Monthly Archives: November 2013

John Hospers From 1776 to 1984 Video

 

 

Click here for the transcript

John Hospers was professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Southern California. He was also the first Libertarian Party Presidential candidate in 1972. He passed away in 2011.

In this video from a Libertarian International conference in London, England in 1984, Hospers compares 1984 (and Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s popular novel) to 1776, the year of the American Revolution. Hospers speaks about everything from dystopia to new technology to the inevitable failure of global communism.

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On Being Equal

By John Hospers

Let’s suppose we all start out equally, say with $1000. How long would this equality last?

free-money-for-everybody-equality-john-hospersSome people would spend the whole thousand the same day and be penniless by nightfall. Others would spend it in a week, others in a month. Still others would put the money to work: in a bank, to collect interest; or in stocks or bonds; or as down payment on a farm or shop. The most adventurous ones would put the whole $1000 into some such new enterprise and even borrow, at interest, from others. With this they would buy a plant and materials, and put other people to work. These workers would then be able to save their original $1000 and spend only out of what they had earned. But they would not have been able to do this if the enterprising people had not created the businesses that provided them the work.

And so by the end of a year, let us say, some would have nothing, some would have part of the original thousand, and others would have multiplied the original amount many times over. They would end up with unequal incomes.

Suppose now that the government intervened to make it all equal again. Those who had nothing left would get $1000. Those who had $100 left would get $900. Those who had more than $1000 would have to give up the surplus to provide the others with what they had spent. What would happen now?

Those who had spent it before would spend it again, believing that the government would reimburse them for what they had spent. Those who previously had spent some but not all of it would now spend it all, knowing they’d get more from the government the more they spent. And what of those who had multiplied their returns? They’d be very cautious about doing it again, believing that it would only be taken away from them at the end of another year. So they’d probably spend it too. But if everyone did that, whence would come the goodies to be distributed the following year?

The moral of this little tale is very simple: if everyone received the same income no matter what each did, soon there would be nothing left to distribute. There would be equality, but equality of zero. If people are to achieve anything, they must be able to keep at least a good part of what they have earned; otherwise there will be no point in trying to improve themselves by earning more-while incidentally providing employment for others.

Commensurate Rewards

People’s achievements are unequal. People’s labors are unequal. People’s efforts are unequal. Accordingly, it is only natural that their rewards should be unequal.

But some people object if rewards are unequal. Many a person, seeing others earn more income than himself, says: “They’re getting too much! Take it away from them!” A professional robber will do the job himself and hold up the other person at gunpoint, or burglarize his house while he’s away. But most people don’t dare risk this. They do it another way. They vote for senators and representatives who will in turn vote in Congress to take it away from those who have earned it, so that it can be given to those who have not. Not wanting to take the risks and see the blood themselves, they hire a stick-up man who will use force and threat of force to do the job.

Doing the stick-up job via one’s congressman may give some people a kind of satisfaction-it has brought the achiever down to their level. But by doing this they have, of course, robbed the man who earned it; not only that, in the end they have robbed themselves too. They may be accustomed to having consumer goods which the achiever has produced; and if they keep on taking his income away from him, finally he won’t care to produce any more. Why go to the trouble and expense, and risk of laying his money on the line for uncertain returns, if it’s only going to be taken away from him anyway? Aside from the loss of motivation to produce, in the end he won’t be able to produce.

To produce, the achiever has to have capital, to keep his equipment renewed, to pay his workers, to modernize his plant. He won’t be able to do any of these things if he can’t keep what he earns. And when the factory closes, his employees will be out of work. So there are already several disadvantages to this scheme: he will be bankrupt, the employees will no longer have work, and the consumers will be without a product they had before.

Yet in spite of this, many people are envious of those who succeed. “We should all be equal,” they say, “not only before the law, but in income.” The people who say this are usually the people who don’t produce anything and want to be taken care of by the people who do.

Imitate Success

Let us not try to take it away from the man who succeeds. Let us not even envy him; rather let us try to emulate him if we can. Meanwhile, let us realize how much we depend on him. Those to whom we owe the debt, we would not be able to repay in a hundred lifetimes. How many lifetimes do you think it would take you or me to repay Thomas Edison for all he did to advance the human condition? When you pick up a telephone, think of the thousands of people whose efforts have made it possible for you to dial and reach in a few seconds a person three thousand miles away. Could you have done it yourself? No? Then don’t resent or rob the persons who did-not as long as you desire to use the services they have made available to you.

And remember that those who make a lot of money are no threat to you. If you don’t like the rock singer who earns half a million a year, remember that you don’t have to patronize him. You don’t have to contribute one penny to his success. Whether or not he succeeds is entirely up to consumers of his product. As long as he earns his money from those who voluntarily pay to hear him, you have no reason to resent him. You are perfectly free to ignore him – which is more than you can say of the government. You pay not one penny of extra tax because of his success. In fact you probably pay less because he pays more.

There’s another point often forgotten. No person can produce a product or a service on the free market by forcibly taking money from other people. He may spend all his money and borrow more to start up a business that makes a new product, and if he earns a million dollars from it (and the chances are very much against this) the only way he can do it is to produce in quantity a product that millions of people are willing to buy at the price for which he offers it. And they will do that only if the product is better or cheaper than the competition offers.

The president of General Motors is an influential man, but he has no power to arrest you if you don’t buy his products, or to try you or fine you or jail you if you refuse. He offers you a product at a price, and if you don’t want to pay the price you can turn to someone else. At least that’s the way things are in a free competitive society. Competition keeps the price down, and keeps the producers always on their toes.

Why Governments So Often Behave Irresponsibly

It’s all very different with government, of course. When the government does something, it doesn’t have to make money; almost always the government enterprise loses money, and spreads the loss to you and the other taxpayers. There is no competition to keep the price down, for the government creates a monopoly. The government-operated Post Office Department won’t permit anyone else to handle first-class mail. If it did, the Post Office Department would be out of business in a week. It can maintain its status only by being a monopoly. Nor is there any great incentive to offer efficient service, or to serve you well. After all, if you don’t like it, what can you do about it? You can’t go to any private handler of mail because that’s not permitted. You have to go through the government or not have such a service at all-and they know it. That’s why government personnel are often so cynical and so inefficient. That’s why bureaucracy is always unwieldy and wasteful: the money they’re using is not their own money, but yours.

If a person is spending money he earned himself, he is usually pretty careful about how he spends it because he knows how hard it was to acquire (if he does spend it wildly, then he’s broke, and that’s his problem, not yours). But if he’s a government official, and has millions of your dollars to spend, he won’t be nearly as careful – he probably won’t be careful at all. Would you be as careful how you spent it if you suddenly had a million dollars of other people’s money to spend, and even if you misspent it or wasted it you knew you could tax people and get more where that came from?

But most people seem confused about this difference. They don’t see that when a corporation president buys a yacht, no one else is taxed to help pay for it. But when the president of the United States gets a yacht, the taxpayers will have paid for it down to the last bolt and screw.

Is It Worth It?

Sometimes the service you get in return for your tax dollar may be worth it. Maybe the president is worth what he gets. Maybe congressmen are too, though at the moment many seem to be largely concerned with spending taxpayers’ money. Sometimes the police are worth it: that depends on where you live and how much you need them and how well they respond to those needs. But many others are not-especially the endless array of government regulators in the thousands of government agencies, who dream up one regulation after another by which they can cripple your business and bury you in unnecessary paper work filling out their forms, and take out of your paycheck in taxes the money they use to regulate you. They may not know anything about your business, but they can still force you to conduct it their way.

And so it comes to this: there are producers and nonproducers. People produce in various ways: new products, new versions of old products, services, inventions, ideas; both workers and managers are producers, each in his own way. Nonproducers, by and large, are to be found on the receiving end of a government payout, paid for out of your labor.

This, of course, places an ever heavier burden on the producers. If they are squeezed much further, production for trade will finally cease, and we shall be in a state of splendidly equalized destitution. It is time that we brought this mania for equality to a halt. For if we do not, we shall indeed all be equal, in poverty and starvation.

Another Look at Anarchy and Freedom

By John Hospers

Libertarians have often said, and by and large it seems to be true, that professors of philosophy in the universities of both the United States and the rest of the “civilized” world-not to mention professors of sociology, economics and political science-are either extreme statists or moderate statists. Most of them do not understand the free market and they have no respect for it or patience with it.

