Sunday, October 27, 2013

Is the Market Moral? Four reasonable, erudite questions from a Rawlsian free-market skeptic

This New York Times Blogger has some questions for what she calls “free market moralists.” She claims that in order to agree with famous libertarian Robert Nozick and the assertion that “a just society is simply one in which the free market operates unfettered,” ideologically consistent people have to say “yes” to all four. As someone who has heard enough of Nozick to agree with his basic conclusions on a just society, and someone who considers himself ideologically consistent, I was naturally intrigued, and decided to take her test.

To keep myself honest, I decided to respond to each question in two parts. This first part was a yes or no answer given after reading the question only, alongside an explanation of why I answered as I did. Only after this first part was written (scouts honor!) did I scroll down the page and read her counterexamples, which attempt to make a “yes” answer appear morally counterintuitive. Part two was my response to those counterexamples.

To keep the author honest, I preface each of my answers with whether or not I think it is a fair question. By “fair”, I mean a question which someone who believes in the morality of free markets would have to answer with a “yes.”

For your convenience, I’ve posted the questions in italics, so you don’t have to keep referencing the original article and flipping back and forth between the two pages. The counter-examples the author provides, however, are not reproduced, so you’ll have to either infer what they were from my responses, or read her article at the same time as you read my responses.

Question #1: “Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?” This is a fair question (meaning Nozick’s theory does assume it), and my answer is yes. Governments do not regulate circumstances in which we find ourselves; they regulate the actions of human beings. If a government is to protect freedom, it can only do so by regulating human action – not by attempting to equalize the situations in which humans find themselves. Political freedom is not defined by the likelihood that someone will choose in one way or the other, or the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is defined by the absence of force and coercion. Otherwise, people would not be born with equal freedom at all – it’s ridiculous to assert that people are born the same, in the same conditions, with the same opportunities, with the same external pressures or internal motivations, or the same incentives. The act of coercing cannot be undertaken by non-human things like poverty or desperation – it can only be taken by humans.

Response to the author’s commentary on question #1: Correct. The decisions taken by that woman were not pleasant or happy or nice to think about, but they were free. Many people, myself included, have a gut feeling that something is sad about this woman’s situation, and they are correct: desperate poverty is a terribly sad thing. If we are compassionate people, we will help this woman voluntarily, with our own time and money and efforts, without using her situation as leverage to get something in exchange. But the reality is that many of us will not do that, which means those who offer the woman something money conditionally are actually helping her out – however ignoble or selfish they may be. This woman is better off having the option to prostitute herself than she would have been had there existed truly coercive laws against prostitution or organ sale – because in that second scenario, she may would either be dead or in jail. The pimp helped her more than the policeman, because the pimp fed her family, while the policeman arrested her and took her from her family.

Question #2:“Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?” No, but while I’m not sure about Nozick, I don’t think saying no is contrary to libertarianism or a belief in the morality free markets. Even a free market needs some laws in order to function properly: laws against theft, for instance. My definition of theft includes things which do not involve physical compulsion. If you sell me a can of beans, but when I get home I open it and find it empty, and that you filled it with glue to simulate the weight of beans, I would say that is a form of theft. You haven’t wielded or even threatened physical force on me or my property, but you did breach the contract you agreed to when you told me it was a can of beans. I have a right to my property, and you defrauded me out of my property, so that is not morally permissible. The same works in reverse if I had given you counterfeit money in exchange for the beans. I suppose the argument could be made that we shouldn’t have made the transaction if we didn’t trust one another, and that each of us assumed some level of risk by trusting the other’s word. I haven’t read Nozick, and perhaps he made that argument – but if so, I’m not yet to that level of libertarianism: I think there is a role for government in literally keeping businesses honest – and not just businesses, but all parties to a voluntary transaction. So no, not all transactions which lack physical compulsion are morally permissible.

Response to the author’s commentary on question #2: Oh, absolutely – I expected this argument to be more challenging. There is nothing immoral about that transaction. Once again, most people would feel uncomfortable by this state of affairs, and feel terribly sad and sympathetic for the laborer. I would too. But once again, as in the above example, it is important that we identify what it is specifically that makes us feel morally uncomfortable: is it the act of employing the man at a low wage that is objectionable, or do we object to the situation of desolate poverty in which the man found himself even before his rich neighbor made any offer at all? Would we be less outraged by this if the rich neighbor offered him no job, and left him with no means of making a living? It is unfortunate that the poor landless neighbor is poor and landless. It is unkind that the rich person is not willing to give the poor person some money voluntarily. But the rich man has done nothing to harm his neighbor or worsen his condition. If the transaction harmed the poor person, in his own estimation, he would not have accepted the offer. If the poor person is a victim, he is a victim of fate, not a victim of any cruelty or aggression by other humans.

Question #3:Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?” No, and this is not a fair question, because a belief in the morality of markets does not require a yes answer. I object to the word “deserve”, because it carries moral implications that I don’t think apply. Everybody getting what they “deserve” is a matter of justice, as in the phrase “just desserts”. I am not of the Ayn Randian opinion that wealthy people deserve to be wealthy, and poor people deserve to be poor. On the contrary, I don’t think our possessions are a question of justice at all. I view our relative wealth as an amoral attribute – a purely happenstance characteristic. To me, saying “Person X deserves to be wealthy” is like saying “Person X deserves to be sexy” or “Person X deserves to have brown hair.” Like hair color, wealth is neither morally good nor morally bad; it’s just one of the many characteristics that form our unique individual identities. Like hair color – and, for that matter, weight and knowledge and many other variable identifying characteristics - our wealth can change without our relative worthiness changing alongside it. But, just as Ayn Rand is wrong when she says the businessman “deserves” to be paid X amount, socialists are wrong when they say the laborer deserves to be paid Y amount. Wealth is not a question of just desserts.

