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?

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