Professor Richard Taylor of the University of Rochester, New York, is a conspicuous exception to this generalization. He is extremely skeptical of the institution of the state. “Government,” he says (p. 94) “is the coercion through threat and force of the many by the few.” And among the various forms of government, he has as many cavils about democracy as about any other, especially when its real workings are glossed lover with the trite formula “We’re really ruling ourselves.” Even if the rulers or rules can be shown to be good, wise and farseeing, this gives them no claim to rule others: “The declaration, ‘I am a wise and good man,’ might be followed by . . . ‘Therefore, I am entitled to command you and you are obligated to obey,’ but the relationship of the two declarations is one of mere sequence. The word ‘therefore,’ irrelevantly appearing between them, is purely decorative and expresses no rational connection at alI.” (p. 103.)

To give the reader some idea of the intellectual tone of this book, as well as its inimitable style, I am going to quote one choice passage in full.

Taylor imagines, in a little fable he constructs, a society of human beings living at peace with one another, until in the course of time, . . . they begin to find men encamped here and there in what they had thought of as their homeland, men whose numbers greatly increase with time, until it becomes almost impossible to venture out without encountering them. They detect in them a patronizing attitude toward themselves and find that these men are all accompanied by, or can quickly summon, armed servant; ready at an instant to do their bidding.

These servants keep a close eye on things, noting the comings and goings of the people and speculating on their purposes, from time to time peering into their windows to see what is going on there, noting down all their impressions, and regularly sending these along to someone they deferentially refer to as The Man. They also come around occasionally to help themselves to a certain fraction of the contents of everyone’s pockets, according to a formula provided by The Man. Eventually it is discovered that high fences have gone up around the entire periphery of the place, intended, the people learn, to keep everyone inside. In case anyone should want to leave, to go through this high fence, he must first seek permission from The Man. Such permission, one is assured, will probably not be withheld, provided it is first established that the applicant has not violated any of a long and complex list of rules. These rules of course emanate from The Man-but not in any arbitrary or despotic way. Not at all. The people are themselves, they learn, the authors of them, at least for all practical purposes. Indeed, the Man and his servants make and enforce all these rules only with the prior consent of the people who must obey them. This is ensured in the most obvious and foolproof way imaginable, by their being given the opportunity every few years of writing The Man a letter-or at least, those who have obeyed all the rules are allowed to do this; the others are not. The letter is very succinct and to the point; so brief, in fact, that it contains only the single word “yes” or “no,” which is meant to express how its author feels about The Man and his latest rules: In time this right of sending the letter, at quadrennial intervals, comes to be represented as the most precious blessing anyone can possess, far exceeding in its importance any interest he may have in anything else. It matters little what else one is allowed or forbidden to do as long as he is allowed to write this short letter every few years; for without this, he has no freedoms at all, whereas with this one, he has them all. At least, so everyone is told. No one actually looks at these letters, of course, except to pile them into two stacks and see which is higher; but they do serve the overwhelmingly important purpose of ensuring that the people who write them are free men, governed by their own consent, and of demonstrating that the often frivolous and sometimes galling rules enforced at every turn at the point of a gun do not really in any way delimit anyone’s freedom at all. On the contrary, they guarantee for everyone a higher order of freedom. Nor are the rules really concocted by The Man, notwithstanding appearances, but by the people themselves, for that is what they were really doing, the last time they sent him their terse and friendly letters.

About half of the rules make sense. People are not supposed to go around hitting each other, for instance, nor taking each other’s money without asking. The Man can take their money without asking, to be sure; in fact, once each year he sends agents around to reach into the people’ pockets and take a fixed proportion of what they find there. If the agents meet with resistance, they end up taking whatever they want. But this is all right, since the people in effect told them they could do this by writing “yes” in their last letter. Or, in the case of those who did not, then their neighbors did this for them. In any case, someone said “yes,” which can accordingly be taken as the expressing of each man’s will.

So about half of the rules have some sense to them. The rest, however, are pulled out of a hat.

People propose rules-any rules, it doesn’t matter what they are-and these are all dropped into a hat and from time to time randomly drawn out. One of them is to the effect that no one may drink goat’s milk except at certain hours and in certain precisely defined areas, and at exorbitant cost, most of the cost of it being a hidden tax that goes to The Man. Many people have an inordinate fondness for goat’s milk, but some who tried it did not like it; so they put in the hat the rule that no one should ever have it at all, and that rule somehow got drawn from the hat. For awhile it was vigorously enforced, until modified by The Man in response to public clamor on the one hand and his desire for more revenue on the other. Another such rule, not so old and hence still uncompromisingly enforced, is that one may never drink tea, even at home, nor even possess it, even in molecular quantities.

This rule was originally one of those drawn from the hat, of course, but it came to be represented as expressing the most basic of all those virtues that are traceable to the founding fathers and, some say, to God. Thus, in order to avoid public disgrace, a person has to sneak into a remote cave and there, in the darkness and isolation, proceed to brew it; if he is discovered, he is stripped, for the time being and perhaps for life, of the most basic human right to send a quadrennial letter to The Man, is made to turn over a considerable portion of his possessions, or else has obloquy heaped upon him and is locked up for years in one of the many zoos built for this purpose. Far worse than this, however, is selling tea-an act that is made the more hazardous by the fact that The Man pays his servants to be purchasers of it in order to trap people into selling it so he can send them off to the zoos.

There are many rules like that, drawn from the hat. In time some of them become obsolescent and are left unenforced, or are enforced only sporadically at the whim of The Man’s armed servants; but others are always drawn from the hat to replace them. One of them, for example, requires that no adult male share his life with an adult female not related by blood without first obtaining The Man’s permission and submitting to certain ritualistic procedures.

Having once got this permission, gone through with the required forms, and begun such an arrangement, he may not then dissolve it without again soliciting permission from The Man, and this permission is given only with reluctance, if at all. One may not take two or more such persons under his roof under any circumstances whatever, at least not at the same time, The Man insisting on zealous enforcement of this rule always, having declared it to be essential to something or other. [pp. 15-17.]

There-no libertarian could have said it better. But Professor Taylor does believe there should be a government, and that it should have certain limited powers. One of his main tasks is to state and defend a view of what those powers should be. He quotes John Stuart Mill’s famous passage in ON LIBERTY, that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (and other passages by Mill to the same effect), and says that Mill provides no criterion at all, since he provides no clear definition of what constitutes “harm” (p. 57). If we construe the term “harm” narrowly, limiting it to bodily injury, then the principle would not protect us against theft and fraud; such a definition would expand individual liberty far beyond any reasonable limit and leaves us free to do anything we want to others short of bodily injuring them. But if we adopt a wider criterion of harm, we end up with no individual freedom whatever, for many people may feel more harmed and actually be more harmed, though not necessarily in a physical way, by having their cherished beliefs questioned, or by the actions of those whom they don’t consider patriotic, or who have long hair or get drunk or dress in a way they don’t like, than by robbery or trespass. On this criterion, virtually all actions would be prohibited, because they would “harm” someone or other.

J. S. MILL’S ERROR

Mill, as if aware of this, amended his principle to read that the liberty of the individual encompasses “all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself”-but not that which adversely affects others. But this reformulation, as Taylor sees rightly, is a catastrophe:

One is free to be a drunk provided this does not adversely affect others. What others? And how adversely? Mill specifically mentions one’s children and one’s creditors-but having mentioned these, at what point shall we stop? Shall we include representatives of the Christian Temperance League? If not, why not? Indeed, the whole principle virtually explodes in its author’s face when he finds that it permits judicial restraint of those whose styles of conduct are “offenses against decency” and “violations of good manners,” and draws the appropriate inference . . . that such behavior should indeed be suppressed! Clearly this is no principle of liberty at all, but an instrument for grinding men down to conform to someone’s conception of “decency” and “good manners.” [pp. 59-60.]

What criterion, then, can we find acceptable, if not the first one which is too permissive and the second one which is too restrictive? At this point the libertarian claims that he has a solution; but, so far as can be discerned, Taylor has never read any of the literature of libertarianism, and knows nothing of its basic philosophy. His attempt to generate a criterion of his own, then, is all the more interesting.

To solve the Problem Taylor draws a distinction between “natural injury” and “conventional injury.” A natural injury is anything that evokes deep resentment on the part of the injured party, “by virtue of his very nature as a man.” A conventional injury is something one resents not by virtue of his humanity but because of what he has learned or how he has been conditioned by his culture (p. 63). The eating of pork and the desecration of religious or patriotic symbols are conventional injuries; being murdered, clubbed, robbed of the fruits 01 one’s labor are natural injuries and resented by people in all cultures. There are, says Taylor, only three ways in which people may “naturally” injure each other: (1) assault, (2) theft, and (3) fraud. No one needs to be taught “that an assault upon himself is something bad, nor does anyone suppose that the evil of such an action is a mere consequence of some edict, declaration, or law.” (p. 62.)

