Mark Thoma recently linked to an interesting piece discussing why some countries have higher social mobility than others.

As I’ve written before, I think that people are wrong to focus on relative wealth (aka inequality) than absolute wealth (aka improved standards of living). However, the element of social mobility is relevant, as it signals in a sense how much income is decided by factors like hard work and how much income is decided by factors like personal connections, having a large trust fund, etc.

The United States, perhaps unsurprisingly, is grouped with countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Italy as places with relatively low class mobility compared to countries like Denmark, Norway, and Canada.

But before we write off capitalism and trump huge Scandinavian welfare states, we need to look more into the study. Causa and Johansson, the authors of one study mentioned, found:

Across European OECD countries covered by the analysis there is a substantial wage premium associated with growing up in a higher-educated family, whereas there is a penalty with growing up in a less-educated family, even after controlling for a number of individual characteristics.

I am willing to accept that the horrible state of education – especially in lower-income parts – in America plays a large part in decreased social mobility. But it’s not for lack of effort. The United States does not lag these countries in education spending. In fact, America spends a tremendously larger amount, both in absolute terms and per GDP per capita, than the countries that have higher social mobility.

Some other findings also conclude that egalitarian governmental programs do indeed increase social mobility. Check out the post here.

After my display of Robert Nozick’s “Wilt Chamberlain example”, Carson expressed how he finds the argument to not be completely convincing. Now, in yet another piece of commentary on social justice, I respond to Carson’s post.

Unlike Carson, where I disagree with Nozick is his most primary premise: that people undeniably have rights. The first paragraph of the preface to Anarchy, States and Utopia reads:

Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them.


Such a fact is necessary to accept Nozick’s arguments. But do rights actually exist? I’m not saying that I think people should be censored, raped, have their entire wealth confiscated by the government, or have no protection of their property. It’s not the end-state of “rights” that I disagree with. It’s the connotation that rights carry that says there are certain things inherently given and protected by nature. Most arguments for “Natural Rights” come from an idea that rights are something granted by God to man and no one or government can take them away from us. But who says God even exists?

Also, if all humans are really granted rights by nature doesn’t that mean that there is a sort of objective list of rights that we can come up with? If rights are so inherent, doesn’t that mean that they don’t change with time, culture, or context? If so, aren’t the things that we consider rights today – freedom of speech, freedom to choose one’s direction in life, or freedom to own property – recent successes of humanity (and mostly in the developed world)? Slavery existed for the vast majority of the world’s history. Women suffrage has been the exception, not the norm. Serfdom, feudalism, and monarchy have defined civilizations much more than any sort of citizen ownership. Does this mean that the rights always existed but no one ever knew them or respected them? If they were always there but couldn’t be enforced, doesn’t that make them essentially worthless?

Right now, we set 18 as the age of consent for most things in the United States. But in the middle ages, because of short life expectancy I presume, the age of consent for most things was instead 13 years old, which made sense at the time. Does this mean that rights change with context or, more specifically, the life expectancy of certain societies? It sure makes it hard to defend a case that rights are objective and inherent wherever you are.

Instead, I agree with Jeremy Bentham’s belief that rights are mere “nonsense upon stilts”, a social construct of sorts that have come about from our recognition that respecting such privileges of all citizens are to the benefit of everyone. But NOT because they are God-given or objective. Like Bentham said,

Right…is the child of law: from real laws come real rights.

In other words, “rights” are only as good as the laws that protect them.

Carson is right, no really would argue for absolute rights and the idea of them is absurdity. But equally extreme utilitarian arguments are just as nonsensical. Example: If the organs of one living person could be used to save ten dying people who needed transplants, society would have better utility. But I don’t think many people would argue that doing such a thing would be justified. Arguing against taking the organs for utilitarian arguments like “well, we shouldn’t do that because actually society will overall be worse off if they know the state could take their organs” are pretty weak. With that logic, one could argue for anything based on the idea that it’s better for society, based on completely subjective and inconclusive premises.

Again, I’m not saying that what we conceive as rights should be ignored just because I don’t agree with the justification for their existence. I am, however, skeptical to design society based on a faulty premise.

Nonetheless, I do think that my point from my original post on the Chamberlain example stands true: we cannot have a society designed on end-state principles without constant interference of people’s personal lives. Liberty does upset patterns.

