The Ethics of Human Rights (65): The Deserving Poor and the Spectacle of Libertarianism Eating Itself

It’s a common right-wing complaint, especially among right-libertarians, that the welfare state helps the poor whether or not they have only themselves to blame for their poverty. If there should be a duty to help the poor, it should be limited to the deserving poor (although some libertarians think that even this goes too far since it implies a form of slavery for those who have a duty to help). All the others should suffer the consequences of their own bad decisions – their teen pregnancy, their lack of effort at school, their alcohol problem etc.

One could reply that people’s bad decisions aren’t always their own decisions, in the sense that making good decisions is something you have to learn, and this learning may be difficult in an environment of poverty, especially during childhood. However, let’s bracket this objection, for the sake of argument, and assume that there are indeed some people who only have themselves to blame. They may not be as numerous as those on the right tend to believe, but even if there are only a few we should decide what to do with them – help them or not.

The criticism that our current systems of social security don’t differentiate between the deserving and undeserving poor is sometimes illustrated with an analogy. If we assume that governments fund their welfare system through taxation, and that taxation is a kind of involuntary charity or enforced charity – the government steps in in order to take the money which we don’t give voluntarily to charity – then it’s only right that the government takes every effort to make sure that our money goes only to the deserving poor. If we voluntarily give money to charity, we also want to be sure that it goes to a good cause, and those collecting our money have a duty to spend it well and not waste in on people that aren’t going to use it constructively. Given the libertarian view that taxation is a form of stealing it’s all the more important that the tax money is spent well; you can perhaps argue in favor of stealing if the harm done by stealing is compensated by the greater good that is done with the stolen money, but you certainly can’t if there is no greater good and if the money goes to undeserving poor who are rewarded for their bad behavior.

Isn’t it especially outrageous to misuse charitable funds if the donors cannot legally discontinue their support? (source)

Now, it’s here that the problem begins and that libertarians who follow this reasoning tend to undermine their own libertarianism. If you want to help only the deserving poor, and if you want to be very strict about helping only those people, then you’ll have to accept systematic and wide ranging intrusions into people’s privacy. How else would you be able to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving? You’ll need detailed biographies of all potential welfare or charity beneficiaries, records of their decisions and behavior, of their job applications, their diet, their sexual mores, etc.

You’ll have to accept these intrusions whether or not you believe that charity is the perfect and only solution. If you believe, correctly I think, that charity will never suffice, then you have all the more reason to be worried, since it’s the state who will have to monitor deservingness. Either scenario is anathema to libertarians.

The distinction between deserving and undeserving poor isn’t only difficult in practice. It’s also theoretically fraught with problems. For example, if you assume that you have a system to find out which poor person is an alcoholic and which one isn’t, then you still have to answer the question whether an alcoholic is an undeserving poor person or not. This answer depends on the causes of her alcoholism: maybe the cause is a series of misfortunes combined with a weak character, in which case her alcoholism is obviously not deserved. Perhaps she deserves blame for her weak character was, or perhaps not. One can easily make the case that a strong character and a good amount of effort and discipline depend on our upbringing and the social circumstances in which we are born. And no one deserve those circumstances.

And finally, even if we can identify the deserving both in theory and in practice, and even if we accept the anti-libertarian consequences of this work of identification, then we can still argue against the claim that we should not help the undeserving poor. Perhaps it’s a sign of decency and civilization that we help even the undeserving poor. Maybe the claims of the undeserving aren’t as strong as the claims of the deserving, and maybe we shouldn’t help them as much or as quickly as the deserving. But that doesn’t mean we should let them starve.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (56): What’s Wrong With Exploitation?

There is no human right to be free from exploitation, but some rights prohibit practices that we normally call exploitative: child labor, unfair wages etc. However, what exactly is exploitation and what is it that makes it wrong? According to Hillel Steiner, exploitation occurs when one party in a voluntary exchange between two (or more) partners gets an unfair price for the goods or services exchanged. Or, in other words, exploitation is the voluntary exchange of two things of unequal value.

