Bryan Caplan  

The Road to Freedom: Bumps and All

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The Good and the Bad... The Morality and Legality of U...
Reading Arthur Brooks' The Road to Freedom is eerily like having a conversation with myself.  He never calls himself a libertarian, and certainly never mentions Ayn Rand or Thomas Reid.  But the Hollywood pitch version of Brooks' book is "Rand corrected by Reid" - and if you know my autobiography, that's my position in a nutshell.  I'm tempted to say that Arthur Brooks is my imaginary Conservative Missionary, but he's actually better.  Brooks:
Materialistic arguments for free enterprise have been tried again and again.  They have failed to stem the tide of big government.

There's only one kind of argument that will shake people awake: a moral one.  Free enterprise advocates need to build the moral case to remind Americans why the future of the nation is worth more to each of us than a few short-term government benefits.  To get off the path of social democracy or long-term austerity all of us who love freedom must be able to express what is written on our hearts about what our Founders struggled to give us, what the culture of free enterprise has brought to our lives, and about the opportunity society we want to leave our children.
More:
Average Americans are thus left with two lousy choices in the current policy debates: the moral left versus the materialistic right.  The public hears a heartfelt redistributionist argument from the left that leads to the type of failed public policies all around us today.  But sometimes it feels as if the alternative comes from morally bereft conservatives who were raised by wolves and don't understand basic moral principles.
What precisely is Brooks' "moral case" for free enterprise?  "The moral legitimacy of free enterprise depends largely on how the system enables people to flourish, whether the system is fair, and how the system treats the least fortunate in society."  He then has chapters on each point.

On "flourishing," Brooks summarizes and updates his earlier Gross National Happiness.  In the First World, income has little effect on happiness.  But what Brooks calls "earned success" matters a great deal.  Being unemployed makes people miserable even when they have plenty to eat, a roof over their heads, and high-speed Internet.

This doesn't mean, Brooks hastens to add, that redistribution is harmless:
While it is earned success that really matters, people are nevertheless wired to "keep score."...

Just for fun, find a Marxist college professor - who scoffs at the idea that people work less if they lose the incentive of money - how he would feel if his name were not put on any of the academic articles he published.  Instead, the articles would be published under the name of another academic who needed the recognition more than he did.  After all, he would still have the satisfaction of having written the articles.  Why shouldn't that be enough?  His completely reasonable response would be that he earned the right to have his name on those articles, and denying him that measure of earned success is viciously unfair.  Exactly.
More concretely:
Think about your own life and work - the jobs you've enjoyed and the jobs you haven't.  Have you ever quit a job because, no matter how hard you worked and how clever you were, your material rewarded were stalled?  Consider this: 70 percent of people who say their chances for promotion are good are "very satisfied" with their jobs, versus just 42 percent who say their chances of promotion are not good.  To be happy, people need clear paths to success and the ability to measure and keep rewards.
This whole discussion resonates with me.  But soon afterwards Brooks makes what I consider a devastating concession:
Am I arguing that Americans are happier than Europeans and that Europeans could be as happy as Americans are, if only they embraced our system?  Actually, I'm not... [I]t's clear that Europeans think they're pretty happy.
His response is just to say that Americans and Europeans are different:
For most Americans, work in a free enterprise system that matches our skills and talents is essential to happiness, so the European system would be wrong for us.
This is quite unconvincing.  Yes, Americans and Europeans are different now.  But the social democrat could easily point to Europe and say, "They learned to enjoy cradle-to-grave security, and so can we.  Let's start today."  We already know that retirement, unlike unemployment, has little effect on happiness.  What's the difference?  Shame.  In our society, retirees don't feel like failures, and the rest of us don't treat them like failures. 

The lesson is that defenders of free enterprise have to put less weight on happiness.  Sure, happiness is one good thing.  But so is achievement - doing something productive with your life.  And on this score, free enterprise looks a lot better than welfare states that subsidize people who skate through life without even trying to make something of themselves. 