Very few people are perfectly strict deontologists.  For example, suppose there’s a terrorist who has atomic missiles pointed at the 100 largest cities in the world, and that he will launch them and kill us all unless I can give him a single hair from the head of this blog’s co-author, Will.  I ask Will for one of his hairs, and he refuses.  I offer to buy it, but he says that it is not for sale.  How many people would really say that, because of the absolute natural rights that serve as side constraints on my action, I should not try to take one of Will’s hairs by force in order to save billions of innocent people?

The point is that most people allow for at least some utilitarianism in their moral frameworks.  I think this is correct.  After all, what is it about natural rights that justifies them taking precedence over the welfare of billions of people, as they would in the thought experiment above?  It’s ridiculous to have absolute rights determine correct action; there has to be some room for consequentialist considerations somewhere.

That’s one reason that I’ve never found Nozick’s Chamberlain example, which Will wrote about below, particularly convincing.  The Chamberlain does a good job of making crude egalitarian leveling look ridiculous, but does it really refute something more moderate, like mildly progressive taxation?  Maybe there’s nothing unjust about the final distribution in the Chamberlain example, but using consequentialist considerations, it seems like we could (and should) do better, at least in theory, by redistributing a bit of Wilt’s money to poor kids or something.  Does the Chamberlain really show that something like this is morally unjust?  I don’t see it.

I recently got back from a vacation in South Haven, Michigan, where I was re-reading Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I won’t go over the extensive philosophical framework Nozick formulates for social justice (aka distributive justice), but let me just describe one excerpt that, though imperfect and ripe for valid criticisms, is extremely interesting and at the very least worth pondering. It also is worth mentioning that the name of this blog comes from this part of Nozick’s book (though the authors of this blog do not agree with all of Nozick’s premises or conclusions).wilt

Nozick, after formulating his theory social justice, mostly in rebuttal to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, proves through an interesting analogy deemed “The Wilt Chamberlain example” why any “patterned” form of justice will be upset as long as people are free. A “patterned” form of justice, how I like to briefly sum it up, is a conception of justice that is based on end-state principles that come from natural dimensions. In other words, a patterned distribution is ‘just’ based on the way things end up and the way things end up should be based on things like talent, intelligence or moral worth. Essentially, people who follow this train of thought usually argue it is an injustice for people to be in poverty or for any intelligent child to not have a good education just because their parents are poor.

So, the beginning of the Wilt Chamberlain example: let’s say there’s a distribution (of resources, wealth, etc.) that you believe is just. It’s irrelevant whether it is logical or how you justify it. Let’s just say it’s your favorite and I’ll accept it to be just. Call it D1.

Now, add on to this the caveat that under this fair distribution D1 (your favorite one that is just) that people are able to exchange their respective holdings/property in any manner they see fit, as long as it’s voluntary. This doesn’t seem too controversial.

Suppose Wilt Chamberlain decides he wants to play some basketball and some people want to see him play basketball. He decides to charge 25 cents to each person who wants to see him play. We’ll say that 1,000 people show up. All of those people pay Wilt 25 cents to watch him play. Wilt is now $2,500 richer. Those 1,000 people all have 25 cents less. Call this distribution D2.

D1 was just (given, since it was decided by you that it was just). D2 has a higher degree of wealth inequality than D1. But how could one argue that D2 is not just if D1 is just? Where was the injustice in the transition between D1 and D2? Wilt wouldn’t complain; he played basketball voluntarily and has more money. The spectators wouldn’t complain; they could have spent their money on candy bars, a movie, or some other form of entertainment. Their seeing him was voluntary. The people who are neither Wilt nor the spectators have no right to complain, since their resources under D1 were not altered.

The point here is simple. If we are to evaluate how just a distribution is based on how things end up, we must constantly interfere with people’s liberties. In this case, we’d have to stop some people from seeing Wilt Chamberlain, or disallow Wilt from playing basketball. Both of these violate the liberties of the parties involved. Hence, to arrive at a purely end-state principle of social justice, we’d need to constantly interfere in people’s lives in order to prevent injustice.

One can argue against Nozick’s assumptions regarding property rights and other things he believes are so. The authors of this blog also support, at the very least, somewhat of a social safety net including government-funded education which is not incompatible with a limited government perspective. Nonetheless, the Wilt Chamberlain example is, I believe, an excellent mind exercise.

In conclusion, liberty upsets patterns.