourage social evolution toward greater justice. Over time, social evolution will create the more just outcomes we desire. That is why we need libertarianism, now!

2 comments:

David Friedman said...

While I disagree with Matt, I think his position is a little stronger than you make it out. Consider the case of a son who inherited money from his father, money the father ought to have paid in compensation to someone he wronged. It isn't absurd to argue that the money didn't really belong to the father, hence does not belong to the son, hence ought to forfeit to the heir of the person it was justly owed to.

Getting from there to a basic income, on the other hand, is a bit of a stretch.

Troy Camplin said...

I wouldn't consider that the son paying for the sins of the father per se. That would be more the immediate debts being paid before the son received the rest. "Ought" is derived from "to owe," after all. Thus what is owed is still immediate. Not so for the great grandchildren of each. Or even the grandchildren. Justice has in fact evolved to take care of the problem you mention, by making sure debts are paid so the son won't owe for the father.