Social Justice, Liberty

More on Talents

This post is a continuation of the long and rich conversation generated by my previous post.  Some of the comments below reiterate, perhaps less artfully, some of the points already made.

I agree with Rawls’s defenders that by asserting that “society owns talents“ he does not, and could not, mean that the state can force persons at gunpoint to use their talents in ways not chosen by them.

What he and his followers mean, of course, is that the state can permissibly tax people’s income regardless of how the income was generated (work, inheritance, lottery).  In response to Nozick’s objection that in most cases persons have earned the income because others have voluntarily paid for what they had to offer, Rawlsians say that “what they had to offer” is determined by morally arbitrary accidents of fortune. Some writers (Murphy and Nagel, for example) say that, for this reason, people do not own (morally) anything and the state can therefore freely redistribute their holdings. For all these writers, the arbitrariness of talents[1] grounds the state’s power to appropriate income.  Because talents are arbitrary, a mere circumstance, allowing “distributive shares” to be influenced by them is unfair. The only reason to allow the talented to keep some of their earnings is instrumental: to preserve the incentives to produce.  Breaking ranks with Locke and Kant, Rawlsians recognize no moral reasons to allow people to keep their earnings, thus undermining the importance that they would otherwise assign to the pursuit of personal projects.

My objection (following Nozick and many others) is to this move.  If the claim that talents are morally arbitrary is false (for reasons abundantly given; see now, in addition to the well-known pages in AnarchyE. Spector), then it cannot do the work in the theory that Rawlsians want it to do. It cannot ground the power of the state to reach people’s wallets, since it cannot ground a duty on the part of the talented to compensate others.

This is not to say that there are no other arguments for redistributive taxation. For myself, I would say, very roughly, something like the following: people should keep what they earn, except for taxes needed (1) to finance genuine public goods (that is, those that cannot be produced privately); and (2) to establish a safety net for those who have fallen below a certain level of income.  The justification of taxation in (2) does not rest on the false premise that the talented owe compensation to the less talented because of the arbitrariness of their gifts. Rather, it rests on considerations of humanity. But of course, all this is just conclusory. The argument will have to wait.

[1] “Talent” here is a shorthand for “ability to produce things others demand.”

  • Anonymous

    No problem, Fernando, so long as you’re only choosing for yourself. But, I suspect, you also want to choose for others. There’s the problem. Who decides what are legitimate public goods? Is the war in Iraq a legitimate public good? Who decides what income level is appropriate? And who decides whether the recipients are worthy of receiving income that others have earned?

  • Fernando, as I said about Herbert Spencer previously, I’m just learning about Rawls for the first time here, too, but a few of your comments are raising questions in my mind.

    First, when you speak about “the talented,” as I consider the unique way in which U.S. tax and monetary law has evolved after the Civil War, I see a big difference between talented people who personally “produce things others demand” themselves vs. talented people who hire others to produce those things. Would Rawls make a distinction like this, do you think?

    Second, when you say Rawls’s followers believe that “the state can … tax people’s income regardless of how the income was generated (work, inheritance, lottery),” there’s lots to unpack here, and I’m concerned about lumping those 3 items in together, so I’m wondering how you think Rawls would respond to the following comments: 

    (1) Under U.S. income tax law evolution, one’s work can be one’s income or one’s personal property, depending on the worker’s legal status.  Also, our Lockean-based Constitution is trying to provide an enforceable property right, not in the worker’s “arbitrary talents,” but in the energy or actions that proceed from the worker’s mind and body.  In effect, when the worker “sells” his/her labor (usually to an employer), the worker is actually offering his/her mind and body to the employer, and Locke wants to assure that such a property right is legally recognized (as least for the “natural persons” who claim it).

    (2) The U.S. long ago used to levy an inheritance tax on the living person receiving the money, but again because of how the Civil War affected the rights of individuals, this was changed to an “estate tax” which fell on decedents (who, of course, have no Constitutional rights). But, regarding Rawls, it would seem his followers should concentrate on this area of taxation to prevent “morally arbitrary accidents of fortune.”

    (3) Lottery proceeds are clearly income to the recipient, and can never be treated or taxed as property “because of ownership” (like the potential property right in labor explained above in item #1), so again, if Rawls’s followers want to prevent arbitrary accidents of fortune, a mechanism already exists under the tax code (without compromising a potential property right in one’s labor).

  • Richard Chappell

    Fernando – I’m having trouble following the dialectic here. 

    Let’s grant that talents are non-deserved (i.e. considerations of ‘desert’ do not apply either way) rather than undeserved.  Why is that not enough to answer the Nozickian objection that “persons have earned the income because others have voluntarily paid for what they had to offer”, and hence to support the liberal’s original claim that “the state can permissibly tax people’s income regardless of how the income was generated (work, inheritance, lottery)”?

