Bryan Caplan  

The Able Slave

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Suppose there are ten people on a desert island.  One, named Able Abel, is extremely able.  With a hard day's work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island.  Eight islanders are marginally able.  With a hard day's work, each can produce enough to feed one person.  The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable.  Harry can't produce any food at all.

Questions:

1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to support Harry?

2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel's surplus to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone's standard of living above subsistence?

How would most people answer these questions?  It's hard to say.  It's easy to feel sorry for the bottom nine.  But #1 and #3 arguably turn Abel into a slave.  And #2 and #4 clearly turn Abel into a slave.  I suspect that plenty of non-libertarians would share these libertarian moral intuitions.  At minimum, many would be conflicted.

Yet bleeding-heart libertarian Jason Brennan doesn't seem conflicted.  At all.  He begins by quoting one of his earlier posts:
Imagine that your empirical beliefs about economics have been disconfirmed. Imagine that a bunch of economists provide compelling evidence that life in a strictly libertarian polity would go badly. Imagine that they showed conclusively that if people everywhere were to live in a Nozickian minimal state or a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist civil society, with everyone strictly observing property right rules, that 10% of people would starve (through no fault of their own), 80% would be near subsistence (through no fault of their own), and only 10% would prosper. However, imagine that they also show that in a liberal social democracy with significant redistribution or social insurance, most people would prosper, just as many people living in such welfare states are doing pretty well right now.
In a followup, Brennan adds:

If you are a hard libertarian, you respond to this thought experiment by saying, "Well, that's too bad things turned out that way. But, still, everyone did the right thing by observing property rights, and they should continue to do so."...

If you have at least some concern for social justice, you respond by saying, "If that happened, that would be strong grounds to change the economic regime. In that kind of society, it's unreasonable to ask people to observe the basic institutions and rules. They have a legitimate complaint that the rules works as if they were rigged against them. Perhaps we'd need to tweak property rights conventions. Perhaps we'd even need some sort of redistribution, if that's what it took."

This is a good example of what puzzles me most about bleeding-heart libertarians: At times, they sound less libertarian than the typical non-libertarian.*  I'm not claiming that the "hard libertarian" intuition is certainly true.  But in a thought experiment with ten people, the hard libertarian intuition is at least somewhat plausible.  And once you start questioning the justice of the islanders' treatment of Able Abel, questions about the justice of the modern welfare state can't be far behind.

Needless to say, bleeding-heart libertarians usually sound a lot more libertarian than the typical non-libertarian.  Yet this just amplifies the puzzle.  Unjust treatment of the able may not be the greatest moral issue of our time.  (Then again...)  But unjust treatment of the able is a serious moral issue.  And it's a serious moral issue that mainstream moral and political philosophy utterly ignores.  My question for bleeding-heart libertarians everywhere: Why don't your hearts bleed for the able slave?

* The most egregious example is Andrew Cohen's musings on parental licensing.


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COMMENTS (82 to date)
Alex Godofsky writes:

Libertarians have been arguing since forever that libertarianism isn't just good in itself, it's also a much better utility-maximizer than command-and-control. Why are you surprised that some utility-maximizers were convinced?

Evan writes:
My question for bleeding-heart libertarians everywhere: Why don't your hearts bleed for the able slave?
I'm guessing their answer would be, "It does, but I have a graduated cylinder hooked up to my bleeding heart to measure precisely how much it bleeds. I have found that it bleeds somewhat less for the able slave than it does for the unable man who is starving to death."

I think most people would at least find it plausible that it is worse for someone to die of starvation than for someone to be enslaved for an hour or two a day and free for the rest of the time.

My main problem with most social justice enthusiasts is that they aren't willing to do this sort of math. Instead they deny taxation is theft and slavery. I, by contrast, accept that taxation is theft and slavery, but am willing to admit there are some circumstances where some amount of theft and slavery is the lesser of the two evils. I am not familiar enough with BHLs to know which route they take.

Milton Recht writes:

With property rights and with enforceable contract rights, some of the one person feeders could exchange services, such as food preparation, clothes making, hut cleaning, hut building, wood gathering, entertainment, etc., for food from the ten person feeder. The one-person feeders can also trade services among themselves if they are paid more than one person's food from the ten-person feeder. To the ten- person feeder, one person's food is worth a tenth of a day's labor. Any of the other feeders would find value in trading less than a full day's work, for a day's worth of food.

Does the person who cannot produce any food have any marketable skills? If that person does, then everyone eats enough daily by growing their own or selling their skills and there is no need for taxation.

If the person who cannot feed himself has no skills to trade, will the others be charitable and share their food or will they let the unskilled person starve? Even today with food stamps, there are non-government food banks set up where people donate food for the hungry.

Taxation decreases the motivation for the natural development of the division of labor, comparative advantage trade economy. Taxation with redistribution also lowers the need for fellow residents to be charitable.

Before all our government social programs existed, the people without or in need relied on charity. In pre-industrialization, agricultural economy times, people made just enough for themselves and their families and charity was scarce. In our post industrialization economy, many people have funds in excess of basic needs and donate to charity. There used to be charity wards in private hospitals, low cost or free non-government medical clinics for the poor, etc. before government took over social programs and taxed people to pay for it. Hospitals are actually an innovation of churches as a way to provide medical treatment to the poor more economically.

One does not have to be a libertarian to want to avoid taxation and redistribution. One has to believe only in division of labor, comparative advantage and that charitable individuals and charitable non-governmental organizations will exist.

Tracy W writes:

Evan - do most people? If someone retires, or quits a high-paying job to be a poorly paid artist, or to stay at home with the kids, I rather get the impression that most people congratulate them.

Arthur Doohan writes:

Your 'island' metaphor posits 10 independent non-cooperating individuals.

But that is not the case in complex cultures and economies. The infrastructures and supports available provide opportunities that some are better able to 'leverage' than those providing them.

Paying for those is the real rationale for taxation.

stuhlmann writes:

The other nine islanders must have some sorts of skills or productive abilities and can trade with Abel for food. If the other nine were totally inept, it is unlikely that they would be able to force Abel to do anything.

Shouldn't the other nine be concerned that Abel will try to enslave them by withholding food if they don't do what he wants?

Saturos writes:

I actually have a friend called Abel. He makes a decent living (more than me). I wouldn't take his money, even to feed a beggar. Even wearing the Ring of Gyges.

MikeP writes:

I think Evan's on the right track.

Think of immigration restrictions that even most open borders people would apply. I am more open borders than virtually anyone, but I would still want background checks and, although unlimited, actual visas. I think that such restrictions against the potentially harmful are in the compelling public interest, yet I know that such restrictions against the potentially harmful are an insult of the rights of free migration. I know it much more than the vast majority of people who would restrict immigration at a whim. But I accept the tradeoff because the consequences of freely allowing the known dangerous into the population are too great.

Similarly, my view on a minimal safety net is that it is a public good that prevents unrest by the have nots from disturbing the smooth functioning of economy and society. If welfare were truly contained to keeping people from starving -- rather than today's order-of-magnitude greater redistribution from all to all -- I think the compelling public interest of keeping society civil and the economy functioning would override the insult to property rights of the nominally required taxes.

