Liberty, Desert, and the Market

I had the good fortune this weekend to attend a Liberty Fund Socratic Seminar centered on Serena Olsaretti’s Liberty, Desert, and the Market, which is a first-rate example of scholastic analytic political philosophy that attempts to arrive at strong normative conclusions about the justice of political institutions by analyzing extremely abstract concepts in a psychological and institutional vaccum. Truly, if you can take five or six contestable normative concepts, give all of them your favored gloss, line then up in just the right way, then you can get anywhere. My very favorite move is assuming your conclusion (this is always useful), using it to place “desiderata” on the analysis of a concept in question, and then pretending progress when you find that an account of the concept that satisfies your stipulated desiderata supports your conclusion. It’s almost like not begging the question. Anyway, none of this is a problem with Olsaretti’s book, which truly is a good example of its type. The problem is the kind of analytic political philosophy that Olsaretti, and lots of others, are taught to perform.

My biggest overall gripe is about the foundational assumptions of this kind of work—the framework stuff there is no argument for. Olsaretti wants to contest defenders of the market taking “the moral high ground.” She then basically identifies taking the moral high ground with justifying inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth. (She concedes that there are efficiency justifications of the free market. But that is either amoral, or the moral low ground. The fact that she thinks questions of distribution, as opposed to something else, define the high ground says a lot about her moral convictions, I suppose.) A lot of Rawlsian ideas pop up here and there. But they come out of context. Rawls at least says what the framework of redistribution in his theory is: an imaginary nation-state closed to the movement of people and capital across borders. He is sometimes clear about what is being distributed: the surplus from cooperation. Even with isolationist assumptions, it’s not obvious that the state is coextensive with the relevant network of cooperation within which surpluses arise. These problems dog Olsaretti like crazy, since she is even less interested than Rawls in thinking them through. (She actually does not seem that interested in the idea of cooperation for mutual advantage, which is the most important idea there is.)

I kept finding myself wondering things like:

Suppose there are two unrelated networks of cooperation: A and B. Each has three members. The members of A cooperate and create a surplus of 99 units. The members of B cooperate and create a surplus of 75 units. Each member of each group agrees that “equal shares” is in this case the fair principle of distribution. So everyone in A gets 33, and everyone in B gets 25. Olsaretti then might ask “What justifies the difference in income between a member of A and member of B.” The answer is, nothing does. But that’s not because it is unjust that I get 33 and you get 25. It is because we are not in this case in the circumstances of justice with respect to one another. What I get needs to be justified relative to what others in my cooperative network get.
Suppose your network is on Mars and mine is in Minnesota. In that case, Olsaretti doesn’t raise the question of justification. Now suppose your network is in Canada. Still, apparently no need for a justification (even if my network is ten feet away from yours in Manitoba; we could shake hands across that imaginary line, but that imaginary line is important!) But Olsaretti seems to think that if your network is New Mexico, inside the same national boundaries as Minnesota, then, mysteriously, asking to justify the difference in holdings between members of two seperate cooperative networks is not like asking whether an F# is salty.

Now, I suppose that a market is a complex web of overlapping cooperative networks. You and I may in some circumstances be part of the same network, sometimes not, whether or not we have the same kind of passport. Are the differences in our incomes deserved? Fair? Just? Is chocolate quiet?

We could start like this. Assume a single, discrete cooperative network. Allow benefits to be distributed dynamically according to a constantly shifting set of agreements regarding local changes in distribution. Stop the clock. Now, assume a morally wise central planner who can rearrange benefits simply by blinking, and ask: Does the global distribution of benefits correspond with any plausible normative principle that a morally wise central planner might use to distribute benefits? The correct answer will be probably be “No.” Cool. Then we could proceed to ask questions like: are real political units ever discrete cooperative networks? Is a central planner an institution? Is there an institution that is a reliably proxy for both the moral wisdom and practical efficacy of the central planner? Is there a relevant normative principle for the central planner to employ? If not, is that because morally wise central planners do not make a lot of category mistakes? Etc. . .