Each of these three terms is vague, of course, but not too vague to be manageable. ” [A] violent blow to a man is . . . an assault-but so is deliberately driving him mad by forcing him to swallow a dangerous drug . . . . [D] epriving a man of his property by spreading lies about him can be thought of as a species of theft, being essentially no different from physical divestment or seizure of his goods.” (p. 62.) But among the things not to be counted as injuries are offenses to taste or sensibility, e.g., offensive language and eccentric styles of dress. He goes into much more detail about this, but his limitation on each of these categories is fairly specific (Chapter 10).

Much could be said about his rationale for arriving at these categories: some libertarians would say that he should, like Rand, have developed a doctrine of natural rights from which these conclusions follow, and others that he should have gone in more for Aquinas and the tradition of natural law (which he does to some extent). At any rate, it turns out that the very categories of acts that should be called crime according to Taylor-as well as those that should not-are virtually identical with those that libertarians themselves have set forth. Dearest of all to the hearts of libertarians will be Taylor’s remarks on “victimless crimes”:

What one does with his own body and mind, whether he uses drugs, intoxicants, poisons, stimulants, or whatnot, whether he engages in activities dangerous to his own well-being, whether he takes certain obvious precautions for his own safety, such as wearing certain safety devices on the public highways or locking up his belongings, are beyond the concern of any legislator. . . .

. . . [AI legislator may ask concerning any practice whatever: Not whether it is in keeping with morality; not whether it accords with the ordinary standards of decency; not whether it reflects civilized manners; not whether it is offensive to the sensibilities of law-abiding citizens; not whether it clashes with the cultural and religious heritage of his society; not whether it is perhaps pointless, foolish, and profitless; not whether it is in keeping with the minimum standards of personal conduct; and not (even) whether it is perhaps extremely dangerous (to him, alone, who undertakes it). . . . . . . [T] he lawmaker may ask only: Is it injurious to anyone but the agent? And if he is able to answer “yes” to that question, then he needs to ask still another: Is the injury thus wrought of a kind that would be felt by all or most men, independently of their training, customs, and conventions? And only if that question, which is a question of sociology rather than one of jurisprudence, can yield no answer but “yes” does the lawmaker have any concern with the practice at all. The morality of citizens, whether what they are doing is right or wrong, or whether they even know the difference between right and wrong, is of no more concern to him than to any ignorant and idle meddler. [pp. 68-69.]

JUSTIFICATION FOR THE STATE

What, then, is the justification for the existence of the state, and for obedience to its laws?

It is inherently coercive, and most of the “justifications” for our obeying its mandates are quite patently false. The democratic apologia, that “after all we govern ourselves,” is quite ridiculous: not only did you and I not originate a single law, but in a democracy we are subject to laws just because the majority have agreed to it (which is not even true in present-day democracies); a majority could well enslave a minority, and for the minority to be told that they are really free because they had a chance to cast their vote would be untrue and hypocritical (Chapter 15); “We’ve all taken a vote and have decided that you’re to serve us for the rest of your life.” Equally ridiculous is the contract theory in all its forms: you and I neither explicitly not implicitly agreed contractually to obey the laws of the state into which we happen to have been born. Taylor considers different varieties of contract, and concludes (correctly, I believe) that our relation to the state fulfills none of them (Chapter 16).

“The ultimate justification of the state, if it has any, can only be its expansion and enhancement of freedom” (p. 118)-the freedom of every citizen. Not even his happiness-this the state cannot bring about, and should not even if it could, this being left to the voluntary activities of individuals-but his freedom. But how can the state do this? “The state does not at all resemble . . . any instrument for the enhancement of freedom. On the contrary, coercion is inseparable from it . , . .” (p. 118.) Yet the state can, in certain respects, be an effective guarantor of freedom. Let us see how, according to Taylor, this is the case. Freedom, he says (Chapter 171, has two aspects, the negative and the positive:

(a) The negative aspect is the more familiar. Because the state prohibits and punishes crimes-assault, theft, fraud-it protects citizens against aggression and thus protects their freedom to pursue their chosen peaceful pursuits. Properly enacted and enforced, the criminal law takes away no freedom except the freedom to injure others (Chapter 18). The form of government does not matter here: even if the government were a hereditary despotism, if it limited its activities to protecting the citizens against these aggressions, it would be promoting their freedom.

(b) Those who focus only on the criminal law often forget that there is another aspect of freedom which government enhances, in fact makes possible, and that is enablement (Chapter 17). Someone wishes to adopt children, and the law places no obstacles in their way; but this doesn’t enable him to do it, since “by its very silence it provides no means.” Couldn’t he just go ahead and adopt children as he pleased? No, nothing he might do would count as adopting a child. “He might . . . go around gathering up homeless children and bringing them home; but then someone else might gather up the same children a week later, and he would have accomplished nothing at all.” (p. 120.) Or suppose a person wants to keep hunters away from his farm, and that nothing in the law prohibits this; but he still isn’t free to do it, for he cannot . . . even give meaning to the idea of his farm or distinguish it from anything else in the countryside, without a title or deed which defines its boundaries and law which protects his claims to it. Without these, every hunter in the county is perfectly entitled to demolish the woodlands as he pleases and slaughter away to his heart’s content, having at least as much right to these lands as their ‘owner’; for without law, and the state to enforce it, no meaning can be given to the idea of an owner. [p. 120.]

Freedom in this sense is not only compromised, it is completely impossible except within the framework of a legal order.

‘ Limited-government libertarians are likely to reply “yes” to these points of Taylor: government, only if it is limited in the way described, enhances freedom and indeed (in some respects) makes it possible. But of course there are anarchist libertarians too, who have defended in detail the thesis that the criminal law and issues of enablement can be handled by an interlocking system of private defense agencies, arbitration agencies, and insurance companies: see Morris and Linda Tannehill, THE MARKET FOR LIBERTY, and Murray Rothbard, FOR A NEW LIBERTY. And although many objections have been made to all this-e.g., that dealing in defense is quite different from dealing in other services, and the “defenders” might collude to provide no defense at all and dominate the area by force of arms-the champions of anarchy have other arguments in rebuttal, and anyway they can correctly point out that governments suffer from equal or greater dangers in this regard.

What of Taylor’s thesis concerning enablement? Here again the anarchist will say that such benefits can be conferred by competing agencies, hired by individuals, as well as or better than by the state. But there I see problems, though anarchists might present arguments that would convince me that they muld be overcome. At any rate, Taylor, presumably not having read the libertarian-anarchist literature, sees no alternative but the state to handle the twin issues of (a) aggression and (b) enablement.

AREAS FOR STATE INTERVENTION

The state, then, says Taylor, has some use, though a limited one. I shall conclude with a few examples of cases in which Taylor believes the state is quite rightly involved, indicate why he thinks it should be (and whether this is consistent with his previous allegations about the function of the state), and (sometimes) whether libertarians would agree and why.

1. Taylor believes that some areas of land should be publicly owned so that everyone may have access to them: if the private ownership of land is extended to the private ownership of areas used exclusively for recreation, such as seashores and parks (p. 35), then only a few persons may be able to enjoy them and the rest of us are deprived of their use. Therefore they should be “publicly owned” (i.e., owned by the state).

It is certainly not clear how state ownership of such lands falls under one or another of the three areas in which government action is called for according to Taylor; what crime of assault, theft, or fraud is committed by those who (privately) own such lands? It seems likely to me that Taylor has not heard of any viable alternative to state ownership here, since he has apparently not read Rothbard and the other free market theorists who have presented and defended their case on the matter. Such a defense, as most libertarians doubtless know, would proceed somewhat as follows: there is a market for wilderness-freaks and beach-freaks just as much as for those who would buy the land in order to cut down the forests-lots of people “want to get away from it all” and are willing to pay for the privilege of doing it. In a country in which all land was privately owned, many, at leasl, of the scenic and recreation areas would be owned by those who, for a fee, would enable others to use them for boating, camping, hiking, and exploring. (The National Park Service, a government agency, charges money for this now, on top of the taxes that we all pay to maintain these government lands whether we use them or not.)

2. Another example is pollution, which has become so severe that today “there is no hope whatsoever or bringing it under control except by restraint imposed by the state.” (p. 132.) Here, he says, “reason and good will and recognition of an evil, even if universal, are of little help, and the only hope lies in strong law vigorously enforced.” Again, I wonder whether Taylor would have maintained this view, in the face of his previously described theories of what should be called crimes, if he had read the libertarian literature on the subject. The polluter is, after all, violating the property rights of whoever else’s property he pollutes, not to mention the persons of the individuals whose lungs hi:; products pollute. Taylor agrees that there are crimes against both persons and property, and pollution often falls under both. The polluter would be sued in the courts like any other trespasser. So laws governing pollution are not required to deal with the problem.

