Inequality and Human Flourishing

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115 Responses

  1. Avatar Rtod says:

    Great post, Snark. More please.Report

  2. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    SMcS: I liked your approach of attempting to start at a “state of nature,” which you make to be tribalism. As he is a social animal, I do agree with this view of man more than with man-as-hermit, totally free in the “state of nature.” Man is and was never totally free, because he does not give birth to or raise himself.

    Still, I do not know if tribalism is an ideal; there are many “natural” things that man does, like killing, raping, and looting, that we believe should be eradicated by reasonable self-interest as well as some philosophical/theological notion of human decency [justice, fairness, etc.].

    So too, inequality is a byproduct of the division of labor, that in the end the bottom of the pay totem pole in an efficient economy does better than all but the .01% of an inefficient one. The division of labor, that the more mentally able do the mental heavy lifting, is indeed the more efficient means of production. Unlike physical strength— where a few weaker men can do the work of a single man, no matter how strong—on the whole thinkmanship is not as additive. You cannot pull 100 people off the street and put them to work at a Bell Labs. Or Valve, Inc. In an agrarian, pre-industrial society, we are all pretty “equal,” but then again, it’s not all that great a life without tractors and indoor plumbing and such.

    I salute you identifying the key issue here

    It does not harm me that my neighbor is rich: I am made no worse off. It is my contention that this is dead wrong, and is contrary to essential human nature.

    and think you have given it an honest go, that inequality is contrary to human nature in its tribal form. But I don’t think it holds. As a social animal yet an individual, each of us seeks a primacy within our group. Only the rarest of men do not come tyrants when ceded absolute power, but even George Washington, he of the striking tailored uniforms and white stallion, aspired to be First Among Equals.

    So too, although tribes are a product of human nature, so are marauders. And empires.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      Adding on to TVDs comment…

      The breakthrough for human flourishing comes in creating/evolving institutional protocols which allow us to channel the eternal drive for status in ways which benefit others.

      We’ve talked plenty about economics, but consider science. The modern breakthrough in the scientific method involved a paradigm shift from knowledge which is used to benefit the knowledge discoverer and his affiliates (thus which is best kept secret) to one where we assign status to the scientist for the very act of sharing it with others. We set up a status race to discover and share and critique knowledge.Report

  3. Avatar Plinko says:

    Great post, Snarky. You’re making me proud to be a liberal again. Until now this week has made me wonder about whether or not I wanted to continue calling myself one.

    I’m not too sure I’m as sold on all the suggested practices -do you really believe it will be easier to define ‘predatory business practices’ any more simply than OSHA could define a safe ladder?Report

    • Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark says:

      While preparing for this post I found that the median income American spends more on banking late fees every year then on vegetables. So, yes, I think there is some room for definition of predatory business practices.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Well, that’s probably because late fees are tastier than vegetables…

        I feel that “predatory business practices” could often be addressed by more stringent truth in advertising laws. Many businesses/financial institutions deliberately exploit “fine print”. I’m not talking about folks who never bother to read a contract they sign. I’m talking about an advertisement that says “0% APR!!!!!!!!!!” in size 72 font and, elsewhere, says, “Of course it’s not a 0% APR,” in size 4 font. If you have deliberately contradictory language in your advertisements, you can’t assume to default to the one most preferable to you. Additionally, assumed opt-in is a troubling practice. Often times I’m tempted to send amended contracts back to the credit cards, with my own edits and a note that says, “If you don’t respond to this in 72 hours, my conditions go into effect.” I wonder how strong an argument I’d have?

        Predatory practices are indeed a concern. Unfortunately, I think that many of the attempts at addressing them fail to do that or ultimately exacerbate the problem. Don’t tell banks they can’t charge high-risk customers higher APRs. But do require that they have all terms and conditions available in a clear and concise format. Let’s make more informed consumers without reducing their options.Report

      • Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark says:

        I think that’s exactly right, Kazzy.

        While I think rigid, prescriptive regulation is a last resort, I do that that disclosure requirements can accomplish a lot. Much of the most abusive, anti-consumer practices of large, national corporations, takes place in the shadows. And standardized, comprehensible disclosure requirements could make a substantial difference. One item of regulation that I think is coming, as an example, is internet privacy. Current practice is that consumers implicitly “agree to a 10 page, densely (and misleadingly)-written privacy “policies” that no layman can possibly understand the implications of, and that the vendor can change unilaterally at will.

        American commerce was broadly helped by the promulgation of a Uniform Commercial Code in the early 1950s, which provided a reasonable definitions for what the obligations of both buyer and seller were in commercial transactions (including warranties, minimal consumer standards, etc.).

        Also, I think the government should encourage broad competition in every segment of the economy: we are down to four national mega-banks. In general, I don’t think you have genuine competition in a marketplace until there are a dozen or more competitors: where there is a high degree of concentration, you’ll find abusive practices and shitty customer service (think banks, cable TV, cell phone providers).

