Posts tagged “social” justice

Column on Dyson’s Nonsense

Column on Dyson’s Nonsense

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent review essay Freeman Dyson flatly asserts that “social justice demands equality. Fair reward for enterprise and achievement demands inequality.” Well, neither of these is true but for soundbites in a publication like The New York Review of Books one could do much worse. Social justice is neither social, nor just. It is an excuse for some people to run everyone else’s life.

But Dyson doesn’t stop there and adds this:

Advocates on both sides of the debate have tended to take extreme positions. Numerous utopian communities have been founded to put egalitarian principles into practice. Few of them have lasted longer than one generation. Children have a regrettable tendency to rebel against their parents’ dreams. Meanwhile, advocates of extreme free market capitalism have been preaching the gospel of greed. They glorify greed as the driving force that creates new industries and in the end will make everyone wealthy. Unfortunately in many parts of the world where free market capitalism prevails, the rich are growing richer and the poor are growing poorer. [“The Case for Far-Out Possibilities,” Freeman Dyson, NYRB, 11/10/11, p. 27]

Much of this is simply wrong–no free market capitalist champion preaches any gospel of greed. The closest may be some economists who claim that each of us is motivated to make out well in life, a point so broad that it can mean nearly anything. As Milton Friedman put it, “. . . every individual serves his own private interest . . . . The great Saints of history have served their ‘private interest’ just as the most money grubbing miser has served his interest. The private interest is whatever it is that drives an individual.” ["The Line We Dare Not Cross," Encounter, 11/76:11] So being “greedy” is merely to want to do something, anything, one likes. Self-interest is just having some interest, some goals, never mind what they are. No gospel of greed here, none!

Will freedom produce industries? Well, that and also art and athletics and family life and whatever free men and women choose to pursue. Again, nothing here that should offend any sensibilities.

Does free market capitalism prevail anywhere? Not by a long shot. At best we have some welfare states, mixed economies that include a few elements of capitalism, such a moderate protection of the right to private property and some, fewer and fewer, voluntary contracts, in the midst of innumerable socialist features and fascistic political powers. And where capitalism has made some inroads, the poor are definitely not getting poorer but growing rich, though perhaps not as rapidly as those who focus mostly on wealth care.

So why then is a famous public intellectual saying such misleading things? Maybe because his fame comes from doing work in physics, not in political economy. And maybe also because the common sense account of making it rich still owes too much to the times when that goal was pursued through pilfering, murdering, robbing and otherwise depriving others of what they have. In short, for most of the history gaining wealth was a zero sum game, not the win win situation that modern economists have found far more productive. Peace, not ripping people off, is the road to riches.

Dyson is of course saying all this nonsense in a publication that tries every which way to discredit human economic liberty. He promotes some kind of middle way, between liberty and slavery, at least in the realm of economics. But it makes no sense. It rests on obsolete theory about what gets people to create and produce wealth and ignorance about economic history and reality.

Maybe Dr. Dyson should return to physics and leave economics be. Although quite a few so called economists get it wrong just as he does, especially the Keynesians who believe that one can make something out of nothing. That confusing idea ought to be offensive a physicist for sure.

On Distributive Justice

On Distributive Justice

Tibor R. Machan

For a long time political philosophers and such were interested in identifying the nature of justice. It started with Socrates and lasted to when John Stuart Mill did his work, although by that time there had been talk of this thing called distributive justice. By now most political theorists dwell on little else.

Yet I have never quite understood why the idea has become so prominent since it is clearly question-begging. Distribution is something done by people who have things to distribute, who are legitimate, rightful owners of what may be wanted from them about town. Money, mainly. So in our day government takes money from people–the resources they have made, earned, found, won or whatever–and hands it to some other people (after taking a good cut for itself). How the distribution goes may be judged as arbitrary, fair, unfair, corrupt, or, just. But all this couldn’t even begin if it were determined that the initial taking of the resources is wrong. And as I have managed to figure these matters, taxing people is wrong. That means that distributing what is taken in taxes is also wrong. Accordingly distributive justice could not be justice at all. It is at most something touched by a bit of generosity, as when bank robbers divvy up their loot among some needy folks, in what is taken to be a Robin Hoodish way (but Robin just took money back that had been taken in taxes instead of taxed people).

Why is taxation wrong? It is depriving people of what belongs to them without their consent. Sure, some people in a society may consent, by voting for it, to the taking of other people’s resources but that couldn’t possibly make the taking anything better than confiscation, an unjust taking because it involves coercion and lacks the consent of the owners. And this is what had been realized, more or less, when individual rights were finally clearly enough understood and affirmed by some political philosophers. Few came right out and condemned taxation because they held the mistaken belief that the administration of a just legal system required it, but it does not. They had similar ideas about slavery in various places until finally they gave that up. They should have given up taxation along with its conceptual sibling, serfdom. Both of these had their home under feudalism and other types of monarchy since in such systems the government–king, czar, pharaoh, dictator, ruler, politburo or whatnot–owns everything and thus when people live and work withing the realm, they are made to pay taxes as their rent and fees. Government in such systems permits people to live and work and charges them for this by making them serve in the military, subjecting them to forced labor, etc., etc. The benefits government provides are privileges, grants from the sovereign to the subjects. Such systems do not recognize individual rights!

Distributive justice is a weird hybrid that combines feudal or monarchical features with those of a fully free society, one in which it is individuals citizens who are sovereign, not the government. But the two, wealth-distribution by government and justice plainly enough don’t mix, despite how sophisticated folks claim they do. Justice requires acknowledging the sovereignty or self-rule of individuals, with what little government is warranted existing with the full consent of the governed. This government has no rightful authority to do any confiscation or conscription at all. Its sole function is that of a protector of individual rights or, as the American Founders put the matter, to “secure [the]… rights” everyone has by virtue of his or her human nature. (In America much of this was discussed but sadly not fully applied since a bunch of perverse ideas, held by powerful recalcitrant people, needed to be accommodated for the sake of establishing a sustainable country.)

When one hears of distributive justice–or another version of this oxymoron, social justice–it is best to conjure up the idea of a square circle or worse, a free slave. Governments that have resources to distribute came by it unjustly, by seizing it from people who are the just holders of those resources.

As to how legal services might be paid for, well, that is important but the answer cannot be “by confiscating the resources of those for whom they are being administered.”