MikeP writes:

I should add that, like others trying to impose comparative advantage or other effects on the story, I don't find the hypothetical plausible. I realize the attempt is to make the consequentialists decide between their utilitarian side and their moral side.

But consequentialists have been doing this so long that "Imagine that a bunch of economists provide compelling evidence that life in a strictly libertarian polity would go badly" simply sounds like "Imagine that Icelanders genetically concentrate radioactive uranium and their hearts have a 1% per decade chance of reaching critical mass and producing a 10kT explosion". Can you kill Icelanders when you see them? Huh? Can you? Well, what if you don't you stupid consequentialist?

Greg G writes:

Imagine one day the other nine find a way to escape the island. Is Able now left in a state of perfect libertarian bliss with no one able to coerce him into doing anything he doesn't wants to do?

Or does he find he wishes there was someone there that he might have to compromise with?

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

The BHL is pragmatic. He realizes nobody cares about natural-fairy-tale-rights. Everybody can and does make up fairy-tales, but only might makes right. He realizes the 99% will have their bread and games, one way or the other.

The real substantive question is, will they kill Abel the Able in his sleep the first chance they get, or will they be good parasites, and pause to think how to minimize any unintended consequences of their actions?

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

The issue I have is in trying to create a situation where a person has a moral obligation to enslave themselves or somebody else.

Real life has a thousand immeasurables that cannot be described in a two paragraph scenario. The real answer is it is up to Abel, and his opinion of how much Harry is sandbagging, and how much he feels like flaunting his ability to the other eight ordinaries, or whether he wants to buy some protection from a subset of them, or whether he feels good about living more or less communally.

Real life has many degrees of freedom. After a certain amount of tension and feeling out the situation, the group would come up with an organization that would be a reasonable compromise for the participants. Imposing an outcome as a universal thought experiment explains everything that is wrong about compulsive authoritarians.

Tracy W writes:

MikeP:

Similarly, my view on a minimal safety net is that it is a public good that prevents unrest by the have nots from disturbing the smooth functioning of economy and society.

Out of curiousity, how successful is this?

I recall from my history lessons my teacher saying that revolutions and civil unrest don't occur where people are hopelessly deprived, they occur when things start looking better for people, then stop. So the main causes of civil unrest are from the haves, or people who recently had. For example, the luddites in 19th century England were skilled textile workers protesting against their replacement by machines worked by low-wage unskilled labour.
On another level, high levels of social spending have not saved Britain or France from riots.
Of course this is only anecdotal data. But do you have some empirical evidence that a minimum safety net does prevent unrest by the have nots, compared with not having one?

J Storrs Hall writes:

Imagine that your empirical beliefs about aerodynamics have been disconfirmed. Imagine that a bunch of economists provide compelling evidence that pigs fly. Further imagine that those economists had shown that airliners towed by flying pigs would use half the fuel of those without flying pigs, but only if all the economists got to sit in first class to direct the pigs.

Now suppose that you had never seen a pig fly in your life, and in fact that in all of recorded history no pig had ever been seen to fly. Suppose that every time pigs had been harnessed to airplanes, they flew more slowly and used more fuel. When first class was full of economists, the airplanes usually got lost, and whenever an economist got into the cockpit, the plane crashed.

Excuse me if I turn deaf ears to those calling for "porcine jet-assist."

Chris Stucchio writes:
Paying for those [infrastructure] is the real rationale for taxation.

Arthur, in modern societies this simply isn't true. The vast majority of taxation is for redistribution, not for infrastructure and other public goods.

http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/piechart_2010_US_total

http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/piechart_2011_UK_total

Bryan's parable is very much representative of real life.

David R. Henderson writes:

Excellent post, Bryan.

Randy writes:

If it seems clear that the 9 have a moral right to enslave the 1, then it must also seem clear that the 1 has a moral right to enslave the 9.

David Jinkins writes:

I'll just leave this here:

The original position.

Jared Buckner writes:

Given the hypothetical situation we can resolve #1 and #2 based on the following questions:

  • Whether Abel has a duty to save Harry's life, and
  • Whether others may force Abel to discharge his duty

Generally, US law does not recognize a duty to save the life of a stranger. Without a duty, there is no need for force. US law does recognize a duty to save in certain cases. For example, if Harry is Abel's son, there is a duty to save. Other moral codes may also recognize a duty to save.

Does the existence of duty give the remaining islanders the authority to force Abel to save Harry? Historically, most societies have answered this question affirmatively. Libertarians tend to answer it negatively.

As for #3 and #4 -- in no case can I come up with a duty to enrich the lives of others. Thus, while I can derive reasons for forcibly taxing Abel to support Harry, I cannot do so in support for taxing Abel to raise living standards in general.

David P writes:
Imagine that they showed conclusively that if people everywhere were to live in a Nozickian minimal state or a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist civil society, with everyone strictly observing property right rules, that 10% of people would starve (through no fault of their own), 80% would be near subsistence (through no fault of their own), and only 10% would prosper.

It seems to me that "bleeding heart" is synonymous with wanting to be generous with other people's money and not their own.

Tony N writes:

This scenario has to be remarkably simple in order to properly demonstrate the difficulty in justifying morally repugnant acts for the sake of increasing utility (in this case, it is the well-being of the other nine islanders). Besides, contemplating real-world complexities only further damages the utilitarian’s case; for then the question is no longer simply one of moral repugnance versus increased utility, but also one of unintended consequences and utility measurement.

For instance, what if a few out of the eight islanders who are able to support themselves determine that the best way to utilize what they receive from Abel is not to enjoy is as a supplement to what they produce themselves but as a substitute? What if they determine that working less to strictly survive is preferable to the enjoyment of a surplus? Won’t the island’s total output decrease?

What if Abel suddenly drowns, or is killed by a falling coconut? Will all eight members increase their output accordingly? Will they be able to? Will the weaker four try to make the stronger four the new Abel?

So forth and so on…

This is one crucial advantage a Kantian approach to morality will always have over a utilitarian one. Except for in the most unrealistically simple scenarios, it is virtually impossible to measure the utility one seeks to increase, or to predict the unintended consequences that decrease utility.

yet another david writes:

I am newish to this whole libertarian business but it strikes me that this scenario presents a problem not only for BHLs but for most consequentialists as well given the “common good” test (however carefully defined, nuanced, complex or camouflaged) that is at the heart of consequentialism (consequences for whom?). Or am I wrong about that?

My second point is one of framing. Your last question in the post and Evan’s comment above make clear that the BHL’s heart bleeding, human sympathy and opposition to slavery appear to be selective. Also made clear is that the questions of liberty and slavery are one and the same – they are just opposite sides of the same coin. I have recently wondered whether Rothbardian natural rights might be more persuasively reframed as a “no-slave” rule. BHL might be reframed as “slavery for an altruistically good cause”. Consequentialism might be “slavery only where socially optimal (insert particulars here)”.

Kind of casts things in a different light.

