Social Justice

Community and Diversity in Cohen’s Socialist Utopia

Some excerpts/summary from a paper of mine, forthcoming in a symposium on Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? Lots of typos, I’m sure.

In Why Not Socialism?, Cohen articulates a number of moral principles he believes socialism can realize but capitalism cannot. In previous work, I’ve argued he’s wrong about this–under both ideal and realistic circumstances, capitalism outperforms socialism, Today I want to discuss a third principle of Cohen’s, which I’ll call the “community principle”. The principle of community is supposed to forbid most of the inequalities that luck egalitarianism and socialist equality of opportunity would permit. This principle is meant to justify a more radical egalitarianism than other luck egalitarians accept.

Cohen’s principle of community, a strongly egalitarian principle, seems appealing at first glance. However, further reflection shows this principle has many repulsive implications. For the principle of community to support Cohen’s strongly egalitarian conclusions, the principle must not only forbid inequalities of wealth, but most forbid most other differences, differences we not only have no reason to reject, but differences we have every reason to celebrate. In the end, if Cohen’s principle of community is strongly egalitarian, it permits at best a stunted form of community.
Why the Community Principle is Crucial for Cohen’s Argument

Though Cohen spends little space in his massive corpus defending the principle of community, this principle is crucial for his philosophy. He needs this principle, or some replacement for it, to be sound in order to get the conclusions he wants. The problem Cohen identifies is that luck egalitarianism is not egalitarian enough. The purpose of Cohen’s “principle of community” is to generate even more egalitarian outcomes than luck egalitarianism requires.

Another reason this principle is so important for Cohen is that he needs to have have an independent argument for egalitarianism that does not beg the question. So, for instance, much of Cohen’s past work, such as critiques of Robert Nozick and John Rawls, is meant to refute attempts to justify inequality, e.g., by undermining arguments that some people deserve more than others or that giving some people more is necessary to motivate them to work hard for the common good. [iv] Suppose he is right and that all of these justifications of inequality fail. Even if so, that does imply that material egalitarianism is correct. We cannot just assume, without argument, that equality is a baseline from which departures must be justified. But without a sound argument for this assumption, Cohen’s strategy of refuting justifications for inequality makes no difference, even if it succeeds. A non-egalitarian can just say, “Sure, these arguments for inequality fail, but as far as I’m concerned, they they do not need to succeed, because we have no reason to presume equality is a baseline from which departures must be justified.” In Cohen’s entire corpus, the principle of community, though underdeveloped, seems to be his best independent argument for presuming that equality is just such a baseline.

The Kinds of Inequalities the Principle of Community Forbids

Cohen claims that the (luck egalitarian) principle of socialist equality of opportunity is “consistent with three forms of inequality,” two of which are relatively unproblematic, but the third of which is “very problematic”. As Cohen explains:

The truly problematic inequality in overall benefit, the substantial inequality that is consistent with socialist equality of opportunity, is inequality that reflects differences in what philosophers call option luck. The paradigm case of option luck is a deliberate gamble. We start out equally placed, with $100 each… We [decide to] flip a coin on the understanding that I give you $50 if it comes up heads, and you give me $50 if it comes up tails. I end up with $150 and you end up with $50, and with no extra anything to offset that monetary shortfall.

Cohen makes it clear that the people making this bet start off as equal in all morally relevant ways, and that the bet is voluntary. He also makes it clear that while the loser regrets losing, the loser still considers it a reasonable bet, and would be willing to make such a bet again. No exploitation has occurred. Still, Cohen claims, the resulting inequality is “very” morally problematic, and socialists should find the resulting inequality “repugnant”.

Cohen worries that socialist equality of opportunity remains compatible with widespread, radical inequality, provided the inequalities come about the right way, such as through option luck. Socialist equality of opportunity requires a kind of equality in starting points, but no equality in results. For Cohen, then, the community principle is supposed to take care of the inequalities that socialist equality of opportunity would admit; it is supposed to help generate equal results. Still, Cohen does not quite tell us just how egalitarian this community principle is. Does it allow any inequality, and if so, how much?

In some writings, Cohen seems to advocate something close to complete egalitarianism: “Egalitarians like me think justice is fully served only if people’s access to desirable conditions of life is equal, within the constraints of a reasonable personal prerogative…” This passage suggests that justice would require perfect equality were it not constrained by personal prerogative. Cohen never quite tells us just how much a reasonable personal prerogative constrains the push for perfect equality, but as the example of option luck seems to indicates, he thinks two guys making a voluntary bet in which one ends up $100 richer than the other—a bet that both players wanted to make and would make again—is beyond the pale. This suggests that the space of a “reasonable personal prerogative” is tiny, and that this reasonable personal prerogative allows very little inequality.

However, elsewhere, Cohen seems to suggest that the community principle allows greater inequality. He says that we “cannot enjoy full community, you and I, if you make and keep, say, ten times as much money as I do…” Cohen might think you and I cannot enjoy full community if you make twice as much money as I do (or if you win $100 from me in a voluntary bet), but here he is at least appealing to more intuitive and widely shared notions of how inequality could undermine community.

Why should inequalities resulting from option luck threaten community? His main worry, as James Otteson summarizes it, is that a rich man and a poor man live in “virtually separate worlds”.[v] As Cohen elaborates, if you make ten times as much money as I do, then

 

…my life will then labor under challenges that you will never face, challenges that your could help me to cope with, but do not, because you keep your money…

 

To illustrate, I am rich…and you are poor…You have to ride the crowded bus every day, whereas I pass you by in my comfortable car. One day, however, I must take the bus, because my wife needs the car. I can reasonably complain about that to a fellow car-driver, but not to you. I can’t say to you: “It’s awful that I have to take the bus today.” There is a lack of community between us….And it will show itself in many others way, for we enjoy widely different powers to care for ourselves, to protect and care for offspring, to avoid danger, and so on.[i]

 

The main idea here seems to be that if one of us I much better off, we will lead such different lives that we will not have a sufficient degree of common experiences, including exposure to common challenges. Since we face different challenges and have such different experiences, we will not be able to properly empathize or sympathize with one another. We will be virtual aliens to one another, and so cannot properly be in community with one another.  [Note: There are other interpretations of this passage, which I deal with in the full paper, but I’m only going to talk about this interpretation in this post.]

Cohen later returns to the example of a lottery. Suppose you eat much better than the rest of us because of option luck. You won a lottery that we all freely entered. Here, “even though there is no injustice…, your luck cuts you off from our common life, and the ideal of community condemns that, and therefore also condemns the running of any such lottery.” Here, the problem is that you are sufficiently different from the rest of us; you fail to share sufficiently in our common experiences.
Why This Kind of Argument is Problematic for Cohen

Cohen believes that differences in wealth translate into different life experiences, different exposure and vulnerability to challenges, and so on, that can reduce the degree to which we form a community. If I am very rich and you are very poor, I cannot fully understand and empathize with your plight. Moreover, it seems inappropriate for me to complain about many of my problems in front of you, since things I might regard as temporary misfortune—such as having to take a crowded bus to work—might be common experience for you. So, differences in wealth can bring us apart.

But in Cohen’s story, the problem with differences in wealth appears to be not specifically differences in wealth, but differences, period. Differences in wealth are bad because they (could) cause us to lead very different lives and thus not sympathize with or understand each other. But so can other kinds of differences. People have different personalities, different tastes, different goals, different worries, and differing conceptions of the sublime, the holy, the sacred, the noble, or the good. Almost all people care about community, but they have different conceptions of what a good community would look like, about what things must be shared to enjoy full membership, and about what things can be different without being a threat. Something that could interfere with one kind of community might not be a threat to a different kind.

Consider the egalitarian Hutterite communities spread throughout North America. The Hutterites have strict rules against birth control and against using the Internet or other media. They share all goods equally. They cap their colony population at around 100 members—if a colony gets too large, they must split into separate colonies. (The goal is to ensure everyone knows everyone personally.) They eat all meals together communally. Finally, everyone has the same religion—they worship together daily—and has the same cultural tastes. (There are no outside influences.)

No doubt the Hutterites are in a tight community with one another; they realize Cohen’s community principle as well as any realistic community I have read about. Indeed, they might realize it perfectly. But, note here that in realizing community with one another, the Hutterites make themselves aliens to others, including to Cohen and me. I have far more in common and am far more in community with billionaire Mark Cuban or with my housekeeper than I am or would be with any Hutterites.

Cohen, I presume, does not believe that all communities should look like secular versions of the Hutterite community, in which individuality and difference are suppressed. He wants his ideal communities to allow for difference and individuality. He wants community, but not totalistic community.

But this is a problem for Cohen. Since all sorts of differences can undermine or reduce the community that obtains among us, the stronger the community principle is meant to be, the less room it leaves for us to have any such differences. If the community principle is strictly egalitarian—if it forbids you from even having a measly $100 more than I—then this principle should also forbid you from being different in almost any way that would make you and I even slightly alien to one another. (Cohen might insist that that you having $100 more than I is much more alienating than you have a different religion, but that’s not at all plausible.) But if the community principle allows for massive differences in taste, religion, views of the good, ideas of the sublime, personality, and so on—all things that demonstrably reduce community and can render people alien to another—then it should also allow massive inequalities in wealth as well. After all, differences in wealth are not in any obvious way more threatening to community than these other differences.

