A Would-Be Philosopher-King Offers His Optimal Tax Policy

If I had any real power I would tax you all in the following manner:

First, I’d impose a consumption tax such as a VAT on traded goods and services. The consumption tax will have to be progressive, for example by way of a 0% tax on food and other basic necessities and a rate close to 100% for luxuries. A consumption tax encourages savings and investment and does away with the disincentives of income and payroll taxes which it will replace (disincentives to work, earn and hire). It also puts a stop to wasteful conspicuous consumption and status competition, at least at the top end. The sharply decreasing marginal utility at high levels of consumption means that the tax can indeed be strongly progressive, with close to 100% rates at very high levels of consumption. Such a strongly progressive consumption tax will leave incentives in place: a $1 million dollar home motivates just as well as a $200 million home, because people mostly care about how they are doing relative to similar others and all similar others will be subject to the same taxes.

Second: add an inheritance or estate tax because the wealthy, who will save more as a consequence of the consumption tax, will die with larger estates than before. Inheritance is inherently unfair because undeserved. A tax on inheritance not only reduces this unfairness, but does so without distorting incentives. Most other types of taxes have disincentive effects: when an activity such as consumption, investment, employment or pollution is taxed, the activity becomes more expensive. Hence, people will to some extent disengage from the activity (consume less, hire less employees, invest less, pollute less) or find ways to reduce their tax burden (offshore profits or assets, fail to declare income etc.). Disengagement is good in the case of pollution and consumption, but not for investment and employment. An inheritance tax is one that doesn’t have disincentive effects. People will not die less when wealth and assets are taxed after death. This tax is therefore sustainable, in addition to being moral.

It’s a kind of wealth tax. Wealth taxes, including an inheritance tax, promote consumption and are in conflict with the stated aims of a consumption tax (see above). But in the case of inheritance tax that’s a reasonable price to pay. Other wealth taxes – with one exception (see below) – will have to go, precisely for this reason, as well as other reasons: wealth taxes are difficult (they are a percentage of the taxpayer’s calculated net worth – total assets including cash deposits, real estate holdings, investments, trusts and shares in businesses, minus debt – and this net worth is difficult to valuate and easy to offshore); and they raise liquidity problems (the taxpayer may have to sell part of her assets in order to pay the tax, which will increase the supply of assets and drive down their prices, making wealth creation less attractive and possibly undermining the wealth tax). So, although a wealth tax is perhaps a fair tax – wealth is more concentrated in the hands of a very small elite, compared to income – it’s not necessarily a good idea.

Third: add a land value tax. This is a wealth tax, but not really a real estate tax, because the largest part of the value of real estate is the value of the land, not the value of the buildings. It doesn’t cost much more to build a house in Manhattan than to build an identical one in the Midwest. The house in Manhattan is much more expensive because it’s on Manhattan land. A land tax is similar to an inheritance tax: no one built the land, so people will not have less land when it’s taxed. And because no one built it, no one can be said to deserve it. So no incentives arguments against a land tax, and a strong moral argument in favor of it. Just as with inheritance.

Fourth: add some pigovian taxes (taxes on carbon and other externalities such as pollution, congestion etc.).

Fifth: abolish all other taxes, including taxes on investment income or normal income, on corporate profits, on labor/employment etc.

This system yields our tax revenues. A tax system can be justified on different grounds, and I’ve already mentioned a few, namely fairness, incentives (incentives to consume less, to save and invest more, to avoid pollution…) and efficiency (ease of tax collection and tax calculation). But an important justification of a tax system is its general purpose. What do we want to do with the tax revenue? Apart from the obvious goals – public goods such as a police force, a judiciary, a national defense, infrastructure, some regulatory agencies, public education, healthcare etc. – my main concern is welfare, or social security as they say in Europe. And like an increasing number of people I want to propose that we use our tax revenues to fund a universal basic income system which will replace all or most of the existing government support measures such as unemployment benefits, pensions, food stamps etc. I’ve defended the UBI in more detail before so I won’t burden this already longish post any more than necessary.

Now tell me why I’m wrong.

Migration and Human Rights (48): The Arguments Against Immigration, and How They Are Mistaken

I’m going to try to list the most common arguments against immigration, and show how they are devoid of any basis in facts. Since I’m talking facts, I’ll include some handy references to scientific evidence debunking the arguments. (The references will sometimes be found in older blogposts, so you may have to click through a few times. If you feel that I’m shamelessly overlooking some seminal papers, please tell me in comments).

1. The labor cost argument

Claim:

Immigrants are willing to work for low wages, especially the illegal ones. The result is unfair wage competition with natives who will see their wages drop as a result, or who may even be priced out of the labor market altogether. The welfare of native workers requires that we limit immigration.

Facts:

Immigration actually increases native wages because it allows native workers to move up the pay scale, for example as supervisors of the new immigrant workers. Low skilled immigrants also make it possible for natives to spend less time on non-paid, low-skilled activities that they can outsource. As a result, the latter can spend more time on paid activities, which increases their income. The wage competition claim can also be refuted by pointing to the fact that native workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations.

Not only is there a positive wage effect of immigration (with perhaps a small exception for native high school drop outs), but immigration also creates or saves jobs. The easier it is to find cheap immigrant labor at home the less likely that production will relocate offshore. More here.

2. The social safety net argument

Claim:

Immigrants come over just to cash in on unemployment and other benefits, since the income of even the relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to the welfare benefits in rich countries. This is unsustainable, since welfare benefits have to be financed, and working native populations often have a hard time producing enough tax revenue in order to support native welfare beneficiaries. Allowing immigrants to come but then excluding them from welfare benefits seems harsh and unjust. Hence it’s better not to allow them to come in the first place.

Facts:

Immigrants use welfare at lower rates than natives. The labor force participation rate for illegal immigrants in the US is higher than that of the native-born. In the UK, immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits.

3. The “importing poverty” argument

Claim:

Immigrants are less well off than natives. That’s precisely why they want to migrate. Allowing them in reduces the average wealth of the destination country.

Facts:

Many immigrants are indeed less well off than the native born, even after they’ve immigrated, because they come from poorer countries and because they’re often less skilled than the native born. Hence, an increase in immigration may push up the national poverty rate. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the same immigration flow will probably push down the global poverty rate: migrants usually improve their lot by migrating – they probably wouldn’t migrate if that were not the case.

4. The crime argument

Claim:

Immigrants cause an increase in the crime rate. They often come from countries with dysfunctional states and bad enforcement institutions. Hence, they have grown to be more tolerant of violations of the law. The poverty of their countries of origin also pushes them towards more crime. Less crime is a good thing, hence less immigration is also a good thing.

Facts:

Immigration is associated with lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates.

5. The lack of integration argument

Claim:

Immigrants, especially those from other cultures (and that would be most immigrants, since it’s the poor who want to migrate and the poor are almost by definition from outside the West), find it hard to fit in. As a result, there will be frictions between the immigrant population and the original inhabitants. These frictions benefit nobody, hence we should restrict immigration.

Facts:

Natives are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior like bullying, dropping out of school, domestic violence, harassment, vandalism etc. The evidence is here.

6. The cultural argument

Claim:

The local culture will not be able to survive a large influx of high fertility immigrants from completely different cultures. People have a legitimate interest in the preservation of their distinctive cultural identity. Hence immigration should be restricted.

Facts:

A cultural identity is obviously a valuable good. However, it’s not at all clear that immigration threatens the cultures of destinations countries. Those destination countries are multicultural to begin with. Most immigrants are also  willing and able to adapt (see previous point). Moreover, cultural change is not by definition a bad thing, both for those arriving and for those already there. And finally, cultural change is not always likely to happen anyway: throughout history, even those minority cultures living in highly hostile environments where the majority controls the state have been able to survive and flourish. Often a threat to a culture is the cause of increased cultural awareness.

7. The educational argument

Claim:

Immigrant children push down the quality of schools and therefore harm the education of native children. Immigrant children have different types of disadvantages: they speak the local language less well, they have cultural burdens inhibiting education, and perhaps even IQ burdens. The welfare of native children requires that we limit immigration.

Facts:

Higher rates of immigration encourage native children to study harder – to complete high school and to go to university – so that they can avoid competing with immigrant high-school dropouts in the labor market.

Conclusion

All of these claims about immigration are based on supposed harms to the population of the destination country. (There’s one argument I didn’t mention, namely the brain drain argument, that focuses on the effects of migration on origin countries, but that one is just as flawed as the rest). Not only is this a very selfish mode of argument, ignoring the clear benefits for (potential) immigrants, but – as it turns out – also a very misguided one, based on factual errors. However, even if it were the case that immigration imposes some form of financial costs on host countries, then that wouldn’t necessarily be the final argument against immigration, since these cost can be seen as a form of global redistribution and global justice.