Once you take achievement seriously, moreover, you start to see that redistribution is immoral in and of itself.  When someone achieves something - whether writing an article or building a business - they deserve to keep the product.  It matters little whether keeping the product makes the achiever happy.  The point is that achiever earned what he has, and other people - including government - ought to respect his rights.  From here, you're close to the truism that taxation is theft - and the moral case for free enterprise looks solid indeed.

Brooks' chapters on fairness and poverty are harder to argue with.  Like the man says, even diluted free enterprise is surprisingly meritocratic and a near-panacea for absolute poverty. 

The main flaw is that Brooks is soft on the most unfair, most impoverishing government policy of all: immigration restrictions.  To his credit, he stands up not just for high-skilled immigrants, but immigrants in general:
Every student with a clean legal record who obtains a degree from an American university should automatically have the right to become a permanent resident.  People who worry that those students will create unemployment for Americans are misguided.  Skilled and talented immigrants create jobs, opportunity, and growth; they do not take them away.

One moral point on this last issue is worth making.  We shouldn't forget that for almost all of us, immigration is our family story.  If you are glad to be an American, thank the immigrants who came to the U.S. to earn their success.
Here here.  But Brooks leaves so much left unsaid.  Don't the not-so-skilled and not-so-talented people of the world have rights too?  Then we cannot in good conscience forbid them to "earn their success" by seeking employment here. 

If advocates of free enterprise want to assume the moral high ground, immigration isn't just one important issue.  It is the most important issue.  Social democracy isn't about taking from the rich and giving from the poor.  It's about robbing absolutely poor foreigners of basic freedom of contract in order to slightly raise the incomes of relatively poor natives.  Genuine free enterprise wouldn't just massively increase output; it would distribute that output more equally and more meritocratically.  If we want to travel on the road to freedom, Mr. Brooks, we must start by tearing down our own walls.



COMMENTS (23 to date)
Gian writes:

"truism that taxation is theft"

Strictly speaking, it is not a truism but a dogma.

Truism is a self-evident truth. Dogma is a disputed proposition. Now "taxation is theft" may be truism among libertarians but among the general public, it is at best a dogma of libertarian orthodoxy.

Ari T writes:

Agree with Gian.

"In our society, retirees don't feel like failures, and the rest of us don't treat them like failures."
Retiress aren't considered failures here either.
"And on this score, free enterprise looks a lot better than welfare states that subsidize people who skate through life without even trying to make something of themselves."
Would you be ashamed of your children if they had a happy life without making "something of themselves"? If they would get to choose between unhappy life of doing something of themselves, and happy without any honors, why are you so sure they'd choose the former? Discount as you please.
"Once you take achievement seriously, moreover, you start to see that redistribution is immoral in and of itself. "
And that is only because you postulate that people's marginal utility is what they "deserve". This is clearly not how non-libertarians think of moral values. Nevermind rest of the world.

All "natural rights" and common sense moralism are just evolution-produced behavior. Paraphrasing Hanson, if they make you die or go extinct, that's a pretty broken application of such morality!

Like one Indian commenter said here before, if Prof. Caplan had been born in some rural tribe in early human history, he might have been completely useless. A lot of people might there might think that's what one deserves for being weak.

And what is more likely, is that mantras like that aren't even useful for anything except signalling group loyalty. It is quite interesting people to get all obsessed about "natural rights", and how broken abstractions they are when it comes to things like IPR. Some people will flock on the side of pro-IP to say that "creators deserve what they produce" and drawing an arbitrary line that is probably inefficient. Other people will flock on contra-IP side and claim that using property rights in realm of information is socialism. It just shows that politics isn't about policy.

Personally I think moral approach of libertarian case is going to be a failure too. Most deontological ethics probably served some consequentialist end at some point, might aswell consider if that end is still being served or worth serving at all. Most deontological ethics try to solve society's problem without having to calculate the consequences, assuming they were already baked in, but that can only work if such information is available when such ethics appeared, which was not the case. And there are massive cultural differences between what is considered "natural right".