Cohen could try to respond that as a matter of fact, these differences in wealth are especially threatening to community in way that these other kinds of differences are not. He might be right. But this looks like an empirical claim, not a conceptual claim. Whether differences in wealth are more or less dangerous than these others differences is a social scientific question, something for political scientists to investigate, not for philosophers to assert. (Philosophers qua philosophers can at best help political scientists fix on a proper operational definition of “community”.) Cohen doesn’t want to just assert that that community is, by definition, a thing especially threatened by differences in wealth. This would come across as question-begging or ideological. Instead, what makes Cohen’s arguments as persuasive as they are is that he relies upon relatively ordinary notions of community and a commonsensical empirical account of how differences in wealth can draw us apart.

So, Cohen has a serious problem. Insofar as we just take for granted his causal theory of how wealth undermines community, we have every reason to presume that other kinds of differences also undermine community just as much. However, if he wants to differentiate among these differences, arguing that differences in wealth hurt community in ways other kinds of differences do not, then he does has not supplied the social scientific research to back up his assertions, and it does not appear the research is out there to be found

These are just excerpts from the paper. In the longer version, I deal with possible responses from Cohen, as well as other interpretations of the community principle. You can email me for a copy.

 

 

  • disqus_RqqwY8271f
    • martinbrock

      Needless to say, the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden is not an apple. It is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which is as indisputably metaphorical as any metaphor has ever been in a story as indisputably allegorical as any allegory has ever been. So what does eating this fruit represent? What is the knowledge of good and evil? Its proximity to the Garden makes it almost impossible to see.

  • Theresa Klein

    I think you have a very good point about how the differences in life experiences caused by wealth differences are not really any more or less alienating than differences in life experiences caused by any number of other factors, including gender, race, sexuality, religion, or just accidents of history like growing up in a war zone or being abused as a child.

    It’s worth noting that much of the liberal project is actually about trying to negotiate ways to create community across boundaries like race and sex. Yet, at the same time, there is a tension in that people also don’t want those boundaries to cease to exist. There’s a constant tension between celebrating diversity, and creating community. There is also significant social science research showing that more homogenous societies are more communitarian and more diverse ones less so.

    At the same time, if wealth is just another factor like race and sex, then why not tolerate wealth differences and seek ways to create community in spite of it? Is there any reason why wealth is more alienating than race or religious differences?

    • martinbrock

      Seriously, if I could choose between Bill Gates’ wealth and Ron Jeremy’s penis, I’d think about it for a while.

      As a libertarian, I oppose only forced inequality, and that leaves so much inequality to oppose, I wonder why anyone needs to look further.

      Jason would be more alienated in a Hutterite colony than on a cruise with Mark Cuban or a campout with his housekeeper, but I’m not sure he describes the reason here. I suppose he’s too accustomed to the countless forces channeling resources unequally around him to be comfortable in any voluntary community, whether or not populated by Hutterites or organized by egalitarian principles otherwise. Most of us are.

    • (Apologies for the late comment, I’ll try not to ramble.) “The differences in life experiences caused by wealth differences are not really any more or less alienating than differences in life experiences caused by any number of other factors…” From which presumably the argument follows that such differences are not and cannot be salient, since (to take one of your examples) we can’t imagine differences from “being abused as a child [or not]” as being salient.

      I think Cohen’s argument (such as it is) has be qualified to note that differences are salient only to the extent that they impact people’s ability to live and work together in the context of a common set of institutions. So, for example, religion is salient to the extent that believers attempt to force all others to live under a specific form of religious law, ethnicity is salient to the extent that people treat government primarily as a tool to advance narrow ethnic interests, and wealth is salient to the extent that the wealthy believe themselves above the laws and social norms that apply to the “peasants” (to quote Conrad Hilton).

      “Much of the liberal project is actually about trying to negotiate ways to create community across boundaries like race and sex.” I agree 100%. Both markets and liberal democracy to a large extent abstract away personal and group differences and provide a more impersonal context in which we can live and work together productively. But as you immediately note, there is tension there, and I think there are limits to how much both markets and liberal democracy can mitigate salient differences.

      “There is also significant social science research showing that more homogenous societies are more communitarian and more diverse ones less so.” Yes, like Robert Putnam’s studies. These can also be interpreted as showing that increasing diversity reduces trust. A lot of libertarians seem to think that lack of trust can always be mitigated by appropriate institutional/technological design (for example, this appears to motivate stuff like Bitcoin and the block chain). However I suspect such libertarians are not being sufficiently imaginative when it comes to the possibility of defection and the amount of cleverness motivated defectors can and will bring to the task of defecting.

      “Is there any reason why wealth is more alienating than race or religious differences?” No, but in certain circumstances it can be just as alienating as ethnic and religious differences, which is to say quite a lot. And to answer your penultimate question (“why not tolerate wealth differences and seek ways to create community in spite of it?”) I think that can in fact be done. I suspect it requires that the circumstances of the least advantaged be such that that they exist in a condition of “democratic equality” (to use Elizabeth Anderson’s term) with respect to the most advantaged. I suspect it also requires the most advantaged to feel a certain amount of noblesse oblige toward the least advantaged.

      • TracyW

        I think Cohen’s argument (such as it is) has be qualified to note that differences are salient only to the extent that they impact people’s ability to live and work together in the context of a common set of institutions. So, for example, religion is salient to the extent that believers attempt to force all others to live under a specific form of religious law,

        This limited result doesn’t follow from your definition. For example, certain religious groups, such as Jehovah Witnesses, seek to withdraw from the “sinful world” and not participate in common institutions unless absolutely necessary. (My grandfather, a dairy farmer, was once approached by some JWs who wanted to join his dairying cooperative company, but keep their joining secret. He was outraged and refused.) This obviously impacts people’s ability to work together in the context of a common set of institutions, even though JWs don’t attempt to force others to live under a specific form of religious law.

        ethnicity is salient to the extent that people treat government primarily as a tool to advance narrow ethnic interests,

        No I think racism is a problem beyond that. Eg someone who has no interest in government, but cuts off their family members who marry interracially.

        and wealth is salient to the extent that the wealthy believe themselves above the laws and social norms that apply to the “peasants” (to quote Conrad Hilton).

        I rather think that Conrad Hilton has learnt that he is not above the laws and social norms that apply to everyone else.

        No, but in certain circumstances it can be just as alienating as ethnic and religious differences, which is to say quite a lot.

        Which circumstances are these? Can you cite some historical examples?

        • “Which circumstances are these?” Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point, but during most of human recorded history post-agriculture wealthy and powerful elites considered themselves to live under a different set of rules from the wealth of humanity. (For example, an elite killing another member of the elite would be punished, but an elite killing a peasant would not.)

          Also, the examples you cite re religion and ethnicity don’t really seem to contradict my point. Cutting off family members for inter-racial marriage has only private (not public) implications for the most part, and religious sects withdrawing from society is less of an issue than religious sects attempting to exercise power over society.

          • TracyW

            during most of human recorded history post-agriculture wealthy and powerful elites considered themselves to live under a different set of rules from the wealth of humanity

            But now you’re conflating wealth and political power, which are quite different things. Does recorded history show wealthy people without political power getting away with murder, or considering themselves to live under a different set of rules? Eg wealthy medieval London merchants? Wealthy medieval Jews?

            For example, an elite killing another member of the elite would be punished, but an elite killing a peasant would not.

            Really? When and where? Anglo-Saxon legal codes and the Magna Carta contain no such clause. And while often the powerful could get away with murder, that was the case even amongst the elite. Henry VIII executed not just two of his wives but various powerful noblemen. There was a definite dynamic in many places by which greater power made you a target. For example, less than 1/3 of Roman emperors died natural deaths.

            Cutting off family members for inter-racial marriage has only private (not public) implications for the most part, and religious sects withdrawing from society is less of an issue than religious sects attempting to exercise power over society.

            But “less of an issue” is not the same as “not a problem” at all. The statement was that differences are salient to the extent that they impact people’s ability to live and work together.

            And when was private less important than public? Or the family less important than government? Food is a private matter, but try going without it for a few days and then tell me that it’s less important than who’s in power at the moment. And having to chose between the person you love and your family is a very tough decision for many people.

          • Apologies for the late response. I’ll try to hit all points. Re private vs. public, we are talking political philosophy here, which is inherently about political institutions and systems of law/property/etc. in the public realm. Hence my emphasis on public consequences and downplaying of private.

            Wealth and power have typically been intertwined, but not always; exceptions seem to be due to suppression of religious and/or ethnic minorities (Jews in Europe, blacks like Madam CJ Walker in the US). Power of course often leads to wealth (e.g., Bill and Hilary Clinton), but wealth also typically translates into power for reasons ranging from the ability to support armed groups (medieval lords, large landowners in Central and South America), formalized preferential access to political mechanisms (rotten boroughs in Britain pre-Reform Act, property qualifications for voting in the early US), or just the ability to devote more resources to influencing political candidates and public policy. Formal legal systems (where they have existed, and “law” is not simply identical to a ruler’s whim) have often treated the wealthy/powerful differently than others (e.g., Japanese “kiri-sute go men” system allowing samurai to kill commoners for disrespect), or have left others out of legal protections (e.g., Magna Carta, which originally applied to high nobility only, and was only later re-interpreted to apply to all).

            To be clear, I am not saying that all of this applies to the US, UK, and other developed democracies at present. However this stuff is not outside the realm of possibility given historical experience and also given present-day experience in non-developed countries. Hence I think it’s a legitimate topic for political philosophy to address, not to dismiss as an obvious irrelevancy.

            (Apologies again for length; this and other comments really should have been an expanded blog post — maybe later.)