Response to the author’s commentary on question #3: I agree with everything the author wrote, except the last sentence. Once again, I haven’t read Nozick, and if Nozick did say this, than he is wrong. But I suspect when Nozick makes the case that the outcomes of the free market are moral, he merely means that the free market is, by definition, free from force and coercion, which libertarians view as the fundamental moral wrongs. To me and to most libertarians, it is injustice, rather than justice, which has independent existence. Put another way, we define certain actions as an injustice, and define justice merely as the absence of those activities. The market is only moral because it is the antithesis of the immoral activity of coercion. That’s different from saying that the relative levels of wealth which everyone attains in the free market correlate with their relative levels of moral virtue.

The assumptions on which the author bases her article conflate these two different conceptions of morality. Free market supporters, she writes, have “a moral worldview according to which the free market is the embodiment of justice.” She isn’t exactly correct; a more accurate summary is that the free market is the absence of injustice. According to us, she says “the operations of the free market are always moral — the concrete realization of the principle that you get no more and no less than what you deserve.” But if what people “get” from the market is not a question of what they deserve, as I argued above, then the operations of the market are morally neutral.

If Nozick really said that Wilt Chamberlain “deserved to get rich”,
the context in which he used it is important. Chamberlain owns his body, and is has a right to do with it as he pleases. He offered the service of his body in exchange for wealth, and that offer was accepted. Thus, failing to honor that contract would deprive him of something that was rightfully his, which would be immoral. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I imagine Nozick is not saying Chamberlain deserves to be wealthy on account of his athleticism; as the author explains, that athleticism was assigned to him in a sort of random genetic lottery, and it seems counterintuitive that what we “deserve” is randomly assigned to us. Rather, Nozick is saying “Wilt Chamberlain is entitled to keep what he’s peacefully acquired, not because his athleticism makes him more morally virtuous than other people, but because taking his earnings from him would require the use of force, coercion, or deceit, which is immoral.” If he used the word “deserves”, I suspect he meant it as a way to say “is entitled to.” And even if not, even if Nozick is wrong, that doesn’t make everyone who agrees with the idea that the market is moral wrong alongside him.

Question #4: Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing? That depends on your definition of the word “obligation.” Do you mean it in the loose way of “what we ought to do to maximize the morality of our actions”? Or in the strict way, of “what you must do to avoid having committed an immoral act”? There’s sometimes a tendency to view morality as a binary, in which there are only two possibilities: doing the right thing, and doing the wrong thing. But this is overly simplistic, because there are often more than two options, and each can have relative quantities of rightness and wrongness. Furthermore, I would argue some courses of action can be morally neutral, and that inaction generally falls into this neutral category.

This means that inaction can be permissible even if action is preferable. If the action is morally good, whereas inaction is morally neutral, a morally optimal agent would be obligated to act. But that doesn’t make inaction immoral, it just makes it less moral. And it certainly doesn’t justify forcible reprisal on those whose actions are merely permissible, rather than ideal.

A common example of this is the hypothetical situation in which a child is drowning in a pool, and you are the only one who has the power to save them. Are you morally obligated to do so? I would say it is morally preferable to do so; by choosing not, to you would be choosing a morally inferior option. If I were in that situation, I would certainly try to save the child, and most libertarians I know would do the same. But we also recognize that failing to save the child is not the same as actively drowning the child yourself, perhaps by pushing them into the pool and holding them under water. The moral culpability associated with inflicting the harm on someone else directly does not apply to passive observance of the tragedy.


Response to the author’s commentary on question #4: haha, I called it. I swear I didn’t look at the example before I wrote the above response. Interestingly, the author touches on the heart of the matter in her conclusion, when she compares the drowning man to a starving African child. I think this is an excellent analogy. Just like saving a drowning man, donating our money, time or efforts to save starving African children is viewed as a moral good. We view it as morally preferable to inaction. But we do not view it as an obligation; in fact, many of us choose not to do it. Even those of us who do (a group which includes me, as it happens) generally do not view those who fail to donate money as evil. Certainly, they’re nowhere near as evil as a murderer who kills a child with his own two hands. And certainly, most of us would not feel morally comfortable breaking into our neighbor’s house or bank at gunpoint and stealing their money, even if we intended to give that money to a charitable cause. Yet this is exactly what Rawlsian progressives advocate. In fact, that’s not even true: most socialists would have the government take our money by force, and then use it for purposes OTHER than helping starving Africans – things which are generally of a far lower moral imperative than saving lives.

I thoroughly enjoyed both reading and responding to this article, and was pleasantly surprised to find it on the New York Times website. The author’s questions are erudite and thoughtful, and her conclusions are civilly and logically presented, which I respect. Articles like hers do much to advance philosophical discourse and further each sides understanding of the other. But ultimately, her article does not effectively rebuke the libertarian mindset for three reasons. Firstly, it either misinterprets the heart of our moral intuitions, or applies them against a straw man upon which the libertarian argument does not depend. Secondly, it assumes our moral intuitions are correct in the first place. And finally, it does not propose an alternative that is more consistent with those moral intuitions than the mindset she attacks. I welcome any Rawlsian rebuttals to my argument, in the hopes of exploring what our “moral intuitions” really say about those alternatives.

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