3. “[M] any species of wildlife would be quickly eradicated were it not for the protection of the state. Men in general agree that such wildlife should be preserved . . . and yet only the state, through the creation and enforcement of law, can provide such protection and regulation.” (p. 132.) Now this one may present more of a problem. Some libertarians don’t care whether the wildlife is preserved or not.

Others do care, but do not want to see coercion exercised. Some would put forward a doctrine of the rights of animals-but, in view of the fact that there is a competition for life throughout the animal kingdom, that man is the only animal that survives by his rational faculty and most of the other living beings survive by killing and eating each other, any account of the rights of animals faces such overwhelming problems that I have yet to see a single satisfactory account of this matter by anyone.

Again, it is not clear how the killing of wildlife falls under any of the three categories of ‘ crime Taylor has previously delineated. Why then does he wish to make it one? His reasoning here is extremely interesting, of a kind well known to students of philosophy in many a contemporary book on ethics, but not much known to the libertarian community: (a) that there are some highly desirable ends that can be achieved only if everyone cooperates in-achieving them, and (b) the only way everyone will cooperate is by being coerced by law into doing so.

Thus, Taylor describes what he thinks would happen if there were no laws protecting wild species: Without the intervention of the state, there would be unrestrained competition for these [species of wildlife], followed soon by total extinction. Men do not voluntarily restrain themselves from such temptation; and even if hunters agreed to a man that a given species of animal should never be hunted, they would nevertheless hunt it simply from the justified conviction that if they did not, others would. [p. 132.1 [Emphasis added.] In other words, even if 99 percent cooperated, the one percent could kill off the species; so we must have laws protecting the species.

The contemporary philosopher Colin Strang (“What if Everyone Did That?” in Baruch Brody (ed.), MORALITY AND PARTICULAR CIRCUMSTANC€S, Prentice-Hall, 1970) even defends selective service by a similar line of reasoning: The enemy threatens. A mere handful volunteer. The writing is on the wall: my volunteering will not affect the outcome. But conscript me with the rest to stay the deluge and I will come without a murmur. No good will come of my volunteering as long as millions of others don’t do so at the same time; but great good will come of a general conscription which gathers me in with the rest.

He then goes on to say that my volunteering may do positive harm, e.g., if all who resist and survive will be executed; but if a million others fight together (possible only by conscription), we shall win the day. (This whole line or argument, called “the generalization argument,” is set forth and defended in detail in Professor Marcus Singer’s book GENERALIZATION IN ETHICS, and has been chewed over, ramified, attacked, and revised, in many dozens of reviews of this book in philosophical journals from 1961 to the present.)

 

The Meanings of Freedom

by John Hospers

John Hospers is a professor in the Department of  Philosophy at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He was the  first Libertarian Party  candidate for the presidency of the United States  (1972). He is the editor of the philosophical magazine.

Everyone, it seems, is in favor of freedom. Amnesty International works  constantly to bring about the freedom of prisoners in totalitarian nations,  especially from torture and degradation. The A.C.L.U. wishes to extend freedom  in the direction of civil liberties, even while it recommends that a Soviet  youth be forced to return to the U.S.S.R. because his parents wish it. The  Soviet Union itself proclaims its dedication to the “freedom of the Soviet  peoples” from the “exploitation” of Western capitalism.

But what is this value that everyone proclaims, at least in words? Without a  context, what is being said is far from clear. If you heard a stranger exclaim “I’m free!” what would you be entitled to infer? Perhaps he has just got out of  jail; perhaps he has just been divorced; perhaps he has just recovered from an  operation; perhaps he has overcome an allergy, or been successfully treated by a  psychoanalyst. Like so many words, “freedom” and “liberty” have come to refer to  almost any kind of condition of which the speaker approves. When this happens,  it is time to clarify our use of the term, so that it refers to something  definite enough to convey a clear meaning in our effort to communicate with one  another.

Freedom-from vs. Freedom-to

The most important distinction in the discussion of freedom is between freedom-from and freedom-to. The Soviet expatriate in the U.S. is  free from the dictatorship to which he was subject in the U.S.S.R.; the American  businessman, after a regulatory act has been repealed, is now free from the  restrictions imposed by that regulation. But once this freedom-from has been  obtained, a person is free to do many things he could not do before: the  Soviet expatriate is now free to choose his own line of work, to buy property,  to become an entrepreneur and hire workers, and so on; the businessman is free  to conduct his business in a way he was legally prohibited from doing before.  The more one is free from restrictions, the more one is free to do  things that he could not do while bound by restrictions.

The two are thus intimately related, but they are not quite two sides of the  same coin. If I go mountain-climbing and fall into a crevasse, I am not free to  move about, or do anything but remain there until help arrives; my choices are  extremely limited. And yet, if I went on the expedition voluntarily, there is no  question of my lacking free-dora-from: nobody made me go, I was not responding  to anyone’s command, nobody coerced me. My present sad plight with regard to  freedom-to is not the result of any lack of freedom-from. True, I am not  free-from obstacles to my getting out of the crevasse—such as the height of the  pit and the lack of rope, etc.—but there are no man-made constraints. Much,  then, depends on whether freedom-from is considered freedom from constraints or  obstacles in general, or whether it is free-dom from man- made  constraints and obstacles.

Freedom from the Will of Others: The Absence of  Coercion

“The original meaning of the word ‘freedom,’” writes Hayek, “meant always the  possibility of a person’s acting according to his own decisions and  plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the  will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not to act  in specific ways. The time-honored phrase by which this freedom has often been  described is therefore independence of the arbitrary will of another. In  this sense ‘freedom’ refers solely to a relation of human beings to other human  beings, and the only infringement on it is by coercion by other human  beings.”[1](Voluntary compliance with the wishes of others is simply honoring their  suggestions or taking their advice, which involves no lack of freedom.)

Freedom-from in this sense is absence of coercion by others; and this, in  addition to being the fundamental and original sense of the term, is undoubtedly  the most important kind (but, as we shall see, not the only kind) of  freedom-from. But this definition in turn requires that we be quite clear about  the meaning of the term “coercion.” What is coercion? Let us examine a few  cases:

1. A man, stronger than I, forces my hand on the trigger of a loaded gun, and  with the strength of his hand on mine forces me to pull the trigger. Is he  coercing me? He is certainly using force to get me to do his bidding, and if  that is coercion, I am being coerced. But the act of pulling the trigger is not  my act; both morally and legally, it is his act, and he is the  killer, not I. I have not done anything: I am the passive victim, he the  agent. I have not performed a coerced action; I have not performed any action at  all.

2. A man with a gun at my back threatens to shoot me if I refuse to hand over  my wallet. Rather than surrender my life, I surrender my wallet. Here indeed I  have been coerced: I have done something, but I have done under coercion what I  would not have done of my own free will (surrendered my wallet). I still had a  choice, but my choices were limited by his coercive action; but for the  coercion, I would have chosen to surrender neither my life nor my wallet.

3. An employer fires a worker. Has he coerced the worker? Clearly not; he has  simply decided to terminate a relationship voluntarily entered into by both  parties, either because the worker was no longer needed or because the worker  was inadequate to the job. Socialists often call this coercion—or its cousin, “exploitation”—and yet if the worker quits his job for a better one, they would  never call it coercion or exploitation. There is an asymmetry in the socialist’s  position which is not often noticed. But the one is no more coercion than the  other.

4. The employer says, “If you don’t give me your sister in marriage, I’ll  fire you.” Here there is clearly a threat; is there coercion? There surely seems  to be coercion; one may hesitate in calling it so only because one is not sure  about the seriousness of the threat. In most cases the worker would just quit  and go somewhere else. Perhaps it was only an attempt at coercion?

Coercion can be a matter of degree. It depends on (a) the seriousness of the  threat to the person threatened, on (b) whether the threatener is able to go  through with the threat, and on (c) the likelihood of his doing so (most threats  are idle, like “I’ll kill you” uttered in a bar-room brawl). If someone says to  you “If you don’t do as I command, I’ll set fire to your house” you are  likely to take it as a serious threat, but one to which you may not give in if  your house is fully insured, or if your freedom is more valuable to you than the  house. If he says, “If you don’t do as I command, I’ll let the air out of your  tires,” you might not consider the threat worth responding to: rather than  capitulate, you might simply say “Go ahead and do it.” If he says “If you  don’t do as I command, I’ll plant a nuclear bomb in your house and destroy the  whole city,” the threat is a serious one indeed; but now it is quite probable  (varying of course with circumstances) that either he can’t go through with the  threat or he won’t. If he both can and probably will, this would indeed  constitute a strong case of coercion.