Now, what exactly is this unfair price that causes the values of the exchanged things to be unequal? Again according to Steiner, the party transferring the good or service gets a an unfair price when that price is below what she could have had in a fair auction. That’s a convincing argument since you can hardly claim that a fair price is the intrinsic price of something. Nothing has an intrinsic price or value. It’s also convincing because it avoids the extreme and implausible free market position that all voluntarily agreed prices are fair.

I think that this model does indeed cover part of what we usually call exploitation. The voluntary exchange of two things of unequal value is a case of exploitation, but in my view the Steiner model doesn’t really capture the essence of exploitation. But let’s first examine what’s convincing about Steiner’s position:

  • It focuses on voluntary transfers. An involuntary exchange would be theft or slavery rather than exploitation. And we want to keep these concepts separate. Hence we limit exploitation to voluntary exchanges. Involuntary exchanges like theft or slavery are not exploitation. They are different from exploitation even if, like exploitation, an unfair price is involved. (Leaving a $10 dollar bill after having stolen an expensive car is still theft; paying my slave with meals and housing still makes her a slave). And they are, a fortiori, different from exploitation if the price is fair. (Paying my slave a fair wage still makes her a slave. If I employ someone against her will, I’m enslaving her, even if I pay her a wage, fair or unfair. Leaving a check for $50,000 after having stolen a car still makes it theft. But neither slavery nor theft are exploitation).
  • It focuses on relationships where exchanges of goods or services occur. If we’re dealing with relationships where no such exchanges are involved, it’s counterintuitive to talk about exploitation. Take a relationship where no goods or services are exchanged, but where nevertheless some harm is done. The harm done is then better labeled as oppression, abuse, discrimination, rights violations etc., depending on what actually happens. It’s not because there is harm that there is necessarily also exploitation.
  • It focuses on unfairness, specifically unfairness of the price of the goods or services exchanged. That’s coherent with the way we usually talk about exploitation, namely as a case of unfairness or injustice.

In Steiner’s model, these are the three necessary conditions that have to be jointly fulfilled in order to have a case of exploitation. And indeed, the model covers many cases which we normally call exploitative, such as unfair wages, some commodity markets where poor farmers sell their goods at very low prices compared to what they fetch later in the supply chain, child labor etc. However, there’s something missing from the model. It doesn’t describe exploitation in a sufficiently precise way. I’ll argue that there’s a fourth necessary condition missing.

What if someone gets a price that’s merely 20% below the fair price? We wouldn’t necessarily call that exploitation. What about a billionaire not getting a fair price for one of his goods? We don’t call that exploitation either (yet Steiner does; he has to, given his limited model). What about someone not very interested in getting a fair price? Is she exploited?

These questions suggest that the following condition is missing: exploitation only occurs when the party in the exchange that doesn’t get a fair price is already, before the exchange takes place, in a disadvantaged position. Take the example of a family selling its house for an unfair price. Maybe the price is just a tiny bit below the fair price. Maybe the family is very wealthy (the house being just one of many in their possession). Or maybe the family doesn’t care about a fair price (and has decided to go and live in the African jungle and doesn’t need the money). In none of these cases is the sale exploitative.

But maybe the motive for the sale of the house is debt coverage. The urgent need to repay some debts has convinced the family that the best thing to do is to sell the house, even if the price they can get under the circumstances is less than fair. The three elements of Steiner’s model are still present: it’s a voluntary exchange for an unfair price. It’s voluntary since no one is forcing the family to sell and there are some other options left (e.g. sending the kids to public school). Still, the family has decided that selling at an unfair price is better than doing nothing or than any of the other available options. But the exchange is only exploitative if the family comes into the exchange from a disadvantaged position and if someone else takes advantage of – or exploits – their disadvantaged position. And it’s because of this disadvantage that they can’t manage to get a fair price: their disadvantage convinces buyers that they can make a “good deal” since the sellers are in no position to insist on a fair price.

