Clubs versus Social Justice

So, enough with vacation pictures! Here are some riffs extending a few lines of argument in my forthcoming Cato paper on inequality… 

The pattern of wages and incomes at the level of the nation state is morally arbitrary. A fortiori, as Hayek notes, desert-based conceptions of national pattern are doubly hopeless. Wages are determined by demand in the labor maket, which is not really national and not at all under individual control. The best an individual can do to “deserve” a wage level in a certain neighborhod is to try to respond to labor market signals and acquire skill that pays. But the idea of justifying the differences between two individual’s wages is a classic category mistake. Maybe widget polishers earn more than dingus tighteners because there is a glut of dingus tighteners. That inequality is morally meaningless — completely irrelevant. Sooner or later, some dingus tighteners will learn to polish widgets and the gap will narrow. Now, if the widget polishers guild is creating barriers to entry, as cartels are wont to do, the wage gap would reflect an injustice. The injustice isn’t the gap, though; it’s the violation of economic liberty rights. Likewise, if all the widget polishing jobs are on the other side of a line that you are not allowed to cross, the inequality will reflect a prior violation of liberty. But assuming a (rare and precious) free market in labor, when it comes to wage gaps, deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it.

Do I deserve my salary? Of course I do. I’ve got an agreement with the Cato Institute. I give them certain services, they give me a certain salary. If I’ve done my job, I’ve got it coming to me. Do Cato Research Fellows deserve to make more than dingus tighteners? Again, the question is just a category mistake. Dingus tighteners deserve what their employers promise them. You can ask “What justifies the gap in pay between Research Fellows and dingus tigheners?” But what kind of question is this? Doesn’t it amount to:  “What justifies the fact that employers of Research Fellows offer more than employers of dingus tighteners”? Or: “What justifies the fact that Research Fellows have labor market alternatives that pay better than the labor market alternatives of dingus tighteners”? Or: “What justifies the fact that certain skills are in shorter supply relative to demand”?

Do these questions make any sense? There are explanations to offer, but there is no room for questions of justification. To whom is this question supposed to be addressed anyway? Society? Whatever society is, it’s some kind of international network of cooperation, so, again, it’s super confused to attempt to address an already meaningless question to something, the nation state, which is not the kind of unit to which this kind of question of justification can sensibly be posed.

There are an indefinite number of sets of people bound by relations we might think are interesting. What’s the point of picking out one of those sets of people and then asking whether the pattern of incomes or wages among them tracks desert, or anything else? What would make you think this kind of tracking is even possible? What would make you think this is desirable?

If nationalist political theorists were to adopt a different vocabulary, they could start making sense, but then it would be clear that they’re not really doing moral philosophy in quite the way they thought they were. You begin to realize you’re doing something like the modern version of theorizing about the obligations of kings to the lesser nobility. It may seem extremely important at the time, but it lacks the universality of an authentically moral question. Anyway, my contention is that nation states really are just a special kind of club. This isn’t even a metaphor. It’s exact. Nation states are clubs. Citizenships are club memberships. Visas are club guest passes. Immigration debates are always at bottom about clubbability. It’s really not all that different to be told “Welcome home” by the U.S. immigration officer and to be kicked out by the Myanmar immigration officer. The point is that some people are members and some people aren’t, that some non-members are welcome as guests and some people aren’t. 

It would be immensely useful and clarifying if we would start being explicit about the club structrure of the globe, and the assumptions about the naturalness or inevitability of exclusive clubs at the very foundation of political philosophy. We would then be able to ask questions about how we, the club members, would like the club’s institutions organized and governed, how we would like the holdings of the members distributed, etc., But it would then be pretty hard to characterize this sort of theorizing as the core of a theory of social justice, a theory that is supposed to have some kind of deep moral bite, while running away from the obviously prior question about the justification of the rules of membership and exclusion that constitute the clubs. That the question over the justification of the distribution of club memberships and guest passes so obviously comes first but is so fastidiously ignored, or treated as a kind of special case, can be nothing but a huge embarrassment to a discipline that pretends to offer a theory of social justice. 

So back to inequality and distribution. As a matter of fact, many Mexicans and Canadians are in society with one another. Let’s say there is a pretty big difference in pay between Mexican and Canadian dingus tighteners. Part of the explanation for this, let’s suppose, is just like the difference between widget polishers and dingus tightener when the widget polishers guild uses the political system to restrict entry. Despite high demand, Canada keeps most Mexican dingus tighteners out, in effect subsidizing the wages of dingus tighteners who are members or guests of the Canadian club (not the whiskey.) So here is your intelligible question of economic and social justice. What justifies the barriers to entry that privelege some members of society at the expense of others. To draw the bounds of society at the border is a completely specious move to ignore the most basic question of justice by defining it away.

When I make this point, I get the sense that some nationalist egalitarian liberals think I’m trying to cleverly avoid confronting the allegedly baleful inequalities in the national pattern of economic holdings. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m sincerely arguing that nationalist liberal egalitarianism is morally unserious arbitrary nonsense.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center