In law, coercion exerted upon you to do something usually counts as excusing  of what you have done: it was done “under duress,” and the responsibility for  the act shifts to the person who threatened you. But it is not always so: if  someone says he will kill you if you don’t kill Mr. X, and everything points to  his power and willingness to fulfill his threat, you are nevertheless likely to  be liable for murder. (If you could successfully plead duress, and the  threatener could repeat his threat, this time demanding that you kill Mr. Y and  Mr. Z, you could commit as many murders as the person demanded while getting off  scot-free. The law says you should risk being killed yourself rather than  fulfilling such threats.)

5. You stake a claim in the desert, build a house, and dig a well. Soon  thereafter another man settles on a nearby strip of desert and also builds a  house and digs a well. But soon he runs out of water. “Without water I can’t  live,” he says to you. “Won’t you give me some of your water, or sell it to me?” But you refuse, saying “My water is not for sale. I may run out of water myself  at any time. And even if I don’t, I want to be sure. I simply say, No Sale.” Although by your action you are depriving him of a resource without which he  cannot continue to live in the desert, you have not coerced him.[2]  You didn’t make him come there; you and he both took your chances with the  desert. Instead of saying that you coerced him, it would be preferable to say “The desert has beaten him.” Perhaps the humane act would have been to give him  some water (though this would only be a temporary expedient, and the same  problem would arise again the next day), but in any case you have not  coerced him. His freedom of action (freedom-to) has been restricted by your  action, for he can no longer live in his bit of desert; although he may curse  you as he leaves the desert, he cannot rightly say that you coerced him.

Neither did the physician use coercion in refusing to sell or give someone  else a life-saving medication that he has invented; the physician’s refusal  simply places the patient where he would have been anyway without the  physician’s invention. Neither has the man who declined to rescue a drowning  person coerced him; he may not have done his moral duty (depending on  circumstances such as: how good a swimmer is he? is the water dangerous? can he  rescue without great risk to himself?, and so forth), but, assuming that the  swimmer went voluntarily into the water, he was free-from all coercion both  before and after he decided to swim. Even while drowning, he was free in the  sense of free-from dictation by others—but not in the sense of being free-to  continue his life thereafter.

Freedom as Freedom-from Coercion

There are those who would restrict the meaning to freedom entirely to this  sense of absence of coercion. In his fine book, The Government Against the  Economy,[3]  George Reisman writes:

“In the nature of things it is impossible for me to square circles, walk  through walls, or be in two places at the same time. It is not possible for me,  in the actual circumstances of my life, to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry or  the Academy Award for Best Actor of the Year, or to enter the automobile or  steel business. Absolutely none of these facts constitutes a violation of my  freedom. In order for a violation of freedom to exist, it is not sufficient  merely that someone be unable to achieve what he desires. What is necessary is  that the thing stopping him be the government’s threat to use force against him,  specifically, its threat to initiate the use of force against him in  response to an action on his part that does not represent the use of force.

“If I ask a girl to marry me, and she says no, my freedom is not violated.  But suppose she says yes, and the government stops me from marrying her, say by  virtue of a law concerning marriages among people of different races, religions,  or blood types—then my freedom is violated.

“If I want to travel to California, but lack the fare and am unwilling to try  hitchhiking, my freedom of travel is in no way violated. But suppose I do have  the fare to go to California and want to pay it, but the government stops  me—say, with a wall around my city (as in East Berlin), a passport restriction,  or a price control on aviation fuel that stops the airlines from  flying—then my freedom of travel is violated.

“Suppose I want to print my views in the New York Times, but can  neither afford the advertising rates nor persuade the publisher to give me  space. My freedom of the press is not violated; I am not a victim of ‘censorship.’ But suppose I do have the money to pay the advertising rates or  could persuade the publisher to print my views, and the government disallows it—that would be a violation of the freedom of the press; that would be  censorship.

“If I cannot enter the automobile business because I am unable to raise the  money necessary to buy the equipment that would enable me to produce and sell  cars as cheaply as General Motors or Ford, my freedom of competition is not  violated. But suppose I can raise the money to enter the automobile  business, I am backed by a major steel company or a domestic auto firm, and the  government stops me; then, and only then, would my freedom of competition be  violated.”

On Reisman’s account, freedom is not violated unless coercion is employed.  Moreover, he narrows the scope of coercion by saying that only when done by government does it count as coercion. Though government may be the  principal source of coercion in our society, especially in matters of economic  freedom, it is surely not plausible to say that only government can  coerce. Highwaymen, bandits, robbers, rapists, and terrorists can certainly  coerce just as effectively, and inhibit one’s free-dom-from being forced to act  at the will of others.

The points that Reisman raises certainly need emphasis, but it is  questionable whether that emphasis should be provided by so drastically  restricting the scope of inhibitions of one’s freedom that only coercion, and  coercion by government at that, can violate one’s freedom. In ordinary  discourse, at any rate, the word “freedom” is used more widely than that. It is  also used in referring to (a) other kinds of freedom-from, as well as to (b)  freedom-to.

Though freedom from the arbitrary will of other persons is the principal way  one can have freedom-from, there are other things one can be free-from besides  the will of other human beings.

A person who was crippled with arthritis and now is cured is surely free from  the debilitating ailment that caused him so much distress. A writer who finds  himself unable to write anymore (has a “writer’s block”) and seeks help from a  psychotherapist, who makes it possible for him to overcome his problem and to  write again, has been freed from the “inner obstacle” (whatever it was) that  kept him from writing. A person who has powerful inner drives that threaten to  destroy him, such as a seemingly uncontrollable urge to kill or to set fires,  and who is cured through psychotherapy or behavior modification techniques from  having these urges, is now free from these impediments to his personal  developments. A man who, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, has gone for twenty  years without a drink is now free from the powerful and constant urge to drink.  He has been “set free,” not from coercion by other human beings, but from his  own destructive inner urges.

Surely these are plausible cases of being free-from, even though no coercion  by others is involved.

Freedom-to

To many writers, and certainly to many philosophers, the freedoms-from we  have described are incidental: the main sense of freedom is freedom-to. When we  are free, we are free to do many things; the wider our range of choices,  the freer we are. If I am free to do A,B,C . . . S, I am freer than if my choice  is limited to just A and B.

In this sense, freedom is highly correlated with ability; the wider  the range of my choice, the greater my ability to do various things I want. If I  have a million dollars, I can spend the winter in the south of France if I want  to, or make numerous large investments, or buy another house—things I would not  be free to do if I had no wealth. Free-dom-to also gives a person greater power (not necessarily political power): it enables people to control  aspects of their environment, in cluding other people (if they wish to), as they  would not be able to do if they lacked the means to do it.

There are things, of course, we are not free to do even if we have wealth. We  cannot, for instance, fly through the air like birds. Is this a limitation on  our freedom? Not in the sense of freedom-from coercion; but it is something  that, owing to our physiognomy, we are not free to do. If your main dream  is to fly through the air like a bird, then you will be likely to count your  inability to do this as a limitation on your freedom. So is the fact that,  though you can bend your legs backward from the knee, you cannot bend them  forward.

Freedom to Vote

There is a special area of freedom-to that deserves separate mention: the  ability to vote, which is something one is free to do in democracies but not in  most totalitarian nations. This freedom is sometimes called “political freedom,” though somewhat misleadingly because that same term can also be used for other  things.[4]  Voting is, of course, one of the many things which in democratic nations one is  free to do. Unfortunately, however, it does not always achieve the freedom from  tyranny which is widely supposed to be its aim.[5]  People are often ignorant and shortsighted, and they often do vote themselves  into one or another kind of slavery, often through voting themselves large  benefits from the public trough and then suffering runaway inflation and  destruction of the currency as an unanticipated result of their actions. A wise  man is often outvoted by fools. The freedom to vote, then, while valuable, is  far from sufficient to guarantee any other freedom or even render its  fulfillment much more probable.

In the writings of the Founding Fathers, freedom always meant freedom from  tyranny and oppression. But in today’s political climate, the appeal of freedom  has largely shifted to freedom-to. If you take money away from the wealthy via  government transfer payments, you can do (are free to do) many things you could  not do otherwise; in this sense, the higher your welfare payments, the freer you  are. The Soviet Union, by training and arming in surgents in Central Africa,  used the lure of “freedom” as their appeal: if you take the farms from the  landowners, you will have them yourself, and then you will be free because you  will be rich. The natives would certainly not be free from political  control—quite the opposite—but they were promised freedom to do many things with  the expropriated money and property that they were unable to do before. As it  turned out, what they expropriated soon became (in most cases) useless to them  because they lacked the technology to maintain it and a political structure that  honored property rights. But the hope and the promise, at any rate, were of  increased freedom: the appeal was freedom-to, not freedom-from.

