Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

39 thoughts

  1. You’re evading the most important question. As long as we talk merely about Beth’s success, rather than the negative consequences of Amy’s failure, it skews rightward. But when Amy can’t get work, and she loses her apartment and her car, and she doesn’t have health insurance so she doesn’t go to the doctor when she gets sick… then people will tell you that it’s unfair. Just like when you use the vague term “welfare mothers”, people can denounce to the point of hatred. Introduce them to an actual poverty-stricken mother, or just tell her specific story, and you’ll find people to be much more compassionate.
    And here’s the rub: there are no “people”, just a vast collection of individual persons. Every life is someone’s “my life.”

  2. I’m a bit surprised anyone said the abstract scenario is unfair. Liberals don’t commonly believe in full equality of condition, not anymore.
    It would be interesting to replace “genetic advantage” with other differences like: “works harder”, “has better luck”, “knows the right people”.
    It would also be interesting to ask direct policy questions — e.g. “should we fully redistribute genetically-based income inequalities until everyone’s equal?”
    It’s fascinating how belief seems to be such a complex and context-specific thing. Totally unlike logic.
    I wonder if the difference between the two beliefs comes down to incentives (a la Bryan Caplan’s analysis of political irrationality). That is, who cares if I have the wrong abstract belief? What does it matter to me? Then, people are free to have whatever belief makes them feel good.

  3. Funny, despite my libertarian tendencies, I would have said they were both unfair. But that doesn’t mean we should necessarily DO anything about it. Life IS unfair.
    That’s the biggest difference between “left” and “right”. The left believes life can be made fair. I’m not so sure.
    However, it does make you think doesn’t it. Will advances in genetics mean that soon, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” will become a realistic policy, without the potential for disincentive effects?

  4. Assuming genetics is to blame, it is unfortunate that I will never be one tenth the musician John Coltrane is, but it’s isn’t unfair. Learning to differentiate the two is… well, I’d say it’s part of growing up.
    This is not to say that we should never correct any instances of misfortune, but there is a moral difference between the brute facts of nature, which can only be unfortunate, and the deliberate actions of other individuals, which are the only things properly called unfair. Nature doesn’t know “fair” and “unfair,” which are concepts of justice.
    Also, I wonder if the experimental data has anything to do with the remarkable success of anti-egalitarianism in fiction, as compared to anti-egalitarianism as an operating philosophy for the man on the street. Plenty of people read and like Ayn Rand’s novels, but can’t accept the abstract principles they advocate.

  5. I wonder if Jason’s terms “unfair” and “unfortunate” really have different policy implications. That is part of the issue here.
    If someone accidentally runs me over, that may not be “unfair” given Jason’s definition, but perhaps retribution is in order.
    On the other hand, you might say that “retribution for random vagaries of life” is the job of a private insurance market.
    Finally, luck plays a role in the genetic (and environmental) lottery, of course. Who’s to say whether I will be born talented and advantaged in a Western democracy in the suburbs, or mentally challenged somewhere, or in a shantytown in a third world country?
    I strongly believe that some retribution is in order for being dealt a crappier hand in life. Think of it as insurance for being born. This may be something the government is more suited for.

  6. I’ll bet the concrete case is fair because it is about art – if it were about working at a loading dock, people would think it unfair.

  7. Do Frieman and Nichols introduce the left-right political interpretation? I don’t immediately see that interpretation. Nothing about policy implications is inherent in the presentation. No information about whether subjects who self identify with one policy position or another were more likely to read the situation as fair or unfair. (And my reaction is sort of like Neal, above. I’d conclude “unfair” in both cases, but not think of that conclusion as policy relevant.)
    My initial reaction about the two cases is that the effect arises because the mental model of “fairness” that people use demands that they decide whether the inputs justify the outputs. In the abstract case, with only an unearned genetic gift as input and additional money as output, it seems clear that there is little reason to say the additional money is merited.
    In the concrete case, the subject is give the chance to mentally balance the additional money against a positive service provided. The subject is able to view the higher quality performance of the one singer as something which can merit the positive reward.
    Contrary to Robin Hanson, I don’t think art has anything to do with the result. I think we’d get the same result in a concrete case with a bigger, stronger dockworker – due solely to genetic endowment – getting paid more.