          • TracyW

            Re private vs. public, we are talking political philosophy here, which is inherently about political institutions and systems of law/property/etc. in the public realm.

            Nope. Your original claim was “differences are salient only to the extent that they impact people’s ability to live and work together in the context of a common set of institutions.” Nothing in there about “political philosophy”. Family objections for interracial marriage and religious groups withdrawing from society definitely do impact people’s ability to live and work together.

            but wealth also typically translates into power for reasons ranging from the ability to support armed groups (medieval lords

            I don’t know about large landowners in Central and South America, but in the case of medieval lords, their wealth came from their power: the king would reward politically powerful supporters by giving them and their heirs’ lands (which often involved taking lands away from the king’s political opponents). One of the benefits of the land grants was that then the supporter would have the ability to support armed groups to further support the king.

            formalized preferential access to political mechanisms (rotten boroughs in Britain pre-Reform Act

            Nope. Again that was the king needed support from local elites to raise taxes for him, and in return had to allow said local elites somthing in return, starting off as parliament being able to offer counsel to the King. Many wealthy industrialists before the 1832 Reform Act lived in cities such as Leeds and Birmingham which were badly unrepresented.

            And note that this difference in legal rights did not stop people cooperating across class lines in the English Civil War, or for the restoration of the monarchy, or the Industrial Revolution, or the 1832 Reform Act.

            property qualifications for voting in the early US

            This was an offshoot of the original English parliament, in which the king was gathering the local people whose support he needed to levy taxes. Note that property qualifications were lowered and eventually abandoned, despite continued wealth disparities. The general extension of voting to more and more people is in line with people being able to live and work together in the context of a common set of institutions. It’s yet more evidence that wealth disparities are entirely compatible with this cooperation.

            have often treated the wealthy/powerful differently than others

            Again, you’re conflating wealth with power. My point is that that it’s the power that translates into the differences, not the wealth.

            e.g., Japanese “kiri-sute go men” system allowing samurai to kill commoners for disrespect

            Note that wealthy merchants in Japan were still commoners, and indeed officially ranked lower than peasants. Yet more evidence that power is quite different to wealth.

            e.g., Magna Carta, which originally applied to high nobility only, and was only later re-interpreted to apply to all

            Nope, your history is just wrong again. I before linked to a transcript of the first Magna Carta text before. While some clauses clearly apply only to the high nobility, numerous others clearly apply far more generally, eg referring to “a free man”, “knight”, and “merchant”.

            or just the ability to devote more resources to influencing political candidates and public policy

            I agree that the wealthy have the ability to devote more resources to influencing political candidates and public policy. I think this is a good thing overall, despite the case of Engels, it allows the promotion of ideas outside of the current political mainstream. Even if the mainstream idea is right, having to defend it against other ideas sharpens the minds of the defenders and increases their understanding of the right idea, and of its limits.

            Hence I think it’s a legitimate topic for political philosophy to address, not to dismiss as an obvious irrelevancy.

            If it’s a legitimate topic for political philosophy to address, it’s worthwhile putting some time into getting the actual factual history right (such as you know, checking the Magna Carta’s text before making statements about it), and not relying on sloppy arguments dependent on conflating wealth and power.

          • An excellent well-argued response. In the interest of personal learning let me summarize for myself the “state of play”. If I get the original Cohen argument, it was that differences, most notably differences in wealth, impair our ability to function as a community and hence should be opposed/corrected. The counter-argument then being that taken to its logical conclusion this would mean 1) that any and all differences (taste, religion, etc.) would impair community, and force an absurd sort of egalitarianism, or 2) on the other hand, if “massive differences” in other things are permissible then massive differences in wealth are not an issue either.

            I find Cohen’s argument is way over-blown, but I’m not 100% convinced by the counter-argument. Mainly that’s because I think it’s plausible that some differences are more relevant than others, and that differences in wealth might be one of those, especially when it comes to aspects of community that relate to the basic political and economic organization of society (beyond simple inter-personal and familial relations).

            The counter-argument for that is that any problems perceived to be due to great wealth are really a function of power differentials instead–the evidence for such being the historical example of groups (e.g., merchants vs. landed aristocracy) whose wealth did not translate into (political) power. (Well, eventually the balance was redressed, but the process took hundreds of years.) A possible follow-on to the counter-argument is that in the absence of coercive power some people having great wealth would have no negative associations or consequences at all; it would be no more salient from a societal point of view than (say) some people being able to jump higher or run faster than others.

            I don’t quite buy this conclusion, at least at this time. Partly that’s because I don’t see coercive power going away anytime soon. Partly it’s because my prior at this point (based on past reading) is that there is some level of causal correlation between people being extremely wealthy and those people being able to influence politics in more than the usual way–not to get each and every thing they want, but rather to help shape the landscape in a way that their interests are given relatively more weight and certain policy actions end up more likely than others.

            Having said that, I am not an inequality alarmist. I recently read a review article by Lane Kenworthy, a researcher who seems likely to be predisposed to be receptive to the “(income) inequality is bad” story; his conclusion was that almost all of the supposed bad effects of (income) inequality have little or evidence to support them. It’s quite possible that today’s advanced democracies can tolerate extremely high levels of economic inequality, with the degree of toleration varying from country to country based on history and people’s predispositions. It may be that if inequality ever does become a major political issue (I don’t think it’s there yet) it will be because the level of inequality violates relatively amorphous social norms around how much wealth any one person or group should have, not because of any real negative consequences.

          • TracyW

            A possible follow-on to the counter-argument is that in the absence of coercive power some people having great wealth would have no negative associations or consequences at all;

            You’ve moved a long way from your original claim that ” in certain circumstances it[wealth] can be just as alienating as ethnic and religious differences”. Now you’re reducing yourself to speculating about some strawman debater who might be so foolish as to argue that wealth might possibly have no negative consequences. (“Foolish” because many things have negative consequences but are good overall. Just because I stub my toe on a piece of furniture doesn’t mean I’m taking a severely minimalistic approach to my home.)

            I take it from this change in tactics that you agree with me that ethnic and religious differences are much more salient and alienating than wealth.

            Partly it’s because my prior at this point (based on past reading) is that there is some level of causal correlation between people being extremely wealthy and those people being able to influence politics in more than the usual way–not to get each and every thing they want, but rather to help shape the landscape in a way that their interests are given relatively more weight and certain policy actions end up more likely than others.

            You already said basically this, and in my reply before, I stated why I regarded the wealthly as having more influence as overall being a good thing. Noticeably Sweden is reportedly very unequal in terms of wealth, but is generally regarded as very well-governed.

            Do you agree with my argument as to why the wealthy having more influence on politics is a good thing overall? (despite the odd Engels) If not, why not?

          • “You’ve moved a long way from your original claim…” I’m always happy to evolve my thinking in response to counter-arguments. If I wanted to have my initial biases confirmed I wouldn’t be posting here.

            “I take it … that you agree with me that ethnic and religious differences are much more salient and alienating than wealth.” Yes, with one proviso. If you look at it from an evolutionary perspective then you would expect ethnic differences to be most salient–they’re clear markers of “in-group/out-group” population differences and hence most likely to trigger feelings of conflict, distrust, etc. Religious differences would come next, since successful religions intensify in-group/out-group distinctions (e.g., by requiring special rituals of believers). Mere wealth in and of itself wouldn’t trigger such evolved reactions–from the point of view of evolved emotional predispositions Warren Buffett is just another folksy Midwesterner.

            The exception is that any in-born egalitarianism left over from our hunter-gatherer days would likely trigger resistance to overt displays of status dominance–in other words, the Conrad Hilton effect. All else being equal I suspect wealthy people would be more likely to engage in this, on the general principle that people who have been successful in acquiring wealth would be more likely to feel justified in their status and superior to others less successful. I’d also expect this to be more prevalent in people who’ve inherited their wealth (Conrad Hilton again), since from their point of view being wealthy would more likely form part of their core identity as persons, and not something that they may or may not have had depending on circumstances.

            So imagine two billionaires. Billionaire A quietly and successfully lobbies for some government action (e.g., a tax change) that redistributes $100 from every citizen to himself. Billionaire B publicly demeans people of perceived lower status and goes out of his way to proclaim his inherent superiority over the unmonied masses. B would be much more likely to provoke social conflict than A. But as long as B were seen as an outlier then A would be free to go about his way.

            “Do you agree with my argument as to why the wealthy having more influence on politics is a good thing overall?” Because “it allows the promotion of ideas outside of the current political mainstream” and “sharpens the minds of the defenders [of the mainstream]”? Well, first, I think it’s questionable that the views of most wealthy people are in fact outside the mainstream. Free trade, increased immigration, reduced government regulation, weakening the power of unions, lower marginal tax rates, preferential tax treatment of capital income vs wages–these are all things that wealthy people seem to want, and they’re all pretty mainstream in the context of US politics at least.

            Even allowing that some wealthy people promote non-mainstream ideas, I honestly don’t see that as a real strong effect one way or the other; billionaires are just as likely to believe in loopy things as anyone else, so you could get something worthwhile promoted, or just another silly, impractical, or even noxious idea.

          • TracyW

            I’m always happy to evolve my thinking in response to counter-arguments. If I wanted to have my initial biases confirmed I wouldn’t be posting here.

            This is one of the things I respect about you. Sadly many people on the internet don’t take that approach. Thus my noting the change and checking.

            Billionaire B publicly demeans people of perceived lower status and goes out of his way to proclaim his inherent superiority over the unmonied masses. B would be much more likely to provide social conflict than A.