        “Free market” types love to cite Adam Smith, but he was pretty astute about the limitations of an unregulated market. One of my favorite of his quotes:

        People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

        Lastly, I think that a lot can be accomplished by encouraging the formation of (and even subsidizing) financially disinterested consumer groups (like Consumer Reports), that can keep track of product quality and company practices, and summarize this information for consumers. If such a group promulgated a certification sticker, for example, to foods that were “healthy” (e.g. without hormones, questionable preservatives, or large amounts of fat or sugar), it would make it a lot easier for people to make healthier choices.

        All of these examples I would place in the category of “light-touch regulation.” And I think they could go a long way towards creating a society in which the public welfare was better protected and promoted than it is today.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

          So I heard about this thing called context. Apparently it’s kind of important. Sometimes it can completely change the meaning of cherry-picked sentences.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            The punch line, for those who can’t be bothered: The sentence Snarky quoted was part of an argument against regulations compelling the formation of trade unions.Report

            • Avatar karl says:

              As well as “professional organizations.” As for capital/labor relations Smith also had this:

              “We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combination of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. […] When workers combine, masters … never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen.”Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          Perhaps a bit too micro, but I find even Consumer Reports to be less-than-sufficiently thorough. Maybe my standards are too high, maybe they are on someone’s dime… but I’m not much of a fan anymore.

          I actually think the internet has been huge in this regard, with sites like Yelp, Amazon, Angie’s List, Trip Advisor, and others allowing using reviews that, with enough of a sample size, are some of the best ways to vet companies and products. Of course, I don’t know what subset of the population uses these services, but I’d guess it is a minority, at least right now.

          I don’t even need my food to be certified healthy. Or my credit card to be certified good. Just give me honest, accurate information that is understandable to the layman. I don’t need mandatory calorie counts. Keep that voluntary. But should you opt to put them out there, they damn well better be accurate (or accurate within reason) else you are liable civilly and possibly criminally. If you tell me your hot dogs are all beef and they’re full of pork tails and chicken toes, not cool. If you tell me your hot dogs are hot doglicious, well, so be it.Report

  4. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Libertarian philosophy posits the “economic man,” a rational creature who maximizes his own welfare with his very decision.

    While this isn’t strictly speaking a strawman, since there are some libertarians who maintain this, human irrationality actually bolsters the argument for less government control. Even though people are sometimes irrational when making economic decisions, they’re far more irrational when making political decisions. People pay a price for economic irrationality, but political irrationality is virtually costless since elections are virtually never decided by one vote. So people often at least try to make rational private decisions, but when it comes to politics they usually just go with whatever feels good*.

    Because of this, it makes sense to favor keeping important decisions in the private sphere, rather than in the political sphere. There are cases where this may be impractical, but on the margin human irrationality bolsters, rather than weakens, the case for libertarianism.

    *If you don’t believe that this is true of the people on your side, think about the people on the other side, and remember that they win about half of the elections.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 says:

      There’s also the opposite view — that people who are both educated AND uninvolved emotionally or financially with a decision tend to make better choices.

      That’s the whole point of judges, for instance. They are educated in the law, they are neutral, and they (supposedly) have no monetary, emotional, or social ties to one outcome over the other.

      Arguments that regulation are bad because “if people are idiots, then the people making the regulations to ‘help them’ are also idiots! How is this better?” would cut just as well against the entire concept of courts, judges, arbitration….Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        No, the whole point of judges is to provide arbitration when there’s a conflict between two or more parties resulting either from a unilateral aggression or disagreement regarding the proper interpretation of the terms of an agreement. It’s not to second-guess or regulate private, voluntary agreements and decisions.Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          Actually judges are involved in settling divorce and child custody issues which are private voluntary agreements people have made. The judges get involved when the people can’t agree.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            Um, yeah. That’s what I said. That would be a conflict regarding the terms of the marriage agreement. Barring a prenuptial agreement, people going into a marriage don’t spell out the terms of dissolution in advance, so there’s a need for arbitration.

            An example of the kind of situation where there’s not a legitimate need for arbitration would if an employer offers someone a $5/hour job and he accepts it, but some random busybody objects. Or a situation where I want the rich guy down the street to pay my health insurance premium but he doesn’t want to.Report

  5. Avatar Roger says:


    I LOVE this post. It may be my favorite so far on the topic.

    I especially like your focus on human flourishing and your recommendations toward simple, straightforward regulations. I even agree with your criticism of liberty as the highest value. The value of liberty is primarily it’s instrumental value in promoting human flourishing, though part of flourishing includes a desire for freedom.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Snarky, this is an awesome post.

    My problems come up with questions like, and I’m sure you see this coming, “social issues that society sees as its business”.

    If these two guys over here are gay and a majority of the surrounding society says “they should not be allowed to do that”, then what? Can we say that these two guys are doing enough distributed harm to say that society is correct that this relationship *IS* its business?

    I know what the libertarian answer is but I don’t know what answer I’d come to if I had these premises.Report

    • Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark says:

      JB –

      What you’re addressing are important and core issues, but completely outside of the realm of what I was addressing in my post. I was attempting to focus more precisely on disparities in material resources, and on commercial regulation.