    There are, as you agree, “reasons of humanity” to redistribute wealth.  Wealth resulting from “work” is not exempt from these reasons, as it might be if it were “deserved” in some strong sense.  So aren’t you just straightforwardly agreeing with the central claim you attributed to “Rawls and his defenders”?

    In other words, it’s not that the wealthy owe compensation to others “because of the arbitrariness [understood as positive undeservedness] of their gifts”.  No-one should see that as the primary motivation.  Rather, the important point is that the arbitrariness [understood as lack of positive desert for one’s “earned” wealth] undermines the Nozickian objection to redistribution.  It’s a defeater to an objection, not a positive reason.  Redistribution may still be primarily motivated by other (egalitarian or utilitarian) grounds.

  • Anonymous

    I’m wondering what you take on Walter Williams ideas on compensating differences in the context of these discussions.

  • Anonymous

    here’s my trouble with the Rawlsian argument:
    If a person’s talents are accidents of fortune, and he has no rights to them, then what gives the “society” or other people any rights to them either?
    It seems to me that the question is who has the MOST claim to a given talent.  The individual may not have created it but it is attached to his person.  By contrast, I don’t see any reason why anyone other than he has any right to it at all.

  • I fear repeating myself, but let me try again. Rawls puts forward, first and foremost, a PROCESS for deciding on the distribution of rights (including property rights) in society. The process is a thought experiment: put people in the “original position” where they must decided on the distribution of rights while acting under the “veil of ignorance” — so that people are unaware of where and when they will be born and what talents they will be born with, etc. (I’ll call this thought experiment OP/VOI for original position/veil of ignorance.) Then, seek a consensus among those people. Rawls suggests that everyone would agree on the difference principal.

    Now, you can attack this on a lot of grounds. You can say, for example, that this is a terrible process and that something other than OP/VOI consensus should dictate rights. Or you can accept the validity of the process, but argue that people in OP/VOI would reach a different consensus (or no consensus at all). 

    What you cannot do — but what you are trying to do — is complain that the consensus violates someone’s rights. The process necessarily precedes (because it determines) the rights. In this thought experiment, there are no rights until the people in OP/VOI agree to them.

    Also, another thing you cannot do — but are trying to do — is attack the OP/VOI on the ground that you and others would reject the OP/VOI consensus TODAY,  based on your knowledge of where and when you were born and your talents. The fact that people have different views once they are aware of their talents and birth circumstances is exactly why  Rawls envisioned OP/VOI  in the first place. To argue that Rawls got it wrong because people outside OP/VOI have a different view than people inside OP/VOI is to fundamentally misunderstand the point of Rawls’ theory of justice.

    • Anonymous

      Are you aware that the OP thought experiment has been subject to withering criticism from both egalitarians and libertarians, and that as a result very few if any theorists take it seriously any more. If not, I suggest you consult the collection of essays collected in Reading Rawls: Critical Studies of A Theory of Justice, Norman Daniels (ed.). My favorites are from Nagel, R. Dworkin, Hare, Hart and Barber. Let us not overlook as well the devastating critque by Nozick in ASU. You might also be interested in Will Kymlicka’s analysis in Contemporary Political Philosophy, 2nd ed., pp. 53-75.

      • Yes, I said in my original post that there were valid criticisms of it. That does not change my point that the criticism put forth in this post fundamentally misunderstands the idea that is being criticized. Your name dropping does nothing to bolster the original post or to contradict anything I said in my post. And I am sure you are aware, there are responses to all the criticisms you have described, including most notably the “devastating critique by Nozick.”

        • Anonymous

          If, as I think is obvious, the OP/VOI completely fails as a moral argument for egalitarian outcomes, then it may safely be ignored, right?

          If the OP/VOI succeedes as a convincing moral framework, why did Rawls abandon it in favor of Political Liberalism?

          Of the authorities I referenced above, how many have you actually read and are prepared to rebut?

          • I suggest you re-read Political Liberalism, where you will see that Rawls certainly did not “abandon” the original position. 

  • Christopher Morris

    “If the claim that talents are morally arbitrary is false…” I find it hard to assign a truth value to such an opaque assertion. Arbitrary? Morally arbitrary?? What in the world does that mean? Is it morally arbitrary that I eat a muffin for breakfast? How could such an opaque claim do any serious work in our thinking? And adding “from the moral point of view” won’t help, only make one suspect that a deity is hiding somewhere in the attic of our minds. 

    Thinking that this claim is false is conceding too much.

    • Anonymous

      Are you the same Christopher Morris who wrote the piece on Lomasky’s derivation of basic rights in “Reason Papers” in 1989? If so, I read it and profited from it.

      PS: I agree with you here on Rawls.

      • Christopher Morris

        The same man. And ever since then poor LL has been avoiding me in debate, worrying that he might be subjected to more of the same critical scrutiny. The poor fellow has not been the same since. 

