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At "The Stone," Amia Srinivasa has four questions for "free-market moralists." Here's the third:

Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

If you say yes, you think that what people deserve is largely a matter of luck. Why? First, because only a tiny minority of the population is lucky enough to inherit wealth from their parents. (A fact lost on Mitt Romney, who famously advised America’s youth to “take a shot, go for it, take a risk … borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.”) Since giving money to your kids is just another example of free exchange, there’s nothing wrong with the accumulation of wealth and privilege in the hands of the few. Second, people’s capacities to produce goods and services in demand on the market is largely a function of the lottery of their birth: their genetic predispositions, their parents’ education, the amount of race- and sex-based discrimination to which they’re subjected, their access to health care and good education.

It’s also a function of what the market happens to value at a particular time. Van Gogh, Schubert, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Vermeer, Melville and Schubert all died broke. If you’re a good Nozickian, you think that’s what they deserved.

The Daily Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard on how France's resurgent Front National is repositioning itself—and what this may mean for the future of the euro. The FN wants "Frexit":

Marine Le Pen told me in June that her first order of business on setting foot in the Elysee Palace (if elected) would be to announce a referendum on membership of the European Union, with a "rendez-vous" one year later: "I will negotiate over the points on which there can be no compromise. If the result is inadequate, I will call for withdrawal. Europe is just a great bluff. On one side there is the immense power of sovereign peoples, and on the other side are a few technocrats."

Asked if she intended to pull France of the euro immediately, she hesitated for a second or two and then said: "Yes, because the euro blocks all economic decisions. France is not a country that can accept tutelage from Brussels."

Officials will be told to draw up plans for the restoration of the franc. Eurozone leaders will face a stark choice: either work with France for a "sortie concerted" or coordinated EMU break-up: or await their fate in a disorderly collapse.[...]

[T]he Front has been scoring highest in core Socialist cantons, clear evidence that it is breaking out of its Right-wing enclaves to become the mass movement of the white working class.

Hence the new term in the French press "Left-Le-Penism". She is outflanking the Socialists with attacks on banks and cross-border capitalism. The party recently recruited Anna Rosso-Roig, a candidate for the Communists in the 2012 elections.

Edward T. Oakes reviews David Bentley Hart's new book, The Experience of God.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer talks with Ioanna Kolher about teaching himself French by reading Proust. Not quite as charming as Justice Scalia's story about how he took up hunting, but impressive...

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It’s also a function of what the market happens to value at a particular time. Van Gogh, Schubert, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Vermeer, Melville and Schubert all died broke. If you’re a good Nozickian, you think that’s what they deserved.

What Srinivasa reveals, without realizing it, is that she values money and worldly possessions above all else.   Notice, she didn't say they died  alone, unloved, childless, etc.    That wouldn't have the punch she's looking for.

So, who's the crass one here?

The subject, Mark, is what people get out of "free exchange." The subject is not lifestyles. The artists cited are cases of a product the market values (in some cases overvalues) too late to do the producer any good. Which, of course, fails to fulfill the Nozick theory. That's tough on the theory, but it was tougher on them.

The Breyer piece is great.

Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

If you say yes, you think that what people deserve is largely a matter of luck. Why? First, because only a tiny minority of the population is lucky enough to inherit wealth from their parents. (A fact lost on Mitt Romney, who famously advised America’s youth to “take a shot, go for it, take a risk … borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.”) Since giving money to your kids is just another example of free exchange, there’s nothing wrong with the accumulation of wealth and privilege in the hands of the few. Second, people’s capacities to produce goods and services in demand on the market is largely a function of the lottery of their birth: their genetic predispositions, their parents’ education, the amount of race- and sex-based discrimination to which they’re subjected, their access to health care and good education.

It’s also a function of what the market happens to value at a particular time. Van Gogh, Schubert, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Vermeer, Melville and Schubert all died broke. If you’re a good Nozickian, you think that’s what they deserved.

Let me preface this comment by noting that the church offers a third alternative to the two poles presented by Srinivasa: distributive justice.  To the extent that, as she correctly notes a couple of times, Western society is more Rawlsian than Nozickian, it's surely more attributable to the Judeo-Christian tradition embodied by the church's theory of distributive justice than it is directly attributable either to Rawls or Nozick.