The notion, advanced by some, that liberty is not an end in itself could be reframed as “Slavery? Not all bad!” or "Slavery? Only where necessary! (Honest)"

David N writes:

I guess their copies of the works of Ricardo and Smith were lost at sea...

me writes:

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Robert Zonis writes:

Let me propose a different, more realistic hypothetical:


There are the same ten people on a desert island. One, named Able Abel, is extremely able. With a hard day's work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island. Eight islanders are marginally able. With a hard day's work, each can produce enough to feed one person. The last person, Hapless Harry, is an extremely unable farmer. Harry can't produce any food at all.

Able Abel farms all day. Why? Because every day, 5 of the 8 marginally capable farmers, instead of farming, come along, beat Able Abel up, and take 90% of his food. The three marginally capable farmers still have to work all day, and the five bandits give Hapless Harry more than enough food to feed himself. Why? Because Hapless Harry, not needing to take time to farm, is the best fighter on the Island, and could defeat them all.

Questions:

Does Abel Able have the right to compel Hapless Harry to stop the five bandits from stealing his food?

Does Hapless Harry have the right to force the five bandits to stop stealing?

Does Hapless Harry have the right to force any of the islanders to obey any rules/laws at all?

I think libertarians in general ignore or hand-wave-away the whole "might makes right" problem.

Bo writes:

good Tuesday morning thought experiment, Bryan.

I know a fair number of BH types and none of them are ever willing to ask why Hapless Harry is so hapless. I think in an attempt to maximize utility, they (the BH types I know) become rather absolutist and claim that Harry deserves to be supported because he needs to be supported, full stop.

Also, I am having a really hard time swallowing the "through no fault of their own" pill in the quoted passages. Am I to believe that success is my doing, but failure is not?

Curt Doolittle writes:

@Randy

"If it seems clear that the 9 have a moral right to enslave the 1, then it must also seem clear that the 1 has a moral right to enslave the 9."

This point is too often lost in the tumult.

:)

Curt Doolittle writes:

How about extending the parable like this?

If Able needs to wear a shirt to get into a store, that’s an exchange. Cause and effect. It is a cost of entry.

If Able needs to respect property rights to participate in the local market. That is a price of entry into the market. If Able needs to respect manners, ethics and morals, then that is a price of entry into the group that cooperates — even if their only cooperation is negative: to respect life and property by avoiding theft, fraud and violence. If able wants something that he canot produce, he must exchange something for it.

These are all voluntary exchanges.

If Able works harder than others, and they take from him, that’s involuntary taking. It’s a theft. If Able works harder than others and others exchange something with him for it, It’s not a theft. It’s voluntary exchange. If others are materially unproductive, and have nothing to trade with Able, then what else do they have?

They have status. Status signals increase Able’s opportunity to be even more productive by assisting him in concentrating human capital. With that human capital he can exercise his mind, his abilities and his knowledge further. He can eventually control 80% of the resources simply because he knows best how. And others have voluntarily given that control to him.

Status also improves his access to desirable mates. Desirable mates further increase his status. And with that status people who are not productive like Able, will attempt to imitate him. Since, that is the purpose of status in our evolutionary system: to inform others who to imitate.

Status is our natural compensation. Status has been our compensation since before we had money, and a division of knowledge and labor. Very likely before we had speech. Perhaps before we were sentient.

But wait. Now, what happens in the Parable of the island?

Instead, one of the other nine people specializes not in being productive, but in preaching. In preaching redistribution. His name is Cain. Cain makes the argument that it is a moral duty to support the less productive people. Cain offers Job and Lot jobs if they forcibly take from Able in order to fulfill the moral demands of the non productive that Cain has been preaching. Cain then redistributes half of what he takes from Able, and demonizes Able for his reticence.

Able is deprived of the status, the future productivity he could create with control of his assets, his influence on the others in making them more productive through imitation, and deprived of the mates he could enjoy. And his genetic legacy is even deprived of the better genes he might capture.

Not only is he deprived of these things, but Cain has now stolen that status. Job and Lot have stolen his productivity, and status. This has all been involuntarily transferred (stolen) from Able, in order to profit Cain, for the benefit largely of Job and Lot, and for some symbolic benefit of everyone else.

On the horizon are nine other islands. Eight of those islands succumb to the proces of involuntary transfers. One does not. On that one Island Erik is ten times as productive as all the others, and they herald Erik at the quarterly festivals. Erik organizes the other people on his island in exchange for the product of his efforts. Over time, the people on Erik’s island become increasingly more productive, and genetically more competitive. On the other islands, the opposite happens. Because it’s dysgenic.

Humans object to involuntary transfers and are highly agitated by them. If the taxes are used for purposes that the productive agree with, then this objection usually disappears. But status is the human currency and money and ‘objects’ are just means of obtaining it. Because in the end, we are just gene factories algorithmically searching by trial and error for better solutions than those we have today. And we cannot alter that behavior. We will simply create black markets.

On another much bigger island, the Crusoe tribe develops respect for property, but then, afterward Kevin discovers a hoard of coal that can be used for cooking fires on his property. And simply sells buckets of it at high prices to everyone on the island. The Friday tribe wants it very badly and so the Crusoe tribe must defend it. Furthermore, the Crusoe tribe already pays the cost of respecting property by forgoing opportunities for theft fraud and violence. These are a high cost for any society to develop. So, since they pay to defend the territory, and pay for property rights, they see his high prices as an involuntary transfer. The locals object because the resource is part of the island, the product of Kevin’s labors. They are comfortable paying a high price for his labor, but not for the resource, in which by any and all accounts they are shareholders. He’s not actually adding anything of value. He’s just created a toll booth, and an expensive tool booth, in order to gain access to a precious resource. He’s no different from an extortionist.

This parable can be extended to answer all ethical questions of politics. The reason for that explanatory power, is that human nature is propertarian in origin. We are property calculators, and our emotions reflect changes in the state of our perceived property. THe primary difference between individuals is just which property we categorize as shareholder, and what we see as individual. But emotions are descriptions in changes in state of individuals’ perceptions of property. We could not have evolved as sentient beings otherwise. It would be impossible.

You can redistribute money, but not status. Status, not money is our motivator. Society is constructed of a web of signals. otherwise it’s just a mechanical process that we each exploit for our individual benefit.

Yancey Ward writes:

Robert Zonis wrote:

I think libertarians in general ignore or hand-wave-away the whole "might makes right" problem.

Libertarians recognize it as the problem. How did you answer the four questions Caplan asked? If you answered yes, then you are the one who doesn't think it is a problem.

Curt Doolittle writes:

@Bryan;

RE: "The most egregious example is Andrew Cohen's musings on parental licensing."

I missed that thread. Thanks for pointing to it.

If Andrew was making this in the context of a redistributive society and in that constraint of birth is an exchange for material redistribution. I don't see how that exchange is not libertarian. It's a voluntary exchange.

But he isn't. He's making his argument in the context of good parenting. Even then, I'm not sure it's anti-libertarian if it's a local phenomenon and people can move out of the area. It seems like a way to prevent involuntary transfers that are the natural consequence of bad parenting in a non-redistributive society.

One of the divisive issues among libertarians is whether one must consider the involuntary transfers in any externality, or whether we are limited to the action at hand, independent of those externalities. The classical liberal tradition seems to argue that externalities must be accounted for.

