The Ethics of Human Rights (53): Some Problems With Theories of Justice That Are Based on Desert

Some theories of justice claim that justice is mainly about giving people (or letting people keep) what they deserve. These theories are opposed to other types of theories about justice, such as those that claim

  • that people should have what they are entitled to have (or have a right to have)
  • that people should have equal shares (of goods, opportunities, luck etc.)
  • or that people’s outcomes should be distributed so as to produce the best aggregate outcome (as in utilitarianism).

These distinctions aren’t always as clear as that, and one could argue that deserving behavior generally maximizes the utility of aggregate outcomes or that people deserve equal shares or equal rights. However, the goal of desert based theories is usually to argue in favor of some form of inequality. Usually this is inequality of wealth, income or financial compensation for effort and success, but it can also be inequality of praise, punishment, positions, admiration etc. I’ll focus here on desert based theories of justice that argue that justice requires inequality of wealth.

Take a look at this quote:

When the wages of labour are hardly sufficient to maintain two children, a man marries and has five or six; he of course finds himself miserably distressed. He accuses the insufficiency of the price of labour to maintain a family. He accuses his parish for their tardy and sparing fulfillment of their obligation to assist him. He accuses the avarice of the rich, who suffer him to want what they can so well spare. He accuses the partial and unjust institutions of society, which have awarded him an inadequate share of the produce of the earth. He accuses perhaps the dispensations of providence, which have assigned him a place in society so beset with unavoidable distress and dependence. In searching for objects of accusation, he never adverts to the quarter from which his misfortunes originate. The last person that he would think of accusing is himself, on whom in fact the principal blame lies, except so far as he has been deceived by the higher classes of society. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on Population

Ideas like these have become somewhat unfashionable, but the basic idea of desert is still very powerful. Many of us accept that inequality of wealth or income is to some and perhaps even a large extent the result of effort, and that justice requires that we respect the results of deserving actions. We also believe that it is wrong to reward laziness or willfully bad decisions. Hence, there are some powerful and widely shared intuitions that makes desert theories rather appealing. Equality based theories that do not provide space for desert seem to be bound to reward laziness rather than effort. And because they reward laziness they create incentives to settle in it. As a result, one runs the risk of creating a permanent and quite large “parasite” class that lives off the efforts of the deserving elements of society. That seems unjust to those deserving elements, but also to those who are undeserving since the latter are not really given an incentive to be deserving: if they are compensated for their laziness and bad decisions, then they are never encouraged to work and decide rationally, and in a sense they are therefore treated unfairly as well.

Apart from this moral or even moralistic objection to theories that don’t make room for desert, there’s the economic argument that they can’t provide stable prosperity. Not only is there a non-productive underclass in an economy without unequal rewards for desert, but the productive class will not put up very long with what it sees as unfair transfers from its productive surplus to others who don’t deserve those transfers (which is the basis of the “going Galt” mythology). This rejection may even lead some to the conclusion that transfers are bad in general, including transfers to the so-called deserving poor (those who don’t have themselves to blame for their poverty). However, things may even get worse than that: rather than rebel against transfers to the undeserving (or deserving) poor, people will stop being productive in the first place because absent rewards for productivity they no longer have an incentive to produce. It’s obvious that prosperity will be impossible under those circumstances, as will – a fortiori – egalitarian transfers of prosperity. So it seems that egalitarian theories of justice are economically self-defeating if they don’t temper their egalitarianism with desert-based concerns.