More posts in this series are here.

Human Rights Promotion (14): Aggregating Rights (A Social Welfare Function Based on Human Rights)

A social welfare function (henceforth SWF) ranks conceivable or possible worlds – also called  “social states” – according to the aggregate levels of welfare they produce. Each social state is given a numerical value by the SWF allowing it to be ranked. This should help policy makers and individuals to achieve the social state with the highest – or maximum – aggregate welfare. Subject of course to whatever constraints there are: technological or resource constraints, human capital or behavioral constraints etc. A “higher” rather than the “highest” welfare may be the only realistic option.

A SWF therefore describes society as a whole, but the whole is an aggregate of individual welfare scores, also called individual “utilities”, “interests” or whatever. Individuals should first order possible social states from their own point of view and their own sense of utility or preference, and then these individual orderings of social states are aggregated in some way by a SWF so as to achieve maximum aggregate welfare.

A SWF typically looks like this:

W(x) = F (U1(x), U2(x), ... , Un(x))
where:
W(x) is a real number social utility value for a possible world x
U1(x) is a cardinal or ordinal utility value that is interpersonally comparable and that is yielded by some policy or procedure for individual 1 in world x
F is a function that yields a real number; F can be different things: the sum of all U's, the average of all U's, the product (multiplication) of all U's etc.1
n is the total number of individuals.

SWFs are hotly contested. What should count as individual “welfare” or “utility”? And how do we measure, rank or score it? And if we have an uncontested definition of individual welfare that can be measured and ranked, then how do we compare and aggregate it across individuals? In other words: what is U and what is F?

Let’s start with the first problem. Income or wealth (counted cardinally in $) is often cited as a good proxy for welfare. When people have more money, they can pay for more goods, services or activities which give them some amount of utility in some form and which therefore enhance their welfare. Income or wealth is also measurable and interpersonally comparable. Aggregating it into a SWF should be relatively easy. Of course, F is this case should probably not be the simple sum of all income levels. Some special focus on the income of the least well off and redistribution of income from those better off would, given the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility, increase total welfare utility (“W”) in a society: one extra unit of utility (income in this case) for a starving person is of greater value than an extra unit of utility for a millionaire.2

However, income and wealth aren’t really very good proxies for welfare. Welfare is clearly more than money, even though money can buy welfare. In addition, different people need different levels of income or wealth because they have different consumption requirements (think of a blind person or a paraplegic). So income looks like it’s an interpersonally comparable form of welfare when in fact it’s not: equal income may yield vastly unequal levels of welfare when welfare is understood as something more than mere income. Well-being may then have to take the place of income (well-being could account for the lower welfare of the blind and the paraplegic given equal income levels). But well-being is notoriously difficult to define, let alone measure.3

So we’re back where we came from. Perhaps a more subjective approach to welfare could do the trick. Welfare is then not what is objectively good for individuals – such as income or well-being – but rather what individuals themselves subjectively prefer. This means moving away from what Kenneth Arrow has called the Platonism or paternalism that is often part of welfare economics.4 The social good is not derived from philosophical reflection about the nature of welfare, but is instead the composite of individual preferences, whatever they are. Hence, the welfare that is to be aggregated into a SWF is abstract preference satisfaction.

The use of abstract preference satisfaction as a measure of individual welfare allows us to sidestep the problem of interpersonal comparability of more specific preferences or of other possible definitions of welfare such as income. There is no way to compare satisfaction of a preference for alcohol with satisfaction of a preference for a long life. Of course, even if we try to compare abstract preference satisfaction across individual, we’ll still have problems because

[t]here is no means of testing the magnitude of A’s satisfaction as compared with B’s.5

Hence the need to use ordinal rather than cardinal rankings for individual preference rankings. One takes individuals’ ordinal preference rankings and aggregates those, irrespective of the nature or intensity of the preferences. However, we then may have to pay the price of running afoul of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem which suggest that individual ordinal rankings can’t produce a SWF.

Moreover, the interpersonal comparability of abstract preference satisfaction is only apparent. Let’s say you have a world with three individual, each with a set of preferences that they rank. Two of them have a high preference for the consumption of porn and rank that first. The other one has no preference for porn and instead ranks the consumption of art first. When abstracting these preferences, most SWFs would result in a ranking of possible social states where the social state in which porn consumption yields the highest total welfare is the best possible state. That is not intuitively appealing. While many of us would give priority to people’s preferences even if these preferences are not our own and even if we deem them base, most would stop at evil preferences.6

Hence a SWF based on abstract preference satisfaction is not acceptable. Perhaps we should therefore reconsider the Platonism scolded by Arrow7 (but without the paternalism). I propose to do just that and more specifically to use human rights as the Platonic good. I have good reasons for choosing this good, and I’ve defended those elsewhere. You may or may not agree with these reasons, and the reasons will inevitably be controversial. Introducing controversial elements into a SWF may make it useless, and may result in as many SWF as there are people. However, the controversial elements have always been there. The advantage of human rights is that there is widespread agreement on them – at least on the list of rights, not so much on the reasons why we need them.

Another advantage of the use of human rights as a proxy of welfare is interpersonally comparability. Thomas Scanlon, although not talking about human rights, says it better:

Giving up the idea that value judgments can be avoided altogether allows us to make, within moral argument, the kind of interpersonal comparison mentioned earlier. We can still pursue the aim of Neutrality by basing our moral arguments on a conception of the elements that are important in making a life good that is at least widely shared.8

Measurement of human rights is also less of a problem compared to alternative measures of welfare. People’s rights are respected or not. To some extent, this can be objectively ascertained, at least in theory. There are, of course, practical obstacles to human rights measurement, especially in oppressive environments, but a reasonable way out of this would be to assume that impossibility of measurement equals absence of respect. Indeed, when rights are not respected, they may be violated in degrees. A SWF based on rights should therefore be able to include measurement of measurable degrees of respect/violation of rights. Again, there is no real obstacle to do this kind of measurement of degrees, at least in the case of most human rights. Free speech for instance is already measured by degrees.10

In order to convince traditional welfare economists of the usefulness of this approach to SWFs, it’s probably best to point to the fact that human rights also encompass a notion of welfare. Traditional welfare needs such as food, shelter, rest, preservation of life, security and a basic standard of living are all codified as human rights.11 Human rights take a sufficientarian approach to these issues, meaning that the focus should be on the welfare needs of those members of society who do not yet have the means to satisfy them. Improving the standard of living of those who already have an above threshold level is not required by human rights.

This sufficientarianism of human rights suggests that the SWF should be Rawlsian, focusing on the welfare of the least well-off individual member of society. That is true for the welfare element of human rights, but not for the more traditional human rights. The members of society whose rights – welfare and other rights – are most precarious should of course receive priority as to their rights protection, but at least in the case of non-welfare rights this is only an intermediate goal. The SWF should allow us to advance the rights of all members up to a level of equal protection.

Sen’s social welfare function is even less useful in this context because it focuses too much on income and income inequality and doesn’t capture the full range of human rights. Completely useless are the Benthamite/classical utilitarian SWF: both the sum and the average are more or less indifferent to the distribution of utility among individuals (with the exception of diminishing marginal utility). Human rights are equal rights, hence their distribution is of crucial importance. Perhaps a Bernoulli-Nash SWF in which F is the product? Maybe, but that will only be the start. A complete SWF based on rights requires a lot more work than I can possibly accomplish here. For example, one element of complexity is geography: normally, SWFs are made for a single country, whereas a rights based SWF should of course encompass the whole of humanity. Human rights are rights of all human beings, and there are substantial cross-border effects on rights. I hope to flesh out this proposal another time.

A sum could be a Benthamite or classical utilitarian SWF; the product a Bernoulli-Nash SWF.
A Rawlsian SWF would then perhaps be an option. A Benthamite or classical utilitarian SWF, even though it would allow redistribution if justified by diminishing marginal utility, does not give special attention to the income of the least well off. A Rawlsian SWF allows redistribution even without diminishing marginal utility.
The capabilities approach - which argues that freedom (what people are free to do or be) should be included in welfare assessments - is one interesting formulation of well-being, but it's inevitably controversial.
K. J. Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values; 2012, Yale University Press, p. 23.
L. Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, 1932, MacMillan, p. 124.
There are numerous other problems with preference satisfaction as a definition of welfare, e.g. preference manipulation, people having preferences about other people's preferences (as in Sen's Liberal Paradox, etc.).
See note 4 above. One can argue that welfare economics is always and inherently normative. Disagreement about F is indicative of the ethical choices inherent in SWF thinking. See notes 1 and 2 above. In addition, the focus on individual welfare as the only source of social welfare also marks an ethical choice, namely the choice against collectivism.
T.M. Scanlon, The Moral Basis of Interpersonal Comparisons, in Elster & Roemer, Interpersonal Comparisons of Well-Being, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 44.
10 Freedom House and others are known for this.
11 Although there is opposition to the inclusion of these rights in the corpus of human rights, especially in the U.S. See here.

