Thursday, June 02, 2005

Put Down Yer Dukes

Sandefur's latest post regarding government and commerce was very helpful: he's obviously given a lot of thought to these sorts of issues. But sadly, it looks like we're coming to the end of our discussion. Sandefur is hanging up his blogging gloves.

In light of this revelation, I'm going to try and bring some sort of closure to the argument. I'll begin with a blatantly simple summary of our argument.

ST. PIERRE: Humans are greedy little beasts, so the government should redistribute wealth.

SANDEFUR: The greedy ones are the ones who want to redistribute the wealth! Redistribution of wealth is tantamount to robbery.

ME: I agree. Redistribution of wealth is tantamount to robbery. But allowing the market to proceed unchecked is tantamount to oppression. So redistributing some of the wealth is morally justifiable.

SANDEFUR: Your premises are bad. Capitalism is not inherently oppressive because wealth is not a zero-sum game.

ME: Ok, but it doesn't matter that wealth can be created. What matters is that capitalism excludes people from the market based on factors that are beyond their control. It's oppressive because there is no real correlation between wealth and virtue.

SANDEFUR: No, capitalism is not oppressive. Most of the time, people who work hard increase their wealth. And even if it were oppressive, trying to ensure that people can keep what they have is more important than trying to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake.

And while I'm at it - can you provide a principle that justifies government intervention in providing for material needs, but restricts government attempts to provide for spiritual needs?

ME: [Scratches his head] Well, I'm going to continue to insist that capitalism is inherently oppressive. While capitalism may increase the absolute wealth of a society, what matters more is power in a society, which is determined by relative wealth. And over time, pure capitalism is guaranteed to concentrate relative wealth in the hands of a very few people.

To address the other question: Government should attempt to intervene in the market because there is a right to pursue property, but it should not attempt to enforce spirituality because there is a right to religious freedom.

SANDEFUR: Aha! Your name is no longer Matthew, it is now Mike.

ME: Um, Ok.

SANDEFUR: Furthermore, the only legitimate role for government is to protect people's rights. It doesn't harm anyone for me to practice my religion, so the government can't regulate it. It doesn't harm anyone for me to make money, so the government can't take it. In fact, I have a right to keep it, so the government must defend that right.

ME: Anything else?

SANDEFUR: Well, capitalism isn't oppressive, viz. burgers and blankets. Also, the right to pursue property, as you've defined it, is not a right. Get your stuff together, Mike.

ME: My name isn't Mike.

SANDEFUR: [Leaves.]

After considering this discussion, I think we have two major disagreements - three if you count the one about whether my name is Mike.

1. What is the extent of the legitimate role of government?
2. Is capitalism inherently oppressive?

I'm going to briefly summarize my answer to these two questions, and then I'll be done.

First, I think that the legitimate role of government may extend beyond the protection of the rights of people. I think it may include some secondary role, such as encouraging virtue. But I don't have enough theory to back up such an assertion, so I'll just leave it until I've done some more reading.

Furthermore, I am rethinking my wording regarding capitalism and oppression. I think it makes sense to talk about a system or a society or a person being oppressive, but capitalism is none of these - it is a relationship between government and the market. Therefore, I think I would be better off talking about the tyranny of a society that chooses never to intervene in the market. Such a society would be tyrannical because in choosing never to intervene, it would guarantee that the wealthy would continue to oppress the poor.

This is because, as we observed earlier, the market does not reliably reward virtue. Instead, it gradually funnels wealth into the hands of the people who begin with the most resources.

And as we discussed before, this relative wealth corresponds to real power. Not just power to get things, like cars and Rolex watches, but the power to make people do things. Sometimes this power is expressed in multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns. Sometimes in controlling the work lives of thousands of employees. Sometimes in bribing politicians. But this economic power is as real as physical power, and often more effective.

This, I think, is one thing about the libertarian position that really bothers me. Economic power and physical power are treated entirely differently.

In other words, it's OK for the government to have a monopoly on violent coercion, because then it can protect me from Big Joe who would walk in, beat me up and take my stuff. But it's wicked for the government to attempt to redistribute a little wealth, much less control the means of production, even though this would protect Poor Joe from wealthy me!

So to answer badger's question, yes, I do think it's useful to seek rational principles that could moderate the government's role in religion and economics. If nothing else, the seeking exposes our own ignorance or prejudice. If we're lucky, it may even help us decide how to vote.

Therefore, I'm going to bid a fond farewell to Timothy Sandefur, and hope that we meet more interesting people like him as this blog continues.

Or maybe I could bait Sandefur into coming back.

ME: Ayn Rand sucks!


life_of_bryan said...

Ditto on Rand, and that fake name. Very "Emperor's New Clothes."

Dan Carlson said...

Ayn Rand is so, so crappy. It's like pseudo-intellectuals at colleges nationwide feel some pull to have a philosopher of choice and, knowing no better, join the Rand cult.

Paul said...

I really like your analysis of this subject. Another way of saying the same thing might be: capitalism as a pure ideology doesn't work to a society's overall good any more than pure socialism. People do need some private incentives, but if government abdicates its role of leveling out the playing field to some degree, you eventually get rule by the inheritors of tremendous and increasing wealth.

And IMO that's the route America has now chosen. And I don't think it's sustainable for long in historical terms.

life_of_bryan said...

unchecked government is to political tyranny as...

a) unchecked capitalism is to economic tyranny
b) yonker is to young man
c) teepoy is to 3 legged table
d) all of the above