Thirds for Desert

Chris Betram replied to my reply to his reply to my TCS piece (scroll down in comments). And I'd like to, well, reply. I'd also like to reply to Brad DeLong, who I don't think understands what he's talking about. Economists are usually like that — confused — when they dabble in moral philosophy, with the exception of Buchanan, Sen and a few others, like Tyler. For now, let me just quote from Chris:

One reason why I framed things in terms of the political turn was that Will has endorsed that part of Rawls’s work. So I think it worth repeating that to the extent to which conceptions of desert are the object of reasonable disagreement, they can’t be incorporated into public standards of justice. Will ought to agree with that.

I do endorse the idea of political liberalism. What I'm arguing is that the anti-desert party is violating the spirit of political liberalism. The content of our sense of justice, the content of the “reasonable moral psychology” of citizens of North Atlantic liberal democracies, is that people deserve rewards roughly proportional to their input to mutually advantageous cooperation. This is, of course an empirical claim. But my argument is that Rawls is simply wrong about the content of our considered moral judgments on this score, and Rawlsians about desert are employing a tendentious metaethical argument contrary to the content of a reflective sense of justice.
More from Chris:

There’s also the “tracking” point, which he doesn’t address in his response. I asserted, following Hayek and Rawls, that the free market doesn’t do anything like reward people according to desert. Does Will disagree? If he does, it would be nice to hear an argument. If he doesn’t then it would seem that he is hoist with his own petard, since libertarian principles will also fail to frame a stable social order, and for the same reasons.

I think this is a complicated question. Now, I think Chris is quite wrong that the market “doesn't do anything to reward people according to desrt.” In fact, I think this is a rather absurd conclusion. The distributional changes that occur on the heels of voluntary market exchanges are more likely to track desert than any other mechanism I know of. The idea of desert based in mutually beneficial cooperation is, I think, the most neutral notion of desert available, and is reflected generally in our moral psychology.
The careful reader will have noticed that I didn't actually defend meritocracy in the TCS piece. I simply defended the possibility of desert, and, implicitly, the idea that meritocracy is not appalling as an ideal. I think there is a totally intractable epistemic problem in discovering who merits what and to what extent. And this is in addition to the problem of settling on a public standard for merit.
Market exchanges, because they are voluntary and presumably mutually advantageous, generally split to gains of cooperation according to mutually agreeable terms. Whether people get what they deserve according to whatever the correct standard is . . . who knows? But if someone believes that the terms of cooperation and exchange are unfair in the sense that they will not be getting what they deserve, they can refuse to cooperate, and people often do. So it is reasonable to believe that market exchanges at least roughly track desert.
Now, I agree that the overall pattern of distribution in a market order will not tightly track desert. There is an assymetry in the nature of entrepreneurship, for example. People who make entrepreneurial bets that pay off seem to us to deserve what they get because they were willing to bear the risk of the bet, and ended up providing something that has enhanced others' welfare on agreeable terms as evidenced by their revealed preferences in the market. People who make reasonable (not foolish or negligent) bets that don't payoff don't seem to deserve to be bankrupt. And the failure of their bet provides useful information to other entrerpeneurs, who in some sense don't deserve to have this information. So here's a case where the overall distribution of rewards tracks desert partially, but not very tightly.
Now, most people have some idea of the deserving and the underserving poor, of who does and doesn't merit our charity and assistance. Because the standards of desert here are unlikely to be shared publicly, unlike our conception of desert in mutually advantageous exchanges, the political libertarian argues that the mechanisms of redistribution ought to be largely private. Some people deserve what they receive on the market. It's not the job of the state to decide that they don't. And some people deserve our aid, and it's not the job of the state to decide that they do. So I think the tracking point is an argument in favor of political libertarianism, and an argument against infecting the general social principles of association with sketchy metaethical premises about determinism and desert.