A Dangerous Development

There is no doubt that this shift in the meaning of “freedom” as the term is  used in the political arena is a dangerous development. “Once this  identification of freedom with power is admitted,” writes Hayek, “there is no  limit to the sophisms by which the attractions of the word ‘liberty’ can be used  to support measures which destroy individual liberty; no end to the tricks by  which people can be exhorted in the name of liberty to give up their liberty. It  has been with the help of this equivocation that the notion of collective power  over circumstances has been substituted for that of individual liberty, and that  in totalitarian states, liberty has been suppressed in the name of  liberty.”[6] It  is fatally easy to pass from freedom as the absence of coercion to freedom as  the ability to get what we want (via political coercion).

We cannot object that the word is not constantly used in both these ways, for  it is. What we can and should do is to emphasize that they mean two quite  different things. “Whether or not I am my own master and can follow my own  choices, and whether the possibilities from which I must choose are many or few,  are two entirely different questions. The courtier living in the lap of luxury  but at the beck and call of his prince may be much less free than a poor peasant  or artisan, less able to live his own life and to choose his own opportunities  for usefulness. Similarly, the general in charge of an army or the director of a  large construction project may wield enormous powers which in some respects may  be uncontrollable, and yet may well be less free, more liable to have to change  all his intentions and plans at a word from a superior, less able to change his  own life or to decide what to him is most important, than the poorest farmer or  shepherd.”[7]

Some people prefer to be free from tyranny and regulation even at the price  of being poor; they remain masters of their own lives. Others prefer to be free  to have many choices—or at least they accept the promise of having many  more choices in the future—while their lives and those of their fellow human  beings are ruled and regulated by a powerful central authority. A large part of  the history of the twentieth century could be written as the shift from the  first, and fundamental, meaning of”freedom” to the second. Both kinds of freedom  are doubtless desirable, but people have been all too willing to give up the  first kind of freedom for the second, only to find that the second was not after  all vouchsafed to them precisely because the first was sacrificed; their fate  had been placed in the hands of others.

Freedom and Other Values

It is most important to emphasize, however, that while freedom is an  enormously great value, it is not the sum of all values. A person can be free  and yet miserable. A person may be free from tyranny and oppression and  yet depressed, psychotic, or unhappy because of painful injuries. A person may  be free to do many things and yet unhappy doing any of them.

“Freedom may mean freedom to starve, to make costly mistakes, or to run  mortal risks. In the sense in which we use the term [freedom-from], the  penniless vagabond who lives precariously by constant improvisation is indeed  freer than the conscripted soldier with all his security and relative  comfort.”[8]

Nor is it even desirable that a person should be as free as possible in  either sense. (1) A person should be free from others controlling his  life, but not if he is a small child or an imbecile. In any case, there are many  desirable laws restricting people’s behavior, such as traffic laws, yet every  law is a restriction on one’s freedom from control by others. (2) A teenager who  has just in herited a million dollars is freer to do many things than his  peers are, but so much money so early in life may ruin him; it might be better  if he had not had this freedom to spend so early in life, before he could handle  it. Freedom is a heady wine, which needs to be tempered with re sponsibility,  restraint, and rational thought. Having a considerable degree of it is, at best,  a necessary condition for one’s happiness or well-being, never a sufficient condition.

Freedom and the Market

For the free market to operate, there must be freedom from the whims of  dictators and bureaucrats. The market can survive, though crippled, with some degree of interference, but when the interference becomes severe  enough to keep a man from being able to estimate probabilities into the future,  or when his taxes become so high that it is no longer worth his while to  continue in operation, the market is no longer able to function so as to produce  a vast quantity of goods and services at competitive prices. Free-dora-from is  indispensable to the market, and is indeed its chief condition.

Freedom-to is a highly beneficial consequence of the unimpeded  operation of the market. When entrepreneurs are free from economic controls  imposed on their activities by others, they will produce a proliferation of  goods which the public is then free to consume. This freedom-to on the part of  the public is the direct result of freedom from con-trois which makes the market  able to function.

But this is a lesson which, unfortunately, most of the buying public has yet  to learn. They want a large diversity of goods at competitive prices, but they  are not averse to shackling the producer of these goods so as to make him less  able to produce them. But in the economicrealm you cannot have the one free-dora  without the other: freedom-to (for the buyer) and freedom-from (for the  producer) are inextricably linked. When the one is lost, so, in a short space of  time, is the other. []


1.   Friedrich A. Hayek, The  Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 12.

2.   Hayek writes, “True coercion occurs  when armed bands of conquerors make the subject people toil for them, when  organized gangsters extort a levy for ‘protection,’ when the knower of an evil  secret blackmails his victim, and, of course, when the state threatens to  inflict punishment and to employ physical force to make us obey its commands.  There are many degrees of coercion, from the extreme case of the dominance of  the master over the slave or the tyrant over the subject, where the unlimited  power of punishment exacts complete submission to the will of the master, to the  instance of the single threat of inflicting an evil to which the threatened  would prefer almost anything else.” (Hayek, op. cit., pp. 137-8.) Yet he  also holds—inconsistently, in my view—that the refusal of the desert-settler to  give or sell water to his neighbor is an example of coercion.

3.   George Reisman, The Government  versus the Economy (Ottawa, Illinois: Caroline House, 1980) pp. 97-98.

4.   For example, the phrase “political  freedom” is sometimes applied to a nation when it is not occupied by the armies  of other nations. In this sense, Nazi Germany was a free nation, and so  are numerous African and Latin American dictatorships.

5.   See John Hospers, “Freedom and  Democracy,” The Freeman, June 1984.

6.   Hayek, op. cit., p. 16.

7.   Hayek, op. cit., p. 17.

8.   Hayek, op. cit., p.  18.

Justice versus Social Justice

by John Hospers

John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the  University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He is the author of numerous  books, such as Human Conduct, Understanding the Arts, and Introduction to  Philosophical Analysis, as well as several anthologies and more than one hundred  essays in journals and encyclopedias. He is president of the American Society  for Aesthetics, and was the first Libertarian Party candidate for U.S. president  (1972). He is editor of the philosophical quarterly The Monist.

It is individual human beings who are born, live, enjoy, suffer, and die.  Individuals sometimes band together into groups; but groups as such do not live,  love, or suffer; only their individual members do. The individual, not the  group, is the unit.

Individuals interact with one another, in families and larger societies.  Sometimes they act wrongfully toward others; and one kind of wrongful action is  called injustice. But what does this mean? What precisely is involved in an  action being just or unjust?

Justice, in a tradition going back to Aristotle, means treating  individuals in accordance with their deserts. If a teacher gives a student a  C when the student deserves a B, the low grade is an injustice to the student.  It is equally an injustice when the teacher gives her an A which she doesn’t  deserve. Though the student is not likely to complain of her grade in the second  case, it is an injustice all the same, since it is treatment that is not in  accord with desert. Moreover, every case of an undeserved high grade involves a  diminution of the value of the grade; the more numerous the B students who get  undeserved A’s, the less the grade of A comes to mean, and the less it  distinguishes the genuine A student from the others.

There are some distinctions about justice which should be kept in mind before  we apply them to particular cases.

Distinctions About Justice

1. Justice has to do with the treatment of persons by other persons. The lion  is not being unjust to the antelope in killing it. The lion is not a moral  agent, and no right or wrong, no justice or injustice, is involved.

If a child is born crippled or diseased, this is a misfortune but not an  injustice. Injustice requires some person or persons to perpetrate the  injustice. (Even those who say that God caused the baby to be born crippled or  diseased are not likely to accuse God of injustice.) Congenital deformity is  something that unfortunately occurs, but it is not something that someone has done to someone else; no person has wronged another.

2. Justice depends on desert, and desert is a matter of past performance, not  of future possibilities. The grade a student deserves in a course depends upon  his past record of achievement in the course. If a man deserves a punishment for  a crime, it is because that person committed a crime in the past, not because  (for example) it would be useful to punish him as a scapegoat; punishing the  innocent is always unjust. Nor is it just to punish him because he might commit  a crime in the future. Preventive detention of persons believed to be dangerous  is sometimes used as a utilitarian mea-sure, to prevent the commission of crimes  in the future, but this is done from considerations of utility, not of justice.  (Justice is not the whole of morality, and whether preventive detention is ever  justified would have to be argued separately.[1])

3. Sometimes a law itself is unjust; if every driver who parked too long at a  parking meter were to be given a prison sentence, such a law, however  impartially administered, would be unjust because the sentence is harsher than  the offense deserves. But more often it is the administration of the law  that is unjust; one man gets five years for armed robbery and another man guilty  of the same offense is given a suspended sentence, or convinces the jury that he  is insane, thus receiving an insanity verdict which may let him out in sixty  days. Such maladministration of the law is often called comparative  injustice. Many prisoners who accept full responsibility for their actions and  do not claim that their sentences are undeserved, still complain of comparative  injustice: why were they sentenced when someone equally guilty was let go? Their  sentence may itself not have been unjust, but the injustice lies in the  lightness or absence of the other person’s sentence compared with theirs.

