There is an argument that often underlies criticism used against redistribution of income that I call the “either-or argument.” Milton Friedman uses it in Capitalism and Freedom. Robert Nozick uses it in Anarchy State and Utopia. The argument goes like this:
1. Either capitalism is the right economic system or communism is the right economic system.
2. Communism is not the right economic system.
3. So, capitalism is the right economic system.
The problem is the first premise is a false dilemma. The false dilemma is particularly absurd because they way they define “capitalism” is as “capitalism without any redistribution of wealth” and “communism” is defined as “soviet style centrally planned communism.” (See here for alternative model of communism.)
I fully agree that some sort of capitalism is essential to freedom, and that Soviet style communism is not the direction we want to head in. But our current system of capitalism is regulated and has been for quite some time. The exact same moral considerations that would lead us to reject communism would lead us to reject a totally free market without any government interference and without any redistribution of wealth.
Essentially what Nozick and Friedman do is try to move from the fact that communism, soviet style centrally planned communism, doesn’t work or is morally problematic to the claim that we ought not to have any redistribution of wealth. But is a total non-sequitor. The argument looks like this:
1. Soviet style centrally planned communism is bad.
2. So, we shouldn’t have redistribution of wealth at all.
The very title of Friedman’s book, Capitalism and Freedom, makes use of this strategy. It may be a persuasive argumentative strategy but it totally fails as an argument. Nothing, absolutely nothing, about how much redistribution we should have follows from the fact that Soviet style communism doesn’t work.
In Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia he moves from his analysis regarding why purely egalitarian distributions are impossible without constant interference to a discussion of taxation and the patently absurd claim that taxation is akin to forced labor.
In my last post I commented on Jeffrey Dorfman’s article in Forbes. He also makes use of the either or argument. It is a popular line of reasoning amongst libertarians.
This is probably because they have an irrational fear governmental interference and a pathological obliviousness to their moral obligations to other members of society. I mean that literally. Libertarian moral psychology is very strange. The authors Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians compare it to autism at one point.
Hopefully someday libertarianism will be recognized as a legitimate psychological disfunction.
But until then we can have silly philosophical debates about libertarianism and egalitarianism.
Check out my moral psychology blog category for more posts on the topic.
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