Migration and Human Rights (44): Welfare State Incompatible With Multiculturalism?

David Miller has argued in favor of an affirmative answer to this question. My view is different. Miller’s story goes somewhat like this. The welfare state predates multiculturalism: most western countries have adopted some form of welfare state in the late 19th century or during the first half of the 20th century, whereas these countries only have become truly multicultural in the second half of the 20th century (as a result of decolonization, guest worker programs etc.).

According to Miller, a welfare state requires a strong sense of national solidarity. People will only contribute to the welfare system if they know that others contribute as well and that they themselves will be protected by the contributions of others when things turn bad, when they get sick or old or when they lose their job. Hence, everyone should contribute in the same way and rules about reciprocity and fairness should be respected. A welfare state is only possible when society is a warm nest where everyone cares for everyone, looks after everyone and uses the system in a fair and reciprocal manner. Free riders by definition don’t care about others and if there are too many of them, the welfare system breaks down.

Miller fears that a multicultural society can undermine support for the welfare state because large immigration flows can undo the fairness of the system. This fairness is based on the assumption that you can only withdraw from the system if first you have contributed to it (reciprocity). Newcomers are often seen as people who withdraw without contribution.

In a sense, this is the classic welfare tourism argument. It’s a popular argument against multiculturalism and immigration, especially on the right of the political spectrum, and it’s disappointing to see a noted philosopher give credence to it. He should know better. Why? Well, first, it’s simply not true that immigrants abuse the welfare system. Some do, of course, but in many cases immigrants withdraw comparatively less than natives and they often have higher labor force participation. Furthermore, many of the native poor withdraw a lot more than they contribute, over a lifetime. This “unfairness” is identical to the supposed unfair use of the system by immigrants, and raises similar complaints about the “undeserving poor”. And yet, even though the unfairness is the same, it doesn’t result in arguments that all welfare states are impossible. Or is unfairness only a problem when colored people are unfair?

Hence, Miller seems to be rushing to accept defeat in the face of xenophobia. He preemptively gives up the attempt to widen the circle of empathy and to correct misinformation about unfairness. If it is really the case that a population loses trust in and withdraws support from a welfare system because it believes that solidarity is only something for “people like us” or because it believes that rules of fairness and reciprocity are violated, then perhaps we should try to change people’s minds rather than hastily agreeing with them.

Something about a similar argument by Milton Friedman – “you cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state” – is here. More on the role of group identity in public support for redistribution is here. More posts in this series are here.

Economic Human Rights (42): Some Facts About Welfare in the U.S.

Welfare – meaning the provision by the government of a minimum level of material wellbeing and social support for all citizens – is a strange thing in the U.S.: it’s not directed mainly at the poor, it’s underfunded, it seems to be compatible with a high poverty rate, and it’s not colorblind – at least not in its effects.

Take a look at the following facts (source):

  • In 2010, nearly half of Americans lived in a household that received direct government benefits. That’s up from 37.7% in 1998.
  • At the same time, government revenues have been declining: adjusted for inflation, federal tax revenue was the same in 2009 as it was 1997, even though the U.S. population grew by 37 million during that period. In 2011, the federal government took in $2.3 trillion in tax revenue, and spent the exact same amount on military, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone.
  • The share of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare going to the bottom fifth of households (based on income) has fallen from 54% in 1979 to 36% in 2007.
  • The result of all of this: nearly 1 in 6 Americans – and more than 1 in 4 blacks – still live in poverty. The unemployment rate in 2009 was around 10% – for young, uneducated African-American males it was even 48.5%.

None of this should lead to the conclusion that the U.S. welfare system is completely dysfunctional – unemployment insurance, for instance, has rescued millions of Americans from poverty during the last recession. What it should lead to is serious consideration of the possibility and desirability of a completely new system.

More posts in this series are here.

Economic Human Rights (37): Basic Income as an Alternative to the Welfare State

The welfare state is the name for a collection of different government policies and programs designed to help the poor. Those policies and programs may include healthcare benefits, unemployment benefits, old age pensions, child benefits, some types of education subsidies, aid to the disabled, food stamps, housing subsidies, minimum wage rules, collective bargaining rights etc.

The welfare state is criticized in a number of ways. I’ll just mention a few arguments against it, without going into much detail and without replying to them:

  • it creates dependency and destroys self-reliance, responsibility, effort and other virtues
  • it rewards the undeserving and promotes subsidized idleness
  • it violates property rights because the taxes necessary for funding welfare are a form of theft
  • it imposes slavery on the productive and the responsible because it forces them to work for the benefit of the lazy and the irresponsible
  • it destroys incentives for taxpayers to become productive
  • it’s self-destructive because it destroys the prosperity that it wants to redistribute (the destruction of incentives results in the destruction of prosperity), or because it renders poverty more attractive
  • it’s not sufficiently targeted to the most needy: wealthy families may get child benefits, and wealthy pensioners may get healthcare subsidies
  • it requires a heavy state bureaucracy that usurps the right to invade the privacy of potential welfare beneficiaries (in order to ascertain whether people deserve benefits: are people really unemployed or unemployable? does their health status merit health benefits? etc.)
  • it can be gamed and people may engage in welfare fraud.

Some of these criticisms are evidently more pertinent than others, but let’s not evaluate them one by one. If we assume that there’s some truth in some of them, then it may be worthwhile to look at some possible alternatives. People often propose non-state solutions such as private charity (enhanced and encouraged by way of tax policy, education etc.). An advantage of private charity is that it fosters solidarity, virtue and a sense of belonging. However, it’s also counter-cyclical in the sense that it’s least available when most necessary (e.g. during economic recessions). Moreover, it tends to be unreliable and unequal (it may not cover all the needs of all poor people all of the time).

Another possible alternative is to keep a system of state provision of welfare, but to radically alter the specifics of the system. For example, one could give people a guaranteed and unconditional basic income at a level high enough to cover basic needs. Every individual would receive the basic income whatever his or her predicament, current or future. It would be funded with tax revenues, and therefore wouldn’t be a reply to the theft and slavery criticisms of welfare, but those criticisms are weak anyway (because they imply that all state activity, including policing and infrastructure, are illegitimate). It would, however, be a strong reply to the privacy infringing aspects of the current welfare system. A basic income, since it’s unconditional, would not require intrusions into the private lives of citizens in order to ascertain whether they deserve a benefit or not. It would undo the complexity of many current programs and hence also remove the need for a large bureaucracy. And it would counter the charge of assisting the undeserving: although many undeserving would receive a basic income, few would complain about it since everyone would receive it. Welfare fraud also would obviously become impossible.

An added advantage of a basic income system of welfare would be that it allows people to take more risks. They know that they won’t be destitute if things don’t work out. More risk taking can be socially advantageous because it can result in more innovation, more productivity etc.

However, notwithstanding the set of advantages, a basic income system will probably not be a perfect substitute for existing programs. It’s questionable, for example, whether a basic income, even one that is set at the highest sustainable level, will be enough to cover certain catastrophic healthcare costs. In general, a basic income theory doesn’t take into consideration the fact that different people have different needs and abilities and therefore require different amounts of resources.

Economic Human Rights (35b): What’s So Funny About Charity?

I’ve stated before why I believe charity helps to prevent poverty, and why it’s better than government welfare, at least in principle. The welfare state, in my view, is a fallback option when charity fails (as it often does).

The usual argument against this view is that charity is bound to fail because it’s crowded out by the welfare state. People don’t and won’t assist others because they think that they already do enough by paying taxes, whatever the effectiveness or fairness of the tax system. The evidence for the occurrence of crowding out is, however, unclear, and that’s a “charitable” interpretation of the evidence.

