Krugman’s Incoherent Moral Stance

Tibor R. Machan

Finally Paul Krugman, Princeton University Nobel Laureate in economic science and columnist for The New York Times, has come clean about his “moral” position (TNYT, January 14, 2011). He has admitted that he doesn’t believe that when you earn something, you own it. (Don’t know if he believes we own things we haven’t earned, such as our kidneys or eyes! Maybe he thinks that as with earned resources, these unearned ones, especially, belong to the government which can proceed to distribute them just as Krugman thinks it can redistribute the resources citizens have actually come by through hard work, ingenuity, luck and the like.) Let’s see then whether Kurgman’s moral stance has any chance of being sound. Is it the morality by which people ought to guide their conduct in their lives? Do we and what we own belong to government to do with as government officials believe? But isn’t that slavery?

If my life doesn’t belong to me–if the norm the Declaration of Independence identifies as universal, namely, that every human being has a right to his or her life, is false–then what is true? Does my life belong to the government? If we recall that government is a group of individuals to whom a certain social role has been delegated–namely, the role of securing the rights of the citizenry–the claim that government owns our lives and resources means nothing else but that these individuals in government own our lives and resources.

But that is very odd–why would those people be in the privileged position of owning us and what to all appearances belongs to us while we, also human beings and with equal rights, do not own our lives and resources? This makes no sense.

So when we take even a cursory look at Professor Krugman’s position, it turns out to be incoherent, rank nonsense. It reminds me of the remark attributed to the poet W. H. Auden, namely, “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.” So we all belong to government but then to whom does government belong?

The idea that we belong to government is obscene and harks back to an age when Caesars, monarchs, tsars, Pharaohs and such were believed to have been given their realm by God and everything within that realm, including all the human beings, therefore belonged to them. Later these slaves and serfs began to be called subjects, implying that they were all subject to the will of the government. This is were serfdom and even taxation have their origin.

Now we have, in 21st century America, one of the most prominent commentators and educators reiterate this horrendous outlook. Incredible. But it gets even worse.

An essential aspect of any bona fide moral position is that it must be practiced voluntarily, not because someone–e. g., government–holds a gun to one’s head and coerces one to do what is right. That doesn’t count as doing the right thing, so any such policy is literally demoralizing. It robs people of the opportunity to be morally good (or bad, of course).

A society that’s fit for human habitation must not have policies that prevent citizens from exercising moral judgment. So, OK, assume for a moment that we should devote ourselves entirely to serving other people, to serving the public good. If, however, all of this is accomplished through governmental coercion like taxation, regulation, regimentation, and so forth, there can’t be anything moral about it. So Dr. Krugman’s so called moral stance isn’t one at all. It leaves no room for morality because it makes all purportedly moral conduct involuntary, imposed by rulers and not a matter of one’s own free will.

So Krugman’s moral stance is not only incoherent but it isn’t even a moral stance. So much for the “morality” of one of America’s foremost public philosophers.

What someone like Dr. Krugman could more fruitfully do is urge people to be generous toward those in need, to give support to worthy causes, to help the poor, etc., but always of their own free will. That is what moral leaders may do, nothing else. Whether the morality they advocate is sound is another matter. But to remain something morally relevant it must not be imposed. Elementary, Dr. Krugman, really.