Bryan Caplan  

The Duty to Give Away Everything You Don't Need

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Many moral philosophies seem to imply a duty to give away everything you don't need.  Consider this statement by Nicole Hassoun over at Cato Unbound:
I do not have property rights that extend so far that they allow me to withhold essential goods that I do not need from those who will suffer and die without them.
In a follow-up, though, Hassoun denied that this commits her to the view that she has a moral duty to give away all her surplus wealth:
[W]hile I think that the current distribution of property rights globally is very unjust because it leaves people unable to meet their basic needs, I do not believe the best way of addressing the problem is through individual action.
I beg to differ.  Given some highly probable empirical assumptions, Hassoun's position does indeed require her to donate all her surplus wealth to the global poor.  In my latest post, I spell out the argument:

1. Hassoun does not have property rights that extend so far that they allow her to withhold essential goods that she does not need from those who will suffer and die without them. [Hassoun's original premise, with "Hassoun" instead of "I."]

2. People in the Third World are now suffering and dying due to lack of essential goods. [Certainly a true empirical claim.]

3. Third World suffering and dying will persist even if Hassoun takes all actions in her power other than massive personal financial donation, such as voting, political activism, blogging, and teaching. [An extremely probable empirical claim, given that Hassoun is only one person in a world of seven billion.]

4. Hassoun has essential goods (namely money) that she does not need. [An extremely probable empirical claim, given that she works as a professor in the First World, and First World professors earn far more than subsistence.]

5. People in the Third World will suffer and die if Hassoun withholds these essential goods. [An extremely probable empirical claim, given the existence of dire poverty and effective international charities.]

6. Therefore, Hassoun does not have property rights that allow her to withhold essential goods she does not need. In plain English, she has a moral obligation to donate all her surplus wealth to people in dire poverty. [From #1-#5.]

Of course, dire poverty will persist even if Hassoun does donate all the wealth she does not need. But her principle does not require her to end world poverty. It merely requires her to give away everything she does not need until dire poverty no longer exists.

While we're on this topic, can't you use the same kind of logic to argue that every libertarian who works for the government should resign?  It depends.  If the libertarian's view is something like, "Every government employee is guilty of robbery," then sure.  But a libertarian could easily claim that the only a narrow subset of government employees (e.g. tax collectors, judges who try tax cases, and politicians who vote for taxes) are guilty of robbery.  Other government employees might even legitimately claim that they're victims recovering a fraction of the damages the government owes them for past and ongoing wrongs.

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COMMENTS (22 to date)

Her answer is a non-answer, just deflects the question.

Even though I do not think that the best way to end violence is individual action, I still feel morally bound to not punch people in the face even if I thought I could get away with it.


An alternative followup is whether she feels bound to donate to the collective entities (Fed/UN/...)?

Steve Reilly writes:

"Other government employees might even legitimately claim that they're victims recovering a fraction of the damages the government owes them for past and ongoing wrongs."

Because their pay comes from the government rather than taxpayers? If a libertarian gets caught mugging a senator the claim would have a bit more force (though I don't recommend going that route).

I could see a libertarian working for the government if they're trying to lower taxes or just filling a position that's going to be filled anyway.

Foobarista writes:

At the end of the day, the problem is the "booty theory of wealth" versus the "people doing stuff theory of wealth". Even if you give away everything, the people getting it often will simply squander it as "found money" (see numerous lottery winners as examples).

The "booty theory of wealth" is that wealth is stuff, and can be transferred from one person to another. The "people doing stuff" theory of wealth is that wealth is people doing things, and the more useful the activity they do, the wealthier they'll be. This is why giving a poor person stuff just produces a poor person with stuff, which soon will be wasted, while helping them to be more productive will cause them to be actually wealthier.

If they are cognitively, temperamentally, or physically unable to be more productive, they'll stay poor, no matter how much stuff they get.

Hazel Meade writes:

I agree. I thought Hassoun's reply was extremely weak.

The resort to "collective action" is really a cop-out. Because they don't want to give up their OWN wealth, and most likely know that doing so would have little actual impact on third world poverty, they set this impossibly high standard pf universal participation in a wealth redictribution scheme as a condition of their participation.

In other words, "I have these resources and other people will die without them, but still other people have a lot more resources tham me, so I'm not going to give mine away until EVERYONE ELSE gives theirs away too."

Which really, is kind of just a convenient excuse to do nothing and them blame people who are richer for not doing enough.

Reardon writes:

Is 'not having a right to something' a sufficient condition for having an obligation to give that away (when your right is wrongly recognized, I presume)?

That seems to be your contention, which seems right to me, though her response may just be saying that others (the government) are not wrong in stripping her of what is not actually hers.

As for the libertarian case, restitution in excess of what is actually owed (which might be the producer surplus for libertarian X in the labor market as weighed against all taxes they've forfeited in private affairs). Empirical I believe a very substantial majority of gov. employees are net tax recipients to such a sizable degree that the restitutative case is very hard to make.