      For a long time, including my youth, homosexuality was considered by the mainstream to be either a character disorder or a moral failing. I consider it to be a sign of moral progress that we are coming to think of it as something outside of the state’s province.

      During the 50s, there were many who thought that belief in communist ideology, or membership in the communist party, was something so beyond the pale that the persons with that belief system should be denied civil rights. There are many that still believe that today.

      70% of Americans think that atheists should not be allowed to hold public office.
      Interracial marriage has only been a guaranteed right in America since 1967.

      Moral progress seems to come slowly, but–thankfully–doesn’t seem to give up much ground once it takes hold. In a “light-touch” state, I think you’d find much less of this kind of use of state power to criminalize those who deviate from social norms, though.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I’m running with what you’ve said here: “We are deeply social creatures, and notions of morality, reciprocity, and happiness are inexorably bound to the manner and quality of social exchange in our lives.” and here where you say “By human flourishing, I mean creating social arrangements and mores that nurture the greatest degree of total human health, happiness, achievement and growth. And there’s not much that is more corrosive to human flourishing than gross disparities of wealth and power.”

        Merely looking at attitudes toward (you name it, as you’ve said, it doesn’t have to be homosexuality), I wonder whether that last part really has been demonstrated.

        I mean, if you ask any number of people if they resent (pop star) or (famous gadgeteer) for having achieved a huge level of wealth disparity, they’d say some variation of “not really”… and, looking at recent ballots, if you asked them if they resented gay folks for wanting to marry, I think I could safely say (until *VERY* recently, anyway) that they did.

        If we agree that this resentment is *NOT* something that we, as a society, ought to address (we do, right?), I’m wondering how we pick the resentments that we decide are truly corrosive if not democratically.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        In a “light-touch” state, I think you’d find much less of this kind of use of state power to criminalize those who deviate from social norms, though.

        That might be because what you’re calling a “light touch” state is defined as one which doesn’t criminalize those types of behaviors. The causal story about how and why we don’t live in a light touch state was told in your comment: the prevailing cultural norms held by those in power were codified by default and without argument. They were accepted as givens in the normative conception of how government and society ought to interact.

        The problem, it seems to me, is rolling back not just the state, but the unanalysed assumption that cultural norm A is justified simply because it’s held and acted on. That’s where the conservative argument really breaks down, in my opinion. And it’s where libertarians and liberals agree about most of the mechanisms in play – the role of the state, culture, privilege, justification, etc – but disagree about the causal origins of a codified norm and necessary conditions for changing them.Report

  7. Avatar M.A. says:

    Put it more simply.

    Contrary to Roger’s assertions, if we look at hours in the day and compare their buying power, it is not a zero-sum operation. Someone who is raking in a very large amount of income and also raking in the benefit of concentrative policies regarding wealth, gets a very large return for the hours of their day. Someone who is middle or lower class gets a comparatively tiny return for the hours of their day.

    When this is applied to price competition, it’s clear that there is a decided loss of utility for the hours in the day as the income and wealth disparities grow. The lower and middle classes are “competed out” of more markets as prices rise. The pie may grow, but the percentage of pie taken by the lower and middle classes shrinks, and as Mark showed, the lower and middle classes cease to have meaningful input into what kind of pie it is. Social separation and recursively concentrative forces operate in a feedback loop, making it worse with every generation.

    Over 6,000 seats were lost from Yankee Stadium were lost to put in 37 more skyboxes and 4300 high-cost “club seats”, deliberately reducing the number of people who could get to see games and raising ticket prices. For the same hours of work put in, the lower and middle classes now can afford less games than they used to, and the rich who used to share the game experience now get their own segregated section. Damage at work.Report

  8. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I want to be a little more specific about my comment above. I have been toying with a paragraph here and there in response to a lot of what I have been reading. It has finally sunk in that everything I was trying to put into words, the core argument that was fueling the swirl of red flags going off in my head, has been said perfectly and succinctly in this post.

    I really loved this post.Report

  9. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    I try and try to imagine how Oprah Winfrey being very rich somehow hurts me.

    I can’t do it. Which also means I can’t see how the policies you suggest will get her to stop hurting me.Report

    • Avatar Rtod says:

      Try not to think of it as Oprah hurting you. Think of it in terms of getting to a place where your wealth gradually diminishes each year, even as you and Scott maintain your current position as (for example) part of the 85th percentile, as everyone in the 94% and above increases. And then next year it’s only those above 95% that increase, as everyone below diminishes… And the following year only those above the 97th.

      Oprah and her fellow mega-richers have done nothing per se to hurt you by this trend, but it does not follow that you are therefore unhurt – nor does it suggest that this trend is sustainable.Report

    • Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark says:

      I try and try to imagine how Oprah Winfrey being very rich somehow hurts me.

      You clearly haven’t spent much time watching the Oprah Winfrey Network.

      I will grant you that Oprah hasn’t hurt me. I like Oprah. She seems like a nice person.

      But as a billionaire, she controls a good chunk of our public agenda. She consumes more stuff, she pollutes more, she bends society in her preferred direction a lot more than I do, or can.

