Posts tagged Amartya Sen

Column on Inequality


Tibor R. Machan*

Much consternation is spent on income and related inequality. Or call it unequal advantages in life. As if it were some kind of moral or political imperative that we must all enjoy equal benefits and burdens, though few will say why that would be a good thing or why it is right to aim for it, considering that throughout nature inequality is clearly the norm.

Isaiah Berlin is supposed to have stated that equality is a virtual axiomatic norm of social-political life, so Amartya Sen, the Harvard Nobel Laureate in economic science tells us in his book The Idea of Justice (2009). Professor Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago Laws School and Philosophy Department also adheres to this idea. Indeed, it is widely embraced by philosophers at the top schools everywhere. It has made its appearance in political history mainly in the writings of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Yet, as hard as I have tried to locate an argument for the idea, I haven’t been able to find any. Even as a matter of moral intuition, something many contemporary thinkers in ethics favor, it doesn’t appear to be plausible that everyone ought to be enjoying the same conditions of life and that when they don’t, it becomes a political and legal imperative to rearrange things so that they will. It was the late Robert Nozick who in his famous book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1973) advanced an argument against the intuitive power of egalitarianism. He did this with his famous Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment in which we are all equally well off but then many of us decide to contribute some of our resources to Wilt so we can see him play his fabulous basketball game, which immediately upsets the supposedly desirable equality among us all since, of course, Wilt will be but the rest of us will not be very rich. So this will require constant readjustment, wealth redistribution, by the government which will of course have to be very powerful, much more so that the rest of us, and this once again shows that inequality is unavoidable.

Of course, we have different kinds of equality before us and some do appear to be imperative, such as equal protection of our rights in the legal system. But this is about a procedural matters, not about results. But perhaps the fact of our humanity alone supports the equality that egalitarians promote? Yet while people are alike in all of them being human, this itself goes hand in hand with immense legitimate diversity and inquality among us.
Just take a peak around you and confirm the plain fact that inequality is everywhere–in talents, beauty, athletic prowess, luck (good and bad), etc., etc. And there is, of course, that fact of the widespread inequality of wealth enjoyed by us, the inequality that appears to annoy so many people. I am not convinced it really is since we all live with it day in and out everywhere and peace still prevails among most of us. No doubt there are people who are heavily beset with envy and for them all inequality of advantage justifies massive political efforts to even things out. (Consider Occupy Wall Street as a case in point!)

Of course in some areas equality is imperative, if only to make things more interesting. For example, in foot races and such the competitors all start at the same point–none is supposed to enjoy an unequal advantage, at least not in their initial positioning. (Yet even there, some start with a good night’s sleep behind them, others with nerves having kept them awake all night long.) The oft mentioned “level playing field” is a myth, too, since while the field may be level in some cases, much else isn’t.

In life, including human affairs, inequality is routine. What matters is that whatever inequality exists not be the result of violence, if coercion. If my fellow marathon runners are unequal in their readiness for the race, so be it. But if they try to undermine the readiness of their competitors by spiking their breakfast or water bottles or tripping them up during the race, that’s where things become intolerable. Similarly with wealth. If you are Bill Gates or Warren Buffet but got there peacefully, without using force against those who didn’t, such is life and upsetting it merely increases the coercive power of some people (thus introducing the most insidious form of inequality among human beings).

So unlike in the wilds where many animals rule others by means of physical strength and brutality, in human society advantages are to be gained and kept without resorting to force or fraud. Once those are ejected from the sphere, the outcome cannot be objectionable other than as a matter of a wish or hope. Even those would be unbecoming, which is why envy is a vice, not some admirable sentiment toward those who are well off.

*Tibor Machan is the author of Equality, So Badly Misunderstood (2010).

Introduction to Equality, So Badly Misunderstood

Introduction [to Tibor Machan's new book, Equality, So Badly Misunderstood]:

A supreme achievement of certain thinkers of the modern era has been to challenge and ultimately overturn the idea that some human beings are innately morally or politically superior to others and so they may rule these others as they judge fit. That idea spawned some of the worst practices and institutions among people over the centuries. It was in time invalidated by the plain enough fact that members of the human species were equal in one central respect, namely, their humanity.