I mean, aren't all moral statements prohibitions on external involuntary transfers?

liberty writes:

I find it an interesting - if a bit simple - thought experiment. However, I have a few questions of mine, which I would honestly like your answer to:

1. Even if Hapless Harry cannot produce any food, might he have other abilities and qualities that offer something to the community?

2. If Hapless Harry can offer the community something (perhaps he plays music, tells stories or jokes, or has fallen in love with another member of the community) does this change your moral intuition?

3. If Hapless Harry not only does not offer the community anything (neither food-production nor 'mere' friendship) but actually harms the community then many would say that he should be banished from it; the corollary is that if it is not intuitive that he should be outcast or left to die based on his actions then should he not be supported?

4. Might it not harm the other members of the community, including Able Abel, if Hapless Harry were to die in their midst - not only because he might have offered them something such as friendship, but also simply because he is human and they do not wish to see a human die (or know they have killed one)? Therefore would not all members be made better off by supporting him - especially as they would all know (including Able Abel) that were they too to lose their ability to produce food, due to accident or disability, the community would at least make an attempt to save them from certain death?

jb writes:

The problem with the Original Position/veil of ignorance is that you should also ignore time. Specifically, not only should you not know what capabilities you will have in society, you should also not know when in that societies' developmental timeline you'll arrive.

In other words - the structure you set up at the beginning will create constraints on growth over time. The society that might be ideal from a fairness perspective "right now" might be horribly, horribly bad for ongoing growth, and lead to a much, much less prosperous future, compared to different structures.

I feel that if you agree with the concept of the veil of ignorance, but you do not factor time and future growth into your assumptions, you're creating as much, if not more injustice than social models that do not include the veil of ignorance at all.

David N writes:

I don't find it that interesting because it omits obvious incentives for a cooperative outcome that respects Abel's rights. Admit one extra avenue for effort, say building shelter, or a raft, and it becomes obvious that Abel should voluntarily produce all the food while the other nine find other ways to increase total welfare.

MikeP writes:

Tracy W,

But do you have some empirical evidence that a minimum safety net does prevent unrest by the have nots, compared with not having one?

Actually, no. I just think this should be a reasonable compromise between those who believe in natural rights and economic efficiency on one side and those who think taxation should be used to keep people from starving in the streets on the other side. It's essentially answering question #1 with "No, not the right, but the allowed power" and answering the other questions with "No".

I even think a grand bargain in a post-scarcity economy could support the nonworking at something quite a ways above subsistence: Those working will always have a better life than the nonworking welfare leisure class, and the economy they get to work in will not be burdened by rent seeking or left-hand to right-hand redistribution. There should be quite a bit for the 20-30% who'd rather play video games than improve their station. Position that support between the level that prevents revolution on the low side and the level that the professional egalitarians would want on the high side.

wd40 writes:

This example is contrived to support the standard libertarian argument against taxation. It is not too hard to contrive an example that undermines the libertarian argument against taxes, yet is libertarian in essence. Ten people are in a life boat knowing that they are going to land on one of 10 islands. On each island a different person will be highly productive and a different person will be disabled and the rest will be capable of just producing enough to support themselves. While in the lifeboat, they can choose any distributive rule they want. Which rule will they choose? I suspect that they will choose taxing the most well off person to partially support the rest, with the disabled person being supported more (assuming decreasing marginal utility of income and low marginal cost of effort by the most able). One might also want to consider what might result if a unanimous agreement is not possible.

MikeP writes:

Position that support between the level that prevents revolution on the low side and the level that the professional egalitarians would want on the high side.

... But never ever pretend the nonworking have a right to such support. This is simply a convenient compromise to lubricate the social gears but otherwise to let the wealth seekers run free.

MikeP writes:

It is not too hard to contrive an example that undermines the libertarian argument against taxes, yet is libertarian in essence.

Actually, contriving your example was quite hard.

Collin writes:

Your parable sounds like a NBA team where the most underpaid player is usually the best player, let us say LeBron Jordan while the most overpaid player (from an opportunity cost) would the 12th man on the bench. The NBA team could better situate the imbalance by elminating the 12th, 11th, 10th, and 9th player so LeBron Jordan can make more money.

Guess what happens to the team with the scenerio, they are not as good and no longer wins championships. In the long run, LeBron Jordan will be worse off because:
1) Best players are partially measured on team (or society) success.
2) LeBron Jordan loses endorsements.

Wallace Forman writes:

-wd40

I like your hypo. But note that the people in the lifeboat would probably negotiate to maximize average predicted utility, not to ensure the least difference principle or some "social justice" rule that demands special concern for the welfare of the least well off.

Steven Kopits writes:

You don't bleed for the able slave due to the marginal declining utility of wealth and income. If you tax Abel at 50%, he still has 5x his needs, Hapless can live a normal life, and everyone else is a bit better off. On this basis, there's a good case to tax Abel to some level.

On the other hand, Abel was able to invest 90% of his income in technological improvement, which raised the productivity of Hapless and everyone else. With Abel now facing a high rate of taxation, his surplus is being turned into consumption, not investment. Once the island citizens decide that Abel's sole role is to maintain a high consumption level for everyone else, society will stagnate. Abel will try to get off the island or hide what he produces. Or he may just become less interested in producing. Why bother? But, depending on the cultural proclivity of the islands residents, the economy could turn into a stagnant welfare state. Like Italy.

liberty writes:

Wallace Forman: why would you think that? If you don't know if you'll be least productive or know that you will on some island, you'd probably want to make sure you were cared for!

Steven Kopits: don't you think that if the economy started to stagnate that the people might want to reverse the stagnation somewhat? This is harder in a more complex economy, but people generally don't like to see their living standards drop, so the more they recognize that this is occurring the more likely they are to vote to reverse it..

Yancey Ward writes:

You can always tell when when hypothetical has people stuck- they want to put in their own assumptions rather than answer the actual questions posed. In my opinion, the key questions are #2 and #4, because they strip away all pretensions on what is actually being taxed.

Anonymous writes:

@Liberty

It's built into the definition of utility. The last two posts about David Friedman reference this implicitly:

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/04/bleeding-heart.html
http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/04/david_friedman_12.html

Perhaps the point is not transparent for some so I'll elaborate.

Imagine if we choose Society A, people will have a 50% chance of a $50K income and a 50% chance of a $150k income. Imagine if we choose Society B, people will have a 50% chance of a $51K income and a 50% chance of a $100k income.

If all the people in the original position prefer Society A to Society B (choosing rationally for themselves, independent of any notions about distributional justice), then we say it has a higher expected utility. The risks of the lower low income is worth the chance of the higher high income.

Under Rawls's difference principle, the higher utility of Society A is irrelevant. Justice demands Society B, because the worst off there have a higher absolute standard of living.

Under some intermediate "social justice" rule, we have to weight the greater utility of Society A relative to Society B against the decreased welfare of the least well off. Supposedly there is some scale against which social justice and utility preferences can be commensurably weighed. A unit gain in utility cannot come at the expense of more than a unit loss of social justice or something like that.

Maybe people in the original position have such serious notions about distributional justice that they would reject the society that everyone personally prefers in order to live in a lower utility world with a higher standard of living for the least well off.