      Again, we have a social-economic system that distributes rewards in a certain way–based on leverage. If you have sufficient leverage–through skills, money, power, monopoly, charisma, parentage, or circumstance–you can pry from the system greater rewards. But whether those rewards are, in any moral sense, deserved, or whether that distribution of resources is in the ultimate best interest of society at large–are entirely separate questions.Report

  10. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Snarky raises two issues which when considered together are the basic social tension that makes society go: envy and unity. I think this issue cries out for more reflection and kudos to Mr. McSnarksnark for pointing it out. We need some degree of inequality to inspire aspiration and thus industry and productivity, but it ought not to grow so large that social and cultural stratification turns into social and cultural segregation.

    Unfortunately taking steps to correct excessive disparity seems like steering a large ship in a strong current: the measures must be taken before their effects can be observed and they require constant monitoring and correctipnReport

  11. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Thinking about this some more, Snarky…

    It seems that one of hallmarks of conservative (and much Libertarian) thought, is to equate the functioning of a market economy with a moral order.

    Personally, I don’t equate the functioning of a market economy with a moral order as much as I equate the meddling with a market economy with an immoral one.

    Too fine a distinction?Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      Some on the left believe that economics or at least belief in free markets borders on a religion. Here is someone from the libertarian/right saying something similar….

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Roger, I think lots of the views you’ve expressed in various threads during this symposium rather confirm – from a critics pov! – that even your belief in the healing power of free markets approaches something similar to faith in a religion. Just observing, not criticizing.

        I mean, you could be right after all.Report

        • Avatar Roger says:


          I understand the concern. That is why I believe we should view it as an experiment and compare it to the alternatives. Because I could be wrong. If I ever fail to admit this, it becomes simply faith.

          Beware taking a single path. Even if it is wrong, we may never know.Report

          • Avatar Roger says:


            I will add that I share no love for what most people think of when they say “capitalism” or “laissez faire”. Like Snarky, I believe in the value of human flourishing, and I see it as arising from building institutions which promote experimentation and positive sum, value creating outcomes and which discourage exploitation in all it’s forms. I am also a big fan of sports and science, which I see as doing the same thing. The best institutions have yet to be built.Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        I ran across a free-market libertarian type who wrote a paper (he’s an academic) that ended with the statement that the unrestrained free market would be “ultimate bliss”.

        If that’s not religious talk I don’t know what is.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Too fine a distinction?

      Yes. If the view is that it’s immoral to meddle with it, then the market is perceived to have moral properties worth considering in and of themselves. But the market with moral properties isn’t an actual market, but a hypothetical market (a pure market, or a free market, etc), one which has normative or other moral properties baked right in.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I didn’t rob a bank yesterday, I didn’t shoplift while at the grocery store, and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t hit anybody when I was driving around.

        I don’t consider these inactions to have been particularly moral on my part.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          That’s a different point JB. Your first claim is that meddling with the market is immoral, but that can only be the case if the market has moral properties worth considering. In the second comment, you’re talking about individuals not engaging in immoral actions. Those are two different things.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            Who would be meddling with the market if not individuals?Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            I’d rather you respond to the argument I made than ask me question about my argument.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Asking a clarification question about your argument helps me respond to it.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                But you weren’t asking for a clarification. You are attempting to shift the burden without actually addressing the argument I made.

                That’s sophistry brother.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                If one claim relies on the passive voice and the other relies on the active voice, it’s not sophistry to ask who is behind the action in the one claim.

                One might point out that reliance on the passive voice and refusal to answer clarification questions about who is responsible for the action described would be sophistry.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                JB, I’ll say it one more time and let it go. You made two claims which I found to be contradictory, and I said as much. The only issue here is whether my view that those two claims are inconsistent is sound or not. As I see it, the deflection to grammatical analysis of my prose is really (like, reallyreally) beside the point.

                Either you made inconsistent claims, or you didn’t. But you haven’t shown – yet! – that you haven’t.

                And that’s about the extent of the discussion I’m willing to have right now.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I don’t find them particularly contradictory but see how poor syntax could make them seem like they contradict each other. By cleaning up the syntax, one can remove the seeming contradiction.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              Actually, I’ll amplify that a bit. It seems to me you make all sorts of statements and claims, then, when challenged, ask questions of your interlocutor instead of answering the challenge. That’s a shabby way to argue.

              If I’m confused about what you’re saying, show where I’m getting things wrong. If I’m just flat out wrong, then say why. As it stands, you claimed that it’s immoral to meddle with markets, while also claiming that you’re conception of markets doesn’t comprise a moral order.

              As I wrote above, I don’t think that’s coherent. So rather than ask me questions about what I think of all this, why not just show me where you think I’m wrong?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I don’t know that you’re wrong. Since I don’t know that you’re wrong, but merely suspect that you’re wrong, I have to ask questions about where I see weaknesses in your argument. If you can’t answer the questions, that helps me conclude that, yep, you’re wrong.

                See, in the case you provided, you said, and I’m quoting you here:

                Your first claim is that meddling with the market is immoral, but that can only be the case if the market has moral properties worth considering. In the second comment, you’re talking about individuals not engaging in immoral actions. Those are two different things.

