The Limited Moral Case Against Wealth Inequality

Submitted for comment, the below is a portion of a long piece I’ve been working on for some time on the role of government in the modern U.S. economy, including its role in addressing the limited problems with inequality of wealth.  In the first part of the portion below, I sketch the argument in favor of the moral right to property.  In the second part, I explain how certain forms of wealth prevalent in a modern economy do not possess the same moral quality, or at least not to the same degree.

I welcome your thoughts.

In a series of posts earlier this year, I explored whether the concept of positive rights is intelligible in the context of the negative rights framework implicit in American constitutionalism.  Attempting to make the point clear, I posed the following hypothetical:

[I]f we suddenly found ourselves stranded on a desert island with no government or formal laws, do I nonetheless have a right to receive medical services from you similar to your right against my stealing your possessions or causing you physical harm? What if you need my shirt to strain your drinking water—part of your “rights” to basic food, water, and health care? Can negative and positive rights co-exist?

One possible objection to this sort of hypothetical is to contend that a negative-rights-only approach is morally deficient as failing to comply with supererogatory duties (i.e., Good Samaritan-ism).  But this objection seems to me misguided.  This is a religious duty, not a political one, and religious duties do not conveniently translate to legal rights.

Nonetheless, negative rights do arise from developed moral frameworks.  In our desert island hypothetical, the question presented is whether my presumed property right holds as against your situation and your asserted rights to food, water, and health care.  My property right is implicit in the nature of man and the logic of morals: I worked to acquire it, I maintain it in my possession against all others, and I openly advertise my dominion over it.  Thus, no others may take it without justification.  This, then, is the definition of a “right”:  It is a claim whose violation requires an explanation in terms of moral logic.

Does any justification exist here?  Note the vagueness in the hypothetical:  I did not specify how long you had been without food and water, or the nature of your medical needs, or whether drinkable water might be otherwise accessible, even if perhaps less convenient.  The very logic of law and of morals requires the giving of reasons amounting to a justification to defeat the claim.  There are none supplied by the facts given here.

Further still, weighing against any duties I may have to you and your situation are my competing duties to look after the health and welfare of myself and my family, as well as to others who may be in greater need than you.  I am a steward of my possessions, a fiduciary with respect to any moral claims in them.  They are the talents entrusted to me, and it is my duty to wisely and faithfully preserve and invest them.  I must not yield my charge for light and transient causes, or for reasons we cannot be troubled even to articulate.

Property rights, then, have moral significance.  A discussion about inequality involves the serious moral question of whether and under what circumstances an individual should be denied or divested of property rights.  It is often a discussion infused primarily with economic rather than moral significance, and for this reason, the wrong kinds of reasons are often incorrectly deemed to pass muster.  My moral right to the crops I sowed and reaped to feed my family might yield in light of the starving traveler at my door.  But that same moral right will not yield to economic theories about aggregate demand and stabilizing the national price of wheat.  Economic theories and other low arts of prediction are contingent on a variety of highly mutable conditions.  They cannot begin to provide justifications to defeat property rights.

As we can see, not all reasons rise to the level of a justification to deprive another’s moral right to property.  But neither is all property infused with moral significance.  In a subsistence economy, man wrests his possessions from the earth with great toil and protects them with his life against thieves and predators.  Wealth inequality is not an issue here.  An acre of earth will yield the same crop to one farmer as it does to another, save only for the farmers’ natural difference in prowess and efforts in cultivation.  These differences will be slight, and the crop yielded him will be his own by moral right.

In a developed economy such as ours, however, possessions are obtained through very different means.  Most individuals don’t spend their productive energies growing, catching, gathering, or making things.  And when they are, it often is in an atomistic sense that bears little relationship to the whole.  Because our economic activity bears little obvious relation to the ultimate goods and services, it is impossible, for practical purposes, to discern the relationship between our economic activity and our consumption of goods and services obtained from others.  Most people can fathom the conversion from bushels of corn to dozens of eggs, say, but not the conversion from bushels to Subarus.  Not to mention the fact that both things are so highly regulated, subsidized, and tariffed that it would take all sorts of experts in agriculture, engineering, law, political science, accounting, and so on, to even begin assembling a meaningful comparison.