The exploitative sale does make the family better off, and it’s likely that exploitation always makes both parties better off. That could be a fifth necessary condition. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceptualize exploitation where one party is worse off after the exchange; such cases are more likely to be similar to theft, slavery, abuse, oppression etc. and therefore different from exploitation.

A similar example is the case of workers in poor countries accepting to sell their goods or labor power at very low prices (for example to a multinational company). These prices are unfair because the people happen to live in a poor country, which means that they are not able to sell their goods or labor power in a fair auction with different companies bidding. It’s an exchange, and a voluntary one. However, it’s only exploitation because the sellers are in a disadvantaged position, similar to the people selling their house at an unfair price in order to cover their debts, and because this position makes the price unfair and makes the fair auction impossible.

Let’s take a third example that features regularly in writings about exploitation: there’s a sudden blizzard and people scramble to the only hardware shop in town to buy shovels. The owner of the shop reacts in a typical way and decides to charge three times the normal price for the shovels. Is he exploiting his fellow townspeople? No. The price is not even unfair because in an auction, that’s probably the price that people would accept to pay. And in reality as well they do probably accept to pay it. If you want to call this exploitation, all supply and demand pricing is exploitation.

Once you accept all this, you will agree that some of the common definitions of exploitation are incomplete at best and misleading at worst. Exploitation can’t simply be the unfair use of others for your own benefit. That would cover slavery, theft and other relationships that are morally wrong but not exploitative. And exploitation can’t simply mean taking unfair advantage of someone, because we don’t want to call taking advantage of a millionaire a case of exploitation.

Are there some types of voluntary exchange that are inherently exploitative, whatever the price, fair or unfair? For example organ sales, or sex work? No, such transactions are exploitative only when the price is unfair and when the further condition of disadvantaged starting positions is also met (people who decide to sell their organs or their sexual services will often be in disadvantaged starting positions, but the price is often not unfair). Of course, it’s not because these exchanges are not exploitative that they can’t be immoral for other reasons (e.g instrumentalization).

This account of exploitation is different from the well-known Marxist account. According to Marxism, workers are exploited because they are forced into employment status (given that they themselves don’t have any means of production and that the capitalists have monopolized those means). Hence, the Marxist notion of exploitation collapses into the notion of slavery, something which I want to avoid.

More on exploitation is here and here.

Migration and Human Rights (32): A Human Right to Free Movement and the Common Ownership of the Earth

I’m consistently in favor of increased immigration, and skeptical of the arguments against (such as those based on notions like “importing crime”, “importing poverty” or “watering down culture”).

However, if the arguments against immigration fail, how about the quality of the arguments in favor? Poverty reduction is a strong one: the prosperity of immigrants obviously increases when they are allowed to immigrate, but so does the prosperity of the families left behind (as a result of remittances). But a more interesting argument is based on the concept of the common ownership of the earth. Humanity collectively owns the earth and its resources because the earth is simply there. No one has created it and no one therefore deserves credit for it. Consequently, all individuals have an equal claim to every part of it and collectively own every part of it. (That’s an old idea, going back at least to Kant and Grotius).

Accidents of birth do not destroy this common ownership. They don’t yield private ownership rights to those parts of the earth where they take place. Hence, these accidents should not determine who gets the exclusive usage rights over parts of the earth. Immigration restrictions are morally arbitrary since they differentiate between people based on the lottery of birth. They take the accident of being born somewhere and turn it into a rule to stay there. They are equivalent to other morally arbitrary differentiations, such as those based on race or gender. However, contrary to what happened to those other differentiations, a majority of public opinion has yet to be convinced of the morally arbitrary nature of immigration restrictions.

From the notion of the common ownership of the earth follows that every kind of private property, not only the state as the exclusive property of a part of the earth claimed by the citizens who happen to live in that state, is a privatization of common resources. I think any justification of such a privatization, and therefore any justification of any type of private property, is bound to be difficult.