            So how many cases of social conflict have there been triggered by Billionaire Bs publicly demeaning people and proclaiming their inherent superiority? And what level? Are we talking about rants on a plane following by arrest of said Billionaire Bs, or riots, civil wars, etc?

            (Please leave aside the cases of rulers being arrogant leading to civil wars and revolutions, because that’s a power issue, not a wealth issue.)

            Free trade, increased immigration, reduced government regulation, weakening the power of unions, lower marginal tax rates, preferential tax treatment of capital income vs wages–these are all things that wealthy people seem to want, and they’re all pretty mainstream in the context of US politics at least.

            And how mainstream would many of these ideas be without some rich people being able to fund think tanks to stand up to the arguments of mercantilist interest groups and empire-building government bureaucrats? How much of a hearing would free trade or reduced government regulation would get without Cato and Reason?

            (I suspect some ideas like unionism will always be politically controversial, because the most visible exercise of union power is going on strike, which generally means obviously harming the lives of the consumers).

            Even allowing that some wealthy people promote non-mainstream ideas, I honestly don’t see that as a real strong effect one way or the other; billionaires are just as likely to believe in loopy things as anyone else, so you could get something worthwhile promoted, or just another silly, impractical, or even noxious idea.

            That’s what I covered with my point about how being exposed to debate is valuable even for an idea that is true. J.S. Mills I think makes the best case for this in chapter 2 of his book On Liberty (see section II.21 onwards). I’ll quote a few bits, but I suggest reading the whole thing.

            . He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.

            Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty.

            We have hitherto considered only two possibilities: that the received opinion may be false, and some other opinion, consequently, true; or that, the received opinion being true, a conflict with the opposite error is essential to a clear apprehension and deep feeling of its truth. But there is a commoner case than either of these; when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part. Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth. They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjoined from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited.

          • “So how many cases of social conflict have there been …” You’re right, wrong term here. What it would really be is a tabloid controversy. (Thinking out loud now…) For status dominance of this general flavor to really amount to anything, it would have to be more systemic, not just something that could be written off as individual foibles. Formalizing status dominance in some way might do it (which ties into your point that power is the issue, not wealth per se), but I’m not really sure what form that might or could take in the modern world. Could it happen absent legal formalization? Not sure, maybe if it were institutionalized in some widespread way in the corporate world?

            “And how mainstream would many of these ideas be without some rich people being able to fund think tanks…” I don’t know enough to address the counterfactual here. But I find your stating it this way sort of confusing: First it’s that the wealthy are promoting non-mainstream ideas, then it’s that the ideas are mainstream, but wouldn’t have been without wealthy people funding their promotion. As I see it there have always been political parties aligned with monied interests of one sort or another, so i find the idea that their pet policy ideas wouldn’t be promoted one way or the other somewhat odd.

            I think a more interesting thing is to look at a specific issue like free trade, where historically there were (and to some extent still are) protectionist tendencies on the part of many industrialists. Did the bulk of the wealthy just have a change of heart and decide to fund promotion of free trade at a time when it was decidedly not a mainstream idea? Or did the idea first win support by being promoted by academic economists (maybe as an example of post New Deal and WWII technocratic deference to the economics profession?) and only later pick up support from those wealthy folks who stood to benefit from globalization? Or something else?

            “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. … the nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part” Yes. This is why as a non-libertarian I regularly venture into the lion’s den that is the BHL comments section 🙂

          • TracyW

            On the status issue, yeah, I don’t really see that happening either. And, while I didn’t discuss this earlier as I wanted to focus the debate, I kinda doubt that people are inherently *that* allergic to formalised status signals. Eg, the future Charles II managed to escape capture by the Roundheads at the end of the English Civil War with the help of a range of ordinary commoners, despite a large sum of money on his head. More broadly, Britain had all sorts of formal status signals and yet people managed to cooperate across class lines on both sides of the English Civil War, the Restoration of the Monarchy, and the Industrial Revolution.

            First it’s that the wealthy are promoting non-mainstream ideas, then it’s that the ideas are mainstream, but wouldn’t have been without wealthy people funding their promotion. As I see it there have always been political parties aligned with monied interests of one sort or another, so i find the idea that their pet policy ideas wouldn’t be promoted one way or the other somewhat odd.

            My apologies, I have too much history in my head. I was thinking of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and the mercantalist ideas. Generally, monied interests support regulations that aim at increasing their own revenues at the expense of the general consumer. (See particularly book 1 chapter 8 and all of Book IV for numerous examples.) That’s very different to supporting free trade and lesser government regulation.

            Obviously, free trade and less government regulation benefits everyone in our roles as consumers, but that’s a diffuse interest, while any particular government regulation that aims to raise prices particularly benefits the interests of whomever is selling it. Eg, if a government regulation raises the price of flour by 5 cents a kilo, and one hundred million kilos are sold a year, then that’s a trivial amount in most individuals’ budget, but $25 million in extra revenue to the sellers of flour. The differential incentives for lobbying are obvious. But, overall, if everyone lobbies for higher prices for whatever they’re selling, we’re all going to be worse off overall, as what we gain as producers we lose as consumers.

            So, given that free trade and less government regulation generally is only in the general interest, not the particular, why is it supported at all? Why is it even remotely a mainstream idea?

            And similarly for lower marginal tax rates. Obviously nearly everyone wants to pay less in taxes, without giving up government services, but the obvious way of lobbying for that is for a tax deduction for a particular interest group. If I manage to persuade the government to give every one called “Tracy” a tax deduction, then individually I’d get more money for the same amount of total tax revenue loss than if I manage to persuade the government to generally lower tax rates for a much larger group. Obviously, if everyone lobbies for tax deductions and gets them then total rates have to be raised (holding government spending constant), and overall not only do we all have to pay the same level of taxes, but we have to waste a lot of resources working out all the tax deductions and arguing over them. Now, lower marginal tax rates are bit more controversial than free trade and less government regulation, but all the arguments I’ve ever heard of them are for the general interest, not for any particular interest. This is not something I’d expect to be remotely a mainstream idea if the only source of mainstream ideas was people lobbying for the public interest.

            A similar argument applies for people arguing for a generally preferential tax treatment of capital income versus wages (as opposed to special tax treatment for various interests that happens to take the form of preferential tax treatment).

            I don’t see how you can explain the popularity of free trade, government deregulation in general and lower marginal tax rates without postulating some disinterested behaviour by rich people.

            (Note, I’m not here debating really the merit of the policies themselves, just pointing out that any particular monied interest would be immediately better off lobbying for a much more specific policy.)

            Did some wealthy folks just have a change of heart and decide to fund promotion of free trade at a time when it was decidedly not a mainstream idea?

            Well not necessarily a change, they might have grown up favouring the idea. But The Economist was founded to support free trade and to lobby for repeal of the Corn Laws specifically by James Wilson, a successful businessman. To switch from free trade to the abolition of slavery, William Wilberforce had family wealth behind him for his political career which rather explains why he could stand up to the various monied interests behind the slave trade. In the USA, Benjamin Lundy and Arthur and Lewis Tappan are examples of successful businessmen who were early supporters of abolition in the USA. Could Corn Law repeal and abolitionism have succeeded without this disinterested support? Maybe, but I speculate it would have taken longer.

            Yes. This is why as a non-libertarian I regularly venture into the lion’s den that is the BHL comments section 🙂

            I hope I am giving you only a mild mauling, and I hope I am avoiding mischaracterising your arguments. If I have committed any strawmen, please let me know.

          • “I kinda doubt that people are inherently *that* allergic to formalised status signals.” It’s interesting to speculate why this might be so, but I’ve got to get back to my own blogging. Maybe I’ll post on this at some point. I don’t have much to add to the rest of your comments. See you next time!

          • TracyW

            Thank you for the conversation. I am glad that you now recognise that free trade, less government regulation and lower marginal tax rates are ideas that are opposed to the immediate interests of the monied and thus their mainstream nature has to be explained somehow.

      • Theresa Klein

        I’m not sure if I would agree with the “nobless oblige” requirement, but I do think it would certainly be nice if everyone in general was a lot less status conscious. There is so much economic waste that goes into producing products solely for the purpose of status signalling, and not just among the wealthy.

        • I think status competition is pretty embedded in the human psyche. I don’t find it particularly harmful as long it doesn’t take forms like plantation owners competing to see who can amass the greatest number of slaves.

          As for it constituting “economic waste”, that depends on your point of view, I guess–economies are for satisfying people’s needs, including people’s need to keep up with the Joneses. If there’s a danger that important things like scientific research and public infrastructure go begging for funds while people are chasing mansions and Rolexes, well, that’s what governments and taxes are for IMO.

          A final point: even if it were acknowledged that status competition were an unalloyed negative, what could we/should we do about it? (Re)introduce sumptuary laws? As Wkiipedia notes (and TracyW and others can perhaps confirm), they seemed to in large part function as a way for the current elite to keep the would-be elite from getting above their station.

          • TracyW

            That’s my understanding of sumptuary laws. I don’t know of any evidence about their effectiveness in actual implementation.

  • jtlevy

    [applause]

  • Jerome Bigge

    There is no doubt that the viewpoints of the wealthy differ from that of the poor. Virtually every utterance made by Republicans (who are representative of those who are well off) illustrates this fact. And no doubt “luck” does play a part. The child born to well off parents is more likely to have a college degree than does the child born into poverty unless the poor child has an IQ high enough to compensate for the handicaps of being raised by a single mother, who in many cases is relatively uneducated herself. Less likely to see any value in education as such, a mother whose major form of “entertainment” is watching TV. A child who lives in a home with few if any books. A child more likely to drop out of high school. Of course there will be a few who can overcome these handicaps, but the odds are against them.