Now - continuing to approach this question from a Christian point of view view, in this case a Christian view of anthropology, I think we need to resist some of the assumptions and implications in Srinivasa's discussion.  The "lottery of human birth" includes the gifts of intelligence, imagination and creativity, and the capacity for hard work and cooperation.  Unless Srinivasa believes that there are insurmontable class barriers such that one class possesses all the intelligence, imagination, creativity and the capacity for hard work and cooperation, and the other class possesses none of any of these, then in fact, the "lottery of human birth" is an extremely generous lottery, a lottery in which the great majority of us are winners, even though most of us don't hit the jackpot in any of these.  It's a lottery that ensures that the basic tools for economic success already are widely distributed.  Not universally distributed, but widely distributed, and it's a distribution that is far from perfectly correlated with social class.  

I'll be the first to acknowledge that Innate human capacities aren't all that is needed for economic success, however we define it (I assume, for purposes of this discussion, we're defininig it as "successful enough to not need to avail oneself of the redistributive income policies represented by government entitlement programs such as food stamps and Medicaid").  For example: as the tin-eared Romney remark about borrowing from parents inadvertantly illustrates, one needs capital to grow capital.  But capital isn't the exclusive possession of the 1%, and in fact, the innate capacities I named are the avenues to accumulating capital, if one is starting without.   If we don't start with a bag of gold, then we accumulate one by working hard and saving, or borrowing - some combination of these.  We know this to be true: every one of our families has histories that prove this to be true; and evidence that this is true is all around us. Every time we patronize a small business like a restaurant, a tavern or a dry cleaning establishment, or hop in a cab, we could be interacting with someone who utilized these innate human capacities to get started.

This is not to say that it's not an advantage to have a rich daddy.  If the goal is economic success, it's better to be rich than poor.  But we could note that it's also better to be brilliant than unintelligent; better to be beautiful than homely; better to be healthy than disabled; better to have mental health than to be depressed; better to be thin than overweight; better to be tall than short.  All of these attributes are correlated with economic success, and Rawls' "veil of ignorance" can't address most (or any) of these.  But the attributes I named - intelligence, imagination, creativity, the capacity for hard work, the capacity for cooperation - don't depend on wealth or beauty or height.  And examples of people who were not rich or beautiful or tall but who have managed to advance themselves in the world, are legion.

Let me close this too-long comment by noting this: if we start by acknowledging that these innate human traits (gifts from God, to be sure) are foundational to human flourishing, then the moral dimension in all this, the moral responsibility of our society, is to steward these gifts - to develop them in individuals in such a way that as many humans as possible can flourish.   My point of view is that we have shocking blind spots in this respect.  To be sure, these blind spots manifest themselves in unwise government policies, but also run broader and deeper than government.  Three quick examples: human intelligence needs to be cultivated in order to flourish, and yet we persist in pursuing educational policies that fail to educate those most in need in our society; human cooperation needs to be developed in order to flourish, and yet it is in the neighborhoods and communities most in need of this social capital that the church closes schools and parishes; personally virtuous behavior is necessary in order to cultivate these human traits, and yet we have managed, as a culture, to demolish the cultural strictures that served to steer individuals toward virtuous behavior such as chastity and thriftiness.

 

Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

I have trouble understanding the intended meaning of this question.  Is it asking whether or not, in a constitutional republic such as ours, we are legally entitled to keep it - minus a lawful and reasonable tax? (or ought to be thus legally entitled)?  Is it asking whether or not, for a practicing Catholic, we are morally entitled to keep it?  What does author intend the word "deserve" to mean?  Can someone help me out on this?

 

Jim P. ==

Where do you place the competition intrinsic to capitalism in this social structure?  It seems to me that as it is usually described economic competition instantiates the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest, which, it seems to me, is destructive of the social order you describe.  Indeed, it is a self-destructive elemenet or at least self-maiming element in all capitalist sysems.

Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

I have trouble understanding the intended meaning of this question.  Is it asking whether or not, in a constitutional republic such as ours, we are legally entitled to keep it - minus a lawful and reasonable tax? (or ought to be thus legally entitled)?  Is it asking whether or not, for a practicing Catholic, we are morally entitled to keep it?  What does author intend the word "deserve" to mean? 

Bob - This question is premised on Nozick's laissez-faire philosophy.  Not sure if you clicked through to read Srinivasa's article in its entirety.  Here is an example she gives (from Nozick) to illustrate his point of view.

If one person — Nozick uses the example of Wilt Chamberlain, the great basketball player — is able to produce a good or service that is in high demand, and others freely pay him for that good or service, then he deserves to get rich. And, once rich, he doesn’t owe anyone anything, since his wealth was accumulated through voluntary exchange in return for the goods and services he produced. Any attempt to “redistribute” his wealth, so long as it is earned through free market exchange, is, Nozick says, “forced labor.”

