Is Liberty Threatened by Equality?
Hot Topics, December 2012
Philosophy in the Public Interest
Some thoughts on the discussions:
At both discussions, it was asserted with confidence (by John in Sedona, and Norm in Flagstaff) that it is impossible for the world to satisfy two conditions simultaneously: (1) the distribution of wealth among the world's population matched the distribution of wealth in the US as reflected in the survey done in item 6 below and appearing on the handout at the discussion, AND (2) that individuals in the least wealthy quintile possessed nonetheless the material goods needed for what we would regard as a minimally decent life (housing, adequate food, transportation, communication, yearly vacation). The claims seemed to be based on the observation that we live on a finite planet, with finite resources, so that wealth in the amount needed to satisfy condition (2) while reflecting a distribution in condition (1) would be impossible. In essence, the claim appears to be that wealth has a ceiling. I asked a good friend of mine who is both a philosopher and an economist and who directed one of the more successful programs in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Law in the country--the PPEL program at SUNY Binghamton--whether he was aware of an argument that demonstrated a ceiling on wealth creation.
While waiting for a reply from him, I did a quick search on the Internet and found support for John and Norm's claim here, a blog entry by a philosopher at Florida A&M, Profesor Michael LaBossiere. Professor LaBossiere's reasoning can be, I think, briefly reconstructed as follows: wealth is ultimately connected to things that are composed of matter and energy, of which there is a fixed amount in the universe. As energy and matter allow for redistribution, but not creation, likewise, wealth, which is based ultimately on these things, must also be subject at best to redisribution but not genuine creation. Wealth is a zero sum game. Of course, even up to this point in history, the amount of wealth that has been generated from the finite amount of energy and matter has not approached the total that COULD be produced. This allows us to assert both that wealth has (ultimately) a zero sum structure, and that the amount of wealth realized in the world can grow over time. This last claim is important, since it allows us to reconcile the zero sum nature of wealth with the observation that there are, of course, many, many more people on the earth now than there were, say 10,000 years ago with combined amount of wealth that far exceeds the amount of wealth 10,000 years ago. So, LaBossiere's position is that, ultimately, wealth creation has a ceiling but we're not there yet.
It seems to me that even if this argument is right, it doesn't by itself establish that both conditions we started with above, are correct. But is LaBossiere's reasoning compelling? I'm not convinced. Consider this initial analogy: in a given number system, such as the base 10 system with which we are familiar, there is a fixed number of numerals, or digits (0 through 9). But it doesn't follow from this finite set of elements that there is a ceiling on the numerical value that these digits can be used to express. So, we might wonder, why does the fixed amount of energy and matter that underwrites wealth determine that there must be ceiling on wealth? But, of course, a perhaps obvious objection can be raised against the appropriateness of the analogy: numberical value is not related to digits the way wealth is related to matter and energy. Wealth ultimately has to be grounded in physical stuff. Certainly this is true of lots of things we regard as the objects of wealth--houses, cars, cell phones, etc. But what is the relationship between wealth and matter and energy? Wealth is certainly is more than matter and energy--it requires persons to evaluate the objects of wealth. If there were no valuers in the world, it looks like the world could adequately be described by reference to matter and energy, and wealth wouldn't be an applicable notion. How does this necessary condition for wealth affect the claim that there is a ceiling on wealth? Well, consider a second analogy--in any given written language, there is a finite number of symbols (letters and punctuation, e.g.). But from this finite set of symbols, it appears to me that there is no limit to the number of novel stories that might be constructed with them. But isn't there a second objection waiting in the wings, analogous to the objection raised against the numerals-numeric value analogy? Letters, it may be objected, are no more physical than numbers. We can concede this point, I think. Yet surely stories are objects of wealth, as testified by the copyright which we recognize to them. It's hardly obvious that there is any ceiling on the number of stories that might be valued by persons so as to become the objects of wealth, even if it is the case that matter and energy are finite. There is more to be said here, which I'll follow up on later. My suspicion that less crucial to the argument for a ceiling on wealth creation is the finitude of matter and energy on the SUPPLY side; but it MIGHT be the case that there is significance of the finitude on the DEMAND or VALUER side of the analysis of wealth. Human valuers are finite beings, with finite supplies of time and attention--perhaps THIS might underwrite an line of reasoning that could sustain the ceiling on wealth creation. I continue to think about that, but in the meantime I thank John from Sedona and Norm from Flagstaff for the challenging idea.
Some important questions.....
1. What is meant by 'liberty' and what is meant by 'equality'?
2. Notice the term, 'threatened', in the titular question--are all ways in which equality might limit liberty properly understood as 'threats'? Might some limits on freedom, whether from equality or from other sources, be defensible, or even valuable?
3. In what way or ways is liberty valuable? Is it intrinsically valuable? If so, is more of it always better than less of it? Is liberty instrumentally valuable? If so, in the service of what does liberty have this instrumental value?
4. In what way or ways is equality valuable? Is it intrinsically valuable? If so, is more of it always better than less of it? Is equality instrumentally valuable? If so, in the service of what does equality have this instrumental value?
5. Would a more helpful or productive way of formulating the titular question be, "In what ways are valuable forms of liberty threatened and/or enhanced by equality?"
6. In what ways is liberty for individuals related to the idea of a society being free? Is the freedom we might think of for a society simply to be understood as the situation in which each of the members who make up that society are individually free, or is there some notion of collective freedom that has normative significance?
Some background on the different histories of the terms 'liberty' and 'freedom', as explored by David Hackett Fischer's Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas, (2005) Oxford. See especially pp. 4-11.
1. "Misconceptions and Realities About Who Pays Taxes". September 17, 2012. Chuck Marr, Chye-Ching Huang, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (10 pages, pdf)
2. "Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007", summary statement. October 2011. Congressional Budget Office. (7 pages, pdf)
3. "Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945". September 14, 2012. Thomas Hungerford, for the Congressional Research Service. (23 pages, pdf) A REVISED VERSION OF THIS REPORT WAS RELEASED DECEMBER 12, 2012 to accommodate primarily House Republican complaints about the language used in the original report. HERE is the revised report, by the same author, Hungerford.
4. "Equality and Efficiency: Is There a Trade-off Between the Two or Do They Go Hand in Hand?" September 2011. Andrew G. Berg, Jonathan D. Ostry. Finance and Development. (4 pages, pdf)
5. "Can't We All Be More Like Scandanavians?" August, 2012. Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson, Thierry Verdier, MIT Dept of Economics Working Paper No. 12-22. (44 pages, pdf).
6. "Building a Better America--One Wealth Quintile at a Time" January 2011. Michael I. Norton, Dan Ariely. Perspectives on Psychological Science. (4 pages, pdf)
7. Christian Science Monitor article citing figures (unverifiable to this author) from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) comparing the relationship between US tax rates, tax revenue, the budget deficit and GDP figures to similar figures for the economices of 33 other advanced industrial nations.
I am happy to respond to inquiries on thoughts, claims, questions or other comments stemming from the Hot Topics Discussion. You can e-mail me at: email@example.com.