However, serious fallout from this welcome development has also occurred. This is the popularity of the view, especially among political and legal philosophers as well as some prominent political economists, namely, that all changeable human inequality is unjust and is to be banished, that individuality itself is something insidious since when one pays heed to it, quite evidently people are quite different individuals from one another. This latter idea, let’s call it bloated equality, has helped, paradoxically, to reintroduce the former political and even moral inequality, which had been nearly totally dis- credited in much of the developed world. This is because in the effort to ban most of the inequality in human communities, those who carry out the ban must be vastly more unequal in the power they hold over others than those they endeavor to make equal. And while their unequal power isn’t being justified on grounds of birthright, the supposed imperative to equalize us all turns out to be insidious and manages to reap the same havoc with justice that the myth of innate inequality did that had been largely abolished. This in the face of the fact that many champions of such egalitarianism have tried to convince us all that justice itself demands their program, the equalization of all, especially in economic matters.

One clear example of public policy influenced by the imperative to establish the bloated conception of political equality came through in the 2009 debate about government guaranteed health care (or insurance) in the United States of America. Such a system is approximated in many other countries across the globe and debate is raging about just how wise and efficient it is. Whether justice requires it, however, is often deemed moot.
Many, especially those who joined US President Barack Obama and his administration, believe in economic equality as they seek to establish a system of government-provided universal health care for American citizens (especially the “public option”). In doing this they clearly take it as a given that the resources required so as to establish their policy may be secured by means of massive taxation and by borrowing against future taxes the payers of which would not even have been born when the policy would begin to be implemented.

So, among other dubious results, this egalitarian effort imposes burdens on yet unborn citizens, thus violating a precious principle of classical liberal politics, one that helped set off the American Revolution in fact, namely, that there must not be taxation without representation. Furthermore the policy includes the Draconian measure of legally requiring citizens to obtain health insurance, surely a measure that would render those who would enforce this far more powerful than those who would choose to abstain. Also, such egalitarian projects are based on the policy of massive wealth redistribution and on the conscription of people’s labor that’s needed to produce the wealth to be redistributed.

But these are just some insidious, unjust results, of the effort to seek substantial economic and social equality among citizens in a human community. The injustice stems from making use of individual human beings against their will, without their consent, and thus from unjustly imposing on them what amounts to involuntary servitude. In this work many more examples of such results will be discussed, along with various arguments and other considerations involved in the issue. It will go some way toward establishing that egalitarianism of the sort that underlies such efforts is badly misguided and, when implemented, it is out and out unjust.

What I will be insisting on defending is the idea that there is no justification for the belief that enforcing economic or any other type of substantive equality among members of human communities is a moral or political—and should be a legal—imperative. No basis exists for this view that, sadly, is widely held in our time.

According to Harvard University Nobel Laureate Amartya K. Sen, the debate over the importance of equality in social and political philosophy is over.

“We are all egalitarians now, because every plausibly defendable ethical theory of social arrangement tends to demand equality in some ‘space,’ requiring equal treatment of individuals in some significant respect—in terms of some variable that is important in that particular theory. The ‘space’ that is invoked does differ from theory to theory. For example, ‘libertarians’ are concerned with equal liberties; ‘economic egalitarians’ argue for equal incomes or wealth; utilitarians insist on equal weight on everyone’s utilities in a consequential maximand, and so on . . . What really distinguishes the different approaches is the variation in their respective answers to the question ‘equality of what?’”

Yet this observation by Sen is about political economy, a very fluid area of human life, so it doesn’t indicate what is most important to most people but what people engaged in discussing public affairs believe. Your neighbor and the watchmaker at the mall aren’t much interested in substantive (e.g., economic) equality. It is mostly when they turn their minds to public affairs such as voting, redistricting, jury duty, and government service that equality starts to matter to them.

More likely, what concerns a great many people is how to be decent and just in their lives not whether people are equal in even the minimal respect of protection for their rights. That may matter, in fact, but isn’t of much concern to most people.

Column on Democracy and Human Rights

Democracy and Human Rights

Tibor R. Machan

Tim Snyder made a very important observation on democracy and human rights in a recent piece for The New York Review of Books. He wrote, “As important as democratic procedures might be, opponents of communism in Eastern Europe spoke more often of human rights. Without human rights, democracy can be, as they say in Eastern Europe, managed. And above all, to be free means to find that cool place under the bridge, and remain there despite the current…” (“In Darkest Belarus,” 10/28/2010) This point is crucial to keep in mind as one considers the ways that individual liberty can be given its proper intellectual support.