If the justification of privatization – whether of territory or commodities – does not succeed, then private property and the state are by definition illegitimate. So there’s a lot at stake here. The reason why such a justification is difficult, is that private property is necessarily based on an original theft of common ownership. Even if you cultivate the land you appropriate or privatize (or better steal from the collective of humanity), and even if you incorporate your labor in the product you make based on natural resources (Locke’s justification for private property) and thereby create added value, that doesn’t change the original sin: you’ll still be like the thief who takes care of the car he’s stolen and gives it a new color.

The same is true for a farmer fencing a part of the earth, a state imposing a border and restricting immigration, an oil company extracting the oil and refining and selling it, and a primitive tribe settling down in the jungle somewhere and keeping strangers out. Even nomadic tribes are guilty of the same sin by letting their cattle graze the land and keeping other tribes away.

So this reasoning a priori invalidates all talk about immigration restrictions. But it seems that I have proven too much: all private property, not just private property of land or a country, is, in the words of Proudhon, theft. Yet, private property is extremely important from the point of view of human rights. Private property also seems to be fueling economic efficiency, as the communist experiments have shown, a contrario. Especially private property of land – important in the context of immigration – is important for prosperity. I don’t want a justification of policies removing immigration restrictions that destroys all possible justifications of all forms of private property. Moreover, while I consider existing immigration restrictions unjust, I do recognize the value of some types of restrictions. Some restrictions used by citizens to limit access to a territory that they claim is theirs are legitimate. A state is necessary for democratic self-government and for the legal and judicial protection of human rights, and it would seem impossible to imagine the concept of a state without some immigration restrictions.

These are moral goals – rights, democracy – that are at least equivalent to the moral goal of not stealing and to the moral rights of immigrants. The problem is that stealing – namely stealing a part of the earth from humanity – is precisely what seems to be necessary to achieve these moral goals. So we have a conflict between moral goals. The fact that these moral goals all seem to be equivalent – it’s not obvious that stealing is always more wrong than protecting human rights for instance – indicates that it should be conceivable to violate – or limit the force of – the principle of the common ownership of the earth in order to create private property, both of commodities and land/territory. Hence, immigration restrictions are not necessarily morally wrong, although I would still claim that the existing restrictions of all countries in the world go much too far: they don’t take the moral claim of the common ownership of the earth seriously enough, and they overemphasize the goals of residents over those of immigrants.

So how exactly do we balance these different and equivalent moral goals? For example, a country violating human rights has less rights to impose immigration restrictions because such restrictions will not serve the goal of rights. (Unfortunately, this won’t promote migration since such a country will not attract many immigrants if it winds down its immigration restrictions). A wealthy country – like wealthy people – have less rights to exclude others from a share of their wealth, since their wealth is based on the use of common property. In that case, immigrants can demand entry rights based on common property.

While national borders are drawn in a morally arbitrary way, as argued above, and while immigration restrictions that go together with the drawing of such border are therefore equally arbitrary, they are not morally meaningless. They are a morally arbitrary fact that has acquired moral significance: they have resulted in a tool – the state – that can do morally good, e.g. protect human rights and democracy.

Is Taxation Akin to Theft and Slavery?

The notion that taxation is theft and a violation of property rights is quite common, especially in libertarian circles. (A less extreme version of the argument claims that taxation may be a justified limitation of property rights but its level should be kept as low as possible because of concerns for economic incentives).

The classic justification of this rejection of taxation is a reduction ad absurdum: if a state can tax its citizens, how much can we reduce the group of people and still hold that this group can impose taxes on its members?

There are many variations of [this argument], but one begins, for instance, with the example of a man stealing a car, which most people would regard as unethical. It then proceeds to make slight changes to the story, with the identity of the thief gradually shifting from one man, to a gang of five men, to a gang of ten men who take a vote (allowing the victim to vote as well) on whether to steal the car before stealing it; … to one hundred men who take the car and give the victim back a bicycle; to two hundred men who not only give the victim back a bicycle but buy a poor person a bicycle as well. It ultimately challenges the reader to say how big a group needs to be, and what characteristics it needs to have, before the immorality of theft becomes the alleged morality of taxation. (source)

Taxation is not only rejected because it’s viewed as a form of official and legalized theft. It’s also viewed as a form of slavery. Robert Nozick, a famous libertarian, has argued that taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.