    While there are all sorts of suggestions as to how to improve our educational system, charter schools, smaller class sizes, “Common Core”, etc., one very low cost suggestion I’ve made is to issue every child a public library card and provide weekly transportation to the library if needed. Introducing a child at an early age to the resources of any public library is more likely to be of benefit than throwing more taxpayer money into a school system where much of it is simply wasted upon “administration” (overhead) instead of actual education as such. The child who loves to read is more likely to be successful in school, graduate, and become employed after obtaining a degree at a community college at a job that has a “future”.

    This would also cost a lot less in taxpayer dollars than the “throwing money” at the schools and hoping some of it will “trickle down” to a better education.

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    Only a horrible tyranny would force people into being part of a community.

    Also, “luck egalitarianism” ? What about the option to not gamble my wealth away?

  • cstory

    If the community sanctions a mutual obligation between the rich and the poor, then economic inequality goes from being a community liability to a community asset.

    If for example economic liberty was annually distributed directly by the citizen, ever member of the community would benefit by whatever resulting economic inequality occurs.

    • Theresa Klein

      I think regarding inequality as either an asset or a liability is barking up the wrong tree. We don’t value to inequality, we value the things which (inevitably) give rise to inequality. If we’re going to have a society where people are free to self-actualize, some people are going to have more talent than others, some people are going to be smarter, or prettier or more popular, and those things aren’t going to be equally distributed, and neither is wealth.

      Just by analogy, maybe it’s unfair that some people get to be movie stars and NBA players, but wouldn’t you prefer to live in a society where there was a *chance* that you *might* get to be a movie star or a basketball player than one where there weren’t any at all? Would you really prefer the society where everyone was homogenously equal, to the one where everyone had a chance at stardom?

      • cstory

        It’s true that most Americans don’t value a principle of inequality in wealth, because they value their own wealth, but this is a vice that will be remedied by a more successful community.

        I prefer a society in which only the most virtuous actors are movie stars and only the most virtuous leaders posses exceptional economic power.

    • martinbrock

      In the libertopia that I imagine, the relatively rich have done more for others than others have done for them, i.e. they have positive account balances in a mutual banking system or corresponding holdings in real property earned through profitable labor. Wealth in reality is not distributed this way, but we are discussing utopias here. Libertarianism is also a utopian ideal of course.

      In this libertopia, it’s hard to say that an obligation of the rich toward the poor is mutual. The rich by definition have already done more for others than others have done for them, while the poor by definition have not; however, we can distinguish two categories of poor. I’ll call them the young and the independent. These categories are not mutually exclusive and should not be taken too literally.

      The young in this sense are poor in capital. They lack means of production in a world in which laboring most productively requires much capital. What the young need from the rich is this capital, and they should have a right to it in my way of thinking, i.e. the rich should have a duty to invest sufficiently in the young even if they prefer to consume their riches instead. Property rights of the rich should be contingent on exercising this duty.

      The independent may also be poor in capital, but providing them the means to be productive (to produce for exchange in a world made wealthy by specialization and trade) does not enrich them, because they desire to be independent of others more than they desire the wealth possible only through interdependence.

      People in the network of interdependence may see the independent as “lazy” or “unwilling to work”, but some of the independent may be very productive in a different sense. For example, an independent person may labor endlessly to write novels but produce novels that others will not pay much to read.

      A few other people may regard the novels of an independent person as the finest ever written, but these few people do not pay enough to provide the novelist a comfortable living. Posterity may even regard an independent person the greatest novelist who ever lived, but in his own lifetime, he writes for his own entertainment far more than he writes for the entertainment of others, and he cannot resist the impulse to write novels long enough to escape poverty.

      Of course, an independent person may also fill his time with booze, porn and masturbation (or political blog posts), but I will not judge the choices of independent persons here. They are poor because they will produce only for themselves, and producing only for oneself is not a recipe for wealth in the world that I imagine.

      We can distinguish a third category of the poor, the disabled, and extreme independence is a disability of sorts, but I’m less sympathetic toward the independent than toward the blind for example. The independent are precisely the people who reject the mutual obligations of community membership, and they are poor, not rich, for this reason.

      What would you obligate the rich to do for the independent?

      • cstory

        It’s a poorly constituted society that results in a bunch of unincorporated independents. The young, the handicapped, and the independent are not poor for lack of capital, they are poor for lack of leadership.

        A profit motive ensures only that the rich have served more rich people than the poor person has served rich people. A sustainable community has to embrace a feed back principle ensuring that the person rich in capital is serving more community members than the person poor in capital.

        • martinbrock

          You didn’t answer the question.

          The independent person that I’m discussing is poor for lack of a desire to produce what the people around him want to exchange for the goods that they produce. Simply denying the existence of this person, or attributing his desires to a poorly constituted society, does not answer the question.

          Denying the existence of this independent person is odd, since the rich person who consumes the value of all of his capital, rather than investing in the young, is just this sort of person except that he owns capital and is entitled to monopoly rents.

          It’s like trust babies can have this sort of independent personality, but others cannot. The world around me doesn’t fit this description.

          • cstory

            Those with abundant capital owe independents and the rest of society inspirational leadership and nothing more. The rich should be obligated to compete against each other for economic liberty by winning the loyalty of citizens.

          • martinbrock

            I omit “and the rest of society” from your formulation. The rich positively owe investment to the young. They should not be free to consume their means instead. If they tend toward this investment without further constraints, so much the better, but as long as the young are constrained by their mastery of the means, constraining the rich to invest in the young is completely reasonable.

            “Investment” is not code for “entitlement” in my formulation, thought it often is in political parlance, thus the distinction between the young and the independent. The young should not be independent of the rich, and the rich should not be independent of the young either.

    • TracyW

      If for example economic liberty was annually distributed directly by the citizen,

      How do you annually distribute liberty of any sort? Eg, I’ve never heard of someone annually distributing freedom of speech.

      • cstory

        I should have been more clear, I’m talking about liberty from taxation. Assuming the possibility of a constitutional tax code, citizens could be enfranchised to distribute tax relief to the enterprising leaders of their choice. In doing so, those with economic power would be obligated to compete against one-another for the loyalty of some number of citizens with little or no economic power.

        The idea is that a mutual obligation between haves and have-nots, could prevent division and strife between them and result in unprecedented innovation and creation of social capital.

        • TracyW

          Thanks for clarifying.

  • Gabriel Conroy

    I’ve read only this blog post and not Cohen’s piece or Brennan’s “Why Not Capitalism” (and I read this blog only irregularly), so maybe some of my comments/questions are addressed elsewhere. And I’m not a philosopher, so some of what follows might be answered by philosophers’ common knowledge. But here are a few thoughts:

    What does Cohen mean by “socialism”? I suppose that’s the same question that Brennan (if you prefer “Jason,” please let me know) is asking. From what I can see, Cohen rejects equality of opportunity as by itself insufficient, and the real question is how much of equality of outcome he actually insists on.

    The reductio of his “community” argument seems to suggest he wants a very high level of equality of outcome. I bring this up because I have no objection to “safety net” socialism, so that people are guaranteed a certain measure of security–food, basic clothing, health care.

    My takeaway from Cohen’s betting argument isn’t so much about the $100 as it is about the uncertainty of life choices for future security. Not only do some people have more money to start with or better talents or intelligence or aptitudes, but some people also make decisions that turn out to be lucky (or not) through no virtue or fault of their own other than not being able to predict the future. If someone chooses unluckily, they might end up with less. If they end up with significantly less, then maybe some measure of compulsory redistribution is necessary to ensure a basic floor level of sustenance.

    Perhaps that last sentence is me imposing my own views on Cohen, whose book, again, I haven’t read and who, by Brennan’s reading, seems to be advocating for a much more drastic redistribution than I’d prefer. And frankly, I get nervous when someone invokes “community” to justify anything, as Cohen seems to do. Invoking “community” strikes me more as assuming as legitimate whatever hierarchies are present in whatever community we’re talking about.

    • Jason Brennan

      Cohen vacillates between defining socialism in terms of a set of moral principles, and defining it in terms of collective ownership of the means of production. He does intend to have strongly egalitarian outcomes.

  • CFV

    “We cannot just assume, without argument, that equality is a baseline from which departures must be justified. But without a sound argument for this assumption, Cohen’s strategy of refuting justifications for inequality makes no difference, even if it succeeds. A non-egalitarian can just say, ‘Sure, these arguments for inequality fail, but as far as I’m concerned, they they do not need to succeed, because we have no reason to presume equality is a baseline from which departures must be justified.’”

    I think this is wrong and we can presume at least in one respect that equality is a baseline from which departures must be justified.
    As Cohen rightly reminds us: “Even Robert Nozick allowed that equality might be the right distribution for manna from heaven, although he signally and consequentially failed to observe that raw resources of the planet Earth are on a moral par with manna from heaven. See his Anarchy, p. 198.” (Confr. Cohen, G. A. Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge MT: Harvard University Press), p. 317, italics in the original).

    I would love to see the whole paper.

    • Sean II

      “As Cohen rightly reminds us…[the] raw resources of the planet Earth are on a moral par with manna from heaven.”