Among some very influential thinkers today, like the Harvard University Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, the most crucial feature of a just community is democracy, meaning the right of everyone to take part in the most widespread discussion of public policy. As Sen says, “participation in political decisions and social choice … have to be understood as constitutive parts of the ends of development in themselves” (p. 291). And Sen holds that the legal order of a country is to be decided upon by way of a democratic or national conversation. The governing laws emerge from such a discussion so there are here no pre-legal principles in place such as those the American Founders believed in, basic individual rights that all must respect and governments must secure. Everything seems for the likes of Sen to be open for debate or discussion and only after this has concluded can we talk of constitutional principles, fundamental laws, justice and the like. As he puts it,

Indeed, the connection between public reasoning and the formulation and use of human rights is extremely important to understand. Any general plausibility that these ethical claims, or their denials, have is dependent, on this theory, on their survival and flourishing when they encounter unobstructed discussion and scrutiny, along with adequately wide informational availability (“Elements of a Theory of Rights,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 32.4 [2004] p. 349).

Sen does also hold that one’s right to one’s liberty is basic but because public discussion would, as he puts it, “sustain it.” Yet any other rights, such as the right to private property that is so vital to market operations and other elements of human liberty, or (one may assume) the right to travel and such are not for him basic. As he explains, “There is a priority of liberty … but it arises from the conviction that reasoning in public would sustain it…. I do [however] disagree [about] the inclusion of property rights within the realm of personal liberty….”

Sen evidently does not appreciate what the Eastern Europeans realized when faced with communism, namely, that “to be free means to find that cool place under the bridge, and remain there despite the current.…”

The right to private property, in other words, is the right that holds off even the majority when the majority refuses to respect the freedom of the individual. As Snyder notes, anti-Communist dissidents placed the emphasis on individuality, on human rights, because if these are secure, one is free even from the majority. That right–just as the similarly basic ones such as the right to freedom of religion, of speech, of association, and so forth–serves as the principle by reference to which human beings are free in the concrete, practical sense that others must obtain consent from them in order to involve them in their projects, no matter how important to them those projects happen to be. No majority may override any individual’s right to liberty, including the liberty to seek, obtain and hold property. Indeed, it is such property that makes effective independence possible in the midst of human communities.

The reason democracy appears to be more important to some than are human rights is that for the longest time in human history the vast number of human beings were not “permitted”–the very idea is offensive–by their rulers to influence public policy, which was something rightfully resented and in time resisted. But while this may explain the popularity of democracy, it is no substitute for the more basic regard one should have for human individual rights, including the right to private property, the ultimate bulwark against tyranny.

An early criticism of Sen

[This is a proposed insert into a possible second edition of my book, Human Rights and Human Liberties (Nelson-Hall, 1975), on page 248]

A somewhat different objection to the natural rights theory developed here has been advanced by Amartya K. Sen, in his presentation, “A Positive Concept of Negative Rights,” to the Fifth International Wittgenstein Symposium, August 27, 1980 (in Kirchberg-am-Wechsel, Austria). Sen, in criticizing Nozick’s principled view of individual rights, suggests that in some cases violation of one right so as to protect another might be warranted, which would make for a conception of rights as consequence sensitive (or ultimately utilitarian or even pragmatic). Suppose that A knows that B will rape C unless someone violates D’s rights. A cannot convinced the police that B will rape C but knows it, nevertheless, and violating D’s (e.g., private property) rights will hardly upset* D, whereas B’s raping C will have drastic consequences for C. What should A do if not violate D’s (property) rights?

Sen thinks A should violate D’s rights. But what has Sen achieved with this case? Only that there can be moral-political tragedies, emergencies. Normally if A knows that B will rape C, A can show this. (A’s knowledge to be knowledge must be based on something demonstrable!) Then the police, which would be authorized to take measures to protect rights, even when some of these measures would ordinarily be rights-violating, could proceed to take steps to prevent B’s raping of C. (E.g., the police could gain properly authorized access to D’s house so as to obtain the information needed to take preventive action.) But if A knows B will rape C but cannot show this or the police won’t believe A because they are stubborn or corrupt, an emergency exists. Such emergencies can require someone to disregard (e.g., private property or other individual rights), they do not warrant altering the system of based on individual rights. As Aristotle is supposed to have pointed out, “One swallow does not a springtime make,” or recalling another motto, “hard cases make bad law”….

* By the way, if so, then why violate D’s rights instead of secure D’s cooperation?