Even Elihu Root was late in observing this progression, which had begun in earnest at least a century earlier.  In The Market Revolution in America, John Lauritz Larson writes that as early as the founding community-based economies were losing their primacy as regional economies and then a national economy assumed the spotlight:

Without anybody wishing it so, the increasing scope of commercial transactions, the specialized divisions of labor, the growing distance between buyers and sellers, the institutionalization of relations, and the proliferation of intermediaries disembedded individual transactions from contexts in which the common welfare or “commonwealth” of whole communities once had seemed self-evident. Not that folks were any more (or less) inclined to abuse their neighbors, but how was one to know who was his neighbor in a complicated nexus of actors and agents he never saw or knew by name, where prices, commissions, and the terms of trade seemed always to be set by somebody else? This was, of course, the genius of the free commercial marketplace: It depersonalized transactions, stripped them of all but economic information, and opened the game to anyone with something to sell or the wherewithal to buy.

Today one cannot even begin to understand the correlation between sitting in front of a computer 40 hours a week and the objects of middle-class consumption:  a mortgage, car payments, health insurance premiums, student loan payments, a vacation once or twice a year, a pension, and so on.  The exchange rates between inputs and outputs are purely theoretical.  And, unless you implicitly accept that market economics fairly determines these exchange rates, it is hardly surprising that many people conclude that standards of living must be set from the top down.

Does the banker who profits from “flash trades” have a moral right to the profit one of his computers made after making an “offer” to another computer?  Does the banker who takes zero-interest loans from the Fed and buys Treasury bonds at three percent have a moral right to the profit gleaned solely by virtue of his industry’s proximity to governmental power?

It is clear that there is a great deal of wealth in this country that is “property” in a legal sense but which appears to have lost its moral significance.  With respect to this wealth, economic reasons may suffice to justify confiscation and redistribution.

We are all conservatives now

I recently finished Gabriel Kolko’s Triumph of Conservatism and Charles Kesler’s I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.  I’ll have more to say about those books later, but I wanted to comment on something that became very clear to me upon reading them.

By way of brief summary, Kolko’s thesis is that the Progressive movement, at least from 1900 to the beginning of World War I, was actually conservative in its economic policy.  In the wake of the transportation and communication revolutions of the new century, large firms–in the steel, oil, cattle, and banking industries, to name just a few–were desperate for Washington to centralize power to itself in order to facilitate growth, eliminate small and mid-size competitors, escape local controls, and safeguard control over their respective markets. Despite repeated attempts in the private sphere, the large firms were unable to achieve monopolies and hegemony in the marketplace.  Thus, they turned to the federal government.  TR, for all his trustbusting notoriety, was all too happy to oblige, as were Taft and Wilson after him.

In addition to technological progress, Kolko claims that what facilitated this economic revolution was the lack of an alternative school of thought.  Austrian economics, the basis of modern libertarian political theory, wouldn’t reach a critical mass until later in the century. As Kesler points out, by the time the political ideologies as we now know them would arrive, FDR had put economic protectionism on steroids, rebranded the conservative Progressive movement as modern “liberalism,” and forced proponents of liberty to qualify themselves as “classical” liberals.

Today, classical liberals are accused of trying to “return” us to a laissez faire economy of 100 years ago (which, as Kolko shows, did not exist), which left FDR with no choice but to centralize control in an all-powerful national government (a project that, as Kolko shows, had begun at least three decades earlier).

The reality is that free markets have never been attempted in the modern U.S.  Instead, we have always fumbled with clumsy regulations written largely by the very industries they mean to regulate.  TR, Taft, and Wilson each admitted they didn’t understand how banking worked, and their administrations let the banking industry write their own rules.  But this has been tolerated because, for at least the last 100 years, stability has trumped liberty.  Transparency, arms’ length dealings, fairness, these too are unimportant compared to economic stability.

What struck me is this: If the reason this economic “conservatism” exists is because there was no viable alternative when it was first rolled out, surely there is an alternative now.  Hayek, Friedman, and Von Mises, and hordes of free market economists and political theorists, make a compelling case for a classical liberalism that has yet to be tried.  It promises a liberty that none of us have seen in our lifetimes.  Sure, it also entails some discomfort, some insecurity as the creative destruction process plays out.  But it also promises an end to the political capitalism that the left and the right both abhor.  It promises prosperity.  And it promises fairness.

So what say you?  Are you in favor of decentralization?  Or are you conservative?

Impeach Obama!…although it would be easier to de-elect him

I’m not in the mood to litigate Benghazi although it’s clearly a lying fustercluck. Roger L. Simon probably has it right here, although I don’t even care to read it.