      Yeah, silicon and uranium are a lot like manna. You just scoop ’em up and bada-bing-bada-boom, you got computers and 5,000 GWh/yr reactors.

      It makes perfect sense to look at such manna and think “This belongs equally to all who stand upon Earth’s crust. It belongs to the people who discovered and gathered and improved it up from common dust, and to the people who didn’t, and to the people who couldn’t, and even to the people who, given half a chance, would gladly have massacred that first group with a stone axe buried in every head.”

      Oh sure, it’s a little counterintuitive at first. But that’s why we have bibles and moral philosophers, right? To discover and gather and improve the absurd until it seems like common dust.

      • I get where you’re presumably going here (Lockean homesteading involving mixing of labour with pre-existing resources) and your point has merit, but I think uranium and nuclear reactors are not the best example you could have chosen. Few would have given uranium a second look in terms of a natural resource in the absence of scientific knowledge that uranium is fissionable, knowledge placed into the public domain by Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and their colleagues. Plus the R&D and engineering work to actually separate uranium into its isotopes and build working nuclear reactors was almost all government-funded. There weren’t (and aren’t) many stereotypical entrepreneurs working in the nuclear industry (which is not to say it wouldn’t be a good idea).

        • Sean II

          I’m saying something else: that there is no longer any such concept as “natural resources”, when it comes to wealth as we now understand it. You don’t even need Lockean theory to see that (though it helps). You just need eyes.

          It’s no accident that Cohen’s famous thought experiment involved turning people back into a bunch of paleolithic hunter-gathers. True, he called it a “picnic” and stocked it with present-day characters, but the state of economic affairs in his story is recognizably that of pre-agricultural man. He had to do that, because his brand of intuitive egalitarianism only makes moral sense in a world of pick-it-up, eat-it.

          Which means that the “rightly” in CFV’s comment – “As Cohen rightly reminds us…” – should in fact be an obvious “wrongly”.

        • TracyW

          Few would have given uranium a second look in terms of a natural resource in the absence of scientific knowledge that uranium is fissionable, knowledge placed into the public domain by Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and their colleagues. Plus the R&D and engineering work to actually separate uranium into its isotopes and build working nuclear reactors was almost all government-funded.

          But none of that history you describe contradicts Sean’s point that uranium in the sense of a valuable resource isn’t mana from heaven,

          And of course, all that scientific knowledge and R&D would be useless if it were not for a bunch of people doing boring things like actually mining the uranium, day after day, and shipping it to the nuclear reactors, and the people who make sure the miners and the transporters get paid, and etc. (Not to mention the people who mine and smelt the iron needed for the reactors, or the people who made the pens and paper that the physicists and engineers used).

          • I misunderstood Sean’s point. I agree that exploitation of natural resources requires human labor and ingenuity.

          • TracyW

            Good debating practice there.

          • Sean II

            Just to double down on my reply to Martin: I’m saying something yet stronger than that.

            I’m saying that at this point in human development, given the complex things we do with them, those alleged natural resources aren’t even resources UNTIL the ingenuity is applied.

            If you don’t like nuclear power, take an example from hydroelectric: to the Wenro people, Niagra Falls were not a resource in anything like the same sense they are today. To them the Falls were perhaps a military barrier, a place to hurl human beings to deaths most hideous, or maybe one among many sources of water.

            None of this bears any relation – not quantitatively, not qualitatively – to what the Falls are today. If we tried to repay the Wenro for what they lost in terms of Niagra’s function to them, an annual gift of four D-cell batteries would probably be fair.

            If not that, try fossil fuels. Crude oil was nothing but well-poising ooze to the Emirate of Diriyah. It was certainly NOT any kind of natural resource. Indeed, they probably would have paid good money to have the stuff removed.

          • martinbrock

            … those alleged natural resources aren’t even resources UNTIL the ingenuity is applied.

            You’re being solipsistic here. Genius is very valuable, but all value does not spring from the minds of the ingenious. Ingenuity must be applied to something.

            The labor theory of value is a decent first approximation, because human beings value artifacts very highly, but let’s not refight the marginal revolution here.

          • Sean II

            Nothing I’ve said here has anything to do with the marginal revolution.

            Put another way: the marginal revolution does not depend on the degree of “naturalness” in “natural resources”, nor on the amount or complexity of labor required to improve them. Those questions are irrelevant to marginal utility.

          • martinbrock

            Those questions are irrelevant to marginal utility.

            They’re relevant if you’re saying that the marginal utility of uranium in the ground is literally, precisely zero.

          • TracyW

            I’m with Sean II on this. I admire the idea of marginal utility greatly, and I don’t see why Martinbrock thinks that anything Sean II has said contradicts it.

          • martinbrock

            I may be butchering the idea of marginal utility here, but attributing all of the value of uranium in the ground to the work of dead scientists definitely smacks of a labor theory of value.

          • TracyW

            But “smacks of a labour theory of value” is not the same as “is a labour theory of value”. Labour theories of values tend to be very complex and very confused because the authors of them are smart enough to see all the problems with them and thus write them in a way that kinda comes up with answers quite similar to reality. Eg they put in lots about “socially-useful labour”.

            In the case of uranium, what Sean II is saying is not that uranium by itself has no value, but that it required big advances in human knowledge and human capital capabilities to be able to both recognise that uranium could be useful and to be able to refine enough uranium to be useful.

          • martinbrock

            Words are ambiguous as you say, so “is a labor theory of value” is a meaningless statement, so I don’t write “smacks of” instead.

            “Uranium by itself has no value” is true in the same sense that “an iPhone by itself has no value” is true. Only sentient beings subjectively value things, so nothing has subjective value apart from subjective beings.

            Advances in human knowledge are not manna from heaven. They are fruits of human labor. Now, you can tell me that knowledge is not literally a fruit. I make the same point below.

          • TracyW

            Yes, what I’m trying to say, though doing it badly, is that saying that a theory smacks of a labour theory of value doesn’t tell us anything about the value of that theory.
            (Well, okay, if it’s a theory about something totally unrelated, like the formation of stars, and it sounds like a labour theory of value then it’s probably a bad theory.) That’s because labour theories of value are written by people who tried to bring their predictions in line with reality and wind up with something very complex.

            It’s like if I fired an awful lot of bullets at a target on the side of a barn door and then a sharp shooter came along and fired a couple of bullets at the target. Yes, some of my bullet holes would probably overlap with the sharp shooters’ but that doesn’t mean that I’m a sharpshooter.

          • martinbrock

            If we tried to repay the Wenro for what they lost in terms of Niagra’s function to them, an annual gift of four D-cell batteries would probably be fair.

            Four batteries doesn’t seem like a lot to you, but it’s a lot more than zero to them.

          • martinbrock

            I agree that exploitation of natural resources requires human labor and ingenuity, but it also requires the natural resources.

          • martinbrock

            The uranium is manna from heaven, but the labor of scientists, miners and the rest is not. The uranium itself isn’t worth much really, so even though it is manna from heaven, it doesn’t feed many people.

          • Sean II

            No. Without the scientists et. al., uranium is not manna. It’s just poisonous dirt.

          • martinbrock

            No. This poisonous dirt does have marginal value. It just doesn’t have as much value as one might imagine.

            You essentially advocate the labor theory of value here. The uranium has no value outside of an organization of resources including the scientists et. al, but the particular scientists formulating nuclear physics also add no value to energy generation from the fission of uranium without the uranium, so you can just as easily say that the scientists are worthless bags of organic goo without the uranium.

          • Sean II

            “You essentially advocate the labor theory of value here.”

            Nope, not even close.

          • TracyW

            The uranium itself isn’t worth much really, so even though it is manna from heaven, it doesn’t feed many people. A few of us can feed ourselves from its small, marginal value,

            From what I can recall of my high school physics classes, I hope no one is feeding themselves uranium.

          • martinbrock

            I would feed myself by selling the poisonous dirt and buying something less poisonous to eat.

    • TracyW

      “Even Robert Nozick allowed that equality might be the right distribution for manna from heaven, although he signally and consequentially failed to observe that raw resources of the planet Earth are on a moral par with manna from heaven.

      There are some practical problems with treating raw resources of the planet Earth as on a par with manna from heaven, for a start that the raw resources of the planet Earth are typically not replenished magically overnight.

      If we are to maintain the productive capacity of the raw resources of Earth (as opposed to heaven), private ownership seems to be the best option. Noticeably people fret much more about falling fish stocks than falling cattle stocks.
      So while morally they may be on a par, the practical differences are vast. And I suggest there is something immoral about picking policies that make us all worse off.

    • Jason Brennan

      Yes, there are a few cases where equality is a baseline. E.g., when people simultaneously arrive upon an unclaimed resource, to which there is every reason to divide immediately rather than leave unclaimed, and to which no one has a prior moral claim. But as lots of people have pointed out since Cohen wrote what you wrote above, the actual world has very little in common with a manna from heaven thought experiment. We don’t arrive simultaneously upon an unclaimed resource to which no one has a prior claim. Heck, even Nozick pointed that out.

      • Theresa Klein

        I think Sean’s also got a very good point in noting that many resources aren’t even recognized as resources until some human figures out a use for them.
        The value of oil as a natural resource depends entirely on the particular context of technological development that led us to the particular kinds of technology currently in use. It has nothing to do with any sort of intrinsic value in the oil itself.

        • martinbrock

          If it has nothing to do with an intrinsic value of the oil itself, why doesn’t some ingenious person figure out how to extract so much energy from the sludge in my septic tank?

