The Tragic Flute

I found this little thought experiment, inserted by a Forbes editor into an interview with Amartya Sen, pretty peculiar.

[Note: In the book, Sen describes a problem of divergent views on justice in which you have one flute and three children who want it. One child wants the flute because she knows how to play it, the second one wants it because he is poor and doesn’t have toys, and the third one says she made the flute, so she should get it. Who do you give it to?]

This is no knock against Sen, since there’s probably more context in the book. But this is not really such a puzzling question, is it? The correct answer is: It all depends on how “you” ended up with the flute!

Is the flute yours because you provided the materials (which were yours) and paid the kid who made it? If so, you can give it to anyone you want, or you can keep it. It’s yours! Did you steal it from the kid who made it? Then you should give it to the kid who made it. It’s hers! You’ve got no right to redistribute her flute.

Anyway, I find this thought experiment, and the not uncommon practice of assuming away the relevance of property rights when considering questions of distributive justice, confusing. A settled scheme of property rights is the main solution to the problem of distributive justice. As Hume said:

No one can doubt, that the convention for the distinction of property, and for the stability of possession, is of all circumstances the most necessary to the establishment of human society, and that after the agreement for the fixing and observing of this rule, there remains little or nothing to be done towards settling a perfect harmony and concord.

Of course, ingrained intuitions about equality, reciprocity, need, desert etc. will tend to shape this most necessary convention as it develops over time. One of the things we already know before coming to questions about who should get a flute is that things like flutes don’t grow on trees. Somebody has to make them. And the production of valuable goods, like flutes, tends to take place within a stable scheme of property. It’s sort of silly to drop that context and ask who “you” should give the flute to. If the conditions under which flutes are produced is in already place, then the answer about who should get it is likely already settled.

Anyway, Sen’s point no doubt was just that if you’re trying to do the best you can in giving away your rightful possessions, considerations of desert (e.g., both “I made it” and “I can best use it”), need, and fairness (e.g., “I don’t have ANY toys!”) are definitely relevant, but it’s not clear how to weigh them against one another.

What I’d add is that because the relative importance of considerations such as desert, equality, need, reciprocity, etc. tends to be indeterminate in the abstract, we need a system of property to peacefully settle particular distributional questions. Stable property conventions will tend to have evolved over time in a way that has taken the various elements of justice into account. If they didn’t, they’d likely lead to conflict and wouldn’t be stable. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the aggregate pattern of holdings that emerges from cooperation and exchange according to a just scheme of property rights will fail to resemble a counterfactual pattern determined solely by considerations of desert, or of equality, or of need.

Update: Also, I like what Sen says at the end of the interview:

The idea of perfect justice drives to a mistaken route. If you believe that any judgment has to be examined through public agreement, reasoned agreement, it’s my submission that

a) We won’t have agreement on the nature of a perfectly just society. But very likely, we will have agreement, reasoned agreement, on a variety of arrangements, outcomes, social states which are unjust and should be removed.

b) Secondly, even if we succeeded in identifying a perfectly just society on which everybody agrees, that’s not what we are debating about. No one expects we can have a perfectly just society in the foreseeable future. Our policies don’t depend on it. So why waste your time on a question which is probably unanswerable and certainly redundant.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

18 thoughts

  1. Will, any thoughts on this from Boldrin and Levine, Against Intellectual Monopoly:”It is common to argue that intellectual property in the form of copyright and patent is necessary for the innovation and creation of ideas and inventions such as machines, drugs, computer software, books, music, literature and movies. In fact intellectual property is a government grant of a costly and dangerous private monopoly over ideas. We show through theory and example that intellectual monopoly is not necessary for innovation and as a practical matter is damaging to growth, prosperity and liberty.”You can get the free (consistant, that) edition at….

  2. Sam, I find Boldrin and Levine's argument very persuasive in many kinds of cases. Because not all kinds of intellectual property have precisely the same features, or are sensitive to the same kinds of incentives, I'm wary of overgeneralizing and saying that we should get rid of IP rights altogether. But I think it's pretty clear that our current system is unjust and counterproductive. Technological change is creating a change in the kind of institutional forms that work best. The current debate about IP is precisely how the evolution of property conventions takes place.

  3. I've downloaded the book and will give it a close reading. I started to write something that struck me as insightful, when it occurred I was typing away on Linux machine…my “insight” dribbled away 🙂

  4. It is a callow response to the Sen riddle. The point is you are in the situation where you say you can do whatever you want. So, what is the *moral* answer? Is “do whatever you want” good political science these days. Heavens.

  5. The thought experiment might be useful, but how can it be extended to distributive justice generally, where there is no central distribution center?

  6. Will, the thing is whether considerations of need, desert etc should go into designing the rules of society. i.e. what kinds of considerations should go into deciding what the background rules will be?

  7. Sen isn't “assuming away the relevance of property rights.” What he's assuming is a background of stable property conventions – from which reliably flow undesirable outcomes in certain classes of cases. What is the solution? Not to put words in Sen's mouth, but he at least appears to think that “MORE, AND MORE AWESOME, MARKET MECHANISMS!” is an incomplete approach. Of course we need to improve market mechanisms and clarify property rights. But the earthly performance of markets, like the neurological implementation of rationality, is bounded in its perfection. So as with our imperfect brains, we need to consider supplementing our imperfect markets with other methods of intelligent allocation. This in turn requires that we think as clearly as we can about, among other things, desert, need, and fairness.

  8. Great post, Will. I was about to shout, “Give it back to the girl who made it!!” when your own (superior) answer made me realize what I was leaving out. Nice.

  9. The really interesting question to me is how many people reading this thought experiment would even have the insight to ask how the decider came to hold the flute. I willing to write that the answer is “very few”.

  10. Great insight, Yancey. I'd like to add on that the two children that did not make the flute would not have been able to argue over the claim of the flute had it not been for the child that actually made it bringing it into existence. It is obvious that they should defer to the creator of the flute its ultimate fate, because without the creator, the flutist would not have an opportunity to play and the poor child the opportunity to have a toy.Furthermore, why would a flute maker who cannot play a flute (I assume this because the scenario is set up to make the first child the sole flutist in the group; if all the children could play the flute, the first child would have no special distinction in which to claim ownership over the other children) choose to keep the flute, let alone produce one, and have no plans to transfer it to someone who wants the flute? The child just puts in a lot of labor for the joy of being able to deny others the joy of playing with the flute? It's kind of puzzling to me.

  11. The Coase Theorem tells us that it doesn't matter which girl gets the flute, as long as one of them does (= has a clear property right) and she is allowed to sell it. Whichever one you give it to, the flute will wind up with the potential owner who values it most.I'd still try to choose fairly, which in my view means the girl who made it gets it. But per Coase, it's more important to decide quickly (and finally) than fairly.

  12. The Coase theorem only tells us that it doesn't matter how we assign initial property rights in a world without transaction costs. But we do not live in such a world. Coase's point was precisely that we do not live in the world of perfect competition and zero transaction costs, and therefore, initial property rights allocation may matter a great deal in cases where transaction costs are prohibitively high enough to prevent efficient rearrangement through trade.Finality and speed of judicial decisions are important to Coase, no doubt, but I don't think he would be willing to throw fairness out the window either. That way leads to madness (and ugly smears of Coase by people who do not understand what Coase intended by his theorem).

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