Tuesday, December 27, 2005

On Markets and Rights

In a secret bunker in an undisclosed location I am involved in a discussion about price controls in which I am defending my claim that Markets value the pleasure of the rich more than the survival of the poor.

If a poor person and a rich person enter into an auction for some item, where the poor needs that item to survive and the rich needs it for pleasure, the market will assign that good the rich, unless somebody steps in and interferes. The poor person can put everything he has into his bid, and still lose out to the wealthy person bidding out of petty cash – even though the rich person wants the good only for entertainment.

This happens because markets do not ask people why they want what they want. Markets only ask about willingness to pay. Where resources are scarce, they go to the person willing to pay the most -- again, regardless of why that person wants to pay anything.

Of course, this makes me a Lenninist Marxist Communist Liberal, in spite of the fact that I defend free markets for the most part. I simply believe that one must be honest about the strengths and the weaknesses of any system. This fact, that markets care only about ability to pay and care nothing about reasons, is one of the weaknesses of free markets.

There are two possible answers to this issue.

Answer 1: "So what?"

One answer is to simply dismiss this fact as irrelevant -- to say that it does not matter that markets value the pleasure of the rich above the survival of the poor.

Certain devoted fans of unfettered free markets might dismiss this fact as trivial. However, it is highly doubtful that those whose suffering, starvation, sickness, and death are at issue here are going to accept the thesis that those reasons lack significance.

As I have argued elsewhere, value is found in objects according to their tendency to fulfill desires. The aversion that people have to suffering, starvation, sickness, and death count among the desires that are relevant in determining the value of a political system. They will be used to determine the value of free markets. When they are used in this way, the tendency of free markets to value the pleasure of the rich over the lives of the poor does not leave a favorable mark.

Answer 2: "The rich have a right."

Another response that the defender of free markets can offer is that the rich have a natural right to their wealth. There is some sort of intrinsic value by which the pleasure of the rich is, indeed, more valuable than the survival of the poor.

This argument depends on the degree to which one can actually make good on the claim that these natural rights and duties actually exist. To the best of my knowledge, no physicist, chemist, biologist, or psychologist has ever needed to include them in any model governing the motion of bodies through space. And, in fact, human actions qualify as the motion of atoms through space. Therefore, I am fully prepared to endorse the conclusion that these natural rights and duties do not exist.

They are as much fiction as the divine commands of a God. In this, I side with the 19th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who wrote "Talk about rights is nonsense, and talk about natural rights is nonsense on stilts."

The poor do not have a natural duty to lay down and die for the pleasure of the rich.

A Modified Concept of Rights

I do hold that the concept of “rights”, developed in the 17th represented a significant advance in moral theory. I tend to think that the rights theorists were close to the truth, though they made one mistake. Rights are not intrinsic moral properties. Rather, rights, like all value, are grounded ultimately on desire. Scientists have never had much of a need to discuss intrinsic moral properties, but they have had the need to talk about desires.

From this, we can sensibly talk about what it makes sense for people to create universal desires for and universal aversions to. It makes sense for society to promote a universal aversion to wonton killing because people generally will live a more secure life and be better able to secure the lives of those they care about in a society with such a universal aversion. There is nothing wrong with conveying, “wonton killing is one thing to which everybody should be made averse” by claiming “everybody has a right to life.”

If we look, then, at the things that these philosophers said had an intrinsic moral quality, these are things that it makes sense for society to cultivate a universal desire for or aversion to. A "right to liberty" secures the blessings of liberty for oneself and those that one cares about. A "right to property" makes it easier for a person to make plans and to help those plans bear fruit – which they would not if others can take one’s tools or the products of one’s labor at will.

It applies to freedom of the press (a universal aversion to prohibiting people from saying things because those with the power to prohibit typically abuse this power by prohibiting truths useful to others but harmful to those in power). It applies to the right of trial by jury (an universal aversion to doing harm unless guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt because we prefer to live in a society in which if we stay innocent our chances of being harmed are reduced). It applies to freedom of religion (a universal aversion to imposing one's religion on others -- an aversion that, when absent, tends to contribute to violent conflict and a stagnating society).

So, I hold that these rights theorists did a very good job. Yet, they have not done such a good job of accounting for situation where rights conflict. If we look at the classic case of yelling, “Fire” in a crowded movie theater. If there is a right to freedom of speech, then why is it sometimes permissible to overrule this right? If we can overrule the right to freedom of speech, then can we not, under relevantly similar circumstances, overrule the right to property?

