Blacksun, in commenting on yesterday’s post, said that:
I have to part company . . . when you insist that the severity of a person’s need should determine their ability to buy something. This to me is drifting dangerously close to flat-out socialism.
I do not recall saying that the severity of a person’s need should determine their ability to buy something.
I did say that free markets contain a serious problem in that it gives wealthy people an ability to bid resources away from more highly-valued uses to which the poor could put those resources.
At the same, I have argued that one of the significant benefits of a free market is that, where property rights (including each person’s property right in their own life and their own physical body) are properly protected, free markets do an excellent job of tying information on what is in the public interest with an incentive to act in the public interest.
I have covered some of the problems with interfering with markets in an article I wrote called Price Gouging, and used it to describe how Democrats will make our energy and global environment situation worse in a posting on Energy Policy. There are also relevant points to be found in my essay, The Value of Freedom.
Flat-out socialism utterly fails to provide enough information to decision makers while at the same time incentivizing them to act in the public interest. Flat-out capitalism is far more efficient at linking incentives to act with the public interest when that system is set up so as to recognize the rights of all individuals – including the rights of the poor to their own life, body, liberty, and property. However, even ‘perfect’ capitalism does not do a perfect job of incentivizing people to act in the public interest. This ideal outcome is distorted by the ability of the rich to bid resources away from the more highly valued uses to which the poor would put those same resources.
Perhaps this inefficiency is unavoidable, but it is an inefficiency nonetheless – a case where the ‘invisible hand’ of the market does real harm, even in its purist and most ideal form.
Economic Systems and Intrinsic Values
Intrinsic values do not exist. Many arguments that people give, arguing for one economic system over another, do so by suggesting that certain actions or states of affairs are intrinsically better than others. Every argument of this type is grounded on a false premise – as false as any argument that grounds a defense of one system over another based on God’s will (another entity that does not exist).
This ties in with a point that I have repeatedly tried to make – that there are more myths and superstitions in the world than those that postulate the existence of gods. Consequently, the abolition of religion is not the same thing as the abolition of belief in mythical entities that affect the value of things. There are some myths – beliefs in things that are not real – that can be found even among atheists.
The only values that exist are not intrinsic values, but relationships between states of affairs and desires. You will find no other form of value in the real world. Yet, these relationships are real, and they are intimately tied to reasons for action in a way that something must be for the term ‘value’ to make sense.
Since relationships between states of affairs and desires are the only values that are real, then the real-world value of an economic system can only be found in that system’s relationships to desires.
Note that, in desire utilitarian terms, it is not the case that most moral economic system is not the one that fulfills the most and the strongest desires. Instead, the most moral economic system is the system that a person with good desires (a person whose desires are those that tend to fulfill other desires) can support.
This is because no person can act in any way but to best fulfill the most and strongest of his own desires, given his beliefs – and will seek to act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his own desires. Expecting a person to judge an economic system based on only one criterion is the same as expecting a person to act on only one desire, such as a desire for the maximum fulfillment of all desires. This is an absurd demand, and an absurd standard for an economic system.
This is why, instead of focusing on one standard, we must evaluate an economic system according to the weight it gives to the objects of a number of good desires. These desires include such things as liberty, privacy, equality, truth, knowledge, freedom from pain, freedom from disease, and happiness. These things must we weighed against each other, according to the desires that good people would have towards each.
The precise mix is something about which intelligent people are going to be debating for a long time to come, assuming that the human race continues to exist for a long time to come.
However, there is one set of policies that the capitalist idealist and the socialist idealist should agree on. It should also appeal to everybody standing on every point in between that advocates a mixture of these two systems. This would be opposition to the externalities that the wealthy are permitted to inflict on the poor – an opposition to wealth transfer system where the life, health, and property of the poor are sacrificed without compensation so as to increase the wealth of the wealthiest people.
Externalities and Pro-Rich Regulations
Global warming is the largest recent example of just such a wealth transfer scheme. The actions of the rich, in this case, will cost the poor their land, their health, and in some cases their lives, simply so that the wealthier people on the planet can enjoy an even better standard of living.
Yet, global warming is not the only example of this. A great many environmental issues are issues where the wealthy are given special credits to kill, maim, or otherwise harm the poor with impunity – with impure drinking water, poisoned air, and the destruction of their land (to the degree that poor people are permitted to own land).
A great many regulations are restrictions on where people can go to find work, and on the types of work that they can have. This means that employers do not need to provide workers with a level of compensation that would keep them from voluntarily leaving for better alternatives elsewhere – not if there are legal barriers preventing those workers from moving.
In addition to the restrictions that prevent people from seeking better jobs, there are restrictions on jobs seeking the workers that need them. One of the first things a company has an incentive to do when they move into a new area and begin using the labor force there is to corrupt the government into keeping other competitors for that labor out.
Warlords and Tyrants
Earlier, I mentioned the warlords who dominate an area, who prevent food from getting to the poor because they take the food for themselves, or they demand some sort of payment from those who would distribute it. These are people that the world would be better off without. Capitalists and communists alike should be unified in seeking their removal. Tyrants and dictators present the same problem on a larger scale.
I have mentioned that I was in favor of removing Saddam Hussein from power. I was opposed to Bush’s invasion from the beginning, but I did not have any objection based on moral principle. My view is that different nations should treat each other the same way different families treat each other. To a substantial degree, parents should be permitted to raise their children as they see fit, and nations should be allowed to organize themselves as they see fit. However, then there is clear evidence of abuse, society has a duty to step in and free the subjects from that abuse.
By this standard, Saddam Hussein was somebody that the international community needed to remove from power.
However, I opposed the invasion of Iraq, even before it started, because it was obvious that President Bush was incompetent, and even though he was doing the right thing, he would almost certainly mess it up so badly that it was better to do nothing, and to wait for a competent leader to tackle the job.
I have heard liberals complain that if these arguments for removing Saddam Hussein from power are valid, then this implies that there are other world leaders we should be seeking to remove from power as well. It is absurd to claim that we should take action against so many leaders; therefore, we should have left Saddam Hussein alone.
Actually, I have no objection to removing tyrants from power wherever they can be found, though it should be done competently, by people who know how to make the situation better, but not worse.
I am particularly disturbed by those who argue that there will always be tyrants, and that therefore we should do nothing. This is like saying that there will always be parents who abuse their children, so we should take no action against those parents we catch doing so.
There are also those who argue that if we allow even a little bit of interference in the internal affairs of one country that we open the floodgates for interference in every country. Yet, this too is as absurd as arguing that if we protect the children from abuse in even one household, that we open the floodgates for interference in how all parents raise their children. Just as we have been able to strike a reasonable balance in the latter case, I think we can strike a reasonable balance in the former case.
A Common Theme
The one common theme regarding all of these issues is the idea that capitalists and communists alike should be able to find common ground in opposing those who redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. We are surrounded by them. Do this, and we have made the present and future lives of the poor much better than they would have otherwise been. Unite on these issues, and we can deal with the issues that divide us later.