          • Sean II

            “…why doesn’t some ingenious person figure out how to extract so much energy from the sludge in my septic tank?”

            That already happened, more or less. It was a key plot point in Mad Max 3.

            In fact, I think G.A. Cohen may have been an uncredited script doctor because the egalitarian moral of that story was: better to live in a world without fuel than to live in one where Tina Turner has more than anyone else.

          • Libertymike

            Didn’t Ike knock the [fuel] out of her?

          • martinbrock

            It was a key plot point in Mad Max 3.

            This from the same man who turns up his nose at fictitious manna from heaven.

        • Sean II

          Since I’ve failed to convince Martin, let me double-convince you.

          A better example than any I’ve given so far is the poliovirus. Certainly NOT a resource in its natural state. In fact it’s the opposite of a resource. And yet you can make poliovax from it. So what would it mean to say “the unimproved virus belongs equally to all god’s children!” Sounds rather like a curse.

          The truth is: more and more things we value are like that. They’re made from stuff that was actually just dreck or poison before we found out how to make it otherwise (e.g. uranium), OR from stuff improved to such a massive degree (e.g silicon in microchips) that it seems frivolous even to attempt a calculation of its natural state value (e.g. sand).

          Meanwhile fewer and fewer things resemble the stuff you’d forage on a camping trip with the likes of Gerald, George, and Martin.

          • martinbrock

            Poliovirus has little scarcity value, so it’s not a great example.

            Let’s apply your reasoning to actual manna from heaven. Some brave soul must swallow the stuff before anyone knows it’s more nutritious than yellowcake. This guy tells his neighbors, and they all flock to the manna. Is manna from heaven then not manna from heaven either?

            Even if the value of uranium in the ground is manna from Enrico Fermi rather than heaven, it’s still not manna from some guy who happens to own the poisonous dirt, so I’m not sure you argument contradicts Cohen’s assumptions anyway.

          • Sean II

            “Let’s apply your reasoning to actual manna from heaven.”

            No, instead I think this would be a good time for all of us to remember there is not actual manna from heaven, on account of a) no manna, and b), no heaven.

            I’d been planning to say this later, but now will do: when an argument requires a thought experiment, that’s not necessarily a strike against it. Many great arguments do. But when an argument requires a thought experiment torn from a silly context (i.e. the old testament, a camping trip, etc.), it’s probable time to start getting suspicious.

            Now when an argument requires a thought experiment torn from a silly context, AND that’s pretty much all there is, t’s definitely time to demand a cashing in of the analogy chips.

            What that means for you is: it’s time for you to state what real thing is actually like manna, and especially, how much of our present day economic activity is ANYTHING like anything like manna (if anything is :-).

          • martinbrock

            You’re dancing around the question. Enrico Fermi is not mythical.

          • TracyW

            Humanity owes less and less to Nature, because it owes more and more to Newton and countless others, but few of these people own uranium mines or nuclear power plants. As long as we’re entitling people to monopoly rents due to legions of the dead, why not entitle more people to these rents?

            There’s no need for me to own a uranium mine or a nuclear plant in order to benefit from nuclear energy.

          • martinbrock

            There’s no need for me to own a uranium mine or a nuclear plant in order to benefit from nuclear energy.

            This statement is not relevant to my point. The point involves entitlement to the value of uranium in the ground.

          • TracyW

            As everyone here rejects the labour theory of value, I’m rather lost as to what point you’re trying to make.

            If you’re trying to make some point about who should own the revenue from mining the uranium, there’s some decent consequentionalist arguments that the people owning the land on which the uranium is found should have a larger-than-average share, to give them incentives to find and allow the mining of the uranium.

            And in the grander scheme of things, such wealth is pretty insignificant relative to the massive consumer surplus we all gain from our economy.

          • martinbrock

            As everyone rejects the theory, I wonder why Sean’s analysis smacks of it. I’m only noting this resemblance.

            We aren’t discussing my preference for the distribution of manna from heaven. We’re discussing Cohen’s preference. Sean seems to deny the manna metaphor to dispute Cohen’s preference, but I doubt that Sean’s critique of the metaphor much affects Cohen’s conclusions.

            Sean seems to be saying that everyone doesn’t merit a share of the value of uranium in the ground, because everyone doesn’t contribute to its value as Enrico Fermi and others have. He may correct me, but if that’s his point, it definitely smacks of Lockean sentiments motivating the classical labor theory of value.

            I have agreed from the outset that uranium in the ground isn’t worth much in the grand scheme of things, even after humanity fully appreciates its value. I don’t know why we need Sean’s analysis of the manna metaphor at all. I say as much in my first post in this thread.

          • Theresa Klein

            The theory of marginal utility tells us that uranium in the ground does have value. We can measure this value by comparing the price of dirt poisoned by uranium to the price of dirt without uranium, all else being equal.

            Which would be zero in a world with no nuclear power plants. The value of the dirt with uranium is entirely dependent on the technological context of people owning and operating nuclear power plants.

            Anyway if some poor sod happens to own a patch of land whose dirt suddenly becomes valueable because someone just invented a nuclear power plant, why should we begrudge the guy the luck have having happened to own that previously-worthless piece of land?

            To have the state come in and expropriate someone’s property, because they just figured out five minutes ago that it was worth something, seems grossly unfair. OMG! That piece of land your house is sitting on is suddenly valuable because someone else built a railroad near it, let’s take it!

          • martinbrock

            Which would be zero in a world with no nuclear power plants.

            But we don’t live in a world with no nuclear power plants, and the value of nuclear power plants would also be zero, or nearly so, with no uranium in the ground.

            I suppose Cohen would deny any grudge. He’d only say that the world is full of poor sods who could use a break.

            I don’t know what’s grossly unfair either, but I suppose Cohen does not share your sense of fairness. Sean seems to say that nuclear physicists merit the value of the uranium more than the poor sod.

          • Theresa Klein

            the value of nuclear power plants would also be zero, or nearly so, with no uranium in the ground.

            No they wouldn’t. There are other radioactive isotopes besides uranium.

            I don’t think Sean is saying that “nuclear physicists” merit the value of the uranium. His point is more that seeing the value in something is a kind of production in itself. It doesn’t have to be the physicists who see the value, but some other person who knows that there is a demand for radioactive elements and then recognizes where one might find an ore that contains them. There’s no intrinsic value in the resource, the value comes totally from the human economic context. There are no “natural” resources. Resources are only resources because human beings think they are useful.

            So, justly, the resource ought to be claimable by the first person who sees it and thinks “I can make something of greater value out of this.” because he’s actually creating the resource by the act of thinking that.

          • martinbrock

            There are other radioactive isotopes besides uranium.

            There are many nuclear power plants and many plant designs and so on. Nothing has value apart from everything else. Why pick on uranium specifically? Why don’t we spend hours discussing how little value a microwave oven has apart from everything else?

            We all seem to agree on the subjective theory of value here, and I suppose Cohen would also agree.

            Cohen wants to say that one man is no more entitled, in some metaphysical sense, to the value of uranium in the ground than another. Sean wants to dispute Cohen’s point. You want to say, along with Sean, that some person recognizing the value of uranium to humanity in some complex organization of resources ought to be entitled to the value of the uranium, but this person is not entitled to it according to you. Some poor sod who happens to own the land is entitled to it.

            Taking the value of uranium in the ground from the poor sod and giving it to the creative souls truly responsible for its value, in Sean’s sense, is not less fantastic than Cohen’s egalitarian state dividing the value among everyone.

          • Theresa Klein

            Well, to be fair I think that the poor sod is entitled to sell his land to the highest bidder. If someone else believes that he can produce something with the land that makes it more valuable, then he’s entitled to buy the land, and then doesn’t have to pay the previous owner, who didn’t realize that worthless yellow dirt was actually uranium ore, some sort of compensation for using that resource. He created that resource by SEEING that it was a resource.

          • martinbrock

            Here again, your sense of fairness may not coincide with Cohen’s, but I’m not asserting any universally necessary sense of fairness here.

            If the dirt could be worthless after all, because it contains on uranium, then it must be worth more with the uranium, and this value added by the uranium alone is my only point. Your seer adds some value by seeing it, but attributing all of the value to his sight could be counterproductive and not only because his sight could be mistaken.

            I don’t know much about Cohen’s argument. It might be as extreme as you suggest, but I suppose he’d only argue for some division of the value of the uranium other than first discoverer takes all. He might tax your power bill to pay civil servants to prospect for uranium.

    • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

      Here again, Cohen is guilty of sloppy reasoning. Manna from heaven is analogous to Locke’s case of wild fruits and berries. The mere act of finding them is sufficient to confer just title. Heat and eat, so to speak. Land and other natural resources are different, they are capital goods. They have no utility until you develop them in some way. You can’t eat dirt, but you can eat the crops you grow in dirt. So just ownership comes only from the investment of time and energy, and the assumption of risk. If your crops fail, you are screwed. So Nozick is right not to extend the manna from heaven logic to land. I talk more about Cohen’s ineffectual attacks on Nozick homesteading model of just acquisition in my Nozick’s Libertarian Project: An Elaboration and Defense, pp. 60-5

  • TracyW

    It strikes me that Cohen’s logic also fails more fundamentally. Many people never get pregnant and go through childbirth, many of them can’t. Does this mean that men and women can never be in proper community with each other?

    • Libertymike

      Sometimes, men and women being in improper community has its benefits.

  • niav

    There’s literally no such thing as a socialist utopia, or even a successful socialist state. Personally I am not even aware of a successful socialist village having ever flourished for any significant length of time.