A more reasonable assumption is that people would prefer a utility maximizing rule, because we defined utility in the first place as what people prefer. Anyway the original position is not a very useful concept if you can just port moral beliefs into it.

mark writes:

Very interesting. Intellectually I incline toward your views, but the hypo is incomplete and things are not so stark. Among other points,

1) Able will want to reproduce. Able will also be willing to bargain with some of the 8 to provide services to him - such as guarding him. Or to provide something to him like slaves or concubines. So Able will share some of that surplus voluntarily to get what Able wants.

2) The more Able reproduces, the more the surplus has to be reallocated.

3) If the surplus is food, it deteriorates. Able will trade it before that happens. Marginal benefits will be procured.

4) Able will have power. The 8 will improve their lot while remaining for some time obeisant to him. The 10th will die, but be replaced by reproduction.

Jon writes:

As a liberal I'd like to add food for thought just to explain how a liberal views this analogy.

You have poor people, like migrant workers, and you have rich people, like Mitt Romney. For Bryan Caplan Able Abel is Mitt Romney.

But not for me. Able Abel is a migrant worker. The vast majority of what he produces is given to Mitt Romney, who doesn't work, via the institution of private property. The state, via threat, compels the migrant worker to give the fruits of his labor to Mitt Romney.

Now that Mitt Romney, who doesn't work, has taken the fruits of the migrant worker's labor, we ask if perhaps Mitt should be taxed and some given back to the migrant worker.

Better yet, let's allow the migrant worker to retain the fruits of his labor, and if Romney wants money he should have to work for it. But we have to walk before we can run.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

It is a little weird talking about "rights" on an island, but, in the absence of any other facts, like consent to join together:

1. No

2. No

3. No

4. No

Building in a right of exit seems to be the big idea that democracy needs to work better.

That being said, being a loner on an island probably sucks more than committing to working for the benefit of others, and Able Abel would likely be better off consenting as long as the majority only asked for #1.

ThomasL writes:

@Jon

Interesting post. Could you go into a little more detail on the transfers from the migrant worker to Romney?

What they are, how they are accomplished, etc? I know you said "private property" but a little more detail would help. (It can't be all property, or else the migrant worker would have no property to transfer to Romney.)

Also, are the transfers constant across the occupation of the richer party? For example, did the migrant worker transfer more, less, or the same amount to Steve Jobs?

Stephen Hicks writes:

Good analogy, Bryan.
My thoughts here: "Bleeding-heart libertarianism?" http://www.stephenhicks.org/2012/05/01/bleeding-heart-libertarianism/.

Tom West writes:

MikeP

Similarly, my view on a minimal safety net is that it is a public good that prevents unrest by the have nots from disturbing the smooth functioning of economy and society.

Tracy W

Out of curiousity, how successful is this?

I recall from my history lessons my teacher saying that revolutions and civil unrest don't occur where people are hopelessly deprived, they occur when things start looking better for people, then stop.

Quite true. Personally I think there are two real reasons to have a safety net:

One, in a society without any safety net, there's the assumption that a human life has no base value. If it cannot produce enough wealth to survive and it cannot convince someone to give them wealth, then they die.

The trouble is, again in my observation, that once there's a view that a human life has no intrinsic worth, there's has a strong tendency for that attitude to morph into something fairly close to your worth as a human being is directly related to the wealth, and I don't think that's ever worked out well for any society.

The second reason for a safety net is parents are often desperate to insulate their children from future danger. When utter economic failure can bring death (rather than the worst case is that the *next* generation will have to bounce back), that desperation often take the form of nepotism, rent-seeking and corruption. After all, if you have power, then you have power to try and change the rules to ensure that you descendents can't ever be deprived of their living.

litehouse writes:

Bryan,

the problem with the thought experiment is that it is purely statical. Imagine the following extension:

Suppose there are ten people arriving at a desert island. They know that either deers or boars are on the island, but not both. Eight of these know they are marginally able, i.e. they can collect fruits in order to feed themselves, but not more. Able is excellent at hunting deer (much more than he can eat), but unable to do anything else. Likewise, Harry is excellent at hunting boar, but unable to do anything else.

Before beginning to explore the island in order to find out if boars or deers are present, the islanders start to discuss about a contract of the following form: If there is deer on the island, Able will have to provide food Harry. Moreover, he will have to provide deer for the others ocasionally as well. Likewise, if there is boar on the island, Harry would have to provide food for Able. Also, he will have to provide boar for the others ocasionally as well.

Facing death in the case of adverse outcomes of the exploration, Able and Harry sign the contract together with the remaining 8. They start the exploration, and find out that the island is populated by deers.

Question 1: Should Able be allowed to leave the contract and only gather food for himself?

Question 2: If offsprings of Able will only be deer hunters, and offsprings of Harry only boar hunters, will they be allowed to write a contract that provides insurences for their offsprings as well?

Wallace Forman writes:

@liberty

I wrote a reply but it was held for moderation, probably for being too long.

The short version is that maximizing utility already takes that into concern.

[Wallace: It was held for using the nick "Anonymous." All anonymous comments are held in moderation. It was definitely not overly long, and I released it as soon as I did a pass through the moderation list.--Econlib Ed.]

Wallace Forman writes:

@David N

"I don't find it that interesting because it omits obvious incentives for a cooperative outcome that respects Abel's rights."

The omission is a feature not a bug. As soon as you introduce cooperation, some people will argue that the terms of cooperation are unfair, that some people aren't getting a fair share of the products of their labor, and that receiving your marginal contribution isn't enough.

The point of the hypothetical is to isolate the fact that some people really are more productive than other people, and how much should we respect that? A cooperative economy obscures this issue.

infopractical writes:

Perhaps there is no moral "ought" at all, and that most of the people here commenting have let the question be framed for them.

Suppose we shift the paradigm from morality to cognitive science...

A society of 10 people usually cares for each other.

But what about a larger society? Dunbar's number (or rough equivalent) matters. It changes the way we behave. Are Abel and Harry part of an interdependent tribe? If so, they probably act together, at which point it's unclear what the individual parts amount to with respect to the whole, and the proposition we start with feels artificial.


Separate thought: I've always felt a bleeding heart for those who suffer. But I feel that subsidization just produces a future with more suffering. Pure welfare strikes me as anything but compassionate.

However, globalization has led the most capable to pick up and leave their communities, congregating in a few specific locales -- large urban areas like the Bay Area. This separates Able from Harry, and suddenly Harry is in a pickle. He might have been able to produce for himself had Able remained part of his tribe, but absent Able from the group, Harry's skills are suddenly worth less.

Perhaps Harry needs a new education.

Tracy W writes:

MikeP: I don't think that making probably false statements in policy debate is a reasonable compromise. If there's no reason to believe that a minimum safety net prevents unrest, I would much prefer it if you don't make that argument. After all, if you lie about one thing, how can any reader trust you on anything else?
I would much rather prefer you argue for distribution like Tom West does.

As for the grand bargin you propose, what do the working get out of it? Why won't they be burdened by rent-seeking? Plenty of people who work are rent-seekers as well. I've read enough statements by artists, teachers, farmers, scientists etc, that are horrified by the lack of government support for their profession. If anything, people who work (or in the case of retirees, who did work) are better positioned to rent-seek than the have-nots as they are more likely to have the skills and contacts to do so effectively.