To me, question of freedom of contract in case of immigration, or question of theft in case of redistribution are over-moralization of the issue. Valid criticism maybe but far from complete answer. Vis-a-vis Bayesian rationality, you should at least skeptical when a lot of intellectual people who know as much as about the subject as you do, disagree with you.

The way I would approach libertarian ethics is the way Prof. Caplan approaches Austrian economics. You don't know need to nitpick over details to see something's wrong there.

Ari T writes:

What if we had a Malthusian catastrophe (say, by AI), how low do the wages have to go before people "deserve more"? How long can such a society even function? To say that redistribution is theft, as a moral principle, is highly controversial, and definitely not a truism.

Besides, Brooks' book is named "how to win the fight" strikes me as someone who wants to affiliate with a group rather than seek the truth. I think Robin Hanson's post Is Conflict Inevitable? is pretty good here.

liberty writes:

"[ask a Marxist professor] how he would feel if his name were not put on any of the academic articles he published. Instead, the articles would be published under the name of another academic who needed the recognition more than he did. ... His completely reasonable response would be that he earned the right to have his name on those articles, and denying him that measure of earned success is viciously unfair. "

Recognition and material reward and different things. Marxists argued that recognition might last well after material reward was wiped out under socialism (and its unclear whether recognition would even be gone under pure communism). So the relevant question would not be how he would feel if his name were replaced with someone else's, but rather how he would feel if his salary did not reflect how many articles he published, where they were published etc. I think you might find quite a few Marxist being OK with that.

liberty writes:

"The lesson is that defenders of free enterprise have to put less weight on happiness. Sure, happiness is one good thing. But so is achievement - doing something productive with your life. And on this score, free enterprise looks a lot better than welfare states that subsidize people who skate through life without even trying to make something of themselves.

Once you take achievement seriously, moreover, you start to see that redistribution is immoral in and of itself. When someone achieves something - whether writing an article or building a business - they deserve to keep the product. "

Wait, no, that's only if achievement is the *only* good thing. If happiness is good too, then if redistribution increases happiness for some, even while it reduces the rewards to achievement, then you can't say redistribution is necessarily immoral! You could only say that if achievement and its rewards were the only measure of morality, which is highly dubious.

Miguel writes:

Bryan writes: "Once you take achievement seriously, moreover, you start to see that redistribution is immoral in and of itself. When someone achieves something - whether writing an article or building a business - they deserve to keep the product."

But this is inconsistent with the main message of his post, namely, that achievement is measured by recognition and status, not material desire satisfaction. If the community taxes, say, 50% of the income you earn by an innovation, they are taxing 0% of the status. In fact, taxation--as in 'Big Man' societies--can INcrease status.

This is why the 'Marxist Professor' (of which, lets be honest, there really are very few) is misleading: the ONLY thing the professor keeps is status, for that is all that would really matter; income from article is nearly nil, and what does come, goes to the publisher and the university.

M.R. Orlowski writes:

Miguel,

That's incoherent, if you tax somebody's income, thereby expropriating some of it, you necessarily diminish someone's status. If that person doesn't have his income as high as it would of been, then that could signal that he hasn't achieved that much.

KLO writes:

"Just for fun, find a Marxist college professor - who scoffs at the idea that people work less if they lose the incentive of money - how he would feel if his name were not put on any of the academic articles he published. Instead, the articles would be published under the name of another academic who needed the recognition more than he did. After all, he would still have the satisfaction of having written the articles. Why shouldn't that be enough? His completely reasonable response would be that he earned the right to have his name on those articles, and denying him that measure of earned success is viciously unfair. Exactly."


Is this intended to be satire? A very sizable proportion of academic literature is either ghost written by uncredited or minimally credited research assistants or lists as an author a department head or other powerful professor who contributed nothing to the work. Contrary to the thought experiment, however, these practices are not designed to redistribute credit to the less talented or unfortunate, which might be a noble if misguided goal. No, instead, they are designed to benefit the powerful at the expense of the less powerful. This is far more viciously unfair than the thought experiment and is actually happening on a broad scale inside academia.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Some of my perceptions were shaped in the 40 or 50 years of exposure to a wide segment European experiences in my professional work. Some have been shaped from conscious study.

