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Nic Tideman: Peace, Justice and Economic Reform

There is a bumper sticker that says, "If you want peace, then work for justice." At a superficial level, this simple slogan contains an important half-truth. At a deeper level, it contains a more profound half-truth. To understand these half-truths and why they are only half true, we need to know what peace is, what justice is, and we need to understand the relationship between the two. So in this talk I want to explore the meanings of peace and justice, their relationship, and the role of economic reform in attaining both.

"If you want peace, then work for justice." The more obvious and superficial meaning of this slogan is that people who are treated unjustly will prevent the attainment of peace until the wrongs to which they are subject are righted. Demonstrators shout: "No justice. No peace." The apparent meaning of peace in this case is tranquility, the absence of strife. And if this meaning of peace is accepted, the slogan is true. You cannot expect to end strife as long as people have unresolved grievances. But the reason that this is only half true is that this meaning is only a shadow of what peace really is.

Peace is more than armistice, more than the cessation of violence. Peace is unity and harmony. In a peaceful world people are all pleased to cooperate with one another. When we have attained true peace, there will be no person who has any purpose that any other person seeks to thwart. In a peaceful world, everyone will feel the truth of John Donne's meditation,

No man is an Island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent; a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, and well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.[1]

Is it imaginable that we might ever attain a world where everyone felt so? And if we do so, what will be the role of justice in that world? What is justice?

There are so many conflicting, strident claims for different conceptions of justice that a person might reasonably despair of ever finding a meaning of justice that people would agree upon. Any conception of justice may seem to be no more than one person's opinion. And yet there are things that we all know about justice. ...

Even the utilitarian proposal that conflicting claims should be settled in the way that yields the greatest possible utility must be rejected as an elitist imposition of a particular goal on people who may have other plans. If I choose to pursue a life that can be guaranteed to lead to depression and despair, I have as much claim to the protection of justice in that pursuit as if I choose the path that leads to bliss. Justice must be neutral in its evaluation of people and their goals. ...

If we commit ourselves to neutrality, does that provide a unique definition of justice? No, it doesn't. There are a number of definitions of justice that might claim to satisfy neutrality, although the claims of some definitions are dubious, and other definitions can be rejected on other grounds.

Consider first the conservative claim that justice is defined by traditional rules.  ...

Next, consider the claim that justice is defined by what the majority wants. The majoritarian says, "If you want to know who should prevail in a conflict, take a vote." As appealing as majoritarianism may be on the surface, it cannot provide a coherent theory of justice. ...

If voting cannot be used to define justice, one might entertain the possibility of using a contractarian formulation: What is just is the rules to which people would have agreed if they did not know their personal circumstances.  ...

This is a reasonable recipe for implementing the Golden Rule and a fine idea for seeking agreement about the principles by which complaints shall be judged. If people were to follow this suggestion and achieve the agreement that is described, they would achieve fairness.

However, this does not make Rawls's suggestion a good way to identify justice.  ...

Next, consider egalitarianism. The egalitarian says that justice is equality. There is a conceptual difficulty in specifying how beings as different from each other as humans are could ever be equal, unless we create a society where all humans are female clones of one another. (This should be technologically feasible within a few decades, if it is not already.) But I do not think that egalitarians want a society of clones. ...

John Rawls has proposed that the talents that individuals possess be regarded as a common pool, so that anyone who has more than his share has an obligation to compensate those who have less then their shares. ...

All of these suggestions should be rejected. Talents are not a common pool from which some persons have taken more then their shares. If we are all fishing in the same pond, the quantity of fish that you take will diminish the quantity that is available to me. But the quantity of talent that you have in no way diminishes the quantity that is available to me. Your talent is not acquired at my expense.

From the perspective of peace, no man is an island; each of us is a part of mankind. And any of us who has been graced with an extra measure of talent should recognize that, often, the best use of our talent is to provide for others. Nevertheless, from the perspective of justice, each of us must be allowed to act like an island if he wishes. .

Suppose that a bone-marrow transplant from me would save your life--or at least prolong it. ...
If you do not mind requiring a bone-marrow transplant of me, then what about a kidney? ...
If you do not mind requiring me to donate a kidney, then what about my heart?  ...

A good egalitarian should require me to part with the one available heart after I have had my share of years.