Tracy W writes:

Reading her original essay, she blithely ignores that the world has what wealth it does (including life-saving drugs) because we have property rights even to goods that are beyond what we strictly need ourselves.

Ken B writes:

Her answer on collective action just gives the game away. Bryan's argument is about her individual responsibilities. Her argument implies she has responsibilities regardless what others do. She cannot evade a responsibility for individual action by prefering that others act.

A slam-dunk reductio by Bryan.

David R. Henderson writes:

I hate the way Cato does this. When I read a part of a debate, I like to go to the start and read each side in turn. Hassoun's essay is labeled as a reaction essay. So she's reacting to something. What? Can anyone tell me how to start at the start and work my way through.

Hazel Meade writes:

She's responding to this post, which is part of a longer discussion of Huemer.

Jonathan B writes:

It is surprising that she isn't willing to bite the bullet on that.

Questionable writes:

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KevinC writes:
It is surprising that she isn't willing to bite the bullet on that.

I don't think it's all that surprising. This is a very common spectacle when people discuss issues of political philosophy. Adopting certain beliefs can provide a good deal of psychic benefit - "I advocate all these policies to help the less fortunate, because I'm the sort of person who genuinely cares about the suffering of others." Holding and even advocating those beliefs is often costless, so it's not surprising that they're so often advocated. But as soon as it's suggested that the advocate take action in accordance with their professed principles that would impose some actual cost on them, they conjure up cringe worthy ad hoc rationalizations and tissue-thin verbal hand waving. This is just one particularly clear example of that kind of cognitive dissonance.

Hazel Meade writes:

KevinC: Thanks for saying that much better than I did.

I'm curious as to why Hassoun was invited to debate this on Cato. She's so obviously outmatched it just seems like she's there to be a foil for the rest of the forum. Plus it seems kind of beneath Cato's standards to do that.

Now if they could get Naomi Klein to engage in a similar debate I would watch with relish.

John writes:

Seems like there is an equivocation occurring that I'm not entirely sure I would go along with.

The implication that I have surplus wealth is the same as my hoarding food that someone else lacks is questionable.

I would agree that if I'm wasting food and preventing the starving from eating what I throw out then something is wrong. In this case I do owe the starving access to my "hoarded" scraps.

I'd also agree to the proposition that if I'm leaving things like houses laying around with out doing anything with them and someone moves in (and takes care of the place) I should probably look for that mutually beneficial trade. Or, if I never used the place at all, I have forsaken it and my property right in it.

I don't buy that just because I have a large bank account or investment account I owe that to anyone who is without food or shelter.

Taras writes:

Your investments could be sold and then you can buy food to feed the hungry. Also, if you aren't working at least fourteen hours a day and donating all of your surplus to starving Ethiopians, you had better start.

Either people have property rights and incentives matter, or you have an obligation to toil constantly for the good of the collective. Statists try to claim a middle ground where property rights are fine to some extent, but there is an imaginary arbitrary line past which you need to have your property taken away by their favorite politician.

Urstoff writes:

A good response, but not necessarily a reductio as others are viewing it. Moral rightness and individual motivation don't necessarily coincide, even for moral philosophers.

Pave Low John writes:

I thought this "to each according to his need" rubbish had already been discredited decades ago?

Marxism is like kudzu, just when you think you got rid of it, it comes back again and again...

Carl writes:

So, my ownership of something depends on other people's need for it?


c141nav writes:

I admit that I like foobarista's comments.

Shayne Cook writes:

@ Pave Low John:

As long as the word "need" remains the most abused, overused, yet undefined, word in the English (or any other) language, the rubbish you identified will never be discredited.

One of my favorite pass-times is cutting/pasting a tome produced by folks like Hassoun - tomes heavily laced with the phrase, "we need" - into my favorite (open source) word processor. Then, doing a Search/Replace - searching for the phrase, "we need", and replacing it with the phrase "I need", and then re-reading the tome.

Almost universally I find on re-reading the modified tome that I don't need anything like what the author asserts that "we need". Which often leaves me baffled and wondering what collective "we" the author had in mind.


Jack Okada writes:

Giving away what we don't need doesn't seem like an optimal idea, even putting aside property rights. Take as an example Bill Gates. The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation have given away billions of dollars and save millions of lives. If Bill Gates had always given away "what they didn't need", he would have never accumulated the wealth in sufficient quantity to save those lives. Another example is the development of new drugs. Individual accumulation of capital doesn't necessarily mean that it that capital can't be used for a greater good.

Another factor is the fact that redistribution of wealth would only be a disincentive for people to produce.

Jeff writes:

I'm one of those libertarian government employees you think don't exist, and I don't find it hard to justify my employment at all. If I quit, my agency will hire a replacement who will not do my job as well as I do it, and the end result will be an even greater waste of the taxpayers' money. It's not as if my quitting would effect a great reform or even elimination of the agency.

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