What I have perceived is that Americans, people of this culture, are more prone to find the greater part of their satisfactions with their lives from the "sense" they have of their significance in the lives of others; or, if you will, in "the grand scheme of things."

That source of satisfaction seems less prevalent in European cultures. There is more self-satisfaction; more limited (but more intense) relationships of what constitutes friendships; generally, smaller "circles."

Miguel writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

BZ writes:

I doubt this is what Brooks was referring to, but I've long thought that it is NO coincidence that Ron Paul (a close friend of Murray Rothbard) inspires so many kids to libertarianism: deontology. Like Rothbard, Dr. Paul gives pragmatic arguments for his stances, but more importantly, he insists that doing and not-doing certain things are right and wrong per se.

Marcus writes:

"That's incoherent, if you tax somebody's income, thereby expropriating some of it, you necessarily diminish someone's status. If that person doesn't have his income as high as it would of been, then that could signal that he hasn't achieved that much."

How do you define "status"? I thought the definition of status recognized that it's always a relative thing. If everyone's taxes go up, there could not be a change is status. If we're talking just increasing taxes on upper income folks, then no one is getting taxed enough that their income is reduced to a lower "status level", I would think, but maybe you can concoct a situation where it would. And anyway, if a person earns enough that they are included in a conversation about "taxing the rich", that is a status symbol in itself.

Joe Cushing writes:

I agree that taxes--the way they are used in all societies that I am familiar with--are theft. They way they are used are to take from one group and give to another. That's what makes them theft. So the taxing in and of itself is not theft but when they are used to benefit specific groups of people, that's the theft. Corn subsidies are clearly theft. Unemployment insurance is a less clear cut case. You cannot receive unemployment insurance unless you have paid taxes into the system. That's why they call it insurance. (I'd like to see it privatized and sold through the likes of State Farm though) Yet, it's clear that there are cases when this insurance is abused and it becomes redistributive. There are some things that we need government for and in order for government to run, we need some small amount of taxes. For example national defense is clearly a government responsibility.

A Robbinhood/bloated government is more like a compulsive over eater than a drug addict. The compulsive over eater still needs to eat, where the drug addict can quit taking drugs all together. There are many grey areas in what is bloated and not bloated government just as there are grey areas between healthy eating, over eating, and compulsive overeating. In order to fulfill it's role of national defense, a government must form a military of one kind or another. Once that military is formed it is easy to use it for things that are not national defense. Clearly most of our so called defense budget is not used for defense. There is a lot of theft in the military budget.

Joe Cushing writes:

correction...its

Theologian writes:

Sure, happiness is one good thing. But so is achievement - doing something productive with your life.

Suppose a Mother-Teresa-like figure sacrifices her life, and her happiness, to sustain developmentally challenged individuals who, through no fault of their own, represent a net decrease in productivity by virtue of being alive. I suppose this woman must be pure evil to you.

anonymous writes:
What if we had a Malthusian catastrophe (say, by AI), how low do the wages have to go before people "deserve more"?

Who needs AI? We observe Malthusian catastrophes in nature all the time: when an r-selected species suddenly finds new resources, it overshoots the new carrying capacity and then dies back. Technology has the "sudden new resources" part of that covered. Now all that's needed to guarantee a crash is some way of encouraging us malleable humans to behave less like k-selected animals and more like r-selected animals... perhaps we could take resources away from families which practice resource-limited reproduction, and give them to families which don't?

Pandaemoni writes:

@ Theologian:

He also writes:

"Once you take achievement seriously, moreover, you start to see that redistribution is immoral in and of itself."

From that, it would seem that anyone, including Mother Theresa, who dedicates their their time to distributing resources to those who did not independently achieve/earn them should be considered morally suspect.

I'm not sure Bryan believes that, but if "you take achievement seriously," then it's not clear why voluntarily giving resources to the "undeserving" would be morally praiseworthy. In fact, it should be contemptible since you'd be subverting the "natural" order.