But I don't think you would. I don't think anyone would. We are not egalitarians. We recognize the sanctity of the boundaries of the human body. In a peaceful world I will gladly give a spare kidney to anyone who needs it. But in a just world, no one will forcefully extract a kidney from me, even to save someone else's life. Justice is not egalitarianism.

Just as I own my kidneys, so do I own my talents. In a peaceful world I will use them for the benefit of all mankind. But the sword of justice should not be used to force me to compensate those with less talent. Nor should it be used to force me to abide by the insurance contract that you believe I would have signed, if I had had the chance, before I knew what talents I would have.  ...

A proper definition of justice begins with the principles of classical liberalism. In a just world each person is permitted to determine the purposes to which his or her body is put--the hands and the brain no less than the kidneys. We each have rights of self-determination. This includes the right of ownership of what we produce, at least, as John Locke said, when we leave as much in natural opportunities for others as we appropriate for our own productive activities.[11]

We have the right to co-operate with whom we choose for whatever mutually agreed purposes we choose. Thus we have the right to trade with others, without any artificial hindrances, and we have the right to keep any wages or interest that we receive from such trading.

These components of the classical liberal conception of justice are held by two groups that hold conflicting views on a companion issue of great importance: how are claims of exclusive access to natural opportunities to be established?

John Locke qualified his statement that we own what we produce with his famous "proviso" that there be "as much and as good left in common for others." A few pages later, writing in the last decade of the seventeenth century, he said that private appropriations of land are actually not restricted, because anyone who is dissatisfied with the land available to him in Europe can always go to America, where there is plenty of unclaimed land.[12] Locke does not address the issue of rights to land when land is scarce. One tradition in classical liberalism concerning claims to land is that of the "homesteading libertarians...

The other tradition is that of the "geoists," as inspired if not exemplified by Henry George, who say that, whenever natural opportunities are scarce, each person has an obligation to ensure that the per capita value of the natural opportunities that he leaves for others is as great as the value of the natural opportunities that he claims for himself.[14] Any excess in one's claim generates an obligation to compensate those who thereby have less. George actually proposed the nearly equivalent idea, that all or nearly all of the rental value of land should be collected in taxes, and all other taxes should be abolished. The geoist position as I have expressed it emphasizes the idea that, at least when value generated by public services is not an issue, rights to land are fundamentally rights of individuals, not rights of governments.

There are two fundamental problems with the position of homesteading libertarians on claims to land.  ...

The second fundamental problem with the position of the homesteading libertarians is that, even if there were previously unsettled land to be allocated, say a new continent emerging from the ocean, first grabbing would make no sense as a criterion for allocating land.

It would be inefficient, for one thing, as people stampeded to do whatever was necessary to establish their claims. But that is not decisive because, if we are concerned with justice, it might be necessary for us to tolerate inefficiency. But the homesteading libertarian view makes no sense in terms of justice. "I get it all because I got here first," isn't justice.

Justice -- the balancing of the scales -- is the geoist position, "I get exclusive access to this natural opportunity because I have left natural opportunities of equal value for you."  ...

Justice is thus a regime in which persons have the greatest possible individual liberty, and all acknowledge an obligation to share equally the value of natural opportunities. Justice is economic reform -- the abolition of all taxes on labor and capital, the acceptance of individual responsibility, the creation of institutions that will provide equal sharing the value of natural opportunities. ...

So if you want a peace for others, then work for justice. Work for freedom. Work for the elimination of all taxes on the productive things that people do. Work for equality in the right to benefit from natural opportunities. All these things will make it easier for people to make the leap to peace.

But if you want peace for yourself, simply have it.  Read the entire article

Nic Tideman: Coercion Decision Tree

Jeff Smith: What the Left Must Do: Share the Surplus
Campaigning for a Citizens Dividend dislodges the Left from the issues of the bygone Industrial Era and orients the Left toward the solutions of the future. Getting back onto the cutting edge positions the Left for a solution instead of against a problem, which progressives, by definition (“pro” meaning “for”), should be. Demanding the fundamental reform of a dividend sets the agenda, drawing down the strength of the Right, while winning the spotlight, new adherents, and building up the Left. Read the whole article

