New at Free Will: Lew Daly and Unjust Deserts

In this week’s Free Will, I chat with Lew Daly of Demos about his book with Gar Alperovitz, Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back. I found the book, especially the first part, stimulating if unconvincing. Daly and Alperovitz adopt a Douglass North-style neo-institutionalism and emphasize the broadly social nature of scientific discovery, invention, and economic growth. I’m completely on board with all this. They begin by noting that good institutions and technological advance are the foundation of growth, which is also true enough. They go out of their way to emphasize that successful economic activity depends on an enabling climate of norms, property rights, and decent government. Yup.

But it doesn’t take them long to fallaciously infer that your dog owns your house. The main thrust of Daly and Alperovitz’s argument is that the cumulative nature of the scientific advance and entreprenuerial discovery that leads to productivity gains implies that, as time goes on, individuals add a diminishing fraction of the overall value of the goods and services they help produce. D&A then push hard on a very simple and I think largely discredited notion of desert as the basis for just distribution. Since I didn’t come up with the theory of computation, did not build this computer or the Internet, since I cannot singlehandedly prop up the entire context of wealth-enabling institutions in which I am embedded, and since taxpayers paid for the education that enabled me to read and write, I deserve next to nothing of the economic value of this blog (if it has any). Daly and Alperovitz’s view comes down to the idea that, since we’re constantly enjoying and building on the positive spillovers of prior economic activity and earlier generations of wise governnance, society deserves almost everything produced. As you’ll see in the diavlog with Lew, I had some problems with this argument.

In particular, their story seems to imply that networks of scientists and innovators now long dead deserve a large portion of the wealth that we now create, since they are causally responsible for its foundation. But if that’s true, then it’s likely true that today’s innovators are also undercompensated, since they will be able to internalize only a tiny fraction of the value they pass on to future generations. So which is it? Larry and Sergei are too rich or not rich enough? Moreover, if successful American entrepreneurs don’t deserve much of their profits, then neither do contemporary American citizens who have done even less than the entrepeneurs to create economic value. Sure, I couldn’t make a fortune selling widget polish if no one ever invented the widget, or if the institutions in which widgets could be invented never developed. But there is nothing in the argument that implies that current tax consumers deserve my profits more. Even if we buy that I don’t deserve my income, D&A don’t seem to bother showing that society does. At least, I couldn’t find the argument that shows why, if I don’t deserve X, then a big set of people who also do not deserve X have a legitimate claim to it. This confusion is compounded by their lazy identification of society with the membership of the nation state. 

Their real worry is inequality. They want higher taxes on the wealthy and more government spending. And they seem to think popular but confused intuitions about desert and distribution stand in the way of their egalitarian policy objectives. That may be true. But it’s hard to see how offering an even less intuitve but nevertheless false account of desert and distribution is supposed to help them.