                My claim would be that meddling with the market is immoral, yes… and in my second comment I talked about individuals not engaging in immoral actions. If you see the use of the passive voice in the first claim as troubling (as I do), then you can eliminate it by pointing out that individuals are the ones meddling in the marketplace and then draw an analogy between individuals not meddling in the marketplace and individuals not engaging in immoral actions.

                So no problem.

                Now: How am I wrong in making that comparison?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I’d rather go in a different direction, the one that’s actually relevant here: How do you reconcile the claim that your conception of the market doesn’t have moral properties baked right in while you also claim that meddling with the market is immoral?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                In the same way that I don’t really consider, say, a bank to have moral properties baked right in while I also claim that robbing a bank is immoral.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Well, it does presume moral qualities such as ownership, property rights, etc, right?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Or, to clarify, if a bank has moral properties baked right in, they’re not particularly interesting moral properties insofar as they are similar to the moral properties baked into Meijer or Sears or a gas station.

                If you were to ask me if Safeway was a moral institution, I wouldn’t really understand the question (and would assume that we’d instead be getting ready to talk about unions or the cost/pollution of transporting bananas from a tropical climate to the high plains).Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Yay! Finally an argument!

                I’d say the analogy doesn’t hold. You’re saying that it’s immoral to meddle with a bank even tho banks don’t have moral properties, and that in just the same way, it’s immoral to meddle with the market even tho the market doesn’t have moral properties.

                First, the thing that makes it immoral to steal from a bank (ie, meddle) is that your stealing other people’s money. So you’re not meddling with a bank at all.

                If you think that stealing other people’s money from a bank is has different moral properties than simply stealing other people’s money , then you’re attributing moral properties to the bank.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                If you think that stealing other people’s money from a bank is has different moral properties than simply stealing other people’s money , then you’re attributing moral properties to the bank.

                I don’t think that stealing other people’s money from a bank has different moral properties than simply stealing other people’s money.

                I don’t see “not stealing” as a particularly moral act (it’s certainly not moral in an interesting way) but stealing is an immoral act.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                JB, I’m surprised you’re not recognizing the distinction here. If stealing is meddling, what is it meddling in? Presumably, according to your analogy, it’s meddling on the functioning of a bank, no? Otherwise, you’re whole argument dissolves to a claim about the morality of certain actions, but not a claim about meddling per se.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                “If stealing is meddling, what is it meddling in?”

                While one could define “meddling” and “stealing” in certain ways to make them co-extensive, I think I’d be more comfortable with just saying that they’re both wrong (assuming morality).

                Stealing is wrong. Meddling is wrong. I don’t know that I’d go from there to say that we can then say that the wrongs can be swapped out and say that stealing is meddling.

                If you’re wondering why meddling is wrong, I’d just point to stuff like regulatory capture, creation of barriers to entry, and other such things. Oh! I thought of something: Wal-Mart. You know the stuff that Wal-Mart is accused of? The gaming of the system?

                You know why that sort of thing would be wrong, right? That sort of thing, even if legal, still qualifies as “meddling”. (Even if it’s not stealing, per se.)Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                JB, I think what you wrote here rather confirms (or is at least evidence supporting) the suggestion that you view markets as having moral properties. It seems to me that you’re viewing meddling as any policy or action which undermines the otherwise existing moral order of markets.

                Is that right?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Here’s an example that may clear things up.

                Do people have moral properties?

                I think that, on one level, they do but since they all share the same moral properties these moral properties are not particularly interesting. I mean, we agree that we shouldn’t kill people, shouldn’t rape them, shouldn’t steal from them, shouldn’t kidnap them… there’s any number of things that we shouldn’t do to people.

                It would be *WRONG* to kill them, rape them, steal from them, etc.

                If, however, I asked if people had an intrinsic morality or something, the question would be confusing. I mean, are we talking about how Jesus loves each of them individually or something? How they’ve all been endowed by their Creator with something something?

                My take is that the moral status of “people” isn’t particularly interesting… but meddling with them is wrong anyway.

                In this, “the market” is similar to people.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                “I don’t see “not stealing” as a particularly moral act (it’s certainly not moral in an interesting way) but stealing is an immoral act.”

                Well, unless we’re talking about stealing from artists. Then it’s just presumptuous of them to expect any reimbursement for their time and money.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                Which is not a snarky comment on your thoughts, Brother Jaybird; more a comment on the shifting nature of morality in the culture.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Lord, I wish I had time to write the “Copyright, Patent, and Inequality” essay that deserves to be written.

                Short version is that copyright, as it exists today, makes people have contempt for copyright law but a reasonable copyright law would not only be much more enforcable but it would actually be respected.