Another criticism of charity is closer to the mark:

Charity is counter-cyclical. When the economy is booming and there’s less need, there’s also more capacity. When the [economy] is worse and there’s more need, donations dry up and there’s less capacity. That’s not a criticism of charities: It’s hardly their fault. And nor is it a criticism of the people who donate — or stop donating — to charities. When you’re worried about paying your mortgage, it’s harder to help other people pay theirs. But it’s a big part of why we need a robust, federal safety net that’s immune … from the ravages of the business cycle. (source)

Indeed, as the need for charity rises, the supply diminishes, and vice versa. That is why a theory of poverty alleviation that depends solely on charity is incomplete. However, implicit in this argument is that the welfare state is immune to the business cycle, which is obviously incorrect. A recession means a drop in tax revenues and a simultaneous increase in demand for welfare transfers (there are more unemployed etc.). Hence, a recession means a weakening of the capacity of the welfare system. That’s exactly the same mechanism that makes charity unreliable.

Fortunately, the welfare state can bridge over recessions by going into debt, something that few private charity donors will do. This means that a welfare state can keep its anti-poverty transfers going in times of increased demand for funds and decreased supply of funds.

More on charity here.

What is Equality? (3): Equality of Rights

Equality of what? There’s hardly a more confusing philosophical question. This is my attempt at sorting things out. I apologize for the length of this post, but there’s a lot to digest.

Equality of resources

A well-known problem with theories that focus on equality of resources is that different people need different resources because they have different abilities and different needs. Someone may need more food (in terms of calorie intake) because she has a physically demanding job, or may need more education than the average person because she has a brain dysfunction making it difficult for her to read or remember. Someone with a physical handicap may need expensive tools such as a wheelchair – and therefore more resources compared to a person not suffering a handicap – in order to have the same capability or opportunity to realize freely chosen goals as that other person.

The latter is an important point which I’ll come back to later on: you can’t just think about resources in isolation; you’ll have to consider which purposes these resources serve. Even if different people have the same purposes, they need different amounts of resources to achieve these purposes (and when they have different purposes, the need for unequal resources is even stronger). Hence, equality of resources seems to be an inadequate theory of equality.

A standard reply by resource based theories of equality is to count someone’s abilities (such as the ability to walk) as resources and try to equalize those as well. In our example, the handicapped person would then have equal resources when she has more money than average and just enough money to compensate the loss of resources resulting from her handicap. So it looks like equality of resources is a theory that can be salvaged.

The problem with this rescue is that not all abilities can be equalized by way of the redistribution of resources. Certain handicaps can be reasonably compensated by way of extra (financial or other) resources; paralysis may be one of them, especially given the most recent breakthroughs. But other handicaps can’t. A blind person for instance will probably never have equal abilities, no matter how much extra money or tools she gets. Her loss of eyesight is a loss of resources that can’t be fully compensated by other, equivalent resources.

Another problem with this attempted rescue of the equality of resources theory: there’s no good reason to limit abilities to physical ones. Talents are also abilities, and if you insist that all abilities are resources that should be equalized as much as possible then you’ll have to explain how to equalize talent. It seems very difficult if not impossible to supply extra resources to the less talented so that they end up with equal resources compared to the more talented. Like in the case of many physical abilities, a lack of talent can’t be compensated by way of extra resources.

So the attempt to rescue resource theories by including abilities in the pot of resources looks like it’s bound to fail. Resource theorist could reply that abilities and talents should be viewed as commonly owned resources. And, indeed, no one deserves her talents or most of her abilities; those are largely a matter of luck. Hence it’s not silly to view them as commonly owned. A talented person using her talents only for her personal benefit seems to be making an unjust use of her good luck. If abilities and talents are viewed as a common resource, then equality of resources could be achieved by giving those with few abilities and talents a right to use a share of the abilities and talents of others. However, this solution to the problems faced by resource theories creates another problem because it seems to imply the slavery of the talented (in the words of Dworkin). A talented person will find that she is less able to realize her freely chosen goals compared to another, less talented person, and equality of resource is justified, if at all, by the fact that it allows people to have an equal ability to realize goals. We thereby reverse the initial problem faced by resource theories, and put the burden of equality of resources on those with more abilities rather than on those with less abilities. That’s not a solution; it’s shifting the problem elsewhere.

If we can’t equalize all abilities, maybe equality should be limited: we can try to equalize as many abilities as possible and as far as possible. We can’t equalize a blind person’s abilities, but we can go some distance towards equality (we can offer Braille, improved transportation infrastructure etc.). We can’t equalize the abilities of a person without any talent, but we can offer this person some resources that help her attain a decent level of abilities.

Equality of preference satisfaction

But then we’ll have to say something more: we can’t talk about abilities in isolation (like we can’t talk about resources in isolation); we have to answer the question: abilities to do or be what exactly? One possible answer, and in fact the traditional liberal answer is: whatever people think they should do or be. Then we’re essentially talking about equality of preference satisfaction. Welfare is another word for preference satisfaction and the theory that tries to equalize people’s preference satisfaction is usually called equality of welfare. The purpose is then to distribute resources and improve abilities in such a way that people’s preference satisfaction (or welfare) is equal, or rather as equal as possible given people’s different and often fixed abilities to do things.

However, this theory faces a similar problem as equality of resources: people don’t just have unequal abilities and talents but also unequal preferences (preferences in the sense of the ability to do or be something). And those different preferences require different amounts and types of resources. As such, that’s not a problem. The problem is that some people have preferences that requires very large amounts of resources in order to be satisfied, and these extraordinary preferences are often self-chosen. In this case, these people’s claim on others to the resources necessary for the satisfaction of their extraordinary preferences seems hard to justify, especially from an egalitarian viewpoint. Society is under no obligation to redistribute resources to these people in order to guarantee equal preference satisfaction. Caviar fans have to work for their own money. And if they won’t, well then they have to adapt their preferences rather than appeal to society to redistribute the resources they need for their preference satisfaction. This is one reason why equality of preference satisfaction also seems to fail as a valid theory of equality.

However, we shouldn’t always force people to take care of their unequal or extraordinary preferences by themselves or to modify their preferences if they can’t. Some idiosyncratic preferences are closely connected to people’s identities, and in some cases those may not be self-chosen. Indigenous tribes may consider it essential to their unchosen identity that they have an exclusive right to a certain part of a country’s territory and resources (such as hunting grounds and the stock of fish or deer). There may even be self-chosen preferences that merit the same treatment. People with a preference for artistic expression may have a good claim to transfers of social resources (in the form of subsidies for the arts for instance). In those cases, equality of preference satisfaction does also apply to extraordinary preferences.

Still, notwithstanding these counter-examples, there are numerous cases of preferences requiring relatively large amounts of resources that those holding the preferences can’t produce themselves and at the same time can’t legitimately claim from society. Hence, equality of preference satisfaction does not seem a worthwhile goal.

And it’s not worthwhile for another reason as well. It’s not just that some preferences require unjustifiably large amounts of resources; some preferences are immoral. One can’t justify redistribution of social resources for the satisfaction of immoral preferences. Yet another argument against equality of preference satisfaction results from reflection about the term “preferences”. What is a preference? Is it every unreflected desire? Or rather only those desires an agent would pursue if she had the chance to rationally consider and evaluate all possible desires on the basis of all pertinent information? Do we want a drug addict and a bacillophobe to engage in preference satisfaction? And to redistribute social resources in such a way that they can in an equal manner compared to students and entrepreneurs?

Welfare theories may start off with equality and neutrality regarding preferences (the liberal premise), but because of the problems of morality and unreflected or irrational preferences, they quickly become paternalistic. Welfare theories, compared to resource theories, have the advantage of focusing not on instrumental values but on what ultimately matters to people, namely preference satisfaction. But not everything that matters to people, or that people think matters to them, should receive equal social concern or approval. Some things that matter to some people should not be encouraged from a moral point of view, let alone be subsidized. Other things don’t merit support from redistribution of resources because those things are irrational or self-chosen, expensive and not instrumental to other values such as identity. But once you have to decide which things that matter to people should or should not have a place in social policies that aim at equal preference satisfaction, you are likely to act in a paternalistic way and endanger another important value, namely freedom.

And even when welfare theories manage to remain neutral regarding preferences and don’t encourage or discourage certain preferences, they face the problem of comparing amounts of preference satisfaction across different preferences. Does a music lover, who has the resources to listen to music one hour a day, have an equal level of preference satisfaction as the American Indian who is able to hunt and fish freely and undisturbed whenever he wants? Are those things not inherently incommensurable? If so, how are we to achieve equality?

Equality of opportunity of preference satisfaction

Given the problems faced by preference satisfaction theories, one could assume that theories of equality should move to equality of opportunity of preference satisfaction. Rather than distribute resources so that people have equal preference satisfaction, we could limit distribution to those resource people need in order to have an equal opportunity to satisfy their preferences.

This move, however, doesn’t solve anything. We don’t want people to have the opportunity to act immorally, let alone the equal opportunity. And neither do we want them to have the equal opportunity to do expensive and extravagant things.