President Obama has done a bad job all across the board. I really liked having a black president after our disgraceful racial history, and even though I voted for John McCain, who is wack, Barack Obama, for all his incompetence, is still less wack. I cannot say we made the wrong choice in 2008.

But Barack is incompetent, and not terribly honest either. Dude gotsta go. The Mormon guy seems OK. We might have to fire him in 4 years too, but first things first.

Mitt Loses Debate, Wins Again

By all accounts from the blabosphere [CNN, Fox, MSNBC, the bloggies]–what y’d call a consensus because they all used the same words–Mitt Romney “passed the Commander-in-Chief test tonight.”

Google: “passed commander-in-chief test”  Beaucoup hits.  If David Gergen says it, it must be true.

President Obama captured the Miss Uncongeniality nod, and won yet another debate. Bigtime uncongenial in beating up on Mitt bigtime, just as his supporters wanted to see. But these aren’t “debates.” They’re much more:

They’re just part of the presidential beauty contest, and President Obama was neither beautiful nor presidential tonight, and that’s the name of that tune.

Last time, Barack Obama won the debate according to Gallup and promptly headed south in the Gallup poll, 51-45.

Ooops. Look out beloooooow…

President Obama won tonight’s debate according to the pundits and polls too, but I think we’re just giving him one last night of romance before we dump him in the morning.

It’s over. Nobody was listening to Barack, we’ve heard it all before—only to Mitt, just to make sure he’s not some warmongering nutburger.

I’ve been a Mitt man from the first [“Make Mine Mitt”, October 2011]  but I wanted and needed to see this last debate on foreign policy, just to make sure he’s not some Mormon/Christian/neo-neocon/Book of Revelation/armageddonist friggin’ lunatic.

Looks like he’s not.  I think.

[See Tim Kowal below for the blow by blow.]

Obama wins tonight, but did he cover the spread?

(I’ll again ask for leniency with typos and formatting as I’m posting again from my phone.—TK)

–Obama had to keep pushing while Romney just had to hold ground. I don’t think Obama had enough sound bite victories to make this insignificant debate significant for him. Romney continued to seen like a plausible candidate and that’s all he needed to do.

–Despite an awkward attempt at levity during his opening remarks, Romney scored first when Obama goofed on Romney’s position on troops in Iraq.

–Obama is using his inherent advantage well, staring confidently and seriously at Romney while Romney gave his answers, frequently drawing attention to the fact that he’s the only one on the stage with commander-in-chief experience.

–The two seemed to have few substantive differences on Syria yet went on and on about it.

–Schieffer’s easily the best moderator of the bunch. Commission should have just asked him for a bulk rate for all their debates.

–Why did Obama keep poking the bear on the economy? And how did we get onto education? Is he really suggesting our foes are gauging our strength by looking at SAT scores?

–Obama describes a military budget for a pre-WW2 isolationist America? Didn’t he just accuse Romney of rummaging through history of bygone eras for policy ideas?

–Compares the Navy to “horses and bayonets”? We need more submarines? Says who?
Still don’t know why Romney and Ryan let Obama and Biden get away with pointing out the lack of specificity in their budget plan with Obama’s embarrassing budget experience dangling there like low hanging fruit.

–Romney would indict Ahmedinejad? No follow up on that? That sounds like tough talk that might be dangerous, but now he’s got to do it if he wins, doesn’t he?

–Throwdown on the “apology tour.” Romney was precise in his language here making the president appear rattled. True, no “apology,” but Romney acknowledged it was his own characterization based on the content of Obama’s statements abroad. From NRO:

In France he criticized America’s past “arrogance” and its “dismissive . . . derisive” behavior. In Trinidad he lamented a “disengaged” United States that sought to “dictate . . . terms” in the hemisphere. At the National Archives he charged his predecessors with making foreign-policy decisions “based on fear rather than foresight” and “trimm[ing] facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions.”

I’m ambivalent.

–Obama strong on playing up the bin Laden hit and”moving heaven and earth” to do it.

–On Afghanistan, more prolonged bloviating by both candidates on what appears to be almost complete agreement.

–On drones: Gary Johnson, here’s your new ad.

–Obama jabs again at Romney and outsourcing to China, saying Romney was against federal assistance in the General Motors bankruptcy process. But from Romney’s op-ed:

The federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk.

–Obama closes with “nation-building at home.” Because the Great Society worked out so well.