Monday, April 11, 2016

Is Social Democracy About the Poor Being Greedy?

This morning, the following meme passed through my Facebook newsfeed:

It takes some unpacking to figure out exactly what Thomas Sowell is talking about here. Who in the world says that taking other people's money isn't greedy but keeping your own money, the money you've earned through your own efforts, is?

No one. No one says this.

This is the first thing to be absolutely clear about. What Sowell is offering here is  a version of what philosophers calls the straw man fallacy. The strategy is this. Some people are saying "Y." You disagree with Y. But instead of actually criticizing Y itself, what you do is this. You mischaracterize Y as X, where X is totally nutters. And then you say, "This view, X, is a crazy view. I don't understand why anyone could possibly believe it"--while looking pointedly at the people who say "Y." And since X is a crazy view, you are able to walk away having conveyed the impression that Y is nuts and the people who believe it are crazy--even though you've not done a single thing to show that.

So what is the view that Sowell is here mischaracterizing? Sowell is a conservative economist who self-identifies as libertarian. He appears to be an advocate of free market capitalism in the spirit of Milton Friedman--that is, someone who strongly believes in the idea of the laissez faire ecomony: if we just privatize the whole economy and let businesses pursue profit-maximization, not only will we do the most to respect individual liberty rights, but market forces will channel self-interested agents in ways that promote the general welfare.

Opposed to this philosophy is the view that government ought to be more involved in the economy than someone like Milton Friedman favors.While socialism represents one version of this view, one could favor more government involvement in the economy without being a socialist in a robust sense.

The key difference between socialism and capitalism has to do with who owns the means of production--private entities, or the state? And on this question, we're all at least partially socialist. After all, our military is not privately owned. Strictly speaking, the military is a service-provider--offering national security services--that is wholly owned and run by the government and paid for through tax dollars (or through federal deficit spending). And I have yet to hear a thoughtful and serious objection to this "socialized" military. Furthermore, most people think that some form of public education should continue, even if the form is a matter of dispute. Likewise with police and fire departments. And then, of course, there are the public libraries and public parks and public roads. These are not privately owned but publicly owned providers of human goods and services.

I believe in free markets. But I also think that some goods and services are provided more effectively and/or efficiently through collective or public cooperation. The idea with all of these public goods and services is that we all as a society contribute our share of the burden of paying for them, collectively oversee the operations via elected representatives who are beholden to us (and can be "fired" by us--that is, not re-elected--if we don't like how they manage the public goods), and all share in the benefits.

Beyond this, I take very seriously an idea expressed by one of the philosophical fathers of economies  like ours, that prioritize private ownership. John Locke believed that we acquire a right to private property through our personal labor: The resources of nature belong to all of us in common, but if I mix the resources of nature with my labor, I've added something that is mine alone. Hence, it becomes mine.

But Locke offered the following caveat: we should leave "as much and as good" for others. In other words, even if I work hard throughout the night to chop down every single tree in the woods and drag it to my plot of land, when the rest of the villagers wake up in the morning to find the entire forest gone and every log piled on my front lawn, they have a right to complain.

And if they call me greedy, that is legitimate even though I worked hard to take more than my fair share. "Lazy" might not be warranted, but "greedy" certainly is. And they are not being greedy when they take back a portion of the lumber. They are asserting their rights. I took more than I had a legitimate claim on.

Now, the society we live in is one in which pretty much all the resources of nature have been divided up. Private owners have claimed much of it. What remains falls largely under the control of the government, which at least in theory operates as the representative of the public in managing what is collectively owned.

But here's the thing. We live in a world where some people are filthy rich while many others do not have "as much and as good." Many people are so cut off from resources that they have nothing to mix their labor with--unless the sell their labor to the rich private owners. But in that case, the products of their labor belong to the owners and all the workers get in return is a paycheck. And many worry that the private owners are exploiting the workers: giving them far less than their labor is worth and pocketing the difference, getting richer and richer by riding on the backs of the less fortunate.

If this is right, then we might consider fixing the problem in something like the following way: take some of those exploited riches back from the exploiters and put those riches into public resources that the industrious poor can use to make something of themselves if they're willing to work hard--something like, say, free college education. Or maybe a federal jobs program offering competitive wages to anyone willing to work on building public infrastructure.

Aside from the issue of exploitation and correcting for it, some services and goods just make sense to provide by pooling our collective resources--through, say, taxation--and then making the goods and services available to all (the security that comes from the military, the roads that come from public infrastructure development, etc.).

When we pursue this collective strategy for meeting our needs, there is the question of what is fair in terms of paying for it. Should everyone contribute equally?

Suppose we wake up one morning and find that the woods are gone and those who are willing to work hard have no resources to work with, while some villagers are sitting pretty with huge piles of logs on their lawns, mostly inherited from their parents who were the ones who did the work of clear-cutting the forest. There is not "as much and as good" for everyone, but there ought to be. And suppose there are ways to use lumber to make public resources that benefit everyone, including industrious people without private resources. The majority thinks developing these resources is a great plan. Given the duty to leave as much and as good, don't the beneficiaries of those who paid no attention to this duty have more of an obligation to give back than those who aren't such beneficiaries?

So, consider the following activities:

A. Taking back what exploiters have unjustly snagged and putting it back into the public domain, so that the exploited can succeed through their hard work rather than have their labor greedily exploited.