Equality of rights

Fortunately, there is a way out of this mess. We have to limit the range of equal opportunity, equal resources, equal abilities and equal preference satisfaction. A social and political regime should offer people an equal opportunity to a limited set of actions, functionings and beings, namely those that are necessary conditions for their human rights (see also here). People have equal human rights, and they should therefore have an equal opportunity to enjoy those rights in an equal way. Likewise, people should have the resources and abilities that are necessary for them to enjoy their rights, and their preference satisfaction should be a social concern and should be equalized only when those preferences are preferences for human rights (or for the conditions and resources for or the opportunities to enjoy human rights). (And yes, rights are preferences in the sense that they can be waived).

A problem faced by all theories of equality – including the one focused on or limited by equal human rights – is that people often squander their resources, their abilities, their preference satisfaction and their opportunities. They should be held responsible for their voluntary choices, and if those choices put them in a situation in which they have less resources, abilities, preference satisfaction or opportunities compared to others, then they don’t have a claim to more of those. That’s true for all resources, abilities, preferences and opportunities, except the resources, abilities, preferences and opportunities for human rights. If someone squanders her financial resources, she still has a right not to be poor. But if she loses her ability to acquire enough caviar, then she should take responsibility and not claim that society restores her resources. Similarly, if someone loses the ability to use her limbs through her own negligence, she still has a right to healthcare and mobility and a legitimate claim on society. However, if she thereby also squanders her ability to seduce men, she has no claim on anyone. If the same person has a preference for the enjoyment of a particular human right, but puts herself in a situation in which this enjoyment is impossible, she still has a claim to help. But her preference for fine chocolate made impossible through self-induced or non-self-induced diabetes doesn’t generate a legitimate claim on society. And, finally, if she squandered a good opportunity to education, she still has a valid claim to get some minimum level of education; if, however, she squandered a good dating opportunity, she doesn’t have a claim to the restoration of this opportunity.

Although the sidelining of responsibility is usually not a good thing, there are some practical advantages to it in this case. It’s often extremely difficult to detect responsible or irresponsible behavior. Seemingly irresponsible behavior may look like a voluntary choice but in reality it’s perhaps a choice that is determined by genetics, upbringing etc. Theories of equality which make responsibility and choice a precondition for equality – like luck egalitarianism for instance – face some challenging problems and a high risk of mistake.

Luck egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is yet another theory of equality. It demands that people’s unchosen luck (called brute luck, as opposed to option luck, the latter being the luck that people have when taking risks) be equalized. People should start life (in some versions of luck egalitarianism, adult life) with equal fortune, and equal fortune means equal resources, abilities and opportunities. They should be compensated for misfortune due to the lottery of birth. After that, all inequalities resulting from voluntary choice should be accepted by people themselves and by society.

Luck egalitarianism, like all other theories of equality discussed here (with the exception of equality of rights), is plagued by serious problems. Apart from the epistemological one (the difficulty of detecting voluntary choice and responsibility), there’s the problem of cruelty: why should we leave people to starve even if they have brought starvation upon themselves? They have, after all, a right not to starve. And then there’s the problem of intrusiveness: the epistemological problem will force luck egalitarian governments to enact KGB style measures in order to gain as much certainty as possible about responsibility. Other problems are discussed here.

The same solution is available here: instead of compensating people for all types of bad brute luck (but not option luck), we should compensate them for bad luck – brute or option – when this bad luck implies violations of their human rights or difficulties for future enjoyment of their human rights. People who are born paralyzed or who become paralyzed later in life – due to an accident which is or isn’t their own fault – all have a right to mobility and hence an egalitarian claim to social assistance. People who are born without talents or who squander their talents, don’t have such a claim because there is no right to have talent.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (12): How Coercion Promotes Freedom

Freedom understood as independence and the absence of interference or intentional coercion (especially government coercion) is an important concept. The problem is that it seems to invalidate redistribution through taxation. If the government taxes a wealthy person to transfer some of her wealth to another person living under a fixed threshold of basic resources, then the government intentionally coerces the wealthy person and takes away (part of) her freedom. That’s one of the origins of the traditional view that freedom and equality are incompatible. For people who believe strongly in freedom as the absence of intentional coercion, it’s very difficult if not impossible to accept taxation and redistribution.

On the other hand, there are those who want to maintain the use of government and taxation as a means to guarantee people an equal share of those basic resource necessary for a decent human life. And I’m one of them. How can we reply to those – let’s call them libertarians – who voice concerns about the loss of freedom that’s inherent in redistribution?

1. First, we could argue that freedom, as it is understood here, isn’t the only important value, and that we should put it “in the mix” of the whole of human values, including welfare and equality, and try to balance those values in a fair way. That’s the value pluralism approach, but it’s an approach that won’t be successful to those who don’t believe in value pluralism or who believe that if there are many values, freedom is still the most important one (e.g. many libertarians).

2. Another reply could be that redistribution reduces one type of freedom – freedom from intentional coercion – in order to promote another type of freedom, namely a more positive type of freedom in which not only the absence of coercion is important but also the availability of choices, capabilities and power. Of course, a wealthy person’s choices, capabilities and power aren’t enhanced by the fact that she pays taxes – on the contrary – but when these taxes are used to guarantee a poor person’s basic income for example (or education, or health etc.) then that poor person will have a wider array of choices, capabilities, opportunities, power etc. So positive freedom is redistributed by means of a limitation on negative freedom, and is redistributed in such a way that on average people have more equal access to it. (If a rich person pays $10,000 in taxes for the welfare benefits, healthcare, education etc. of a poor person, then the rich person loses less choices, opportunities and capabilities then those gained by the poor person. Of course, the exact tax rate is important: punitive tax rates may harm the rich more than they benefit the poor).

In a way, this second reply also involves an appeal to value pluralism: negative freedom (one value) is balanced against more equal access to positive freedom (another value), and is – sometimes and in part – outweighed by it.

3. A third reply isn’t based on value pluralism. We could argue that redistribution of income or wealth through government taxation merely limits one person’s negative freedom for the sake of another person’s negative freedom. It’s fairly easy, in fact, to argue that poverty, or the absence of those basic resources necessary for a decent human life, reduces the negative freedom of the poor. The poor are intentionally coerced all the time, for no other reason than their poverty: the homeless are forcibly removed from train stations, gypsies from land where they aren’t allowed to camp, poor migrant workers have their passports taken away by their employers and are forced to repay “travel costs” by working for free, etc.

If the government gave these people a basic income for example, or rent subsidies, they wouldn’t be coerced in these ways. The taxes that the government would collect for this purpose would not simply reduce negative freedom for the sake of another value (positive freedom, welfare, equality etc.). It would reduce the negative freedom of some for the sake of the negative freedom of others (possibly many others depending on the type of taxation system). In other words, it would modify and equalize the distribution of negative freedom. It would increase intentional coercion on some people in order to reduce intentional coercion on (many) others.

Taxation and redistribution do indeed reduce freedom (in one sense of the word) but at the same time they increase freedom (freedom in the same sense as well as in a more positive sense). Conversely, a failure to tax and redistribute could reduce freedom.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (40): A Culture of Poverty

It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that the poor shouldn’t blame “the system” for their poverty, but should look instead at their own values and behavior. Poor people, or at least some of them, show behavior that can be called a “culture of poverty“. They are the “undeserving poor“, the “stupid poor” who are poor because of their self-destructive lifestyle choices, their own stupid decisions, their self-chosen family situation, their involvement in crime, their drug use, their welfare dependency, their lack of effort in school, their lack of general discipline and their inability to plan for the long term.

Of course, we can all imagine some people who are “undeserving” in this sense, and some of us may know (of) some of them, but the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that such undeserving behavior is quite common among the poor and is the reason why the levels of poverty remain quite constant over time, even in some of the most wealthy and generous welfare states.

There are actually two versions of the culture of poverty theory, one more common than the other.

Innate moral deficiencies

Usually, the culture of poverty is believed to be a symptom of innate moral deficiencies among the poor. Or, euphemistically, the poor have a “unique value system”. It’s the depraved morality of the poor, and the self-destructive attitudes and behaviors that result from it, that keep them poor, period. All other possible explanations of poverty – discrimination, the membership theory of poverty, the bee sting theory, economic structures and processes, the business cycle etc. – go on the dump of politically correct academic claptrap.

This version of the culture of poverty theory is in essence a form of classism, akin to racism. Like a racist who claims that the depravation and inferiority of people of another race is entirely the fault of those people and should not be blamed on racism, adherents of this version of the culture of poverty theory claim that the poor are a separate group of people that make their own lives miserable, quite independently of external causes. The theory is also classist in the sense that it assumes one coherent culture among the poor, a culture that they simply “have” and that doesn’t contain major internal differences.