Of course we might ask which of two social orders, a Rawlsian one or a free-market one, would diverge most flagrantly from the desert criterion that Will endorses. Note that under both systems the hard-working talented will, as a matter of fact, often earn more than those of an average talent and an average disposition to work, just so long as their talents are actually valued by others at or around the time they’re deploying them. This despite the fact that neither system contains an intention to reward such deployment for desert-based reasons and that the “fit” will be extraordinarily loose. But which of the two “maps” better? My money would be on a Rawlsian “well-ordered society”.

My argument is precisely that a Rawlsian well-ordered society just is a political libertarian order, once one eliminates the elements of Rawls's theory, such as his metaphysical musings about desert, that are flatly inconsistent with his own methodology. I want to see the argument that Rawls is entitled to use his thoughts about desert in devising a distinctively political set of principles based in a reflective sense of justice.
Now, I've noticed that no one has disputed my argument that if the luck argument negates the moral right to unequal material holdings, then it also negates the moral right to unequal political power. That was my main argument, and I guess it stands. So even if Rawls is right about desert, which he is not, then we get a kind of political nihilism in which nothing much — the right to rule, the obligation to obey, etc. — is justifiable. Should I take it that this much is simply granted by the critics of my piece? If so, I'm pretty happy.
About DeLong, well, I need to go just now. Let me just say that I think I know exactly what Yglesias thinks about this issue. Matt's a friend, a neighbor, and we've argued about it face to face.
[Note: Removed the little story about MY, which took place under conditions not particularly conducive to philosophical rigor, and should be off the record. Anyway, I thought it was funny.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

23 thoughts

  1. Will,
    By “any imagined compensating benefits” (when you’re talking about how appeal to them can’t morally justify keeping national borders as they are) do you mean to be talking about the compensating benefits that are normally brought up by defenders of the status quo? Or do you mean that there are no imaginable benefits that actually might come from keeping things as they are which would morally justify the current situation?

  2. Which argument are you making? That harm ought always be minimized or that freedom of movement ought never be infringed upon? If the former, then you would have to be committed to reversing your opinion if it could be proven that the unrestricted free movement of individuals resulted in more harm for those individuals (I can see the graphs now), whereas if the latter it wouldn’t matter how awful things got in a situation of unchecked immigration, because the right to free movement must never be violated. (Where are you deriving that right from, anyway?)
    I guess I’m having trouble because you very often use words like “moral” and “right” but then end up making essentially pragmatic arguments. Perhaps I’m just not understanding you.
    (I do understand, however, that often when someone makes what is essentially a pragmatic argument against your position and you call them a moral chauvinist! Not that this is what Larison was doing.)

  3. Luka, I meant the benefits defenders of the status quo imagine restrictions to have. It’s easy to imagine benefits that would justify the status quo, just like it is easy to imagine robots falling in love.

    1. Haha. That’s a nice movie, by the way, the robot one. – I should’ve been a bit more specific, though. The question should’ve been about imaginable benefits in a narrower sense than your response assumes. Like, did you mean that there are no imaginable (within reason) benefits that might justify the status quo? Or something like that. But I think I have my answer. Thanks.

  4. First Wilkinson and Howley, now Hanson, tomorrow the world^Wnation! Except…
    Political arguments about trade may still be largely conducted in terms of discredited 1750-era mercantilist theory, but these ethics arguers may be much more rigorous than economics-oriented pundits, so you’d better watch out. I haven’t yet read the *original* references myself, but pretty clearly from a zillion secondary references in political discourse, nations are known to be the happy medium: individual rights are bad, collective rights are good, universal rights are bad again. This is surely a well-studied theorem in the academic literature alluded to by Paul Gowder in his criticism of Hanson, . So your point could look pretty darned dumb when Larison starts citing the classic proofs from those of the classics of nationalist ethics whose beauty hasn’t been too damaged by tasteless stripmining by Nazis and segregationists.