Nic Tideman: Improving Efficiency and Preventing Exploitation in Taxing and Spending Decisions

Rawls sets his proposals in the framework of a fourth possible principle of public action, the contractarian suggestion that it is just to coerce people to abide by the rules that they would have agreed to if they had had a chance, before they knew their individual circumstances. One difficulty with this rule is that it is so hard to know what it is that people would have agreed to in these circumstances. Rawls is convinced that people would have agreed to a lexical ordering of maximum individual liberty and the maximin principle. John Harsanyi offers a strong argument for the proposition that they would have agreed to the rules that would maximize total (or, equivalently, average) utility. This has some strange implications. For example, if it is possible to separate individuals into ascetics and sybarites, then the maximization of total utility requires that the ascetics be forced to work very hard, with the resulting output used for the benefit of the sybarites. And if one of your kidneys (or your eyes) would provide me with more utility than it provides you, then the state is justified in extracting it from you and giving it to me. Utilitarianism does not accommodate individual rights.

The disagreements among contractarians about what contractarianism implies provide a hint of a difficulty that Bruce Ackerman elaborates in Social Justice in the Liberal State: Contractarianism offers so little defense against people with power who delude themselves about the undeniability of their beliefs about what people would agree to before they knew their personal circumstances. The person who feels oppressed says "I never would have agreed to these rules before I knew my personal circumstances." Those with power reply, "It's obvious to us that you would have. Stop your griping." The scope for further dialogue is small, and the potential for abuse is great.

Another possible framework for the justification of government action is that those with power are simply elitists: They may believe that their exercise of power is justified by their superior understanding of the nature of the good. While it is not unreasonable to suggest that there are some persons who do have superior understanding of the nature of the good, it is extremely dangerous for people to justify the exercise of political power by self identification as members of the elite who have superior understanding of the nature of the good. It was thinking of that sort that gave the world Stalinism. The general thrust of Western political thinking has been that elitism is simply unacceptable as a justification for the exercise of political power.

On the basis of the arguments given, I reject conservatism, majoritarianism, egalitarianism, contractarianism, and elitism as justifications for coercive taxing and spending. A framework for just social arrangements that does make sense to me is classical liberalism, which asserts that it is just to coerce people to accord others the maximum individual liberty that all can have. This means that people have rights to their bodies, their talents, the products of their labor, and the returns to their savings. Anything produced by human effort belong to the producer, or to the producer's successor in title through gift and exchange. ...

In a world that adhered to a classical liberal understanding of justice, there would be three sources of funding for people with special needs:

1) insurance that those with special needs had bought for themselves prior to the onset of their special needs,

2) donations from family, friends and other compassionate persons, and

3) local public expenditures that would be non-coercively financed, because anyone who objected to the financing could leave the locality.

In a just would, people would ensure, prior to conceiving children, that any expensive special needs that their children might have would be paid for, either by insurance that the parents would buy, or by voluntary conventions in their communities that the community would pay the costs of such needs.

Perhaps you object that some people would not be able to afford such insurance for all their children. If this is true, it implies one of two things.

  • Either the parents of such children are behaving unjustly by conceiving those children, who will either lack what they ought to have or will be able to receive it only by the imposition of unjust taxes.
  • Or else the parents have been treated unjustly by having started life without enough resources to provide for the children that they ought to have had the chance to bring into the world. I would guess that sometimes the first is true, sometimes the second, and sometimes both.
The possibility that prospective parents might be unable to afford to provide for the children that they ought to have the chance to bring into the world highlights the possible need for a one-time redistribution that would give everyone a fair starting point. This does not mean equality for ever. It does not necessarily even mean equality at the starting time. What it means is allocating initial rights in such a way that we do not mind requiring people to pay the costs of their choices, including the choice of conceiving children (unless they belong to communities that agree to pay the costs of some of their choices).

Whenever a one-time redistribution is proposed, a reaction of many economists is, "Yeah, right. Why would anyone one believe that it would be only one time?" What would make it reasonable to believe that such a redistribution would be a one-time event is its rationale: The recognition that some persons have had unfairly inadequate starting positions in life, and the determination to end that. If the purpose is achieved, there is no rationale for further redistribution, unless, at some future time, our society attains a new moral insight that implies that further redistribution is required. ... read the whole article



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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper