The informal blog discussion has kicked off at Cato Unbound! In response to David Schmidtz’s blog reply to the formal reply essays, Peter Singer, evidently unimpressed by the whole point of Tom Palmer’s essay, writes
Why should we assume that sellers have the right to get as much as the market will bear? Two families acquire similar looking acreages of Texas grazing lands. One is fortunate: their land has oil beneath the surface and they become fabulously wealthy. The other is unfortunate: their land has no oil, and despite working as hard as their neighbors, and applying similar intelligence, they remain poor. What gives the former “a right” to their wealth? In my view, nothing. We believe in an inherent right to property because we believe that somehow rugged individuals living in a state of nature can acquire and retain wealth. That is nonsense, of course. Oil would have little value if society did not provide the infrastructure that enables us to use it. Wealth does not exist without society, and the security that society provides.
So instead of asking what gets us to the conclusion that “we have a right” to interfere with market mechanisms, why not ask, instead: “Would interfering with market mechanisms make people, on the whole and in the long run, better off?”
Peter Singer says, “Oil would have little value if society did not provide the infrastructure that enables us to use it. Wealth does not exist without society, and the security that society provides.” I agree, and I believe in providing that security. Perhaps that leads to a point about inequality. But it seems more obviously to lead to a point about property rights. Suppose we substituted “property rights” for “society” in Singer’s sentence. It would seem to be a more precise way of making Singer’s point, but perhaps he has something else in mind.
Later, I liked this very Schmidtzean passage:
It occurs to me that when I read a newspaper, I get the impression that it is wildly unsafe to drive a car, or more generally, to leave the house at all. It’s also unsafe to stay at home. I get the impression that normal people get shot at every day, unless they get run over by a drunk driver first. I also read in the newspaper that people are starving, and that to have the income of a graduate student is to be utterly desperate. I get the impression that I and everyone I know are the lone exceptions to the rule that people are desperately short of the means of looking after themselves. Every time a newspaper reports a plane crash, people overestimate the odds of plane crashes for a while. Anyway, my impression is that inequality is news, where equality isn’t. Just a thought. How much do you know from personal experience about how much worse it is to be relatively poor these days, compared to, say, fifty years ago?
Expect more today from Hacker, and, let’s hope, from the globetrotting Tom G. Palmer. Check it out. And blog about it!