  5. Doesn’t it seem, though, Will, that state borders can be as porous as they are because national borders are stronger? That seems to be so to me. Consider the EU- as the internal barriers to trade and movement have come down a new federal system of laws and much stronger external borders have come into existence. So, you’ll need a lot more steps in your argument before you can just say national borders should be like U.S. state borders.
    I’m curious, too, why you think free movement in the sense you have in mind is a basic right. It seems more plausible to me that it’s instrumentally valuable- we think it’s important because it makes the fulfillment of other important rights easier, but it can be restricted when it conflicts with other things we value. (Take the most obvious case- the right to free movement doesn’t mean you can go into my house if you want to.) So you’ll need a substantive argument as to why movement _between countries_ outweighs other values, such as democratic self determination. I think that can be outweighed in some cases, but you need a substantial argument and not just an invocation of a supposedly basic right to free movement.

  6. the defense of the human right to travel and associate freely
    Will, I imagine that you would grant that a co-op board has the right to decide who gets to live in the co-op. I may have the right to travel and associate, but I don’t have the right to buy into a co-op if the board doesn’t want me there. It may be that the co-op boards being picky causes overall harm to human welfare. Still, the rights-based response is, within reasonable ranges of harm, “too bad, it’s not your co-op.”
    So the question comes — why is it that the citizens of Switzerland have less right to decide who comes into Switzerland than a co-op board does about who buys into the co-op? Now, it may be that on the basis of improving human welfare, we should want Switzerland to liberalize their immigration laws. That’s not the same as the claim that “the right to travel and associate” can be unproblematically read as “the right to live and work in Switzerland in violation of laws passed by a legitimate and representative legislature.” Right?

  7. Matt,
    “I’m curious, too, why you think free movement in the sense you have in mind is a basic right. It seems more plausible to me that it’s instrumentally valuable- we think it’s important because it makes the fulfillment of other important rights easier, but it can be restricted when it conflicts with other things we value.”
    My justification for all rights is instrumental. But I do think movement is fairly fundamental to the worth of other rights. What we do to punish punish people? We lock them in rooms.
    I obviously don’t think that the right to move is absolute or may not be restricted, because I do believe in property rights. (Which are also not absolute, etc.) The very large general benefits from property rights justifies the the exclusion they entail. Dave Schmidtz’s paper “The Institution of Property” is a model of justifying the right to exclude. If someone can write an analogous paper where restrictive border controls can be shown to beneficial to both those excluding and those excluded, I’ll be impressed and consider change my mind.
    I think you’ve got it backwards. Before you can establish the value of democratic determination, you’ve got to justify the principle that establishes who is and is not part of the democratic process. The right of clubs to decide on their members cannot be logically fundamental, since there is a prior question about justifying the initial composition of the club. Think of it as the democratic equivalent of the original acquisition problem.

  8. ” If Larison thinks such restrictions can be morally justified, then I am more than happy to have that debate, because I think I will win. ”
    I’m not so sure you would because at some point your same arguments would be turned against you with regards to private property borders.
    I was reminded once of this on a beautiful hike on the North coast of Hawaii. Looking over a magnificent valley I set out to explore it for the day only to have my hopes dashed after coming along a huge Private Property sign , NO TRESPASSING… property of such and such mega-corporation of Japan.
    How long under libertarian rules until all property is held in the hands of a few while the many are paid a pittance to till the farm? There’s more then one road that leads to serfdom.

  9. I recently think that to imagine an extreme situation serves, if not to resolve, at least to better illustrate a lof of problems. For example, when discussing minnimum wage laws, ask why not on million dollars as minimum wage, since no one supports it. On the case of free trade, ask why not complete autarky as alternative. The cases against these extreme situations help to better understand the arguments against minnimum wage laws and for free trade.
    On immigration debate, the relevant extreme problem is no immigration at all. It’s not the only alternative, but when people are forced to explain why not to ban immigration, they should reval their basic arguments.