  8. Instead of “chipping in” materially, can one’s obligation to those below the line be fulfilled merely by advocating for policies that would put them even further past the line than a minimum income generated through transfer payments?
    Imagine a healthy majority of the citizdenry chips in some amount that would make everyone achieve a minimum standard of living, but advocates policies (e.g., immigration restrictions, protectionism) that would prevent the worst off from moving beyond that point. At the same time, the rest of us refuse to chip in, but simultaneously advocate policies that would make everyone even better off.
    Who is the better steward of the positive right against poverty? Who is acting more morally vis-a-vis that right?

  9. “Most of those who argue for a positive right to a material minimum don’t think that everybody in the world already above the line is on the hook. They tend to say that fellow citizens of one’s own country already above the line are on the hook. My right not to be stabbed is a right against everybody in the world. Doesn’t matter who printed your passport. But a Freedonian’s right to a material minimum is a right against other Freedonians.”
    I disagree here. I think this confuses who the right is against and the (allegedly) best way to go about securing the right. I would argue this positive right to a material minimum (as well as other rights both negative and positive) is a universal right against everyone in the world, but the only reasonable way to go about securing those rights (because of geography, cultural differences, simple disagreement, human emotion, and technological limits) is to separate everyone into clubs and have those clubs do their best to provide these rights for its members.
    This does not lessen the burden on those above the “line” to provide a minimum for those below the “line”, when successful clubs see that one of it’s fellow clubs is failing, they collectively have to do their best to supply that club with what it needs to fulfill the minimum rights. All this country-as-club model does is just that, provide a model for which you aim to make perfect and deviate from when necessary and return to when appropriate.
    Perhaps I’m wrong here as I haven’t even fleshed the following thought out entirely in my own head….but as those reasons for clubs being the most reasonable way of securing those rights, that I mentioned in parenthetical earlier, become less and less of a limit then the country and club model becomes less and less necessary. Certainly over time geography has become less of a hurdle and has led to globalization which in and of itself could be seen as a move away from the country-as-club model. Now as for the others I mentioned, those are not likely to be decreases as barriers (and I doubt I’d want them to be).

  10. I am somewhat unsatisfied with the definition of rights presented here. I think more attention needs to be paid to discovering the origin of rights. I think once such an origin has been identified, then the derivative questions become easier to answer.
    The best I’ve been able to come up with in respect to the origin of rights is to extrapolate from a point made by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics; to wit, that the goodness or well-formedness of a living entity is to be judged based on how well that entity grows into its full potential. While admittedly somewhat circuitous, it stikes me as intrinsically true that what makes an oak tree a good oak tree is best judged by determining whether the oak tree fulfills its potential as an oak. It’s the kind of judgment that gets made at dog shows when dogs are judged by how well they typify their breed, etc.
    Under this view, then rights are those conditions that best permit such unfolding, such growth into one’s potential as a particular kind of living thing. For humans, the particular kind of living thing seems to be a cognizing kind of living thing; i.e., the cognizing is what makes us essentially human. So, rights then become a function buttressing and supporting form. So then, for example, freedom of speech is simply a form allowing for the beneficial exchange of information. Access to information is a cognizer’s stock in trade, etc.
    I realize this formulation of rights is problematic and would appreciate criticisms. Am I even right to think that understanding where rights come from would help in understanding what they are and what their proper application might be?

  11. Positive Rights are simply Orwellian Speak and the most tortured logic for saying that other people have the rights to the fruit of my labor.
    In you’re essay you avoide some of the simplest, most obvious points. First off, the only way a society can “earn” wealth is by serving others. If I am a breadmaker, I serve society by increasing the supply of bread for all to eat. If I am a car maker, I serve society by increasing the supply of transportation for a society to use. Societies grow by serving others! If you do not add to the overall wealth of a society you will remain in poverty.
    Societies that remain in poverty do so, because they bring no value to their fellow man. The reason they bring no value is because they do not have the full protection of their natural rights. If you do not have your own property rights protected, what incentive is their to produce value for others?
    “Positive Rights” are simply theft dressed up by the State. No society that steals from its productive members and gives the fruits of labor to the unproductive will survive for long. The productive members of society are wealthy because they serve others and make others lives better!
    Ayn Rand has written numerous short essays that deal with your “reframing” of the argument. No matter how much tortuous logic you want to use, Positive Rights are still theft by the state.