Position that support between the level that prevents revolution on the low side and the level that the professional egalitarians would want on the high side.

If my history teacher was right in that revolutions happen when things start looking better for people then stop, then the level that prevents revolution on the low side would require actually keeping any improvement in living standards away from the poor. I would much rather have improving living standards for all, at the risk of the occasional revolution, than one that prevents revolution. I note that your goal of preventing revolution would also likely require massive interference with people's natural liberty rights, and harm economic growth for everyone.

Tracy W writes:

Tom West:

Can you give some specific examples of societies that believe, or believed, something fairly close to "your worth as a human being is directly related to [your] wealth"?
I don't know if I believe your causal link. For example, medieval Western European society had no safety net of the sort we're discussing, but formally believed that what mattered was your worth as a Christian, and also some sectors regarded merchants as lower-class even if some merchants were wealthier than some nobles. Does that count as a society who believed what you state?

Your second statement sounds plausible, but I don't know if it can be tested. Did corruption in Western countries fall with the introduction of welfare states?

Jon writes:

@ThomasL

On capitalism people make money in two ways. You can either provide labor or you can own property and be paid by virtue of the ownership claim. So in the analogy Mitt Romney is the investor. He owns the land and maybe the baskets used to collect the tomatoes. He does no labor. He pays migrants to collect the tomatoes. He pays managers and farmers a salary. They take the tomatoes to market and generate the revenue. The laborers (migrants, managers, farmers) get paid a portion of that revenue, a portion goes to mantain the equipment, and the largest portion goes to Romney, who may have been sleeping the whole time for all we know.

So why don't the workers just keep the revenue for themselves? Why don't they just ignore Romney's claim of ownership? Because if they try the state will intervene and compel them. There's no real need for Romney. If he died work would go on as before. He makes no productive contribution. But he gets the largest share of the revenue thanks to state intervention.

This is all hypothetical though. Romney hasn't actually invested in farms. Though he could. He takes the revenue generated by the companies he owns. Steve Jobs gets the revenue generated by the Chinese workers paid $17 to work 12 hours and driven to suicide.

Those Chinese workers and migrant workers are the ones actually sweating and working. Romney and Jobs are making most of their money not from their actual work, but because their claim of ownership is enforced by the state.

Roger writes:

What a great question, Bryan.

Many of the commenters are trying to rewrite the question, but the essence of it all is...

If a world with slavery led to a substantially higher average long term utility, would it be superior to a poorer, lower utility world without slavery?

The wrinkle here is that it is the most productive that are enslaved as opposed to the least productive.

We can try to weasel out of the dilemma by suggesting that it would be OK if we contractually agreed to the arrangement, but that is not what the question was.

My intuition tells me enslavement is wrong. But, in this alternative universe, my guess is that my intuition would be different as well. Consider our intuitions now on the duty of a parent. We believe this more able party is morally obligated to their dependent infants. Few libertarians feel parents should be free to flee from this duty for their personal benefit.

In the end, we can only choose for the universe we do live in. This is one where exploitation and enslavement leads to less widespread utility. If the opposite was true, my guess is that our intuitions and moral propensities would differ as well.

But I could be wrong.

MikeP writes:

Tracy W

I don't think that making probably false statements in policy debate is a reasonable compromise. If there's no reason to believe that a minimum safety net prevents unrest, I would much prefer it if you don't make that argument. After all, if you lie about one thing, how can any reader trust you on anything else?

How odd. You asked for empirical evidence. I honestly told you I had none: societies that explicitly tell those who wish not to work that they are receiving explicit protection money in exchange for eliminating ham-handed redistribution are somewhat rare. Rather, I offered a theoretical argument along those very lines. That makes me a liar? Meanwhile a history teacher once told you something, and now that apparently forms the basis of all study on the matter?

Anyway, to respond to the substantive points, my notion of the grand bargain would of course need to be enshrined in more than the passing legislation of the day. But so would any improvement that made the economy effectively laissez faire.

I don't think I'm straying too far from the libertarian reservation to argue that, if the price of getting a free economy is one single welfare program that guarantees a reasonable standard of living for those that new economy might leave behind, it may well be a great improvement over the extreme inefficiencies the economy suffers under today.

I note that your goal of preventing revolution would also likely require massive interference with people's natural liberty rights, and harm economic growth for everyone.

I have no idea where this comes from. If my protection money theory is right, my goal of preventing revolution would require a total tax of 5-10% of GDP to give the bottom 20-25% of the population 20-25% of the GDP per capita each in exchange for letting the rest of the economy be unmolested. No other natural rights interference is required.

Bob Robertson writes:

Your premise is based upon the conclusion of 'experts' that one thing will be bad, and the other good.

As much as I applaud the question, the flawed premise ruins it for me.

The conundrum is answered by the division of labor. Able Able would become very wealthy, because the people whom he fed would pay him to do so, and his output would change to match his own desire for wealth compared to his desire for leisure, just as other people's would vary depending upon what it is that they do.

Not everyone makes a good farmer. That's a simple fact. I can't even grow a small garden, plants just die.

All that said, IF people have the instinct to charity that such a demand that Hapless Harry be fed implies, THEN people will contribute to Harry's fund.

If there is no such consensus in favor of charity, then there will be no majority to force its will upon the minority to supply the food anyway.

This is a paradox I've been arguing for decades: If your precious "democracy" has such a majority that thinks X is important, then X will be solved by that majority without coercion BECAUSE the majority want it and someone will do it in order to make a profit.

liberty writes:

Anonymous wrote: "A more reasonable assumption is that people would prefer a utility maximizing rule"

I don't buy your argument (even if its standard utilitarian neoclassical econ) because it has ignored risk-aversion. You may say there is a 50% chance of this and that, but if there is even a small chance that, as on the island, you might be the bottom 10% where you would starve - or that your sister or brother or mother or friend would be among these, you might weight that above the chance that you will be in the top group and get a higher income on the other island or in the other system.

It doesn't require morality-importing just risk aversion.

Ayn R. Key writes:

I support the free market because it is free. That it is more productive is a very valuable fringe benefit. I guess I'm not a utility maximizer.

Your fable calls to mind an article I wrote which introduces a third variable. I basically separated Able Abel into two people.

http://aynrkey.blogspot.com/2012/03/only-capitalism-can-work-for-mary.html

Only Capitalism can work for Mary.

Ayn R. Key writes:

Of course you fall for the progressive trap when you allow them to conflate a political obligation to help Hapless Harry with a moral obligation to do so. Even in a Nozickian minimal state or a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist state the lack of a political obligation to help says absolutely nothing about the moral obligation to help.

If Able Abel helps because it is the right thing to do, he is not a slave unless you say he is a slave to his conscience. But according to the progressives, unless Able Abel helps because he is forced to then somehow he will refuse to help.

That hidden premise, that Able Abel would not help unless forced to is actually quite monstrous, and says far more about progressives than libertarians.

BarryV writes:

Ayn says:

"That hidden premise, that Able Abel would not help unless forced to is actually quite monstrous, and says far more about progressives than libertarians."