B. Making sure that everyone contributes their fair share when we collectively pool our resources to produce public goods available to all.

In either of these cases, if some people resist paying up, we are justified in calling them greedy. But we aren't calling them greedy for keeping the money they've earned. We're calling them greedy for either taking more than they've earned or for being, essentially, freeloaders.

The disagreement between people on the right like Sowell and people on the left (like, say, Bernie Sanders) isn't about whether it is greedy for people to keep what is rightfully theirs. The disagreement lies elsewhere. It's about where and whether exploitation is going on, where and whether some people have come to enjoy an unfair share of the common resources of the planet, and where and whether people are benefiting from public goods without doing their fair share to maintain them.

So let's honestly debate those issues, rather than hide behind straw men. We all agree that it's not greedy to keep what you've earned. But when have people rightly earned the money in their bank accounts? And when they haven't done so, what is the best public policy response?

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Myths About the Confederacy?

I recently read a Washington Post piece from last July in which the author, James Loewen, argues that school textbooks and historic monuments have been perpetuating myths about the Civil War. The main conclusion is that the South in fact seceded to protect the institution of slavery and white supremacy, but that post-war efforts by Southerners to whitewash this fact were largely successful, resulting in the myth that the war was about state's rights.

In the Washington Post piece, the case for this conclusion is patchy. For example, only one state's secession document is cited explicitly (the Texas document). It's quite possible that the case is much stronger and more comprehensive in Loewen's book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader. After all, one can only include so much in a short essay.

Despite the patchiness of the essay, at its heart is an interesting line of argument, one that's nicely summarized in the following excerpt:
In its “Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede From the Federal Union,” for example, the secession convention of Texas listed the states that had offended the delegates: “Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa.” Governments there had exercised states’ rights by passing laws that interfered with the federal government’s attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Some no longer let slave owners “transit” across their territory with slaves. “States’ rights” were what Texas was seceding against.
The point here is that, by opposing the right of these states to pass laws impeding enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, Texas was thereby standing against the right of states to make their own laws on these matters. Texas was upset because these states weren't capitulating to the Federal Government, but were instead standing up for what they believed in the face of contrary Federal mandates. In short, Texas seceded in part because they were upset about Northern states that expressed too much autonomy in the face of a Federal mandate that served the institution of slavery.

This point does not, of course, entail that Southern States didn't invoke state's rights. What it entails is that to the extent that they did invoke state's rights, it was a selective invocation. If they invoked state's rights to defend their right to keep slaves, but opposed state's rights whenever a state made laws and policies unfriendly to slavery, what we have is evidence that the real issue was not a principled defense of state's rights but a consistent defense of slavery.

None of this means that slavery was the only issue motivating Southern secession. What it does mean is that slavery was a deeper and more central issue than state's rights. Were state's rights more important to Southern states than preserving the institution of slavery, wouldn't they have affirmed the right of states to refuse to facilitate the return of runaway slaves? That, on the contrary, they were denounced states for doing this suggests they cared more about preserving slavery against any forces that threatened it--including both federal and state-initiated threats--than they cared about state's rights.  

Friday, April 1, 2016

April Fools Day Cancelled

As most of you have no doubt heard by now, President Obama has officially declared a national moratorium on April Fools Day pranks. Citing safety concerns caused by "far too many pranks gone terribly, terribly wrong," Obama announced from the White House lawn that it was "past time" to put April Fools Day in the past. "Look," he declared. "It's not just a safety issue but sound fiscal policy. April Fools pranks cost the American people money, not only in terms of health care costs but in terms of lost productivity at work."

One of the things that's surprised me has been the widespread bipartisan support for Obama's moratorium (already being called the "mor-Obam-ium"). On the one hand we have conservative political commentator David Brooks, who opined this morning, "It has become increasingly difficult for the American people to distinguish truth from lies, and April Fools Day only exacerbates the problem. With faux-news articles from the Onion and the New Yorker being spread on social media as if they were true, the last thing this country needs is a proliferation of false news stories. It's one thing when satirical sites post falsehood, but when multinational corporations and mainstream news sites like Fox News, sources usually known for their impeccable honesty, start to report outrageous things, that can only breed confusion."

Economist and progressive commentator Paul Krugman agrees: "Let's face it. When an orange-faced trust-fund billionaire with multiple bankruptcies to his name--a man who would have been richer had he simply put all his inheritance into a money market account--is the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president, reality has started to prank us far better than any satirist could hope to do. April Fools Day has become redundant."

Rachel Maddow was a rare voice of dissent. "In this election cycle, we are witnessing reality and fantasy turned on their heads. According to fact checkers, Donald Trump is the most dishonest of all the current candidates, with a through-the-roof 'pants-on-fire' rating that shows an utter indifference to anything even remotely resembling truth. He's the biggest liar ever to step onto the political stage, a man who almost never says a single sentence that is not outrageously false or mostly false. And yet he is winning because voters perceive him as 'telling it like it is.' On the other side of the spectrum we have Hillary Clinton, whom political fact-checkers consistently rank the most honest of the bunch. And her biggest impediment to winning the nomination is that people don't trust her. The lesson should be clear: The only way that truth is going to win out in this political climate is if it lies big-time."

So what do my readers think? Was Obama right to cancel April Fools Day?