  12. My two biggest problems with this post and some of the comments are: 1) A blurry idea of what positive and negative rights are. Most things that the state provides in a positive sense would be better termed services, not rights. And most of them come about because the vast majority of people have chipped in to the system, however willingly, and are essentially withdrawing some of that to have these services provided. Having highways built is a lot of things, but it’s not a right. Now, even though some who didn’t chip in that much take advantage of those highways, some people get really worked up about the idea that someone might get health care even if they didn’t chip in as much. I don’t know why this is. But even then, we’re talking about something that has significant cost — when someone uses health care, someone is paying for it, somewhere. Likewise, it’s hard to see how poverty can be easily alleviated other than redistribution, unless you’re working under the assumption that a world is possible in which no one will be poor, an assumption I don’t share. Which leads me to: 2) “The only reason there is poverty in the world (true poverty, not American faux poverty) is because thugs with guns keep poor people poor.” I wonder how certain Americans, poor Americans, would feel about “faux poverty.” This discussion needs parameters. If you’re saying, “how do we help people who are poor because of thugs with guns,” that’s one conversation. But I don’t feel like it’s the one being had here. Because in that case, there would be no need to talk about positive rights, since the negative right of “not having a thug with a gun keep you poor” clearly supersedes it.

  13. What a briliant essay! Really. I wrote something similar about the African poverty probem. It is in Portuguese, so it would be useless to send you. Anyway, congrats! This is exactly what I think about this issue.
    (sorry about the rough English)
    Tiago M. Ramalho

  14. We don’t think a society is completely unjust when rights are violated every once in a while, as long as the institutions are designed to protect rights, and respect for rights is the norm, we tend to think that – at least with respect to rights claims – society is doing its job. We expect everyone to “chip in” to pay for the institutions that protect rights and keep us out of Hobbesian anarchy, and, at least in theory, we do our best to minimize rights violations with due process, etc. When rights violations become routine, or when the institutions are perverted and no longer respect rights, then we say the society is unjust and call for a change. But the point is we judge a society by its institutions and its approach to rights, including whether that society has set up the right institutions and pursues the right policies that will most likely result in the respect for rights, not whether every person’s rights are respected 100% of the time (I think this was Jefferson’s point with the “long train of abuses” line).
    Perhaps wealth can be thought of the same way. Instead of arguing that every person has a right to a particular amount of money, perhaps we can say that every person has a right to the set of institutions that will most likely create the conditions under which wealth can be created, and wherein any given person will likely find herself above the poverty line at any given time.
    Negative rights aren’t protected in a Hobbesian anarchy. They require a particular set of institutions for their meaningful realization, and most libertarians are ok with small rights “violations” (e.g., taxation) to create the set of institutions most likely to protect their liberty generally. In other words, even libertarians don’t think of rights in absolute terms. We think of them as a useful term for the condition under which government doesn’t meaningfully interfere with an individual’s pursuit of the good, or substitute its own ends for the individual’s.
    So, if we think of rights not as this thing and that thing in need of protection like the Magna Carta at the Archives, but rather a general condition of liberty, then there’s no reason NOT to include wealth, because all that means is that people have a right to institutions that create the conditions under which the opportunities to create wealth are maximized (e.g., free trade), in the same way that they have a right to the set of conditions that maximizes their ability to pursue their own ends (e.g., due process).
    That probably made no sense whatsoever.

    1. “We do our duty, we act to protect the human rights of the world’s poor, by establishing policies of maximum openness and inclusion. We would thereby bring multitudes of abused people under the protection of decent schemes of rights, create robust and enriching ties of trade, and create stronger incentives for poor jurisdictions to respect and maintain the conditions for prosperity and flourishing.”
      That’s pretty much what I was getting at. I really need to read the whole post before I comment.