Column on More Skepticism about Property Rights

Recent Skepticism About Property Rights

Tibor R. Machan

In a wide ranging review essay of Amartya Sen’s recent ambitious book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard, 2009), Moshe Halbertal, a philosopher from the Hebrew University, unleashes some arguments against the right to private property that are supposed to be even stronger than those Sen himself offers. Sen himself regards this right as a strong one but not decisive, so some considerations can be morally powerful enough to overturn it. To block even a moderately friendly view of the right to private property, Professor Halbertal writes:

“Let us assume that … at stake for distribution is a rare medicine that Clara, the brilliant and productive child, somehow managed to invent. She is willing to provide the medicine to Anne, who is very sick, but only for an outrageous compensation. If she does not get her coveted [medicine], then Anne will die; and nobody–this is the libertarian claim–can take the medicine away from her, since she has ownership rights as a producer. In such a story, it seems clear that sticking solely to the libertarian approach to ownership rights, regardless of the outcome, is wrong. Even if we assert that there are such rights, surely, they should not be absolute….” [The New Republic, 12/2/09, p. 42]

This is certainly not the first time that the right to private property has been challenged along such lines. The needs of others have always seemed morally superior to some, versus the rights of those who can fulfill those needs without drastic loss to themselves. And in certain dire circumstances even libertarians will grant that a one-time theft should be morally acceptable provided efforts are made later to compensate for it. What the libertarian–or most of them, since they are a diverse lot themselves–insists upon is that a legal system make no systemic allowance for such takings. Though it is understandable that the takings would occur on rare–emergency–occasions, what is completely wrong is to build into a legal system this acceptability. (In some parts of France, which is largely a socialist country, extreme need serves as a legal justification for such takings!)

The case Halbertal offers has some problems to start with, though relatively minor. No one denies, libertarian or otherwise, that somebody “can take the medicine away.” It is not whether they can but whether they are morally (and should be legally) justified to do so. Criminals, after all, perpetrate such takings all the time, when they murder, rape, kidnap, and steal. Rights violations are possible but not justified, according to libertarianism.

More important is the way Halbertal misunderstands what libertarian political philosophers aim to do when they lay out a proper legal system. They aren’t discussing ethics or morality but politics or law. They are investigating what system of principles should govern a human community, what constitutional provisions should be included in a just system. That here and there an exception is possible to those principles is never disputed–such thinkers as Locke, Rand, Den Uyl and Rasmussen and I, routinely discuss emergencies and note that what’s at issue are general principles, not specific cases that may have elements that remove it from the norm.

It is interesting that just this element of the classical liberal, libertarian political approach is thoroughly investigated by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl in their brilliant book, Norms of Liberty, A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics (Penn State University Press, 2005). Sadly, in the typical fashion of contemporary academics, Professor Halbertal settles for star gazing and pays no heed to Norms of Liberty, a work the theme of which would have informed him about how a classical liberal, libertarian would deal with matters such as he focuses upon.

The gist of the approach is that while difficult cases admittedly exist, instead of attempting to lay out some grand (ideal) moral theory that handles every conceivable situation (a strict moral geometry), they offer a system of metanorms–their term–by which a just society should be governed. These metanorms are principles of government or basic laws that everyone ought to choose so as to make possible a just social life for both oneself and everyone else–every other human being, in other words–based on our knowledge of human nature and what community life requires.

But getting back to Halbertal’s case, what would the classical liberal, non-Utopian approach to political philosophy advise about it? It might, for example, propose that Clara should not have her invention taken from her even in an emergency because although Anne desperately needs it, making it possible to violate Clara’s property right with impunity (and thus setting a precedent) will undermine the system of justice that keeps a free society intact. Or it could propose that an exception be made, via judicial discretion or some other device of the law, without allowing it to undermine normal legal procedures. And then there is the rarely considered option, as we see in both Sen’s and Halbertal’s discussions, of managing the problem without recourse to the law, mostly by relying on voluntary actions such as raising the funds and pressuring Clara by such means as a serious, organized boycott (with the leadership of, say, Sen and Halbertal).

It is interesting that both Sen and Halbertal are avid about their rejection of perfectionist politics yet do not appear to have much sympathy for solving dilemmas without insisting on a perfect resolution, one that guarantees that a perfect enforceable solution will be reached. This is a clear case of the perfect being the enemy of the good! Yes, Clara may have to be tolerated in her greed and lack of generosity but that is because the system in which one is free to be greedy and ungenerous is superior to one that aims to impose, by means of government–thus risking tyranny and undermining morality–the only right solution.

So it would appear that a system of law in which the right to private property is fully protected is better than one in which exceptions are permitted, thus leaving it open to government not by law but by men (who would ultimately be responsible to weight all the alternatives based on their intuitions, something Halbertal appears to grant at one point in his review essay).