The alternative I propose makes sense of the issue of yelling fire, because it makes no sense for society to wish that the right to free speech extend to these cases. Their security and happiness is better secured by “A right to free speech in cases other than those like yelling, ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.” If their security and happiness is better secured by “a right to property except where the pleasure of the rich is made to trump the survival of the poor,” then this defines the proper limits and scope of the right to property.

So, the question on the table as to whether the rich have a ‘right’ to this wealth ultimately is very much tied in with the question of whether such a universal aversion to taking property will help to better secure the poor from suffering, starvation, sickness, and death. These are very much morally relevant concerns.

There are some capitalists who answer this question by saying, “Yes, it will.” If they are right, then yes, in fact, there is such a right to property. If they are wrong, then no such right exists. Either way, the answer cannot be morally separated from the promise that free markets will secure the poor from suffering, starvation, sickness, and death.

Warning Against Easy Answers

There are people involved in this debate who say, "Obviously, if we redistribute the wealth, then everybody, including the poor will be better off." And there are those who say, "Obviously, if we enforce strict property rights, then everybody, including the poor will be better off."

The people in this debate with whom I have the strongest disagreement are those who use the term, “Obviously.”

I do not have the opportunity in any one blog to defend my position. Part of it is to say that I have no strong position, and it is subject to change at a moment’s notice in the face of new evidence. The evidence that I have seen so far points to the following:

The right to property comes with exceptions like the right to free speech. That one of these exceptions allows society to provide for the food, shelter, and medical care of any individual entered into a training program aimed at placing that person in a secure job as a contributing member of society. Society itself benefits from having a better-educated population. Those who are in such a program will be able to do more than those without the skills that such a program would provide.

Again, I have no ability here to go into this issue in detail. There are complications that I have not breached. The main point of this blog entry, however, remains this: That the legitimacy of a system of property rights does depend on its ability to make good on the promise to provide for the ability of all people to better avoid such things as suffering, starvation, sickness, and death. If it cannot do this, then it loses its moral legitimacy. If it can, then its legitimacy is secured.


Anonymous said...

won ton (won‚ ton) 1. (in Chinese cooking) a dumpling filled with minced pork and spices, usually boiled in and served with soup but sometimes fried as a side dish.

Those poor suffering and killed wontons! Wantonly destroyed before they could enjoy life. ;)

Anonymous said...

I have problems with much of Ayn Rand's philosophy, but she was correct when she said that the individual must be the focus of any moral system. Attempts to say that a system is not legimiate if it does not consider some larger group (society) fail because they confer special rights on certain groups.

Say for a minute that you are a rich man who believes wholeheartedly that the poor are poor because they deserve to be, so helping them is wrong. I propose that it would be just as wrong to compel you to donate to charity as it would be for someone to compel the real you to donate to a church.

I agree that there are legimate restrictions on the right of property. You cannot do things with your property that damage others' property. You cannot kill innocent people on or with your property. The only proper restrictions, however, are prohibitions, not mandates. (I can say "You must not murder" but I cannot say "You must save lives.")

I am an idealist, not a pragmatist, so we will probably not agree. My concern is not how something turns out, but rather that it was achieved properly. To put it another way, the foundation of the pragmatist is "The ends justify the means." The foundation of the idealist is "The means justify the ends."

I don't oppose Communism because it doesn't work; I oppose it because it's wrong. Contrariwise, I don't support capitalism because it works, I support it because it is moral.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous: If Microsoft Word says that there is nothing wrong with the words I choose, then there is nothing wrong. You don't expect me to deny the great wisdom of Bill Gates, do you?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You are correct, we are not going to agree. I was once a libertarian, but I gave it up because it has some serious problems. Morality is ultimately a social function, not an individual function. There is no such thing as 'morality' when one person is alone. It only comes into existence when he is in a community with others. It concerns how to answer the question, "How are we going to turn this thing called society into something that is a benefit, rather than a burden?"

A person who looks at this question from the individual perspective is just going to get confused.

Anonymous said...

I guess I just get my idea of morality from what a human is... it's the atheistic equivalent of being 'endowed by one's Creator' with certain rights. Humans are creatures with free will, creatures at liberty, so it's wrong to take that liberty away without good reason. We have this thing called life, which is so precious that it must not be destroyed unless to stop someone from killing others.

Like I said, we seem to come from completely different foundations on the subject.

You seem to have skipped my attempt at provocation, namely the comparison of compulsion morality to establishment of religion. I'm curious about the reaction that gets from you, since other atheists I try it on also seem to ignore it.