The Margins of the Argument
I’ve been sent an advance copy of John Tomasi’s forthcoming book Free Market Fairness, due to appear in March. It’s very good, but I’m going to hold off blogging about it until the book appears.
Instead, I’m going to post an interesting quote from David Hume that Tomasi deploys along the way, and I’m going to move in a somewhat different direction with it than he does. The Hume:
Render possessions ever so equal, men’s different degrees of art, care, or industry will immediately break that equality. Or if you check these virtues, you reduce society to the most extreme indigence; and instead of preventing want and beggar in a few, render it unavoidable to the whole community.
First off, Hume is talking about some fairly extreme scenarios here. Virtually no social welfare programs set out to render people fully equal. And in general, regulatory schemes neither aim explicitly at checking people’s virtues nor attain the end of beggaring the entire community. All of us would agree that some schemes are capable of it, and a few have actually done so in the past. Just not all of them. Nobody would agree to that.
Second, the first sentence is true of any pattern, as Nozick pointed out — achieve a pattern, and those subjected to the pattern will immediately break it. To stop them is to interfere with mutual consent. This is true of patterns that establish equality, but “equality” is just a special case of patterned distributions in general: Give all the money to people over 6′ in height, and you can be sure that they will go out and spend it, thus breaking the pattern.
How much force do you need to establish (and re-establish, and re-re-establish) a pattern? It depends on the pattern you have in mind. All patterns require some force — some check, ultimately, on the virtues of art, care, and industry. So how much force is acceptable? How long until beggary sets in?
These are questions not about extremes, but about a margin — check people’s virtues to some degree, whatever your noble aims, and to some degree people will be impoverished. There is a relationship here, but one about which the extreme cases cannot enlighten us.
The question then is not whether Hume is right or wrong. Almost everyone would agree that he’s right about the extreme cases. The debate should be about the margins where we find intervention tolerable or even preferable, and where we do not. The libertarian claim is that all (or almost all) such interventions are not worth the price. The liberal claim insofar as I can discern it is that our elected representatives are sufficiently competent to determine this for us.