  10. Will, I think I’ve got you. If I have you right, you hold that we have a right to property, even when a particular instance of private property enforcement causes harm, because property with a right to exclude as a general institution is beneficial to all. This isn’t an argument that we should exclude, but if a poor guy says “I want freedom to live in your house” (which would benefit him enormously), he has no rights claim. Maybe we ought to, but most of us wouldn’t, and wouldn’t feel bad about it.
    The immigrant to Switzerland, by contrast can make a rights claim because nations with a right to exclude aren’t institutions general benefit to all.
    Three questions:
    1. Is that right?
    2. Do you think a nation without a right to exclude actually a nation? (i.e. is ability to exclude as central the institution the nation as it is to the institution of property?)
    3. What sort of evidence can you imagine convincing you that nations are institutions that are beneficial to all?
    As always, love the blog

  11. muirgeo writes “I’m not so sure you would because at some point your same arguments would be turned against you with regards to private property borders.”
    To me the opposite point seems considerably stronger. Private property is invalid because you can’t get turtles all the way down, so there is always an original historical title which is invalid theft! PPIIB negative rights are insufficient in practice without positive rights to coerce services be coerced from others! PPIIB because it increases inequality! PPIIB because inheritance is morally invalid! PPIIB because the law in its august majesty forbids the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges! These arguments are commonplace and evidently deeply felt. But they all seem even stronger if you substitute “national property and inherited citizenship are invalid because” for PPIIB. In particular, it seems like an amazing joke when non-internationalist socialists attack the fundamental invalidity of the original title of private property, or attack inheritance, or attack negative rights.
    It is as if there are cozy leftist gentlecitizens’ agreements not to use anti-private-property and anti-inherited-aristocracy arguments against nationalism. Also not to apply the big hammer of structural sexism allegations to the arguments for women being known to be superior as custodial parents. Also not to apply a woman’s right to control her body to taking unauthorized drugs or to taking money for sex. Also not to apply the “no visits or economic advice to murderous dictatorships” taboo to socialist dictatorships. Etc. If such agreements weren’t universally honored among all right-thinking citizens, these mighty arguments beloved of the left would seem to be even more dangerous to the left’s own positions than to the positions they choose to argue against.
    Private property has one strong practical argument in its defense: people who tell you they are going to get rid of property are often fools or lying. The same square meter of land can’t very well be used to raise rutabagas and to collect photoelectric power; an orchard doesn’t work if anyone who feels the impulse is entitled to convert it to a barbecue bonfire. So the question “who gets to use this thing” is one that needs quite complicated practical answers. Since it needs messy practical answers, criticism of a particular answer as imperfect is insufficient, you need to show that the answer is more imperfect than some practical alternative.
    Conversely, many historically-important status questions like “who is allowed to strike whom whenever he pleases” or “who is allowed to leave the plantation, or the Socialist Republic” or “which ethnic groups shall be the slaves and which shall be the masters” don’t need nontrivial practical answers, they can be basically unasked. In the past few centuries, various highly successful societies have answered basically “that’s a stupid question, everyone should have the same rights,” using our convenient bright line “is human.” (We should enjoy the bright line while we can: two decades at the outside, I think, given AI and genetic modification…) Unlike special rights to property, special rights to citizenship look to me like an inherited legal status distinction, typical of the kind of questions which successful societies have unasked with equality under the law.
    Nationalism does have one strong practical argument in its favor: at least since Napoleon, people have been understandably impressed by the effectiveness of nationalist armies. But if you consider that a compelling argument, you should be very uneasy about some other practical arguments that leftists (and ofttimes rightists as well) seem unconcerned about. E.g., a national rock-solid long-term credit rating was quite reasonably considered a major national security issue up until the 1930s or so. Whatever you think of the enormous wise overall-good net impact of changes like the New Deal, it seems flaky to wave away the centuries-old question of how fiat money affects the ability to float a bunch of 100-year bonds in times of need. (I’ve sometimes wondered what percentage of its GDP Britain was able to raise and spend in WWII vs. WWI. Every history mentions lend-lease and other credit-exhaustion symptoms. I’ve never seen a calculation of whether the credit exhaustion came proportionally earlier in WWII, as the old fogeys would’ve expected given how permanent fiat money was introduced between WWI and WWII.)