Justice is compatible with forgiveness if the person deserves  to be forgiven. But the only person who can forgive the aggressor is the victim.  If the offender asked the person he injured “Will you forgive me?” and the  victim said “No,” and a stranger then entered the room and said “That’s all  right, I forgive you,” the stranger could only utter the words, not actually  extend the forgiveness; only the aggrieved party can do that. “I don’t want the  mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs!” wrote  Dostoyevsky. “She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she  will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her  mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to  forgive.”[2]

As opposed to forgiving, pardoning is a legal act: a president or a  governor may pardon a criminal. Is pardoning compatible with justice? Again yes,  if the person deserves to be pardoned.

4. Justice is a very different thing from mercy, and mercy may be at  odds with justice. “But shouldn’t justice be tempered with mercy?” Let us  consider what this would involve. Suppose that five men have committed murder,  but one of them is let go as an example of mercy. This is surely a comparative  injustice to the other four, as well as an injustice to the one who is let go  (assuming that he deserves the assigned punishment). If mercy is so wonderful,  why shouldn’t every criminal be let go? That would really be  merciful! Why shouldn’t every teacher give every student an A as an act of  mercy? Because, of course, this would be a great injustice, especially to the  students deserving A’s. It would also be mercy to give everyone a job demanding  literary skill, even to persons who are illiterate—and more merciful still to  give them wages for doing nothing at all. Mercy in this sense would mean a total  abandonment of justice. (Mercy in a much different sense, such as “giving the  defendant the benefit of the doubt” in criminal cases [procedural justice],  giving him a chance to improve his conduct, etc., is desirable enough, but these  are already incorporated in the notion of just treatment; they are included in  justice, they do not supersede it.)

Justice vs. Collectivism

5. Most important of all, justice is individualistic: since the deserts of  individuals differ from one another, so should their rewards and punishments  differ from one another. That is why Aristotle said that justice consists of “treating equals equally, and unequals unequally.” If five persons have  committed no crime and five other persons have committed crimes with a one-year  sentence attached, it would be unjust to average out all their records and  condemn all ten to six months in jail. The innocent do not deserve the sentence,  and the guilty do. Justice is not a matter of averaging; it is a matter of  assigning to each individual his or her proper desert.

The example just given illustrates the opposite of justice, namely collectivism: that is, not considering a person’s individual deserts but  considering his behavior solely as a member of some group. Suppose someone in  tribe A has killed a man in tribe B, and in retaliation the members of tribe B  conduct a massacre of the entire tribe A. Only one of the members of tribe A was  guilty of murder, but all his fellow tribesmen are killed, not because they were  involved in the killing but simply because they were members of the same tribe  as the killer. Such tribal retaliations, though common in primitive societies,  are gross injustices because they involve the punishment of those who do not  deserve it. (A variant of this occurs when the members of tribe B select a  member of tribe A at random and kill him, even though the person killed was not  the person who was guilty; he was selected not because he was guilty, but simply  because he happened to belong to the same tribe as someone who was.)

Racism is a particularly pernicious form of collectivism. Persons who  cast racial slurs on others are not considering the individual merits or  demerits of the person slurred; they may not know the individual at all, except  that he is a member of some racial group (Jews, blacks, Ital ians, etc.). Though  the person’s individual qualities may be quite different from many other members  of the group, all this is ignored: all they know or care is that he is a member  of that group. “A genius is a genius, regardless of the number of morons who  belong to the same race—and a moron is a moron, regardless of the number of  geniuses who share his racial origin. It is hard to say which is the more  outrageous injustice: the claim of Southern racists that a Negro genius should  be treated as inferior because his race has ‘produced’ some brutes, or the claim  of a Nazi brute to the status of a superior because his race has ‘produced’ Goethe, Schiller, and Brahms.”[3]

Vagueness of “Desert”

All might agree that justice is treatment in accord with desert, and yet they  might disagree on particular judgments about justice because they do not agree  on what particular punishment, grade, compensation, etc. a person deserves.  Everyone agrees that a murderer should be punished, but there is much  disagreement about what specific punishment is deserved: should it be the death  penalty? should it be life imprisonment? should it be imprisonment for a stated  term with possibility of parole? should it involve incarceration in a prison, or  would duty on a work farm suffice?

There is general agreement about the severity of various offenses: murder,  which takes away the victim’s life, is a worse crime than assault and battery,  from which a victim may recover and resume his life thereafter; crimes against  the person are worse than crimes against property, which can usually be  replaced; and so on. Yet this is not always so: there are forms of mutilation  that are worse than death, and the theft of a valued and irreplaceable family  heirloom may be a worse loss to the victim than being mugged. Since each case is  unique, it is necessary to describe in detail the circumstances of each case in  order to form any estimate of the person’s desert.

Even with such a detailed description, along with a sincere attempt to  empathize with the situation of both parties, there will be disagreement about  desert. A woman will ordinarily recommend a severer punishment for rape than a  man will. A wife will tend to be more sympathetic to the position of a wife in  divorce court, and a husband will tend to be more sympathetic with the husband.  Those who do not care about animals will tend to be immune to pleas about  cruelty to animals.

“Put himself in the other person’s place” is a piece of advice that most  individuals can practice only very incompletely; and even when they try, they  will be likely to favor those who have been in situations similar to their own.  A criminal will be likely to be more concerned with the treatment of prisoners,  but a person who has been stabbed is more likely to identify with the victims of  stabbing and less likely to be worried about how the aggressor is treated in  prison. This ineradicable “human equation” will probably color all of a person’s  judgments about deserts—even a judge’s.

Is the Punishment Deserved?

In all this, however, it must be kept in mind that the only consideration  relevant to justice is whether the treatment (the punishment, the reward, the  grade, the compensation for work done) is deserved. Punishment should be  proportional to desert, whatever that may be; it should not be proportioned to  the usefulness of the punishment, as it is in utilitarian theory. The  question for justice is “What punishment does he deserve?” not “What punishment  would be most socially useful?” As a rule the two tend to coincide: the most  serious crimes (involving the worst injustices) tend to be those that also  require the strongest deterrent measures in order to prevent them from  recurring. But it is not always so. It might be socially useful,  especially during a crime wave, to convict an innocent person and punish him as  an example, thus deterring potential lawbreakers and giving the members of the  community a renewed sense of “law and order.” But of course the conviction of an  innocent person, no matter what its social utility, is always an injustice,  because the innocent person does not deserve to be punished.

When we turn our attention from the prison to the marketplace, we face  equally pressing problems. What should be our criteria for determining what  compensation a worker deserves? Is there such a thing as a “just wage” and how  do we determine it? Does justice commit us to “equal pay for equal work”? Is  discrimination in hiring unjust? Does the free market, when it is permitted to  function, result in injustice?

“Equal Pay for Equal Work”

Does justice require that employees receive equal pay for equal work? That  depends on what “equal work” means:

1. If it simply means equal time spent, this has very little to do  with justice. One employee may work diligently throughout the workday, and  another may spend half her time on the phone with her friends while letting the  customers wait in line (as frequently happens in government offices, such as the  Department of Motor Vehicles). To give two such employees equal pay would be un  just, though this is typically what occurs.

2. “Equal work” may mean equal effort expended. Two employees may each  work to their full capacity during the workday—they both “do their best.” Should  they receive equal pay? Again, not necessarily. The one may have more background  and experience and expertise in the job than the other; and ordinarily more  experienced employees do, quite justly, receive more. Also, in any kind of job  requiring imagination, one person may exert maximum effort and produce little or  nothing, while the other may with less than maximum effort achieve brilliant  results. Doesn’t the second deserve a higher return? (If he didn’t receive it,  another employer who appreciated ingenuity and initiative would probably hire  him at a higher wage.)

But if both exert that same effort, and the difference is that the second  employee is brilliant and the first is dull and rather stupid, isn’t it unfair  (unjust) to penalize the dull employee for a quality, such as unimaginativeness,  which he lacks through no fault of his own? If they’re both doing their best,  why give less to the dull one? Isn’t this an injustice? No: it’s true that it’s  not the dull person’s fault that he is not as gifted, but his lack of  intelligence is a misfortune (like a disease), not an injustice imposed on him  by other persons.