Trespassers W writes:
Suppose a Mother-Teresa-like figure sacrifices her life, and her happiness, to sustain developmentally challenged individuals who, through no fault of their own, represent a net decrease in productivity by virtue of being alive. I suppose this woman must be pure evil to you.

"Doing something productive" isn't the same as "increasing the productivity of society" even in the ordinary use of the words. Helping the unfortunate generally qualifies as productive work; typically, it's purposeful, it improves the world, and for some people, it's rewarding.

You're attacking a "productivitarian" straw man; sort of like a utilitarian, except for some reason concerned with maximizing "productivity", however that's defined and measured. What is this ethical theory concerned with increasing net productivity? Does anyone espouse it?

That said, I might very well call her evil, but for reasons you haven't touched upon.

Randy writes:

@Joe Cushing,

An aside; Your mention of unemployment insurance brings up a thought I had recently that the unemployment system has become, whatever the intention, redistributive. In today's primarily non-industrial, primarily non-unionized workplaces, workers are seldom laid off, but rather, fired "for cause" and or bullied into quitting - conditions that generally make one ineligible to receive unemployment. Thus, while these workers pay into the system, they will seldom be able to collect. Leaving most of the benefits to old school industrialized, and often unionized, workers. Thus, redistibution.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

In the US, third world immigration diminishes the "earned success" of citizens. Look at California. People who years ago earned enough to buy a nice house in a nice place are now living in a nearly-third-world overtaxed hellhole because of unskilled immigration.

Your fantasy of all immigrants and their offspring being hard workers and good neighbors is contradicted by the evidence.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

There is another and perhaps more important way of viewing the effects of taxation, rather than as "Theft" or "Redistribution."

Taxation, along with regulation and various interventions in the market systems (such as result in lower wage scales for mental healthcare and childcare providers, and other distortions) impose obligations on some to provide the means and shape the forms of means for seeking to attain objectives and ends determined by others than those on whom the obligations are imposed.

Shawn writes:

If one accepts the notion that "might makes right" and "absolute power corrupts absolutely". This phrase and such like them would not make much sense to those with the power to take and redistribute.

"The point is that achiever earned what he has, and other people - including government - ought to respect his rights. "

Best to say "... would be righteous to give respect to his right to keep what he has made himself."

To make the moral case against redistributive policies you cannot give rights to achievers that they don't have.
Government had the power to take the fruits of their labors. To the government they have no rights, to the government the achievers have not earned anything beyond what the government feels is beneficial to itself.

The achievers have not shown to those in power that they can keep and protect what they have produced. Thus they have not earned anything.

If you use words or phrases like: ought, should, it is their right. You appear entitled to those in power.

Ari T writes:

BZ, Ron Paul, let alone Rothbard, is everything but pragmatic. Pragmatic people aren't so overconfident of their beliefs which they are never directly accountable (voting is not good verification, and neither is investing in gold, you would need a prediction market).

People are cursed with biases, and the best lesson to learn is to respect, and adjust confidence interval, of your opinions when disagreeing with people of equal knowledge. In fact, even among libertarians, Rothbard is probably one of the most dogmatic. He approved very few political compromises, contrary to say Friedman, who was ready to make compromises such as better monetary policy, negative income tax etc. I recommend Hanson's Is Conflict Inevitable here too.

Here's a recent transcript here. Lots of polemic, virtue economics and piled-up-arguments. I'm not saying Ron Paul doesn't raise good points but pragmatic he is not.

I think Tyler Cowen said it best:

"Many libertarians see the Paul candidacy as their chance to have an impact and they may well be right. There is also no one else for them to support. But, raw milk or not, I am not myself tempted to take a stance this year in favor of any of the candidates, Paul included. Liberty is lacking in the United States but I’d like to see it more closely bundled with reasonableness, moderation, and yes pragmatism; I am looking to advance on all fronts at the same time. Call me fussy if you wish."
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