Nozick starts from the reasonable assumption that people own themselves. Self-ownership also means that people own their talents and labor power. He then continues with the Lockean argument for private property: we produce goods by mixing our labor power and talents with elements of the material world, and by this mixing we generate ownership of those modified elements of the world. If the government taxes our income, it takes away – or steals – parts of what we own through our labor. But the government doesn’t just steal things from us. Because our labor and talents have been incorporated in the things we own – and we own them because of this incorporation – taking them from us means effectively that the government owns our talents and labor, and hence owns us. Taxation means that the government takes away our self-ownership. And that’s slavery. It also means that the government uses people as means rather than ends, violating Kant’s maxim.

If you’re convinced by this kind of reasoning and agree that taxation is slavery, forced labor and theft, then you’re morally allowed or even obliged to resist taxation and rebel against government. And you’re likely to be a libertarian.

However, you may also want to consider a few counter-arguments.

1. There’s first the issue of value pluralism. Private property and self-ownership are undoubtedly important, but not so important that they trump all other values. Hence, they can be limited to accommodate a balancing with other concerns.

2. The rejection of taxation becomes morally difficult when we consider the purpose of taxation, or better the – substantial – part of taxation which serves the welfare state and the realization of economic rights. Economic rights are primarily a duty of charity, as I’ve argued here. The state, with its welfare mechanisms, should only intervene when citizens don’t (sufficiently) help each other. And it needs taxes to do that. Taxes are the enforcement of the duty to charity. Which is why tax fraud, tax evasion and certainly the principled refusal to pay taxes are particularly reprehensible: the existence of taxes is already a stain on the reputation of mankind, because taxes exist as a consequence of the fact that people deny their responsibilities. Denying the duty to pay taxes is a double moral failure.

However, some libertarians go along with the first part of this argument and accept that people have a moral duty to help others (others who are starving for example). However, they deny that this creates a right. So, ideally, these libertarians would not commit the first prong of this double moral failure, in which case the second prong could not occur. And yet, in the non-ideal world, libertarians – and others – do commit the first moral failure, i.e. do not live up to their responsibilities to help others. Subsequently, libertarians and others who follow Nozick, are doomed to commit the second moral failure as well. What’s more, they can’t even call it a moral failure because according to them starving people don’t have a right to demand our help (the fact that we have a duty to help doesn’t necessarily give them a right to our help). Such a right would be incompatible with self-ownership. It would mean stealing our goods and our labor power and talents. It would mean using us as a means for their survival. In my view, the claim that the duty of generosity doesn’t create a right to generosity is a simple artifact invented to guarantee the supremacy of property rights.

3. Nozicks reasoning about self-ownership and property is shaky, as he himself admitted:

why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so its molecules… mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice? (source)

4. Given the importance of talents in the libertarian argument, and the refusal to have people’s talents “harvested” for the sake of the minimal welfare of those without talents or otherwise unable to fend for themselves: is it not evident that there’s an injustice involved in the distribution of talents? Nobody decides freely to be born without talents, so the absence of talents is nobody’s fault. Should you be forced to suffer for something that is not your fault? In addition, is there not a small possibility that people are rewarded for the wrong talents and that some talents are not sufficiently rewarded? If all that’s the case, then the claim that the state can’t use the proceeds of your talents for the benefit of others becomes a lot weaker: if those proceeds could just as well have gone to other talents or the talents of others (in part at least), and if your talents are just a matter of luck, why should you have a right to keep those proceeds?

5. And finally, is it not somewhat gross to compare the fate of a taxpayer to the fate of a slave? A taxpayer retains many of the freedoms a slave can only dream of.