61 comments later Ayn nails it on the head. And the beauty of it is that it didn't require re-writing the original hypothetical like so many long-winded (and off-topic) replies above.

Tracy W writes:

MikeP: I cited three examples, one where civil unrest was caused by haves, and 2 where civil unrest ocurred in countries with social welfare nets (France and Germany). I can cite more if you like.

Rather, I offered a theoretical argument along those very lines. That makes me a liar?

Well, it's that I asked if you have some empirical evidence, and you responded "no", then went on to talk about your position being a reasonable compromise. That's the sort of behaviour that strikes me as very dishonest in arguments.

Meanwhile a history teacher once told you something, and now that apparently forms the basis of all study on the matter?

I find that hard to believe. People have been studying revolutions for centuries, long before my history teacher was born. And even today there are numerous historians around the world who I've never talked to, I am not so egotistical to believe that they base their studies on my statements about my history teacher.

Nor do I believe they, or you, should. I think it's much more reasonable to start off considering actual history, like the examples I cited for you. I admit it does take more work than your suggested approach here of uncritically accepting my second-hand report, or your earlier approach of just blithely ignoring it, but I think that given the potential costs and gains of revolutions and of preventing revolutions, it's worth it.

Anyway, to respond to the substantive points, my notion of the grand bargain would of course need to be enshrined in more than the passing legislation of the day.

That's not a very good response. For a start, it cites no empirical evidence in support of the idea that such a grand bargain should work, nor does it address my argument that much rent-seeking comes from those with jobs, or other assets.

I don't think I'm straying too far from the libertarian reservation to argue that, if the price of getting a free economy is one single welfare program that guarantees a reasonable standard of living for those that new economy might leave behind, it may well be a great improvement over the extreme inefficiencies the economy suffers under today.

And I have high hopes that you will here write a brief consideration of your argument that includes empirical evidence, for and against your starting hypothesis that a single welfare program (of any sort) will get a free economy. My expectations of this event happening, I admit, are somewhat lower but hey life would be boring if it never surprised me.

I have no idea where this comes from.

A study of history. Countries that have had no revolutions tend to be ones with massive repressive state apparatuses. There's been no revolutions in North Korea, or in Stalinist Russia after the purges, the Khmer Rogue were overthrown by the Vietnamese, not by their own people.
If you want to build a society that prevents revolution, I suggest you start by looking at where revolutions happen, and don't happen. In my case, such a study made me remarkably unenthusiastic about the goal of preventing revolutions, and more interested in making revolutions bloodless.

If my protection money theory is right, my goal of preventing revolution would require a total tax of 5-10% of GDP to give the bottom 20-25% of the population 20-25% of the GDP per capita each in exchange for letting the rest of the economy be unmolested.

And if your grandmother had balls, she'd be your granddad.

liberty writes:

I also wrote a reply that's been awaiting moderation. Short story: risk aversion, not only for self but family, friends, etc.

liberty writes:

Tracey W wrote: "A study of history. Countries that have had no revolutions tend to be ones with massive repressive state apparatuses. There's been no revolutions in North Korea, or in Stalinist Russia after the purges, the Khmer Rogue were overthrown by the Vietnamese, not by their own people. "

um.. they only have/had no revolutions for 50-60 years, what about America or Great Britain where there's not been a proper revolution in hundreds of years? Meanwhile other countries with massive repressive state apparatuses have been having revolutions left and right - all across Eastern Europe, and now the middle east, for example!

Sorry, I don't think recent history (or even more distant history) supports your theory at all!

MikeP writes:

Tracy W

Countries that have had no revolutions tend to be ones with massive repressive state apparatuses. There's been no revolutions in North Korea, or in Stalinist Russia after the purges, the Khmer Rogue were overthrown by the Vietnamese, not by their own people.

As liberty notes, you seem to be massively discounting the revolutions that made each of those repressive governments! That's the revolution I want to avoid.

A mere turnover of the form of government without really disturbing the social or economic order -- a la the American revolution -- is perfectly fine with me. The unrest of the underclass screwing up everything for everybody else as well as themselves is what I want to prevent.

But, hey, if you think we can have a libertarian government free the economy without throwing any bone to the 80+% of the population that presently doubts such an economy would take care of the poor, I'm willing to try it!

If you want to build a society that prevents revolution...

My goal is not a society that prevents revolution. My goal is a society that is maximally libertarian. If such a society would be rebelled against because it "doesn't take care of the poor", I would like to see a mechanism that alleviates that tendency with as little cost to individual freedom as possible.

Evan writes:

@Ayn R. Key

That hidden premise, that Able Abel would not help unless forced to is actually quite monstrous, and says far more about progressives than libertarians.

Obviously in any real life island scenario Able Abel would develop strong bonds of friendship with the other islanders that would compel him to labor to help them. But that's dodging the premise of the scenario.

So let's modify it a bit. Let's say Able Abel has antisocial personality disorder. He was born without a conscience and has no desire to help the other islanders. Is it okay to temporarily enslave him then?

The reason this scenario gives people so much trouble is that it posits a situation where enslaving someone generates much greater utility than not enslaving them. This is the opposite of most slavery scenarios in real life. In real life the suffering of the slave usually far outweighs the benefits the slaveowner receives. Naturally this makes people wary of endorsing a scenario where slavery occurs, even if it is a rare instance where slavery's consequences are good.

Slavery is immoral because it generally has bad consequences which are rarely outweighed by any greater amount of good consequences. The chattel slavery in the antebellum South, for instance, caused massive suffering to millions to enrich a few thousand. Bryan's hypothetical scenario is the opposite, it causes mild annoyance to one person to alleviate the massive suffering of others. So I'm going to bite the bullet and say that forcing Able Abel to do some extra work isn't immoral (although it would probably be immoral to enslave him for more than 4-5 hours a day).

That being said, even if there are some hypothetical scenarios where slavery has good consequences, it's still best to avoid practicing it whenever you can. The power to decide when slavery does and doesn't increase utility lends itself to abuse far too easily. It would (and does) corrupt whomever held it. So in real life I am a libertarian in favor of limited government, even if I recognize that there may be some hypothetical situations where big government would have good consequences overall.

Wallace Forman writes:

@liberty

My point is not that people do in fact prefer this or that set of possible outcomes. It is that, the set of possible outcomes they do in fact prefer (taking risk aversion into account) is by definition the utility maximizing choice. Concern for social justice has to be a step further beyond this. Hence David Friedman's confusion with social justice.

Tracy W writes:

Liberty: the USA had the civil rights movement and the American civil war, and people like Timothy McVeigh trying to overthrow the government, the UK has had the IRA, and the departure of the Republic of Ireland. (Note, the civil rights movement was in moral terms completely superior to virtually all other revolutionaries).

If by "proper revolution" you mean something as radical an upheaval as say the French revolution, then I will say that I think the risk of that can be eliminated by either making a society flexible enough that it can change before it breaks (USA in response to civil rights movement), or massive state repression.

The anti-Communist revolutions occurred when it became clear that Gorbechov wouldn't send the Russians in to stop them. They're one of the reasons I talked about massive state repression, a moderate level doesn't seem to be as effective (note I am also opposed to moderate state repression).