                The long version would have graphs and cites and junk.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                I’d be interested in reading it. For the most part, the people I know who steal all of their music justify it by saying the music industry sucks, presumably because that music industry exploits the same artists they’re exploiting. I’ve never heard anyone argue that a more reasonable copyright law would override the allure of “Hey, free stuff!” but it’s entirely possible. I do think a better model for purchasing music directly from bands, like bandcamp, will eventually pay off, though.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Most of my friends who pirate and defend it take the tact advocated in this strip (to the extent that they actually forwarded me this to defend their rampant piracy):

                They have a real sense of entitlement and think that because the market is inefficient in meeting demand, they are right to step in to correct for it. I tell them that just because they want something doesn’t mean they get to have it and, even if the distribution methods are flawed, companies are entitled to engage in a flawed business practice. It is mindnumbing to hear them defend it with this nonsense.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                Admittedly, the distribution models are flawed and need some fixing; although I think the artists are driving that fixing. Bandcamp is a great idea and most musicians I know have all of their stuff online for very cheap prices. I still think the allure of Free Stuff + no real social opprobrium for taking it + you’ll never get caught and almost nobody will ever know = hell yes! for lots of folks. I was just talking about this with a guy I know who tours America playing dive bars and sells all of his albums on his webpage for $6.00 downloads. He’s had “fans” come up after sets and brag to him about how they’ve downloades all of his albums from illegal file sharing sites because they think he’ll be happy to hear that they love his music so much. When he sardonically replied, “gee, thanks” once, the “fan” told him, “dude, accept it.”Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                I don’t even know that the distribution models are flawed. I mean, is the pizza place that doesn’t deliver operating with a flawed distribution model? Would it be okay for me to steal their pizza because they don’t choose to sell it the way I like?

                While I generally agree with what you’ve said, there are many people who genuinely believe that copyright laws are inherently immoral and that they are some sort of caped crusader. When, really, they just want free shit, when they want free shit, how they want free shit.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Back when I was in college, I used to listen to a lot of illegitimately-obtained material. My funds were relatively limited. The only stuff I would buy was stuff I heard off the radio or when I found someone on IUMA or (the original) and would buy their CDs. Beyond that, it was a guessing game until Napster came along. Then Napster came along and I could listen to all manner of stuff, which was great. The end result was, as the anti-anti-piracy people say, more music purchasing.

                The thing is, though, that there are extraordinary opportunities out there now to sample. Rhapsody is cheap, Spotify is free. It’s a lot harder to justify now what I could justify then.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                Flawed is probably the wrong word. Let’s say some of those models could be more competitive. If the pizza place that doesn’t deliver sells less pizza than the one that does deliver, it’s pretty understandable. I do think one’s ability to compete with free shit is going to be pretty limited, however.

                Really, having found out how hard and expensive it is to record music, I’m a bit surprised there aren’t more musicians who’ve stopped recording altogether and decided to only play live.Report

    • Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark says:

      It seems to me, Jaybird, that you value liberty as the ultimate political good.

      I was arguing in my post, that social arrangements are somewhat arbitrary: they are useful to the degree that they comport with human nature, and promote widespread human flourishing. But those are my notions of the highest political good, so they are, of course, subject to disagreement.

      However, if you are arguing that interference with free exchange is immoral because each person is entitled to what they have achieved in a free market, I would say that you are indeed equating the functioning of a free market with a moral order.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I think it’s more that people are entitled to have a free exchange without such things as people gaming the system, playing the refs, setting up barriers to entry, stealing, or defrauding.

        I mean, if someone stole something from someone else and then said “I’m entitled to this because I stole it fair and square”, they’d be making a mistake.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          My own two cents, is that the only “meddling” I am really in favor of is that which prevents all those things you mention. Of course, we then get into my favorite quibble… definitions. What I call “theft” or “fraud” others call “business”…Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            The number one regulation that I think helps is forced transparency.

            If people don’t want stuff getting out into the open, they will hide and do it… transparency forces them to pick between doing it out in the open and not doing it.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              No disagreement there.Report

            • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

              Depends on the sort of transparency you’re demanding. If the cost of doing business legitly with transparency becomes too odious, you spawn black markets where that sort of thing is unnecessary.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                All of the black markets that immediately come to mind have libertarian boilerplate responses about how such and such ought to be legal… is there one I’m missing?Report

            • Avatar Kazzy says:

              What is your enforcement mechanism?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Ideally? I guess I’d have two areas. The “sunlit” zone and the other one. The sunlit zone would have companies that had open books, suitably open board meetings, suitably open stockholders meetings, and so on (exceptions could be made for stuff like trade secrets… we wouldn’t have to know what the 11 herbs and spices are, for example). If they meet this bar, congrats! You’re sunlit! You can trade in the sunlit area and put sunlit stickers on your products.

                I’d hope that there would be enough social stigma to being a shadow company that folks would tell each other “don’t buy shadow products!” and there could be stores that bragged about how they only sold sunlit items.

                That assumes a critical mass of sunlight, however. But, ideally, that’s my fantasy land answer.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                What stops a shadowy company from touting themselves as sunlit? And what if a company presents itself as sunlit but is involved in some shady shit behind the scenes that only becomes known later?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                What stops a shadowy company from touting themselves as sunlit?