        • Anonymous

          Lomasky is a somewhat peripheral figure in my Nozick’s Libertarian Project, but I cite and quote your piece in briefly critiquing Lomasky’s concept of rights in PRMC.

        • Yes, poor Loren.  It’s difficult to draw him out in conversation these days, and when one does, his replies are a barely audible mumble.  One can scarcely tell he’s in the room.

        • CFV

          I don’t understand your comment. I haven’t read your piece. But even if LL’s derivation of basic rights does not succeed (it is such a difficult issue, one in which it is more easy being destructive rather than constructive), I believe he is indeed a very gifted philosopher. (Difficult to understand when he speaks, agreed!). See, for instance, his recent “Liberty after Lehman Brothers”.

    • Chris, 
      I think Fernando’s use of the phrase “talents are morally arbitrary” is just shorthand for saying “the distribution of talents is arbitrary and random, and not the reflection of worth or desert, and therefore, the possession of talents does not entitle (of the possession of talents does not make one deserve) a larger distribution of rights, including property rights, than those lacking talents, or put another way, distribution of rights based on the possession of talents is not distinguishable from distributing rights on the basis of a coin toss in any meaningful way.”  The short hand is easier to use in conversation of course. But I think you knew that.  
      Your muffin selection is not a good analogy because it has nothing to do with distribution of rights in society. So it is not morally arbitrary in the sense that Fernando means. 

      • Christopher Morris

        You’re right that there are ways of unpacking the short phrase that make clearer what the thought might be. There are several interpretations which, like yours, make clearer what those who worry about the distribution of natural talents object to. 

        There is a lot of contingency in the world (e.g., had the telephone rung at a certain moment minutes or hours before your conception, you would not exist). But natural talents, like muffins, are not “distributed” in the way they need to be to raise questions of distributive justice. I often suspect these reactions to the contingency of our existence betray the lingering presence of a Distributor in the Sky (or a point of view which is that of the Universe). These remarks may be too opaque.

        • Damien S.

          Well, as _Justice by Lottery_ pointed out, talents are unevenly distributed, but we all seem roughly equal in the magnitudes of our needs and desires.  Thus leading to a radical egalitarian viewpoint; we’d all enjoy X equally, why don’t we all have an equal right to X?  Even inclination to work is arguably an accident of upbringing and heredity more than some virtuous choice.

          I don’t go that far, but it was an interesting thought.

        • Distribution in this context does not require a distributor in the sky (or elsewhere). Distribution just means the amount of each type that each person has, without taking a position on the “why” or “how”. Indeed, the point of Rawls and his sympathizers is that the distribution is random, haphazard and undirected. 
          But I think the larger point is missed: it is libertarians, who claim that distribution of property rights based on natural talents and transactions derived therefrom, who have to explain why that distribution is just, not the other way around. Because if the random, haphazard and undirected distribution of rights is not just (or cannot be proven to be just), than less of a reason to favor it over the conscious re-distribution of property rights.   

  • I don’t actually disagree with too much of what you say here,  but now that you’ve said a bit more about your own view of what justice is, I find myself even more puzzled as to why you insist that Rawls is unique in denying self-ownership of talents.

    Granted that Rawls says a lot of things you don ‘t like about the relationship between an individual and her talents.  But at the end of the day Rawls affirms that individuals (a) control their talents and (b) have the right to benefit from them as much as they can within the constraints of just institutions. 

    Given that, I’m not sure how much practical difference there is between the rights an individual actually enjoys over her talents on Rawls view versus on yours.  Granted, again, that the justification for redistribution is different.  But in practical terms–in terms of the actual, concrete rights that individuals enjoy over their talents–it sounds like the difference between a just Rawlsian society and a just Tesonian society is ultimately a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.

    Now there is a huge difference between maximal redistribution and a minimal safety net.  I grant that. But it is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.  And it strains credulity to think that the difference between a society that affirms self-ownership and one that affirms collective ownership is ultimately just a difference in marginal tax rates. 

    Are there any qualitative differences between the rights individuals have over their talents on your view and the rights they have on Rawls’s?  And, again, I’m not talking about the justification of those rights.  I don’t care about that; obviously we’re not going to agree about that.  I want to know about the content of the rights themselves. 

  • Just to press the point: it sounds like the only practical difference between a just Rawlsian society and a just Tesonian society is that (a) redistribution is more extensive and (b) marginal tax rates are higher.  I agree that there is a difference there.  I might even agree that in a Tesonian society individuals enjoy more “economic freedom.”  But to say that one is a bastion of freedom that affirms self-ownership and treats individuals as inviolable, while the other is a collectivist nightmare that treats talents as collective property and forces individuals to work for the greater good–well, that sounds like overstating it a bit much.  Again, to me, it looks like a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.

    Am I missing something?  Or do you really think that the difference between individualism and collectivism is nothing more than the difference between a minimal welfare state and a maximal one?

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