I'm Your Huckleberry

Answers from a "Free-Market Moralist"


Filed Under : Free Market

Amia Srinivasan, an Oxford fellow in philosophy, has made it all the way to The New York Times Opinionator blog. Here Srinivasan not only erects a voodoo-doll version of philosopher Robert Nozick (and proceeds to stick needles in it so libertarians will cry out), but she fails to apply the logic of Rawls to what she considers impersonal “free markets.” Srinivasan then offers Nozickians (read: libertarians) four questions she thinks are gotcha questions.

I decided to take up her four-question challenge. Or, in the immortal words of Tombstone’s Doc Holiday, “I’m your huckleberry.”

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?

In the absence of fraud and assuming full agency for both parties, yes. But such is a legal-political doctrine, not a moral one. While some political doctrine of voluntary exchange might track with some Nozickians' moral intuitions (in "reflective equilibrium"), political arrangements that allow people to be as free as possible don't imply there is never a moral obligation to help people, they simply imply that such obligations aren't enforceable if they exist. In other words, Srinivasan simply conflates morality with politics. Indeed, state-enforced “morality” means people aren't really being moral agents at all, but responding to threats of violence. To conflate morality with politics is to conflate compassion with compulsion. It is to conclude, “Sometimes the right thing to do is to treat people as means merely to ends I consider moral,” which provides a nice basis for different flavors of totalitarianism. 

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

Not necessarily. Again, a politically free person may find certain transactions morally objectionable and so criticize (or fail to engage in) certain kinds of transactions on moral grounds. Plenty of Nozickians will refuse to trade in prostitution or drugs on these grounds, but would not use force to prevent others from entering into such arrangements (or punish them for doing so) as long as the turpitude is victimless, which is to say one person doesn't make the other worse off.

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

Yes and no (this is actually two questions). To the first, yes, as long as we're clear about what we mean by “deserve.” Free exchange includes all manner of activities, because the values exchanged can take many forms. If a philanthropist opens a medical center and offers its services to the poor, this is a free exchange. The philanthropist gets the satisfaction of helping people and the poor people get help. Indeed, every dollar the state takes away from the philanthropist for some competing value is a dollar that cannot go to the medical center. (And the existence of rich kids with inheritances is not sufficient to provide an argument for treating these kids as the State’s ATM, especially as that inheritance might well become the capital for projects that enhance others’ well-being in the Rawlsian sense). 

To the second question: No. One might gain something that is not the product of free exchange (like use of the government-provided sidewalk), but one could hardly claim people don’t “deserve” to walk down the sidewalk. (We might parse the terms “deserve” and “entitlement” and arrive at a different answer, but this would be splitting semantic hairs.)

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

Few, including Nozick, argue that people are under no moral obligations to help others in distress. But people can help through all sorts of means that don't violate the basic Nozickian political framework. The assumptions in the article (and that pervade all redistributionist doctrines) are that the state apparatus is both the most effective way to help people in distress and that any moral duty to help must be transmuted into a political obligation enforced by anointed elites with a monopoly on guns and jails. This is a perverse view, because history shows that forced redistribution is neither the most effective nor the most moral way to help people (that is, if we think that morality—being good—comes from one's own breast and not fear of God's wrath or IRS agents).

Now, Srinivasan might want to know why people operating in the Nozickian tradition mostly keep political theory and moral theory separate, particularly as Nozick seems to ground his theory in decidedly Kantian starting points. After all, Nozick tells us: "Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” Still, there are very good reasons to keep political and moral doctrines at a safe distance, which have to do with people using moralistic/utopian justifications to serve the ends of power. I will remind Srinivasan that even Rawls referred to his own form of liberalism as a “freestanding” political conception, that is, independent of any comprehensive moral (or moralistic) doctrine. The idea is to let different people live their different conceptions of the good without harming each other. Nozick and Rawls might argue about how best to do that. But if a freestanding conception is good enough for Rawls's theory, isn’t it good enough for Nozick's?



Max Borders is the editor of The Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also cofounder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

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