                I imagine the same thing that keeps an Enron from screwing over everybody. They know that, if they do, they’ll go out of business (or take such a hit that the reward of getting away with whatever isn’t worth the downside risk of what will happen otherwise).

                And what if a company presents itself as sunlit but is involved in some shady shit behind the scenes that only becomes known later?

                Kick them to the shadowlands. If they want back in, they have to provide a full (TRANSPARENT!) accounting of what happened before.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Well, Enron is an extreme example. How many companies engaged in shady shit and operate with nary a consequence? They don’t need to screw everyone over. I mean, Ford destroyed whole communities in my backyard with their waste dumping program. Last I checked, they’re still going.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                “I mean, Ford destroyed whole communities in my backyard with their waste dumping program.”

                That makes it sound like I had little groups of people living in my backyard. What I meant was that there are communities of people not far from me who’ve been ravaged by the ongoing effects of Ford’s dumping program.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Are you arguing that FoMoCo has been a net negative for the nation and the world? Because there are tradeoffs in everything, except in doing nothing. Well, actually there’s a tradeoff there too, come to think of it.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                We call them “The Borrowers”.

                Well, I don’t know how this thing that Ford is doing could be stopped. It’s public knowledge, right? Newspaper stories have been written about this sort of thing, I presume.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:


                No such thing. I’m simply pointing out that some companies, such as Ford, engage in or have engaged in illegal/immoral behavior that they can generally cover up one way or another. In the ’60s and ’70s, a Ford plant located in Northern New Jersey dumped thousands of tons of paint and other sludge into the surrounding mountains. A small Native American group in the region has suffered various health effects that are ongoing to this day. Despite being declared a superfund site (and then being taken off the list despite the problems continuing), Ford was able to drag out the legal battle long enough and the tribe eventually settled for what amounts to a small pittance given what Ford did.

                HBO did a documentary on it called “Mann vs Ford”.

                What should be done in such situations?Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Kazzy, we probably agree that business needs more criminal penalties for its crimes. Further, that the GOP should do the outrage dance more often when toxic waste is involved.

                After the Exxon Valdez, Congress passed OPA90, which included criminal penalties for oil spills.

                Here’s a trade journal article about it. Very interesting. There are criminal penalties in the Clean Water Act as well.

                Can’t tell you much more about it, but I pass it on.

                As for the earlier days of toxic pollution that led up to “Superfund,” I don’t know if they fully appreciated the damage they were doing. In any case, things have changed, awareness has increased.

                And although I largely credit the Democrats for environmental awareness, there is an economic downside for “common folk” for too much of it. And death—a folkuva lot more innocents than FoMoCo ever killed or ever could.


              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Thanks, Tom. I only used Ford because I knew about something they did locally. They are far from the only folks with blood on their hands and far from being the worst amongst them. My real point, beyond Ford, is that transparency doesn’t cure everything. It is a great step in a very good direction, but it doesn’t solve everything. There are companies, like Ford, with documented track records of some very shady and/or shitty things… and folks still buy from them because the price is right or the quality is right or because they opt for willful ignorance. Case in point… knowing what you know now about Ford, will that impact the likelihood of you to buy a car from them?Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Kaz, how many millions did Rachel Carson & Co. kill to save some lousy birds?

                Not to change the subject, but to enlarge the framing of it. Environmentalism may have killed more than it saved, net. That should sober the self-righteous.

                To FoMoCo’s environmental disdain—let’s call ’em crimes—it’s tough to say because the offenders, the actual people involved, the actual criminals, are probably long-retired. I’m way A-OK with socially conscious consuming and investing, though. Although you’d have to live on Ben & Jerry’s.

                Come to think of it, they sold out to Unilever, I believe. And fought their janitors unionizing before they did. True story, Kaz.


                I hear you bigtime, brother, really I do, but where does it end, where does it end? I just want some fishing ice cream.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Let me go on record and say that I do not fancy myself an “environmentalist”. I have no bones with humans making good use of the Earth’s natural resources. Obviously, the less harmful impacts we have, the better. But they’re going to exist. Being harmful for harmful’s sake or completely ignorant of the impact of your actions are problematic, especially if you put people in harm’s way. But if Rachel Carlson (and I only know her name because my stepfather is an environmental scientist and has her books around the house) really did kill humans over birds… I’d be hardpressed to defend that, regardless of what “noble” cause she did that for.

                Back on topic, you make some good points. While there are worse things than living on Ben and Jerry’s (I didn’t know that about their recent efforts… I actually just visited their plant in Vermont last winter), life is a series of compromises. But let’s just not pretend that all bad behavior is properly punished. Ford is still selling cars, BP is still selling gas, Cracker Barrel is still selling, I dunno, barrels of crackers? Many folks believe that the market properly accounts for bad behavior… that folks will refuse to shop at companies that dump toxic waste or pollute our oceans or engage in racist practices but, the reality is… that’s just not true. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing or a good thing… just a thing. Ford isn’t evil; people who buy Fords aren’t evil. Perhaps transparency would have made a difference for the Ramapaugh. But there is no guarantee that it would have. That’s all.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Thx for the stimulating discussion, Kaz, and it says to me that the bipolar Cold War world still exists.