    2. But we don’t know what are the institutions that create the conditions under which opportunities to create wealth are maximised. It strikes me as entirely possible that even the richest country in the world has not achieved institutions that can maximise wealth.
      Furthermore, the institutions that appear to create wealth quite plausibly vary from culture to culture, eg history in some countries might mean that a political settlement can only be stable under institutions that are just not needed in countries with a different history. For example, Northern Ireland apparently has undergone streneous efforts to keep the police force balanced between Protestants and Catholics, a matter which the rest of the Anglo-speaking world doesn’t appear to worry about. But how do we know? Balancing the police force may impose costs relative to those in societies that don’t have to worry about it, but still be necessary to avoid another round of wealth-destroying terrorism in Northern Ireland – in other words the benefits might outweigh the costs in the case of Northern Ireland. So we can’t look to cross-country comparisons to tell us what institutions generate wealth in any particular case. So reasonable people could easily disagree about what institutions are required in a culture to generate wealth, let alone what insitutions are required to maximise it.
      And if we can’t agree on how to implement a right, what’s the point of declaring it a right? What’s the point in declaring that I, or a government, has a moral obligation to do something if there’s no broad social consensus on what that something is, and no remotely objective way to say whether or not someone is actually meeting their moral obligation to provide such a right?
      Negative rights do generate hard cases where it’s not clear where the obligations lie (eg people who want to exercise their freedom of speech to disrupt funerals), but positive rights seem to me to be all hard cases.

  15. If the law of the land is to provide a minimum wage for any labor, not paying that would be a human rights violation, I think.
    Would not having a minimum living wage law be a human rights violation?
    Would coercing peasants in various ways to produce cash crops instead of food crops (and leaving peasants to starve when cash crop prices crash) not constitute a human rights violation?
    Would rich farmers’ building of a dam in an arid region to impound water to irrigate rice crops, thereby making water unavailable for peasants’ subsistence crops constitute a human rights violation?
    Would a multinational company’s building of a power plant but thereby polluting the main source of drinking water for the local population (and not doing anything to replace the common good so denied) constitute a human rights violation?
    Fishermen communities in India have lived on the coast for centuries, feeding themselves by catch from the coastal area. Would the government allowing vacuum-cleaner mechanized fishing methods that clear the area within the fishermen’s reach of catch constitute a human rights violation?
    If you say poverty in general – its causes are manifold, just like war. Is war a human rights violation? But there are innumerable instances where a traditional way of life – precarious but not poverty-stricken – is thrown into disarray in the name of progress, free-market, etc. There is the taking of goods that were common by tradition and privatizing them. Is this a violation of human rights?

    1. Not paying that wage would be a violation of the law.
      Not necessarily a violation of Human Rights.
      Human Rights and the law have a relationship, sure… but it isn’t close to a 1:1 kinda thing.

    2. What is your definition of human rights?
      To quote Wikipedia: the “basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled”.
      Do we have a right to a traditional way of life? When has a way of life gone on long enough to become traditional? Are efforts to stop the Norwegians and Japanese from whaling a violation of their human rights because they have a traditional right to a way of life? Do people have a right to vaccum-cleaner mechanised fishing methods, even if they destroy the fishing stocks?
      The NZ government introduced individual transferrable fishing quotas to manage the rights to fish that were common by tradition. Was that a violation of human rights?
      Water rights often cause conflict. Say that upstream communities in a river have always had a right to 10,000 cubic metres of water for their farming, but climate change means that river levels are running low and they are taking too much water. Is changing their rights to water a violation of human rights?
      Let’s say an organisation wants to build a power station to supply a hospital with electricity, thus increasing access to healthcare in the local community. The options boil down to a hydro-run system, affecting water use, or a thermal station removing a main source of drinking water, or no power station (it’s not windy enough for wind power). Is making those tough decisions a violation of human rights? In that situation, how do you avoid not violating someone’s rights?
      How about the world gets serious about climate change, and massively cuts back on coal use, thus throwing coal miners’ traditional way of life into disarray in the name of the environment? Is that a violation of human rights?
      Is there some special reason to favour a minimum living wage legislation, when many people earning the minimum wage are teenagers or otherwise not dependent on it, and many poor people can’t work at all, as opposed to a minimum income subsidy paid to keep people above a poverty level? Is someone who advocates a universal basic income rather than a minimum wage really advocating a policy of violating human rights, or are they just disagreeing about how to do things?
      Human rights are great if they can be applied to everyone, but it doesn’t strike me that they’re great ways to manage problems of resource allocation (property rights have far more advantages).

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