Amia Srinivasan has four questions for free-market moralists, specifically those who accept something like a Nozickian account of individual rights. My own take is more Rothbardian than Nozickian, but that still seems close enough to give her four answers, and to ask four questions in return about the assumptions that underlie her essay.
Amia begins by asking:
1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?
This largely depends on how we’re defining “free.” There certainly can be (and are) large discrepancies in social power that might not necessarily involve the direct use of force or fraud. Those discrepancies are often very socially destructive, and it is legitimate to say that people on the wrong end of that kind of situation aren’t “free” in some broad (but important) sense of the word.
However, it’s not clear why acknowledging this would pose a threat to libertarianism. Libertarians can believe that people should always work to maximize “freedom” in its broad sense while also believing that it is always wrong to violate it in its strict sense. And, indeed, plenty of radical libertarians and free marketeers have explicitly tied their defense of freedom in the strict sense to the importance of freedom in the broad sense.
So here’s the first counter-question:
1. Do government interventions typically shrink or expand existing inequalities of social power?
Toward the beginning of her column, Srinivasan notes a couple examples of moral defenses of social inequality on free-market grounds. Yet despite the assumptions of both Srinivasan and the defenders of inequality she cites, a moral defense of voluntary exchange can’t be used to defend many of the inequalities we see in the world today.
As Srinivasan herself has noted elsewhere, the wealthy are considerably more dependent on government than the rest of us. This makes sense, given that they’re the ones most likely to have significant influence over public policy.
Even those laws and programs ostensibly designed to help the poor typically work to entrench the social position of the already wealthy. Sometimes this is through less obvious benefits, and sometimes this is by making the exploited complacent enough to not revolt.
If Srinivasan agrees with what seems like the logical conclusion of her earlier column about the rich and government dependency, it seems like the logical conclusion is that government usually works to strengthen existing inequalities. If that’s true, the drive toward freedom in that broader sense is an argument for free markets, not against them.
It’s hard to see how social inequality could be made worse by taking power away from an institution that’s engaged in massive land theft, killed serious attempts at labor organizing, regulated away alternatives to the life-draining workplace of the modern world, and just generally worked to keep the poor poor and the rich rich.
Considering the amount of violence it took to build existing relations of social power, rights-based libertarians (including Nozickians) are in an especially good place to tackle these problems. This is because they can remind us that property that’s been verifiably stolen is ripe for expropriation by anyone else willing to put it into productive use.
Next, Srinivasan asks:
2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?
No, definitely not. I don’t know who Srinivasan thinks disagrees with this, though. The idea that libertarians believe non-aggression is the only important moral principle is a common strawman, but it’s almost never something any libertarian actually advocates. So the only way this is a mark against libertarianism is if you assume a 1:1 correlation between what’s morally impermissible and what ought to be legally impermissible. So, to Srinivasan I ask:
2. Should everything morally impermissible also be legally impermissible?
Srinivasan and other anti-libertarians will probably agree that the answer is no. If that’s the case, there needs to be some standard for how we do determine what should or shouldn’t be illegal.
One natural inclination might be to fall back on a libertarian standard, that invasions against people’s rights are what ought to be illegal. An alternative might be to say that the law’s violence should be used or not used according to the seriousness of a moral wrong.
This alternative test would go sharply against common sense morality, though. For example, most of us would probably agree that under normal circumstances, adultery is worse than petty theft or minor vandalism. And yet most of us would also probably agree that adultery should stay completely legal, and that petty theft and minor vandalism should remain illegal.
3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?
No. Following what I said after the second question, that’s not a mark against libertarianism. Following what I said after the first question, allowing government intervention is more likely to allocate resources according to what keeps the rich rich and the poor poor, not according to who deserves what.
There’s another problem here, though:
3. Is there a good way of using government to dependably discover and enforce desert?
Governments are made up of human beings, no wiser, no more omniscient, and with no more well-tuned of a moral sense than their citizens. Given how removed they are from people living under their supervision, governments do a poor job of actually doling out the right kind of help at the right time.
One useful way of at least getting people what they want while also taking everyone else’s wants into consideration is letting them interact freely through markets. This is because prices carry much more information than any particular participant will (or can) ever actually know, and often important information about people’s needs that can only be discovered through actual market exchange.
If we want to talk about resolving people’s needs beyond just what they can get through commerce, libertarians also have a better answer to that than government activity.
I don’t think anyone has to be reminded how much better that private charities performed than governments after Hurricane Katrina. What they might be interested to know is that even more effective than top-down private charities were efforts based around grassroots mutual aid.
These came both from local churches and loose-knit organizations like the Common Ground Collective, who took the time to actually find out what people needed, rather than just assuming.
Similarly, we can remember the fraternal societies of the past, which knew their members closely enough to actually get them real help in an efficient way, without subjecting them to the dehumanizing paternalism that many recipients of government aid feel today. Any feasible social safety net will need to be genuinely social, by which I mean completely disconnected from government.
So if you prefer that people get more of what they need or deserve, the right response is to have government step away to let the people operate on the knowledge they actually have. If you prefer that people don’t get what they don’t deserve, you should make sure they can’t use government to get it.
4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?
Of course not. However, as we’ve discussed, that doesn’t mean that there should be any legal obligations outside of respecting individual rights. Even if there were, government wouldn’t be an effective way to discover or enforce those obligations. Rather than enforcing those sorts of obligations, interventions would likely work to help already socially powerful people avoid their own obligations.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s ignore everything else I’ve said here. There’s still one more question worth asking:
4. Are people morally equal?
Srinivasan surely agrees that they are. If she does, though, her assumptions about the ability to violently enforce people’s moral obligations don’t get her where she wants.
If she’s right about everything else but agrees that people are morally equal, this just gives everyone a right to violently enforce everyone else’s moral duties. It doesn’t give one group of a people a right to hoard that privilege for themselves.
In order to even establish a government, she has to show us how the group of people who operate the government win their preferential moral status. Here I step away from her intended target, Robert Nozick, but at least he acknowledged the prima facie problem of political authority, and bent over backwards trying to solve it.
Srinivasan claims that someone can’t make a hardline moral defense of the free market (or of an absolutist position in favor of libertarian rights) without taking some very counter-intuitive positions on all four of her questions. But this is only true, I’ve tried to show, if you assume some other, even more counter-intuitive answers to the questions I’ve raised.