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January 18, 2008

on shared responsibility for private loss

(Syracuse, NY) Yesterday, I wrote a fairly frivolous post in response to Steven Landburg's New York Times op-ed, because I found one of his analogies risible. But I suppose it's worth summarizing the standard serious, philosophical argument against his position (which is libertarian, in the tradition of Robert Nozick). Lansburg asks whether we should compensate workers who would be better off without particular free-trade agreements that have exposed them to competition and have thereby cost them their jobs.

One way to think about that is to ask what your moral instincts tell you in analogous situations. Suppose, after years of buying shampoo at your local pharmacy, you discover you can order the same shampoo for less money on the Web. Do you have an obligation to compensate your pharmacist? If you move to a cheaper apartment, should you compensate your landlord? When you eat at McDonald’s, should you compensate the owners of the diner next door? Public policy should not be designed to advance moral instincts that we all reject every day of our lives.

I need not compensate a pharmacist if I buy cheaper shampoo than she sells, because I have a right to my money, just as she has a right to her shampoo. We presume that the distribution of property and rights to me and to the pharmacist is just. We're then entitled to do what we want with what we privately own. But who says that the distribution of goods and rights on the planet as a whole is just? It arose partly from free exchanges and voluntary labor--and partly from armed conquest, chattel slavery, and enormous helpings of luck. For example, some people are born to 12-year-old mothers who are addicted to crack, while others are born to Harvard graduates.

Given the distribution of goods and rights that existed yesterday, if we let free trade play out, some will become much better off and some will become at least somewhat worse off as a result of voluntary exchanges. Landsburg treats the status quo as legitimate--or given--and will permit it to evolve only as a result of private choices (which depend on prior circumstances). However, the Constitution describes the United States as an association that promotes "the general Welfare." Within such an association, it is surely legitimate for people who are becoming worse off to state their own interests, and it is morally appropriate for others to do something to help. (How much they should do, and at what cost to themselves, is a subtler question.)

Of course, one can question the legitimacy of the American Republic. It is not really a voluntary association, because babies who are born here are not asked whether they want to join. And its borders are arbitrary. That said, one can also question the legitimacy of our system of international trade. It is based on currencies, corporations, and other artificial institutions.

The nub of the matter is whether you think that individuals may promote their own interests in the market, in the political arena, or both. If one presumes that the economic status quo is legitimate, then the market appears better, because it is driven by voluntary choice. But if one doubts the legitimacy of the current distribution of goods and rights, then politics becomes an attractive means to improve matters. Because almost all Americans believe in the right and duty of the government to promote the general welfare, even conservatives like "Mitt Romney and John McCain [battle] over what the government owes to workers who lose their jobs because of the foreign competition unleashed by free trade."

January 18, 2008 2:16 PM | category: philosophy | Comments


You just pointed out that America is of two minds, that of libertarians like Landsburg who think that the free market should determine everything and those who believe that the market should be tinkered with so as to make it as fair as possible in its relations with people.

That is putting it simply but America was created by and is a reflection of the struggle of these two camps. It takes two to tango, so to speak, to create the dynamism America is. It is all part of "deliberative democracy".

We may be discussing a "relativism" here, in that both positions make an important point and are to some extent legitimate. I, for instance, am of both minds, depending on the circumstances.

January 19, 2008 10:53 AM | Comments (3) | posted by airth10

From Toby Rogers, by email:

I run a blog called RFK Action Front. I saw your blog post re: Stevens Landsburg's Wed. Op Ed in the NY Times and thought it was great (the NY Times links to your site under the "Most Blogged" articles feature). I just did an extensive post about Landsburg's Op Ed that you can read here.

January 19, 2008 12:04 PM | Comments (3) | posted by Peter Levine

There is something Lansburg overlooked in his argument that laid off works shouldn't expect retraining.

He sees the retraing of people as a welfare. He doesn't mention the welfare that corporations get from government, welfare that sometimes has led to the displacement of workers. The playing field is not level. Why shouldn't laid off works have the same advantage as corporation? Why, corporations are always asking governments to help improve their advantage.

Even state-side corporations get a welfare - tax-breaks, often from all levels of government, which has displaced works. For instance, Wal*Mart has gotten tax breaks in the millions to build budge stores that have displace the "mom n' pop" stores. Those people never receive compensation for being displaced.

Why doesn't Lansburg also rail against the hand-outs and loopholes corporations get that allow them to outsource and destroy other people's lively hood?

January 20, 2008 1:28 PM | Comments (3) | posted by airth10

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