All this would seem to make it very hard to argue against desert based justice, but that’s not really the case. However appealing the notion of desert, it has its own problems:

  • First, desert based theories seem to be too unforgiving. A small lapse in effort in your youth may have disastrous long-term consequences. An intuition that’s equally strong as the one in favor of desert says that it’s not fair to make people suffer decades after a youthful error.
  • Also, desert based theories are sometimes excessively cruel. Imagine a person starving to death because of her lack of effort and desert: does this person not have a legitimate claim to assistance, despite her irresponsible actions? Does anyone really deserve to starve to death, even if it’s completely and utterly her own fault? But if not, then desert is not sufficient as a criterion of justice and some egalitarian rules have to come in (for instance a rule based on the equal right not to starve to death). Purely desert based theories of justice have some hard bullets to bite.
  • And they also run the risk of promoting big government: if we have to reward desert and avoid transfers to the undeserving, then the government has to determine who is who. In other words, the government has to monitor people’s efforts and decisions in order to see whether their poverty is really undeserved and whether transfers are in order. That can’t be anything but very intrusive. Moreover, it’s probably going to be a failure since the information requirements are huge and difficult to meet.
  • And even if we would accept such an intrusive government for the sake of desert, we would still be left with some very hard decisions. Take the case of someone who is systematically unable to find a decent job. Suppose we can determine that she is indeed not very industrious in her search (we have records about her activities). Is that enough to claim that she is undeserving and therefore not entitled to transfers? Maybe her lack of effort is not really her free and conscious choice but the result of her upbringing, of long-term employment discrimination against people of her color, of some unknown genetic deficiency, of alcoholism developed during childhood etc. How are we to know?
  • Of course, we can confidently determine desert in some cases. Poor children and the severely handicapped almost certainly don’t deserve their predicament and no amount of effort will allow them to help themselves. But we tend to overstate our ability to detect desert. We’re usually too quick to blame and praise. And we’re eager to withhold assistance for people who we believe don’t deserve help but whose lack of desert is only apparent because we lack detailed information about those people’s biographies and endowments. Likewise we’re eager to compensate people whom we admire but whose accomplishments are only apparently the result of their own efforts (after all, not even the greatest genius can do anything without a tight web of support, including infrastructure, national defense etc.). Desert based theories of justice and the practices that they inspire are insufficiently attentive to biographies and to natural and social endowments (or a lack thereof), partly because we rarely have full knowledge of those biographies and endowments. Of course, we can err in the opposite direction and put too much emphasis on endowments, in which case we lapse into determinism. Choices matter, and therefore desert matters as well. The point is simply that desert is often very difficult to determine, and acting on the basis of uncertain desert can be harmful, especially if goods, punishments etc. are distributed accordingly.
  • Suppose we are able to know, in general and not exceptionally, who is or is not deserving. Then we still face the fact that we somehow have to decide which activities and pursuits are deserving, and there as well we can err. There’s a notion called “marketable skills”. What if someone’s skills are not marketable (maybe someone is a philosopher)? That person may be very deserving and may invest enormous effort in her pursuits, but is still living on the brink of starvation. If her pursuits are correctly viewed as undeserving or perhaps even immoral by society, then she won’t have a legitimate claim to transfers. But what if we are wrong? What if we should reward the pursuit but don’t? And I don’t have to show that we are regularly mistaken in the way in which we differentiate between deserving and non-deserving or less-deserving activities. Just look here. Proponents of desert based theories of justice might answer that we should simply be careful and thorough when determining which pursuits and outcomes are deserving or not. But that won’t solve the problem because there’s likely to be permanent controversy about the nature of deserving pursuits and outcomes. People with different worldviews will have different ideas about desert.

More about desert here (and more about overpopulation here). More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (31): Overpopulation and Food Shortages

I think overpopulation is a silly and simplistic explanation of the world’s problems, hysterical at best and damaging when it inspires public policy. I don’t deny that it can cause problems when we look at local areas: there can be too many people in a certain area compared to the locally available stocks of food and water. But the problems there aren’t caused by “overpopulation” but by inadequate distribution of goods, wasteful use of goods etc. But if you think all this is BS,  do go and read my previous posts for a more thoughtful discussion of the issues.

How is overpopulation a human rights issue? Well, if you believe overpopulation is a problem, you will probably have some of the following reasons for your beliefs:

  • Overpopulation may cause poverty, hunger and water shortages. And poverty, hunger and water are human rights issues.
  • Overpopulation may cause violence and war. No need to argue the link with human rights I believe.
  • Overpopulation may cause refugee flows. Immigration can cause a wide variety of human rights issues, going from xenophobia and discrimination to poverty and exclusion.

Personally, I think that all of those problems are real, but that they have other more important causes. Take food shortages for instance:

[F]ood availability can be significantly increased, at minimal cost, by simply reducing agricultural waste … As an engineer, I regularly travel to sort out post-harvest problems and I am convinced that there is little benefit to be gained from merely increasing farm production without making considerable improvements to post-harvest systems and facilities.

The majority of grain and vegetable stores in east Europe date back to the 1930s, in design if not in construction, and they are truly and hopelessly insufficient, amounting to losses of some 15m-25m tonnes of grain annually. India loses 40m tonnes of fruits and vegetables as well as 21m tonnes of wheat a year because of inadequate storage and distribution. To put that in perspective, India’s wheat wastage each year is almost equal to Australia’s entire production of wheat.

In South-East Asia 37% of rice is lost between field and table; in China the figure is up to 45% and in Vietnam it can be as high as 80%. This loss of 150m tonnes of rice each year represents a waste of resources on a truly massive and unsustainable scale.

In America and Britain the buying habits of the big supermarkets actually encourage waste. They impose draconian penalties on suppliers for failing to deliver agreed quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables during the year, which force farmers to grow a much bigger crop than they need as a form of insurance against poor weather and other factors that may reduce their yield.

Even worse, 30% of what is harvested never reaches the supermarket shelf owing to trimming, quality selection, etc. Of the food that does reach the supermarket, up to half is thrown away by the consumer. David Williams (source)

Overpopulation isn’t the cause of food shortages, and population control measures, such as sterilization, offspring limitation etc. aren’t the solutions. And if you don’t believe me, read the work of Amartya Sen on the link (or better the absence of a link) between food supplies, population and famines (see also here):

Amartya Sen convincingly refuted the claim that either food supply or population had anything to do with famine.  Famines regularly occurred at times and places where food was plentiful, and in the most thinly populated places, like Darfur. Nick Cullather (source)

The Causes of Poverty (29): Overview

Our research shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children. If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent, and your chances of joining the middle class or above rise from 56 to 74 percent. (We define middle class as having an income of at least $50,000 a year for a family of three). Isabel V. Sawhill and Ron Haskins (source, source)

However, that seems to be a bit reductionist. There are many other possible causes of poverty. Some more convincing than others. For example, here’s Montesquieu according to whom people in hot places are simply too lazy to become rich:

In Europe there is a kind of balance between the southern and northern nations. The first have every convenience of life, and few of its wants: the last have many wants, and few conveniences. To one nature has given much, and demands but little; to the other she has given but little, and demands a great deal. The equilibrium is maintained by the laziness of the southern nations, and by the industry and activity which she has given to those in the north. (source)

According to Thomas Malthus, poverty is caused by overpopulation. Food and other resources are limited, and a population growth that exceeds a certain pace will inevitably hit a resource ceiling, and will result in decreasing standards of living, poverty, conflict over scarce resources, famine etc.

Max Weber believed that protestant work ethic put protestant nations at an advantage compared to other nations. Certain values, such as the opinion that God will reward those who work hard and save money, or the belief in predestination—getting rich is a sign of God’s approval—make some nations rich and others, that lack these values, poor.

Jeffrey Sachs focuses on geography and weather. In the poorest parts of the world, the soil is nutrient-starved, making it difficult to produce food. Moreover, tropical climates foment disease, particularly malaria. The UK, on the other hand, the country where the Industrial Revolution started, has a fertile soil, a lot of coal, and good waterways.

Daron Acemoglu states that nations are not like children — they are not born rich or poor. Their governments make them that way.

People need incentives to invest and prosper; they need to know that if they work hard, they can make money and actually keep that money. And the key to ensuring those incentives is sound institutions — the rule of law and security and a governing system that offers opportunities to achieve and innovate. … if you wish to fix institutions, you have to fix governments. [People should be able to] enjoy law and order and dependable government services — they can go about their daily activities and jobs without fear for their life or safety or property rights. (source)

There are obviously many more explanations of poverty, both “exotic” and sensible ones. And regarding the latter, it’s extremely difficult to say which ones are more important. Poverty is surely one of the most complex and intractable problems facing humanity. However, if we look at the country that has been most successful in the reduction of poverty – China – then the last quote above seems to be the most convincing one. China still has institutional and legal weaknesses today, but it did start to develop only after it abandoned the follies of the Cultural revolution and communist rule in general, and started to protect property rights and build its government institutions. Which doesn’t mean that institutions are a “silver bullet” solution to the problem of poverty. There’s no such thing, unfortunately.

The Causes of Poverty (24): Population Growth and Income Growth: Incompatible?

Some blame overpopulation for many of the world’s problems such as poverty, famine and war (which are obviously rights violations). There are supposed to be too many people for peaceful coexistence and sustainable food production. Those who worry about overpopulation are often called (neo-)Malthusians, and either predict a sharp fall in population levels because of the problems caused by overpopulation (a “Malthusian catastrophe”), or/and propose population control as a measure to solve these problems.

For pretty much all of human history, population growth constrained growth in real standards of living. That’s the “Malthusian Trap”: as standards of living improved, population increased, which put a strain on resources and drove down standards of living, which in turn drove down population growth, rinse & repeat. The industrial revolution broke this trap, although it’s worth pointing out the fairly obvious fact that this is not true for the entire world. Conor Clarke (source)

… over a roughly 3000 year period, during which there was obviously quite a lot of technological progress — iron plows, horse collars, mastering the cultivation of rice, the importation of potatoes into Europe, etc. — living standards basically went nowhere. Why? Because population growth always ate up the gains, pushing living standards back to roughly subsistence.

… technological change was slow — so slow that by 1600 or so, when England had finally reclaimed its population losses from the Black Death, it found real wages back to more or less 1300 levels again.

And here’s the sense in which Malthus was right: he had a fundamentally valid model of the pre-Industrial Revolution economy, which was one in which technological progress translated into more people, not higher living standards. This homeostasis only broke down when very rapid technological change finally outstripped population pressure for an extended period. Paul Krugman (source)

It’s clear that population growth can go hand in hand with income growth, and that it’s not correct to state that population growth necessarily leads to more poverty, which in turn leads to a reversal of population growth. But these compatible evolutions of population and income seem to require technological advances.

Note: my criticism of Malthusianism and other types of overpopulation hysteria (see here for some examples) is targeted only at deterministic theories which believe in overpopulation as the main if not only cause for the world’s problems, and which see overpopulation as a global problem. I accept that in certain specific areas of the world, population pressures can make things worse. But I don’t agree that these pressures are the sole or even the main cause of problems such as poverty, famine, war etc. And neither do I agree that population control is the main remedy for these problems. For example, we all know that water shortages – even very local ones – aren’t caused by overpopulation and won’t be solved by population control. More intelligent irrigation methods are the answer. And when we leave the local level and take the global point of view, the population problem is even less salient. On a world scale, income has grown systematically faster than the world’s population during the last centuries. Population pressures do not lead us to an inevitable “trap” as Malthus and his followers claim.

The Causes of Poverty (23): Better Healthcare = More People = More Poverty?

Investment in better healthcare results in lower mortality rates (especially child mortality rates) and larger populations. If more people have to live from an equal amount of resources, every individual has less resources. Hence there will be more poverty.

This reasoning is typical of Malthusians and others who fret about overpopulation. They forget, however, that high mortality rates and inefficient insufficient healthcare lead to high fertility rates because people decide to have many children in order to offset the risk of mortality. Better healthcare brings down fertility rates because it reduces this risk, but also because it leads to less poverty and hence eliminates another reason to have a lot of children: extra labor force.

Read more about this here.

The Causes of Poverty (17): Overpopulation

According to Malthus, food and other resources are limited, and a population growth that exceeds a certain pace will inevitably hit a resource ceiling, and will result in decreasing standards of living, poverty, conflict over scarce resources, famine etc. (This is called a Malthusian catastrophe). Ultimately, population growth will halt because if this, and population levels will return to the “normal” equilibrium possible within the limits offered by nature (the so-called “carrying capacity”).

And if these disasters aren’t enough, active population control is necessary, including measures such as the abolition of social security (social security doesn’t incite people to birth control, see here) and even more extreme policies (many of which proposed by Malthus’ more enthusiastic followers rather than by himself).

Malthus agreed that humanity was capable of increasing its productivity, but believed that population growth would necessarily outpace this increase. The facts are, however, different. Standards of living have risen enormously over the last centuries, notwithstanding large increases in population numbers. GDP growth has even been faster than population growth, giving, on average, every human being more resources than ever before in history. Of course, these resources aren’t equally distributed, but that’s a problem of justice, not of population.

Blaming everything on overpopulation is simplistic. All major problems in life are multi-causal, and population isn’t a real or major cause in many cases (bad governance is often a more important cause). And when it is, population control isn’t the answer. Technology, productivity, consumer adaptation, better governance etc. are more promising solutions.

The Causes of Poverty (5): Overpopulation

Some blame overpopulation for many of the world’s problems such as poverty, famine and war (which are obviously rights violations). There are supposed to be too many people for peaceful coexistence and sustainable food production. The areas of the world which are inhabitable and useable for agriculture are too small compared to the number of people living in them. These people are followers of Thomas Malthus or of malthusianism, and often even predict major catastrophes which will reduce the population significantly. They also advocate some quite draconian measures for limiting the human population.

In scientific terms: overpopulation occurs when an organism’s numbers exceed the carrying capacity of its habitat; carrying capacity = [available sustainable resources > current and projected needs of the organism].

For example, imagine a population of 10 living in a habitat of 10 square kilometers. These 10 square kilometers can produce food, drinking water, shelter etc. for 15. Then there is no overpopulation. But if the population grows or is expected to grow at a rate of 10% annually, without an equal or superior growth in resources, then overpopulation threatens. There would also be overpopulation if the material resources are adequate but other needs such as space, privacy etc. are not met. For example if the available space is too small to guarantee peaceful co-existence.

So overpopulation can result from changes in the population (increased births, reduced deaths, better healthcare, migration etc.) or from changes in the resources – material or psychological – in the habitat (for example desertification, natural disasters, technological innovations etc.), or from a combination of both.

The current state of the world’s population is the following:

  • Present world population – 6,500,000,000 but unequal distribution of world population (see graphs below). The main population clusters are East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Europe.
  • Average world growth rate – 1.4% annual, but also unequal distribution of growth rates: fastest growing areas are the Middle East – over 4.0% annual – and the slowest growing areas are Central and Eastern Europe – 0% or less. Southern Africa even sees negative growth rates as a result of the HIV epidemic.
  • Forecasts are notoriously difficult but the world’s population is expected to rise by 40% to 9.1 billion by 2050.

 

 

Blaming everything on overpopulation is misguided and reductionist. Problems such as poverty and war have a complex set of causes, including in some but not all cases overpopulation, government policies, cultural factors, repercussions from colonialism, religion etc.

One can also question whether there is indeed a problem of overpopulation. Per capita food production has risen the last 50 years, and poverty (expressed as the number of people living on less than 1$ a day) has decreased while the population has increased. So poverty and war may not have anything to do with the size of the world’s population. However, ecological problems may have something to do with it. If so, the solution would surely not be population control, which is much too difficult and often dictatorial. Changes in consumption patterns are a much more promising route.