Acquired moral deficiencies

A more moderate but less common form of the theory maintains the moral opprobrium directed at poor people, but also sees some external reasons for their self-destructive values and behavior. The poor are still a separate group of people with a distinct culture, but this culture doesn’t result from some form of innate or genetically determined moral depravation that’s typical of the poor. The moral depravation that the adherents of this second version of the theory witness among the poor isn’t innate but is produced by generations of poverty. The poor classes and their offspring have responded to the ongoing burden of poverty by developing values and attitudes that perpetuate their poverty, and they socialize the next generations into these values and attitudes.

For example, decades of generational or hereditary poverty instill in people feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, victimhood and marginality, and these feelings in turn produce self-destructive values and behavior. They work as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecies. So, according to this second version of the theory, the self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns that are the essence of the culture of poverty aren’t shaped by innate or genetic moral deficiencies. The observed moral deficiencies and the resulting self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns are produced by internalization and socialization following decades of generational poverty.

The opposition to welfare inherent in the culture of poverty theory

Whatever the causes of self-destructive behavior – innate or genetic moral depravation on the one hand, or internalized self-destructive values on the other – the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that it’s only better behavior and values that can help people escape from poverty. The adherents of the “innate depravity” version of the theory will just have some more difficulties explaining how we can change the behavior and values of the poor.

And because it’s only better behavior that can help them, we shouldn’t give poor people money, unemployment benefits, healthcare insurance, child benefits etc. We don’t need a welfare state. Instead, the poor should be more diligent in their pursuit of a good education and a good job, they should lead healthier lives and have less children, especially out of wedlock etc. Some claim that money doesn’t matter for poverty (really!). The poor will do well even without money, as long as they change their value system. So, money doesn’t matter for poverty, like ice doesn’t matter for ice-skating, or something.

The fatalism inherent in the culture of poverty theory

According to the adherents of the culture of poverty theory, the poor aren’t just like all the rest of us minus the money. No, they are completely different, and just throwing money at them won’t change one iota. On the contrary, welfare benefits will just confirm them in their sense of victimhood and inferiority and will therefore perpetuate their destructive value system. However, closing the welfare tap and forcing them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps isn’t likely to work either, since they don’t have the discipline and the other values needed for that, and neither do they have the values necessary to get the education necessary to acquire a superior value system (were such an education provided to them).

Hence, even those adherents of the culture of poverty theory who don’t believe in innate moral deficiencies tend to conclude that poverty is permanent and that nothing can be done. Only those among the middle classes who have internalized the right values but for some reason or other become destitute (a widow for example, or a wounded soldier) will have the resources to recover. They might therefore also benefit from some form of welfare support. The generational poor, however, will remain poor even with tons of cash. Maybe the shock of near-starvation will help them, but also that is unlikely given their lack of moral resources and the difficulty of helping them to acquire those resources.

This is why the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that this theory explains the persistence of poverty much better than racism, discrimination, the inadequacies of the welfare state, the “creative destruction” of the business cycle etc.

A self-interested theory?

The culture of poverty theory, because it places the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor themselves, logically entails the claim that if those who are poor had acted differently they would not now be poor. And this entails yet another claim, namely that those who are not poor are so because of the way they acted. Hence, the wealthy deserve their riches. I can agree that they do to the extent that they work hard to earn their wealth. But wealth creation isn’t a solipsistic effort, it depends on cooperation. And it also depends on endowments such as talents, good and wealthy parents etc. and no one deserves any of those endowments. Many people who come into life with few endowments also work hard, and yet don’t achieve wealth.

I have the impression that the culture of poverty theory is just a tool for the wealthy to justify their own wealth and discredit the efforts to redistribute a part of that wealth in order to help the poor. I don’t mean that there are no individuals who are themselves the primary or even sole cause of their poverty, or that there aren’t any “cultural” explanations for poverty (“acting white” comes to mind). Neither do I underestimate the pernicious effects of a negative self-image or of welfare dependency. And I certainly don’t want to dispossess the wealthy simply because they can’t be said to deserve their wealth in any coherent sense of the word “deserve”. What I want to point out here is the tunnel vision of the culture of poverty theory, blocking out all other causes of poverty (mostly of a more structural nature), as well as the classism inherent in the theory, a classism that I believe is motivated by economic self-interest. And, finally, the fatalism of the theory is likely to be self-fulfilling.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (42): What’s the Best Approach to Distributive Justice?

What is distributive justice?

Distributive justice is a set of normative principles designed to guide the allocation of the benefits and burdens of economic activity. These benefits and burdens can be material goods and services, income, welfare or something else. Whatever they are, a theory of distributive justice will claim that they should be distributed or allocated to people according to some morally justified and morally just set of rules.

The assumption is that all government activity in some way affects the distribution of those benefits and burdens, whatever we do or believe, and that it’s important to guarantee that this distribution is done in a just way. So a theory of justice will propose rules for taking some benefits and burdens from people and giving them to others in a way that corresponds to ideals of justice.

Different types of distributive justice

Unfortunately, there isn’t one commonly accepted theory of justice. Different people have proposed different theories that describe different ideal methods of distributing different types of benefits and burdens. Some theories propose a more or less equal distribution of income; other theories focus on a more general understanding of benefits and talk about “welfare”. And some theories do not accept equal distributions and focus on desert. Etc. There are even some schools of thought that deny the justice of any sort of redistribution and argue that justice is about respecting property rights (libertarianism for instance). However, I’ll focus in this post on those who think that some kind of distributive justice is an important concern (which doesn’t imply that I believe that libertarianism is completely wrong about everything).

Let’s look at some of the more common theories and try to assess – superficially, I admit – what their respective merits are.

Strict egalitarianism

This theory of justice claims that all people should have the same level of material goods.

  • Advantages. This does seem to correspond to the basic moral rule that all people are owed equal respect.
  • Disadvantages. Different people have different needs, and so they need different and different amounts of goods. There’s also the problem of economic efficiency: strict equality removes incentives for economic productivity. Hence, it may result in overall wellbeing at a rather low level, making things worse for everyone. Conversely, everyone, even the worst off, can be made better off if goods/income/whatever are not distributed equally.

The Difference Principle

That last point was probably the origin of the so-called Difference Principle. This principle is part of John Rawls’ theory of justice. It does not demand strict equality as long as unequal distributions make the least advantaged in society better off than they would have been under strict equality. More precisely formulated: inequalities are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. This principle is also called the maximin rule: an unequal distribution can be just when it maximizes the benefit to those who have the most minuscule allocation.

The justification of this principle is that higher incomes for more productive members of society provide those people with an incentive to be productive. And if they are productive, they produce more wealth, which can be used to benefit the least advantaged.

(Similar ideas can be found in sufficientarianism and prioritarianism).

  • Advantages. Contrary to egalitarianism, the focus is on the absolute wellbeing of the least advantaged, rather than their relative wellbeing, i.e. their (un)equal position. Hence, we avoid the egalitarian destruction of incentives and the resulting risk of leveling down.
  • Disadvantages. People’s relative positions are to some extent morally important. See this older post for a list of reasons why this is the case. Rawls does have a partial response to that concern because he argues that the inequalities permitted by the difference principle should be consistent with another rule of justice, namely the equality of rights and liberties. For example, high income inequality may make it impossible for people at the wrong end of this inequality to participate in democracy, to have their views represented and to get elected. Hence, Rawls argues for some corrections of inequality when inequality of resources negatively affects equal liberty. However, other disadvantages of inequality receive less attention. Another disadvantage of the Difference Principle is that it ignores desert.

Desert-based principles

It’s plausible to claim that a just distribution of goods should give people what they deserve, at least partially. We intuitively believe that at least some of the inequalities in life are deserved. People who work hard or contribute a lot to society deserve a higher level of wealth/income/welfare etc., even if such inequalities do not improve the position of the least advantaged. The hard working should not be forced to subsidize the lazy. They don’t deserve to be forced in this way, and the lazy don’t deserve to benefit in this way. (Many desert-based theories of justice are based on Locke’s theory of property).

Desert-based theories of justice claim that distributive systems are just insofar as they distribute benefits and burdens according to desert, at least partially. (This goes back to Aristotle).