                Anywhere the West might flee or embargo for moral/enviro/etc. reasons, Russia and China will slip in to fill the void. Completely self-interested and amoral. Could that possibly be better?

                Damn. Same problem as always, and as always, everything I know about philosophy I learned from Star Trek.


              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Anywhere the West might flee or embargo for moral/enviro/etc. reasons, Russia and China will slip in to fill the void.

                Yes, that’s true. And yet, we have safety standards which apply to imports even as US based companies have sometimes outsourced to bypass other restrictions.

                But look: if there was no effort by people to constrain bad practices, there would be no elimination of bad practices. That’s pretty obvious, right? So there is a cost attached to every new environmental or safety standard. Some people – apparently not you – think it’s on balance worth it.

                Or: do you think that the demise of the US economy gets pinned on environmentalists exclusively, and global labor markets and the flexibility of capital and competition for market share play no role whatsoever?Report

              • Avatar Roger says:


                Competing independent firms whose reputations are based upon evaluating and broadcasting reputations of other firms.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                So a corporate transparency version of Arthur Andersen?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Or Moody’s.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                “Hi, Sunshine Brokerage Firm! Sure I can recommend some investments for you, but I have to tell you, it’s the stuff my boss told me to push, and personally, I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.”Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                Yes exactly. Arthur Andersen failed and was promptly eliminated from the scene. Perfect example. I knew dozens of them, and it was sad to see so many smart people lose their jobs due to failure. But that is what makes the system work. Failure is penalized severely. Creative destruction.

                Over time, those that fail to maintain their credibility are replaced by those that can.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Arthur Andersen was murdered. Those were interesting times. I knew a bunch of those guys, too. The Rehnquist court exonerated Andersen’s corpse but it was a bit late for that sort of vindication.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Roger, I think Arthur Anderson is a better example of destructive destruction, no?Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                I consider a different letter from Arthur Andersen. The issue isn’t so much that people lost their jobs, but that they lost their life savings because Andersen couldn’t or wouldn’t do its job. Private ratings agencies are a good, but I am skeptical of our ability to trust them – and only them – to keep an eye on thingsReport

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                When I first started out in consulting, I used to tag around as a data plumber for a team of forensic accountants for Ernst and Whinney, now Ernst and Young, coming in after frauds.

                Frauds always go awry when the public set of books get screwed up — and that’s because the private set of books go bad first. Coming in to mop up is a nightmare because both sets of books are wrong.

                The Enron scandal hid in four different forests. Essentially, the Enron scam resolved to the same problem faced by a dealer with a bad hand: if he can, he’s going to throw that hand in the trash and deal himself a new hand. Enron was able to park its bad trades in hundreds of SPEs, as I suppose every educated person knows.

                So how was Andersen to find what was going on with Enron, when only Lay, Skilling and Fastow was aware of how the Four Raptors were behaving? None of this was on the balance sheet. The actual losses were hiding in derivatives (how very tiresome I know I must seem on this subject), the same way all those CDSes were hiding in the 2008 investment bank madness.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                So how was Andersen to find what was going on with Enron, when only Lay, Skilling and Fastow was aware of how the Four Raptors were behaving?

                By auditing them diligently to find the discrepancies, and if they’re incapable of doing that, at least avoiding the conflicts of interest that made it appear they weren’t trying.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                That sort of diligence requires evidence. Some of those frauds we handled, nobody’s going to know their actual scope. You do the best you can with the evidence at hand.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                You do the best you can with the evidence at hand.

                So much for the “sunlight ensured by independent auditors” theory then, eh?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                The problem with Enron was much the same as befell the victims of the S&L crash and the 2008 crash. It’s possible for the two of us to privately bet on the next person to write a diary here. It’s more likely to be paid if both of us put our respective moneys on Erik’s table and he’ll pay the winner.

                That’s transparency in markets. In the land of milk and honey you must put them on the table.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                See the glory of the royal scam.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                I offered a solution for transparency that incentivizes executives and stockholders and employees to maintain their livelihood by preserving their reputation at disclosing transparency. My assumptions are that any system devised will be imperfect and prone to abuse. The system I suggest is robust because it has strong incentives, open competition and because failure isn’t just penalized, it is in some cases wiped clean off the board, clearing the game for new entrants.

                The people I knew at Andersen tended to go to new firms with better reputations.

                Also note I am not suggesting that this be the only mechanism to enforce transparency. The goal of real world systems is not perfection, it is to be superior to alternatives and the past.

                I suggest asking three words… “compared to what?”Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                So a corporate transparency version of Energy Star?Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          I think it’s more that people are entitled to have a free exchange without such things as people gaming the system, playing the refs, setting up barriers to entry, stealing, or defrauding.

          This is why markets work best when run by Martians, because humans are going to do every one of those when there’s money at stake.Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

      A market economy by its very nature is just a collection of various types of meddling.

      The presumption of there being some Platonic creature known as a “market economy” is fallacious.Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        This sounds like what our ancestors used to say about slavery. It’s just the way it is. Why can’t we begin to create something better?Report