    The whole idea is like a unicorn, and debating it feels to me like debating a unicorn’s diet. What’s the best unicorn breakfast: rainbows with a sprinkle of pixie dust, or the other way around?

    Socialism is poverty and *necessarily* oppression and totalitarianism when implemented at a large scale. Always a disaster.

    Clearly, socialism and humans are a round hole and a square peg. Incompatible.

    Stalin murdered his own population by the train load, trying to produce the socialism-compliant human. It failed. Having grown up in socialism, in another Eastern European country, we were frequently told that one of the primary political purposes was the creation of the “new man” (I’m quoting literally), which – was implied – would function well under socialism. It didn’t work. No such cross-breed of kittens and unicorns popped out. People were largely the same as before, only more cynical, disillusioned, deluded, poor, lazy and bored.

    If anyone cares to look at the impact of socialism on the human capital of the former socialist countries, it would easily see the devastation. People don’t become nicer and more caring when socialism is imposed on them. It goes the other way around.

    Equality and socialism? A laughable subject. Socialism produced the most drastic inequality imaginable. I haven’t seen meat or coffee in a shop until 1990, while the Party had special farms and special shops, with tinted windows. When we queued for cooking oil (rationed, 1/2 litre per person per month) and potatoes, with no free speech and no freedom to travel abroad or even live where we wanted (your town/village was assigned to you by the Party), our socialist leader had palaces with gold water taps, a private jet, and could have had anyone murdered at will. I don’t think there was ever a king in the same territory enjoying as much power as that.

    In perspective, the difference between a Walmart shelf stacker and Bill Gates seems almost irrelevant.

    A more pertinent question is why do some people keep wanting to inflict socialism on the rest. Stupidity? Power madness? Sheer lunacy? Antisocial personality disorder?

    How do we make them stop? Instead of “debating” the subject with cute capitalist Mickey-Mouse stories, isn’t it more appropriate to treat anyone in search of socialism as someone in search of mass-murder?

    • j r

      I agree. On the post about academia, I made the point about the difference between being a good academic and being able to make interesting and thoughtful arguments.

      Cohen makes his case for socialism in the language of political philosophy and normative ethical frameworks, so Brennan is obliged to respond in kind. Whereas, if someone were to make Cohen’s arguments to me in the real world, I would simply respond by asking that person to point out any example of socialism achieving these goals or even coming close to achieving them.

      • niav

        “Cohen makes his case for socialism in the language of political philosophy and normative ethical frameworks, so Brennan is obliged to respond in kind.”

        If it would be common place in the academia to debate, in the language of political philosophy and normative ethical frameworks, why nazism was good – or bad, why it’s ok – or not – to murder people for enjoyment, why slavery would be an ok idea – or perhaps not, why racism might be justified by science – or perhaps not quite, then I’d agree with you.

        But given past experience, we just know that certain topics are too harmful, too painful, too insulting, and too absurd to argue for.

        Anyone with half a working brain can see this, and indeed, “progressives” and other socialist sympathisers are very good at ridiculing, marginalising and even ostracising anyone they disagree with, far less if they approach some taboo topic.

        I was indeed told, literally, that I am not worthy of polite conversation for not supporting the minimum wage – and mind you, I didn’t argue in an abstract manner. My personal history is a clear example of how harmful and life-transforming (in a bad way) such a policy can be.

        Yet it amazes me to no end that the same people have no compunction arguing for socialism, one of the best peace-time tools for social destruction, mass poverty and mass murder known to humankind.

        Arguing for socialism is not worthy of a polite or academic debate. It should rightfully be treated the same as arguing for its national-socialism or fascism brethren, i.e. with ridicule, scorn and extreme prejudice.

      • Sean II

        You make an excellent point. There really are two projects going in here, with limited overlap. One can easily see the tension on this blog, between posters who often care first how an idea fits into the literature, and commenters who care only how it fits into the world.

        Why Not Capitalism is an interesting case study. To an academic the book is probably valued most as a skillful response to Cohen, exposing a serious and hitherto unnoticed flaw in his famous argument. To everybody else, the best part is likely the positive case, the clubhouse concept, the exploration of ideal capitalism as something much more than “that thing we need because of the calculation problem”.

        But note: this also means WNC is an exception that proves the rule. It’s rare for a piece of writing to perform that kind of double duty. Usually one ends up having to choose, so you can either have a technically proficient response to some long established chain of rabbinical to-and-fro, or you can have something that improves your understanding of life in big increments, at the cost of being sloppy and covered with attackable flaws.

        Atlas Shrugged is a fine example of the latter, covering some of the same ground – an explicitly moral defense and ideal imagining of capitalism – as WNC. Jason could easily have written the clubhouse part of his book as an improvement on Galt’s Gulch, though probably no academic press would have touched it then.

        Meanwhile a guy like Cohen – who, lets face it, was a communist in all but name and would have openly been one if born just 10 years earlier – gets to be considered perfectly respectable by the academy, enough indeed to bestow respectability on other work!

        • “…between posters who often care first how an idea fits into the literature, and commenters who care only how it fits into the world.” Hey, it’s like mathematicians vs. physicists all over again! As a dual major I can understand the attraction of both viewpoints, but I’ve got to side with the physicists here.

          • Sean II

            I realize this is a bit childish, but I’ve never gotten over the sound of Feynman’s voice.

            He speaks with the accent and pattern of every comic foil Noo Yawk buffoon you ever saw on ’50s TV show.

            All the while he’s talking, you expect some carping wife or ne’er do well neighbor to burst in on him and trigger the applause sign.

            Makes for an amusing contrast with the content of his speech: “Oh, ah, ho…Alice I told ya’ let N = 4!”

  • CFV

    Sean II: and your argument is….???

    TracyW: the practical difference is either irrelevant or even reinforces Cohen’s argument. It is irrelevant because if we believe in God (and God being omnipotent), he can “replenished magically overnight.” natural resources in the same way he provided us with manna from heaven. It reinforces an egalitarian distribution because if natural resources cannot be “”replenished magically overnight,” that means they are scarce.

    Jason: Cohen’s argument encompasses much more than just a “few cases”. It includes the original moral standing of all natural raw resources.

    • TracyW

      Scarcity of natural resources is exactly why we should have private ownership to make the best use of those resources we do have.

    • Sean II

      Oh yeah, that’s the ticket. Pretend you don’t understand the objection (it’s only been explained four or five different ways, by me and others all throughout this thread!) and keep hitting your original talking point.

      Hell, you could get lucky. An asteroid might hit and plunge us back into an ice age structure of production, thus making your point about “the moral standing of natural resources” relevant again.

    • j r

      Not to beat the whole academic philosophy vs. “the real world” thing to death, but the idea that there is something or some idea called “the original moral standing of all natural raw resources,” which can be objectively proven or disproven is just absurd.

      If you want to say that you find Cohen’s metaphysics more appealing than classical liberal metaphysics, that is fine. There is no accounting for taste. We ought to, however, recognize that philosophy, no matter how hard it often tries, is not natural history. And most of what we know about natural history simply does not support the case for socialism.

  • reason60

    Even as a liberal, arguments for socialism (and libertarianism for that matter) fail to persuade me, for the reason that they lack the ability to function in highly diverse populations, or evolve and morph into different. They seem to presuppose a tightly knit group where everyone agrees on basic principles- sort of the “assume a can opener” thing.
    They also seem to have an “end of history” built into them- the idea that political squabbles and moral disputes can somehow be resolved. They base their very identity on a permanent ruling philosophy.
    For example, what happens in a socialist utopia when those favoring private property become a majority? Or conversely, when in a libertarian utopia when those favoring common ownership gain the upper hand?

    • TracyW

      In a libertarian utopia, if some people favour common ownership they can go off and start commonly owning together. If their results are generally desirable, more and more people would join the common ownership scheme. This being a libertarian utopia, people couldn’t be forced to join (people may of course differ on their definitions of “forced”), but, well, I can’t see any reason in principle why most of the world couldn’t be under common ownership if most people favour that.

      Personally I think the practical downsides of common ownership would keep such schemes very small, but, hey, I may be wrong. Libertarian utopia allows for me to be wrong.

      • reason60

        Where I am driving is the concept of negotiation and compromise. For instance, if a majority decided that all land should be held in common, including yours. Or if they decided that your marriage was- or was not- valid. That sort of thing.
        The principles that get tossed around in political discussions tend to assume that any and all disputes can be resolved, from within the system. (“Libertarian-minded folk can simply appeal to the People’s Tribunal On Land Claims…”).
        But as we see in history, often the system itself is what is at dispute. How do we accept as legitimate things we disagree with, even when they affect us personally?

        • TracyW

          As far as I know, the main reason for speculating about utopias is to try to convince other people that a particular system is legitimate, namely the system that leads us closer towards the utopia being speculated.

          And yes, one of the things about utopias is that they assume (or at least every one I can think of right now) that disputes can be resolved. That’s what makes them utopias.

          The marriage one is interesting as marriage is in many ways a contract between two parties, and of course there can be differences of opinion about the validity of a contract. Say I assert that I am married to Bill Gates, and that I wish to divorce him, and take half his fortune in the divorce settlement. Meanwhile Bill Gates denies that we were ever married. Obviously there needs to be some method for deciding between us. Not necessarily majority rules, but some method.

          • Libertymike

            Preferably not a method that has a politically appointed commissar – called your honor- who has the power to redistribute wealth and income for a lifetime and who does not know Caplan from Krugman..

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