  12. Will, it occurs to me that you seem to be viewing “patriotism” in a most narrow incarnation. One which, as you say, renders us bellicose idolatrous zombies. While I agree with you that “patriotism” is an infinitely subjective term, subject to legion interpretations as to its functional definition, I am skeptical that the broadest excludes one which could be palatable to even you. I might also say that while the public did get carried away in a fervor of nationalism over 9-11, I’d hesitate to go so far as to posit that it was directly responsible for our entry into Iraq. While such “patriotism” might have influenced the 2004 presidential election, wars are not made on referendum, this being no exception.
    In terms of patriotism, I would go so far as to say the very values of libertarianism, or the free market, or however one might put it, while more scientifically elaborated by the Austrian thinkers, were a pillar of our country’s founding document (or at least the principles behind it). The very idea of limited government and free trade was at the heart of our revolution, and as such can a certain patriotism not be a reverence for those principles in as much as this country has been the most successful avatar of them. Yes, of course we have slipped hither and thither towards socialism and imperialism, and who knows what other ‘isms might follow, but it’s impossible to deny that of all countries, people choose to try by hook or by crook, over fences and under ditches to come here the most. I know, I work for an immigration firm. So I think America’s association (originally at least) with the values that we associate with can be enough to foster some kind of patriotism. I’m not referring to anything extreme, but if someone asks me why I live here, I can give them good reasons – and I don’t feel the need to wear an ironic t-shirt on the 4th of July.

  13. The book idea sounds interesting, Will. I’ll look forward to seeing it. I’d love to see the work-up for it when you have it together. I don’t think I heard from you what you thought of John Gray’s book on Hayek. I’d be curious to know what you thought.

    1. Matt, It’s been awhile since I read Gray on Hayek, so I’ll have to revisit it and get back to you.
      And by the way, I’m cartooning my own book idea, which is largely about the new sentimentalist literature in moral psychology and what it tells us about what is distinctive in liberal moral personality and moral culture. The stuff about globalism and mobility is meant to reinforce how the liberal taste for fairness, equality, and a distaste for coalitional exclusion has a lot of room to grow.

  14. “I’m working on a book proposal about the psychology and authority of liberal moral sensibilities, and after arguing that conservatives really are more or less backwards, I intend to argue that liberalism really does requires a kind of Mises-Hayek kind of global federalism, and that contemporary welfare state liberals and social democrats are illiberal (standing athwart history yelling stop) insofar as they stand in the way of this.”
    Fucking finally.

  15. Sorry, but the “right” to travel is not a right at all. It is a privilege. A nation must have an overriding reason to allow foreigners within its borders. The situation is analogous to my “right” to travel within your home. You have to invite me first. Open borders is tantamount to the abolishment of private property. It is a purely socialist sentiment, and one that is unbecoming for any man of voting age to profess.

    1. The situation is analogous to my “right” to travel within your home.

      So the state collectively owns all the property it claims dominion over, and its subjects (both citizen and not) must justify to it their freedoms, but it need not justify to them its authority?
      This sort of sounds like… the abolishment of private property; a purely socialist sentiment.
      +2 chutzpah points, though

    2. Micha has it right. And you have it backward. A state must have an overriding reason to use coercion to limit freedom of movement and association. Suppose I am a homeowner who wants to sell a house to a foreign national. And I have a friend who would like to employ him in his factory. The foreign national, like all of us, has rights that exist prior to government, including the right to travel. And he, like nationals, has a right to freely associate and enter into voluntary exchanges with consenting partners. To deploy coercion to prevent the foreigner from buying, traveling to, and residing in his rightfully-owned property, or from traveling to an working at a place where he has been offered employment, is an obvious violation of the liberty of both the foreigner and the nationals, and evidently demands justification.

  16. No, the prospective immigrant must be known not to increase the sum of aggression on the existing citizenry; it can’t just be assumed, as if there were no enemies. Our rights are a claim on other citizens within the same bounded polity, to take the side of fellow citizens, in at least that one situation, where the foreigner enters with additions to the level of aggression. There is no right to invade.

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