Mike P, as I've said one of the lessons of history are that it's not the have-nots that start revolutions. Many market distortions are there to benefit the wealthy, ever heard the term "corporate welfare", or swing voters. So for having a libertarian economy, I think the route to that is to argue for it on its own merits. I don't find it plausible that we can buy off rent-seekers by subsidising a different set of people (the poor). France has a pretty extensive welfare state *and* lots of regulations.

Doug Muder writes:

Does Abe produce like the God of Genesis, out of nothing? Or does he produce by using the common property of the island, to which Harry has some claim?

MikeP writes:

Tracy W,

My apologies. I took it for granted that "free economy" meant exactly that -- no corporate welfare, no transfer payments outside the subsistence welfare, etc.

But I will note that much if not most corporate welfare or rent-seeking by the wealthy are sold to the public as helping the poor. It's not called "green corporate welfare": it's called "green jobs". It's not called "massive redistribution from the poorest workers to the wealthiest age cohort": it's called "Social Security and Medicare".

If there was a guaranteed floor below which no one could fall, then all other subsidies, taxes, mandates, or programs intended to help the worse-off -- or anyone else -- can be eliminated, leaving the economy as a whole laissez faire. That's the grand bargain.

Yancey Ward writes:

Doug Muder,

Answer questions 2 and 4, then we can discuss it.

Tracy W writes:

Mike P: I have never disputed your definition of free economy.

I don't see any sign that your grand bargain works in the real world. I've already given the example of France. I think you under-estimate the imaginativeness, and over-estimate the honesty, of the rent-seekers.

This is one of the better comments streams I've seen recently. Great stuff everyone.

@JB regarding veil of ignorance and the time component.

I think this is an excellent point, and could perhaps be simplified along the lines of something like this:

communism can deliver greater equality than other systems such as capitalism, but it doesn't deliver the most overall goods and services.

on the other hand, capitalism leads to greater inequality but delivers more goods and services than communism.

which is better?

it's one thing to be equal but another thing to be equal and have less or nothing to share.

capitalism, on the other hand, is capable of delivering more goods and services to a larger number of people, but carries with it greater inequality.

in short, there is perhaps a tradeoff between liberty vs. equality.

looking at historical trends the world seems to favor liberty over equality.

MikeP writes:

Tracy W,

Oh, I don't underestimate the rent-seekers. But the the Constitution survived 98 years before the rent-seekers really started getting permanent footholds in the federal government.

And of course any laissez faire economic improvements would be buffeted by those same political forces, so I'm not sure they should count against one plan to free the economy any more than they would against another.

Hugh B. writes:

I would have to go with Darwinian survival. Survival of the fittest. If you're not even capable of gathering / producing sufficent food to keep yourself alive in any society then your genes should be weeded out by starvation and death. Societal mores also imply that those that can produce more should also share more and get more social recognition as a result. If you're incapable of even keeping yourself alive - your hardly going to be of any use in a society where ultimately equality will never truely exist because you'll always have better or worse examples of manhood. I'm not saying the other eight should be weeded out also because they're not as able as Abel - they at least feed themselves. Also - it might be worth noting, that even the other eight islanders would be partly slaves to hapless Hal whereas Hal will get a free ride at everyones expense. In an equel society - that would mean that Hal is a little bit more equel than everyone else as he lazes around on the beach each day, breeding as much (or more) than the rest and being as respected (maybe more so) because of a consequence of not having to produce anything useful to society but still having equality of living and stature in that society.

[login url removed--Econlib Ed.]

GiT writes:

An egalitarian/communist solution. (Not a libertarian one)

First, we need one further specification:

Nobody can work more than 14.4 hours out of the day as a matter of simple physical exhaustion.

The 8 individuals take 14.4 hours to produce 1 unit of subsistence.

Able takes 1.44 hours to produce 1 unit of subsistence.

No matter how long Harry works he produces nothing.

The community must produce at least 1 unit of subsistence for each as a matter of social necessity.

Our goal is for all to work an equal amount
Or, rather, insofar as anyone is required to work, all must be required to work equally as much:

1x + .1(8)x + 0x = 14.4 hours
1.8x = 14.4 hours
x = 8 hours

Everyone must work 8 hours per day. Everyone is equally enslaved. (Harry sings the Internationale in the background while they work, as a matter of principled solidarity. The rest tell him he is acting as their 'manager', and really is contributing quite a lot to the whole enterprise, even though he is, in fact, producing nothing).

After having worked their 8 hours, it's up to them whether they want to trade leisure time for more goods. If Able wishes, he can still produce another 4.44 goods all for himself. The 8 less able can work to produce another .44 goods each for themselves if they'd like.

Everyone has contributed an equal amount of labor time to assuring the livelihood of all.

They've also secured themselves the 8 hour working day.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need has been satisfied.

Everyone has a right to force everyone to provide for the needs of all.

If the other 9 wish to force Able to work more than what is necessary to raise the subsistence of all, they must themselves be forced to work an equal amount.

As a matter of force, all will always be equal in slavery.

As a a matter of freedom, all will always be equal in the opportunity to engage in leisure.

John77 writes:

This would not be either an economic or a philosophical problems for Christians or Jews (or Sikhs or old-fashioned Muslims or ...). In the Bible there are no such things as "rights" because everyone has duties so Abel would voluntarily work the second hour for Harry and another hour or two to ensure that the other eight didn't go hungry when it rained.

Oden writes:

If you believe the others have a moral right to force Abel to support Harry, do you also believe they have a moral right to force Abel to give Harry a kidney if he needs one?

My heart bleeds for the able slave but people who're willingly part of a society aren't slaves. There are no walls around America. You don't want to abide by the social contract, leave already but stop whining about how taxes are "theft" and other similar crap.

caverock writes:

A good example of how over-simplified parables lead to nonsense, why libertarians are essentially too childishly literal to be allowed to run anything, and why they break everything when they are.

Arun writes:

Able Abel seems to have a huge competitive advantage in the production of food over everyone else. Since man does not live by food alone, none of the other nine ought to waste their time in food production, they should specialize in producing other things to trade with Able Abel, to add to their little society. These include firewood for cooking, tending the fire, cooking, clothing, shelter, water, utensils, fiber, rope and nets, production of various tools, etc., etc. It is likely that Hapless Harry has some other skill even if he is a poor fisher/hunter/gatherer. (I'm not sure how else one produces food daily on a desert island).

Moreover, it is a desert island, it is not clear to me how Able Abel who produces food for ten but consumes for one, stores the surplus of food that he produces. Without cold storage, drying/smoking, pickling, etc., storage bins secure from vermin, it is not clear how he benefits from keeping all the surplus to himself. To store the food, he'll need the help of the others. In fact, in a society of ten people, it is only a Libertarian who would refuse to feed a Hapless Harry or Disabled Dan. It is only a Libertarian who would see this sharing as a tax, and taking up the burden as slavery.

Then there is the situation where Able Abel gets sick, or injured, and needs help till he recovers. Or even just needs help in moving something heavy. Assuming Abel is a Libertarian who lived free of the other nine, this is the time when the other eight (assuming Hapless Harry or Disabled Dan has perished in the meantime) really sock him for it.

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