My own view of this is that, broadly speaking, this example accords with Western notions of property rights. in fact, I'd think that this point of view - 'I earned this wealth fair and square, and so it belongs to me, and nobody else has a right to it' - seems so intuitive, that some folks may be surprised to learn that it's a disputed point.  But in fact, the Catholic church would say that a person's right to what she's earned is not absolute: God' creation (the basis for all wealth) ultimately belongs to God; if we've been blessed with wealth, it's in order to be good stewards of it on God's behalf; and at or near the top of our list of stewardship responsibilities is to provide for those in need, as all of God's creatures, including the poor, have a right to meet hasic human needs via the blessings of creation, and those basic human rights precede property rights.

 

Where do you place the competition intrinsic to capitalism in this social structure?  It seems to me that as it is usually described economic competition instantiates the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest, which, it seems to me, is destructive of the social order you describe. 

Well, just speaking for myself, if I have to choose between pure Nozick and pure Rawls, I guess I'd choose Rawls.  I'm not a fan of unregulated, unrestrained competition.  Government is necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure a fair and competitive marketplace.  The marketplace itself also regulates a lot of potentially destructive competitive behavior, as many business persons recognize that it's in their self-interests to deal fairly.  And social and cultural mores also provide a powerful incentive to behave ethically - there are business persons who do the right thing because it is the right thing to do (as difficult as that may be to believe).

Beyond those considerations, the necessity to compete draws forth some of those human traits I mentioned in my first comment: the competitive marketplace is, for many human beings, the arena where they exercise and develop their intelligence, their creativity, their hard work, their cooperation and so on.  

 

Jim P. ==

Yes, creativity, etc. are all involved in making a product.  But the competition between the capitalists includes what is essentially a kind of destruction, and this  destruction is, at least on the face of it, the oppositive of creative, so for all the creativity that capitalism unleashes, it also unleashes destruction.

To get theological about it, to have the system working most effeciently it would be necessary for Businessperson A to drive Businessperson B out of business.  (Slight tangent:  Is that a Christian thing to do?).  The theory then requires that Businessman C must try to knock Bus. A out of business, for the simple reason that if C doesn't drive out A,  then A.will have a monopoly and  can then charge any price he chooses for his product.

What I'm saying is that capitalism (at least in its present form) leaves a lot to be desired.  But what's the alternative?  A completely socialist state has never worked.  Can the two be combined successfully somehow?  What else is there?

To get theological about it, to have the system working most effeciently it would be necessary for Businessperson A to drive Businessperson B out of business.  (Slight tangent:  Is that a Christian thing to do?). 

The claim of efficiency here depends on whose point of view we're taking.  From a consumer's point of view, competition is very helpful, in that it tends to drive prices downward and frequently results in the offering of additional value as competitors scramble to differentiate themselves.  From a consumer's point of view, it's usually great news when Walmart comes to town, because a lot of stuff will be cheaper.  For people who live within budget constraints (i.e. most of us), this view of the benefits of Walmart isn't pure selfishness and greed.  Walmart allows people of modest means to afford more necessities than they otherwise could; for people living on the margins of self-support, this may even make the difference between staying afloat or sinking farther in debt for a particular month.  (Affordability is viewed across the ideological spectrum as a moral good.)

But from a merchant's point of view, the less competition, the better.  (Profits plummet for both suppliers when a second supplier enters a market).  For a merchant, Walmart coming to town is usually a disaster; it's very destructive - of wealth, of stability, of jobs, and quite possibly those destructive effects ripple through the community.  The theory of capitalism is that this type of destruction is creative, but when one is living in between the destruction and the creation, it's hard to take a sunny or objective view of the process.  On the other hand, Walmart frequently is welcomed into communities because it's perceived to create jobs and career opportunities - in the stores themselves, in construction jobs to build the store campus, etc.

I expect that Nozick would argue that the shock of a Walmart entering a local market is all just fine, because consumers freely vote with their pocketbooks as to which stores they will patronize, and if they choose Walmart - so be it.  My observation of Walmart entering local marketplaces is that this is usually how it plays out in real life.  I don't know how Rawls would view this sort of thing; maybe he's ok with the competition only insofar as the other business owners and workers have a strong safety net.  (My view is that, for a retail worker in the US these days, the safety net is full of holes).