  • Advantages. Desert is a strong moral intuition and it is therefore important to incorporate it in a theory of distributive justice. Theories that fail to do so will always seem unjust.
  • Disadvantages. We can make mistakes when deciding that some or other activity is deserving or meritorious. Distributions based on such mistakes will only be just by chance. But even when we don’t make these mistakes, it’s hard to measure and compare desert (is art more meritorious than science?). In addition, we can fail to identify real desert. Apparent desert may in fact be based on undeserved endowments. And that’s where luck egalitarianism comes in. (More problems with desert are described here).

Luck egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism can be viewed as a desert-based type of justice. It proposes to redistribute the benefits and burdens that people don’t deserve and that result from bad luck, for example the bad luck of being born poor, in a poor country, without talents etc. Bad luck in the initial distribution of natural or social endowments should not affect one’s life prospects or distributions of income/wealth/etc. People don’t deserve those endowments and hence don’t deserve the distributions that result from it. These distributions therefore need to be corrected and equalized. After having equalized people’s starting positions in life, we have to let people free to decide what to do with their lives. Those decisions are their responsibility and hence they deserve the outcomes of their decisions. After corrections for endowments, people who work deserve the benefits of their work, and people who are lazy or careless deserve the results of their laziness or carelessness.

  • Advantages. Luck egalitarianism avoids the pitfalls of both crude desert-based justice and strict egalitarianism.
  • Disadvantages. There may be cases in which people who bring bad luck or suffering on themselves still have a claim to assistance. Also, luck egalitarianism produces some bad incentives and can be seen as demeaning (go here for more detail).

International distributive justice, or cosmopolitan justice

A small detail in the theory of luck egalitarianism has far-reaching consequences. Among other things, people don’t deserve the places in which they are born. And yet, those places can determine whether you are rich or poor, free or persecuted etc. To some extent, poverty and persecution are just bad luck, the bad luck of being born in the wrong country. Residency and citizenship are as morally arbitrary as race, gender, natural endowments etc. No theory of justice that takes the equality of human beings serious can ignore the unequal distributions caused by the place of birth, and has to correct these distributions. Arbitrary facts about places of birth, border, residency or citizenship – just like genetic defects, race, gender etc. – cannot be allowed to determine people’s lives. Limiting the principles of justice to citizens or residents is unacceptable.

That means that redistribution should be international and not just between citizens of a particular country. Of course, it’s plausible that people have more responsibilities to those closer to them: parents have more responsibilities towards their children than towards the rest of humanity; friends should help each other etc. Closeness is morally relevant because it means more power: the closer you are to someone, the easier it is to help. But equal dignity and equal respect for all human beings is also morally relevant, and closeness therefore doesn’t mean that people who are far away and who are unknown to you and unrelated to you can’t legitimately demand assistance.

Preference to people close to you – and those people can perhaps include fellow nationals rather than just family and friends – shouldn’t be the only or overriding concern. We want to avoid chauvinism, parochialism and egoism. The metaphor of the family can turn nationalism into something very nasty. And anyway, the salience of closeness has been substantially reduced by technology: nowadays, it’s easy to send money abroad for example.

Still, in some plausible conception of international justice there can be room for some form of differentiation of duties towards fellow citizens and foreigners. International or cosmopolitan justice is therefore possibly coherent with the Difference Principle: international inequalities are acceptable if they improve the position of those who are globally worst off (although Rawls himself did not believe this because he correctly pointed to the absence of global institutions, and institutions are crucial to his theory).

  • Advantages. International (or cosmopolitan) justice points to the ultimate consequences of liberal egalitarianism. If women, racial or religious minorities and people burdened with bad luck should be treated equally, why not foreigners? Borders are indeed just as arbitrary from a moral point of view as gender, race or talent and they can’t, therefore, determine distributions. International justice assumes all the consequences of the theory of human equality and makes the theory of justice more coherent compared to theories that focus on domestic distribution only.
  • Disadvantages. International justice can burden the citizens of wealthy countries with extreme and unbearable responsibilities. After all, we want a coherent system of justice that treats people equally regardless of their place of birth. So it’s not just that rich countries have to prevent starvation and genocide abroad. That seems to be difficult enough already, but international justice makes things even more difficult because it gives people abroad the same benefits and burdens as citizens. That can imply, for example, completely open borders or far-reaching redistribution leading to substantially reduced welfare levels in rich countries. Another problem is more practical: it’s not clear how international redistribution should take place. In the case of national distribution there is a state taking care of it. Not so on the global level.

Distributive justice across generations

The same reasons that argue against the moral salience of closeness in space argue against the moral salience of closeness in time. The fact that some people will be born after our death isn’t a good reason to impose burdens on them. Hence, our distributive principles should take into account the interests of future generations. It wouldn’t be just to design a system of distributive justice that takes care of the least advantaged among us, that removes the influence of bad luck suffered by the living, that preserves a place for desert, that is insensitive to borders, and that at the same harms the interests of future generations (for example because it fails to provide a good system for the management of natural resources). More here on transgenerational justice.

  • Advantages. Like international justice, transgenerational justice points to the ultimate consequences of liberal egalitarianism. If women, racial or religious minorities, people burdened with bad luck and foreigners should be treated equally, why not future generations? Time is indeed just as arbitrary from a moral point of view as borders, gender, race or talent and can’t, therefore, determine distributions.
  • Disadvantages. Again, like in the case of international justice, we run the risk of imposing enormous burdens on the present generations. Moreover, there’s the so-called repugnant conclusion: if we multiply the number of future people – which is potentially a very large number of people – then we run the risk of drowning the interests of present generations. A small benefit for a very large number of future people will then justify a very heavy burden on the limited number of people currently alive. However, this doesn’t mean that we should neglect the interests of future people.

Welfare-based principles

Theories of justice can also focus on welfare. According to welfare-based theories of distributive justice, the only value of goods, resources, desert-claims, equal freedom and even equality is their positive effect on welfare. Distributive principles should then be designed so that they enhance welfare. Welfare maximization is the only criterion to decide distributive rules.

Utilitarianism is the main welfare-based theory of justice. “Utility” can be understood as more or less identical to “welfare”. It can be defined as pleasure, preference satisfaction, happiness etc. According to utilitarianism, distributing benefits and burdens means distributing them in such a way that we maximize overall utility (i.e. overall preference satisfaction, happiness etc.). We have to choose the pattern of distribution that maximizes the sum of all satisfied preferences, of all instances of happiness etc. (unsatisfied preferences or unhappiness count as negatives, and some “higher” or more intense preferences may be weighted higher, depending on the type of utilitarianism we are talking about).

  • Advantages. Utilitarianism’s main advantage is its compatibility with freedom: it doesn’t prefer particular types of preferences, pleasure, happiness etc., and it therefore allows people to realize their own visions of the good life.
  • Disadvantages. What about evil preferences, such as hate and racism? If those kinds of preferences are widespread and the individual targets of those preferences are a minority, then the latter will suffer because overall wellbeing will be increased by allowing the realization of evil preferences. Also, it’s not because it’s rational for an individual to sacrifice some present preferences for a larger future gain, that it’s moral for a society to sacrifice individuals for the gain of the whole, as utilitarianism often requires. That is why some utilitarians have added rights or rules to their equations: preferences can only be satisfied when they don’t violate the rights of others.

Feminist approaches

Feminism has convincingly argued that the traditional theories of justice described above tend to ignore how distributive principles affect the fate of women, especially given the fact that women still have primary responsibility for child-rearing. Distributions within the family are usually not discussed in theories of justice. Therefore, these theories can be criticized as paternalistic or at least unwittingly supportive of paternalism. Many theories of justice include specific rules about the protection of the private sphere as an area that is off-limits for the government and hence for distributive efforts. So theories of justice have made themselves powerless to address gender inequality.

Conclusion: What’s the best approach to distributive justice?

So, after all this and if you’re still with me, what do we take away? Strict equality and simple utilitarianism seem the least appealing. And any coherent approach has to include rules that apply both nationally and globally, has to be gender sensitive and has to reserve some attention to desert. Intergenerational concerns are also hard to avoid if we want to maintain coherence, although perhaps we could limit the impact of the demands of future generations by claiming that actual suffering is more urgent than possible suffering.

This brings back the concern of the burden justice imposes on people. If we want to take the best of all the previously described approaches to distributive justice, we necessarily end up with a “thick” conception of justice, imposing a heavy burden. We have to take into account all people currently living, not just our fellow citizens, as well as people not yet born. And we have to give special attention to gender. But at the same time we don’t want to have a theory of justice that’s so burdensome that people will say: thank you but no thanks. It’s fine to have a coherent theory of justice but if this coherence leads to impossible demands on people or demands they are not (yet) willing to accept, then the practical use of that theory is nil.

One possible reaction to this concern about the burden of justice is the adoption of a prioritarian approach, and more specifically a global gender sensitive prioritarianism with a time preference: the worst off should get the most attention. For example, poor women currently living in a patriarchal society should be the first beneficiaries of redistribution. The disadvantage of this is that it will force us to abandon, temporarily, a lot of people we don’t want to abandon, for example welfare beneficiaries in rich countries. Or we could bite the bullet and say with Peter Singer that the burden is what it is and we should carry it. Morality may be more demanding than we had initially thought. Rather than adapting morality in order to diminish its burden, we just accept the burden.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (36): The Social Security Argument Against Open Borders

If there’s one Milton Friedman quote that’s repeated far too often it’s the following: “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state”. The income of relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to what the poor, unemployed, sick, young and elderly in rich countries get from welfare and social security transfers. Hence, the argument goes, opening borders and eliminating immigration restrictions would cause massive flows of people to those rich countries. Perhaps some of these people would come in the hope of finding a good job, but at the same time they have the certainty that, if they fail, they will enjoy generous social protection. And all the rest will come just for the benefits.

The problem, some say, is that rich countries can’t afford large increases in the numbers of welfare beneficiaries, and that they therefore must limit immigration. Open borders are only feasible when global poverty has been solved and income levels are more or less comparable across countries. Or, when rich countries would decide, unrealistically, to eliminate their welfare systems or at least coldheartedly decide to exclude all immigrants from welfare.

However, immigrants in the U.S. use welfare at lower rates than natives and have higher rates of labor force participation. In the U.K., immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits (source).

Anyway, even if we assume that open borders will be a net negative for western welfare systems, there’s no need to limit the options to the stark choice between welfare and open borders. We could, for example, give immigrants access to labor markets but only limited access to unemployment benefits, or we could delay their benefits, demanding that they first contribute to the system during a number of years (something which might actually strengthen the system). However, we’d have to be careful and not create inequality, discrimination and a class society.

Or we could decide to grant immigrants full access to welfare because we believe that global inequality should be reduced. Access to welfare would then be a kind a development aid.

And, finally, it’s possible to view matters from an entirely different angle. Large chunks of welfare transfers go to the elderly. Given the demographic evolutions in many rich countries, it may be that immigration will be the only way for aging countries to sustain their welfare states.

The Ethics of Human Rights (28): Private Charity vs the Welfare State

In a previous post, I wrote about my personal views regarding the best ways to help the poor. I favor private philanthropy or charity over the welfare state. Some of the reasons are:

  • The welfare state imposes certain costs on the economy, thereby damaging the prospects of the future poor.
  • Closeness and affinity imply a greater ability to help. And he or she who can do more, should do more (can implies ought). Citizens are better placed than the government to help poor people in their community/family because they better understand the needs.
  • Spontaneous mutual assistance fosters community spirit. Allowing poverty reduction to take place at the level of citizens’ relationships will strengthen feelings of belonging.

When all this fails – as it often will – and only when this fails, can a state intervene and can the welfare mechanisms and redistribution systems based on taxation begin to operate (these merely enforce deficient private philanthropy).

However, some claim that the welfare state crowds out private charity. If you don’t care about private charity and want a government monopoly on care for the poor, you won’t mind if there is crowding out. And if you don’t care about private charity or about government assistance to the poor, you won’t mind either. But I guess most people agree with me that both charity and the government have a part to play (although they may not agree with my chosen priorities). So it’s good to see that

government welfare programs [do not] appear to displace an equivalent amount of private charity. Private giving does not vary inversely with the size of government programs and there is little evidence for a “crowding out” effect. Many private charities, in fact, rely on government funding to some extent. Private charitable giving to the poor, defined in narrow terms, runs in the range of $10 to $15 billion a year [in the U.S.], and few observers believe that this sum is capable of significant augmentation in the short run, regardless of government policy. Tyler Cowen (source)

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (26): The Repugnant Conclusion and Human Rights

The Repugnant Conclusion is a moral dilemma for utilitarian and consequentialist moral theories. The dilemma was first presented by Derek Parfit in his 1984 book Reasons and Persons. The “repugnancy” in question refers to the consequence of a thought experiment. Imagine a society with a large amount of total utility resulting from a very large number of people all living at near-zero levels of utility. In other words, these people have no more than a marginally worthwhile life – Parfit calls it a life of muzak and potatoes but we can of course define “marginally worthwhile” differently if we want. And yet, because they are so numerous, the total utility of this society is very large.

Utilitarian and consequentialist theories must rank this society higher than other more desirable societies with higher average utility but lower total utility resulting from lower population levels. They must because they state that the best society is the one in which there is the greatest total quantity of utility, and utility is defined as whatever makes life worth living. The muzak and potato people have a life worth living – just barely – and if they are numerous enough they will constitute the best society because the sum of their individual utilities will be higher than any other total utility in any other society.

There is always a muzak and potatoes society that has a higher total quantity of utility or welfare than any other possible society: just add more marginally worthwhile lives and you produce a society that outperforms any other in terms of total welfare. That such a society should be preferable is repugnant. The people in that society have lives only barely worth living and yet it’s a superior society compared to one with fewer people all living a better life. The emphasis on “total” welfare or “total” utility means that any loss in the quality of the lives in a population can be compensated by a sufficiently large gain in the quantity of the population. (Note that the lives added are marginally worthwhile. These lives are worth living. We’re not adding lives of continuous pain for example. That would diminish total utility and that isn’t the purpose of this thought experiment.)

The question here isn’t whether such a society is practically possible or likely, but whether we should indeed prefer it, as utilitarianism posits (implicitly). It doesn’t seem intuitively correct to prefer a society of people living a life that’s barely worthwhile over other highly attractive alternatives, just because the former has a very large population.

To some extent, the thought experiment is convincing because we do believe that every human being is valuable (has some value), however low this value may be (remember we’re not talking about lives that aren’t worth living because of continuous pain for instance). Therefore we do tend to believe that addition of new lives does increase total utility (“we” meaning even the non-utilitarians among us, and that probably includes myself). It would be equally repugnant to try to avoid the repugnant conclusion by claiming that after a certain number of additions the lives added don’t bring any more value.

Given the unacceptability of not counting the lives after a certain number of additions, there’s another possible way of avoiding the repugnant conclusion, namely invoking non-utility values such as justice, dignity, desert etc. But according to Tyler Cowen, non-utility values can always be overwhelmed by total utility:

It might be the case, for instance, that the less populated society has significantly greater amounts of justice, aesthetic beauty, or dignity. If this is true, the Repugnant Conclusion alternative simply needs to make up for this deficiency by having more people to increase its utility total. (source)

Any moral theory must weigh conflicting ends, such as utility and justice. There’s no escape. You don’t have a moral theory if you can’t do that. The non-utility value(s) must receive some “value” or importance. And the same for utility – even non-utilitarians can’t say that utility has no value whatsoever because then you would say that a marginally worthwhile life of muzak and potatoes has no value (and that’s intuitively wrong because then you would be allowed to end such a life). Hence you need to compare the total value of the less populated society with high non-utility values to the total value of the more populated society with very low average utility. Just add more people to the latter and it will always be a better society. And this will always be repugnant.

However, I do think non-utility values show us a way out of the repugnant conclusion. The first thing we can say is that without emphasis on non-utility values there won’t be a way out. If utility is all that counts, if in other words you’re a pure utilitarian then you are a value absolutist, just like a libertarian, a socialist, a hedonist etc. One value, in this case utility, trumps all others. Necessarily you’ll end up accepting the repugnant conclusion.

If, on the other hand, you accept value pluralism, then you reject hierarchical or lexically ordered value system in which one value trumps all others. And then you probably also don’t believe that large losses in one value can be balanced by equally large gains in another value, as happens in the repugnant conclusion. That seems to me to be the error in the Cowen quote above: the muzak and potatoes society can simply compensate for the deficiencies on non-utility values by adding more marginally worthwhile lives. I believe – contra Cowen – that invoking non-utility values can help us to avoid the repugnant conclusion, but not if these non-utility values are simply accorded a certain value (possibly a very high value) and then compared to the value of utility. If we only do that, utility can always overwhelm the other values by just adding more persons, and gains in utility can always compensate losses in other values.

My point here is that there are certain other values for which no losses can be accepted or tolerated, not even with near-infinity gains in utility. That is why these other values – such as freedom, dignity, equality and justice – are protected by human rights, and human rights are unconditional and untradeable. No matter how many people with barely worthwhile lives we add to a society, this will not compensate for violations of human rights. Nothing ever will. You can call that value absolutism if you want, but it’s the absolutism of plurality.