3. But “equal work” can also mean the product of effort, namely achievement. A student who deserves and receives an A in mathematics may  have a great natural aptitude for it, and may work far less hard than a duller  student did for his B or C. But the grade is a measure of achievement, not of  effort or time expended. The employee in a factory whose productivity is high  (either in quantity or in quality, or both) deserves higher pay, having  contributed the most to the organization that employs him. If high achievers  receive higher compensation, this is hardly an injustice.

Justice and Job-Discrimination

But of course not everyone does receive higher pay for higher achievement.  Some employees are compensated less because of their race or sex; some are  turned down as applicants because of this, before they have a chance to achieve  anything in a job at all. Isn’t this an injustice? And doesn’t justice demand,  as “affirmative action” programs insist, that the injustice be rectified by  giving the victims of discrimination preference in jobs available now?

That depends. (1) If it is not you but your ancestors who have been the  victims of discrimination, then giving special consideration to you in no way  helps them. To hire an under- qualified applicant because his  great-grandfather was a slave, is no help to the deceased slave; a grave  injustice was done, but nothing can be done now to remedy that injustice.  To reward someone now because another member of the same racial group was once  penalized is sheer collectivism.

(2) But if the person himself has been discriminated against in the  past, measures can usually be taken to correct it: past injustices can often be  corrected.

(a) You may have been the victim of job-discrimination because the  educational facilities in your neighborhood were poor; you never learned to  write or add properly so as to be qualified for any decently paying job. To hire  the underqualified person anyway is no solution: it is not just to students to  inflict on them a poor teacher because (for reasons that are not, or not  entirely, her fault) she was discriminated against in the past. And to the  extent that such hiring is practiced, the students in a school or fellow  employees in a factory come to view the new employee as a case of “sympathy-hiring,” rather than hiring on the basis of genuine qualifications for  the position; which does nothing whatever either to improve the quality of the  instruction or to promote harmony among races.

On-the-job training may help to remedy this defect—a device that many  employers use. And in the longer run, changing the educational system so that  these radical disparities in educational background no longer occur, is even  more effective. But hiring an incompetent employee is only an attempt to correct  one past injustice by perpetrating another one.

Curing Past Discrimination by New  Discrimination

(b) Suppose, however, that of two applicants for a job, A, who is black, is  more qualified than B, who is white, but B gets the job because he is white.  This is certainly a case of job- discrimination on account of race. The question  is how to remedy it. Suppose the position falls vacant; should A, who was turned  down before, now be hired in preference to the other new applicant, C? If they  are equally qualified, yes: this would help at ]east to correct a past  injustice. But suppose that C is more qualified than A is. Then hiring A rather  than the more qualified C constitutes an injustice to C. (It’s not C’s fault  that she is white, any more than it was A’s fault that she is black.)

There are many such cases in which acts of past discrimination can be  corrected only by committing another act of unfair discrimination in the  present, thus perpetuating discrimination, not eliminating it. If a past act of  injustice can be remedied by creating another one in the present, it may be that  the cure is worse than the disease; perhaps it would be preferable, rather than  to commit a second injustice to correct the first, simply to say no to  any such discrimination in the future. In that case, we hire whomever is most  qualified for the job, regardless of the race; and if by this procedure a past  act of unfair discrimination remains uncorrected (for this time only), at least  no future acts of discrimination need occur as a result.[4]

Other Aspects of Job-Discrimination

1. It has been assumed thus far that one’s race or sex is irrelevant to one’s  qualifications for a job. But this, of course, is not always the case. An  employer is not necessarily treating an applicant unjustly if he hires a man  rather than a woman as a bodyguard or as a bouncer in a bar; the woman is turned  down not because of her sex but because she lacks the physical qualifications  for the job. Similarly, a white actor is not being unjustly treated in being  passed over for the role of Othello, which requires a black actor to take the  part. If justice in hiring is based on one’s qualifications for the job,  sometimes a person may lack the qualifications precisely because of sex  or race.

2. It is worth noting that most employers will not turn down a qualified  black applicant in favor of a less qualified white applicant, even if only for  reasons of self-interest: his company will prosper only if he takes on the most  qualified applicants, regardless of race or sex. Why is the percentage of  unemployed black teenagers almost 50% today, whereas it was less than 10% in the  late 1940s? It is not because employers have suddenly turned racist; it is  because government interferences in the marketplace, which were intended to help  minorities, have actually hurt them. For example, minimum-wage laws have  prevented many teenagers from being offered summer jobs, and from receiving  on-the-job training (since before they acquire a skill the employer would lose  money by hiring them at the legal minimum wage). There are countless examples of  this, and a reading of Markets and Minorities by the distinguished black  economist Thomas Sowell should be sufficient to convince anyone of it, popular  propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding.[5]

3. One should keep in mind the difference between justice and rights.  Many would contend, as I would, that no one has a right to a job: for  example, no employer should be forced by law to hire an employee he doesn’t  need, or even to hire an employee he doesn’t want on his payroll; if it’s his  own money he’s dispensing (and risking), he is within his rights to hire whom he  pleases. If he is a racist who refuses to hire blacks or Mexicans, he may well  suffer economically for his prejudices: if he fails to avail himself of many of  his best qualified applicants, he will himself be the loser, especially when his  non-racist competitor employs them; but that is a punishment he takes on himself  by being a racist. Many employers may have racist feelings, but if they  want to stay in business they do not let these feelings get in the way of their  pocketbooks.

His failure to hire certain persons is, then, not a violation of the rights of those whom he fails to employ; no one has a right to a job that  another person has to pay for. But in refusing to hire those applicants who are  most qualified, he is committing an injustice, because he is not treating  others in accordance with their deserts. The right to so treat them is  not incompatible with his being unjust in so treating them. Whether the  law should prohibit so treating them depends on one’s view of the law: whether  one believes, as the Founding Fathers (on the whole) did, that the law should  prohibit only violations of rights, or whether (as on more recent views) the law  should intervene also whenever there are cases of injustice.

Justice and the Market

It has often been alleged that the free-market system is unjust. Criticisms  of the free market constitute a very high percentage of the content of most  college courses in ethics and social philosophy. It may be granted at once that  no system is entirely just in every detail; there will always be cases of  injustice. But the market system is by far the least unjust of all economic  systems.

The Soviet Union does not have a market economy. A worker’s pay depends not  on his actual merit or productivity, but on what the bureaucrats in charge  decide to pay each worker in a given category. The government decides that  teachers shall receive a higher wage than physicians, and that factory workers  shall receive a higher wage than filing clerks. Theoretically at least, each  worker in a given category is supposed to earn the same—the assumption being  that each one is maximally dedicated to the ideals of communism and therefore  will exert maximum effort and achieve maximum productivity during his hours at  work. How does this system work out in practice? A description by someone who  defected from it provides a dramatic illustration:

Nobody in the bus factory was in a hurry to work; the workers  preferred to sit in the smoking room until the foreman appeared, when they all  dashed to their places. “Why should we hurry for the money they pay us?” said  the workmen. “Work’s not a wolf, it won’t run into the forest!” In the mornings  they were almost all drunk or hung over, and throughout the working day people  would be regularly detailed to slip over the fence for some vodka. Only one man  put in a full day’s work. The rest hated him, and when pointing him out would  rotate one finger meaningfully by the temple. They were always looking for  chances to do him dirt, either by surreptitiously damaging his machine or by  stealing his tools. “Want to be a champion and raise the targets?” they said  spitefully. It turned out that if one man exceeded the target, the target would  be raised for all of them the following month, and they would have to work twice  as hard for exactly the same money.[6]

The injustice of a system that penalizes the dedicated worker is too obvious  to require comment—not to mention the effects on the worker himself: nothing  ruins the morale of a human being more than being penalized for doing a good  job.

Market Rewards

A market economy, by contrast, rewards initiative and enterprise. Not every  employer recognizes talent immediately: there may be a period in which he pays a  certain employee less than he would if he knew the employee’s true worth. Yet  the tendency in a market economy is for each person to rise to the limit  of his ability. Since there are competing employers, if one employer doesn’t  recognize his worth, another one is likely to do so.

Don’t those who work in some kinds of jobs deserve more pay than others? Yes,  and the market sorts this out also. A person who does dangerous work, such as  walking along the catwalk of a high bridge for safety inspection, is not likely  to take such a job unless in doing so he earns more than he would as a janitor.  Nor is a person likely to spend years of his youth going through medical school  if at the end of the road he earned no more than he would have as a dishwasher.  And a physician with a good record of curing diseases is likely to have more  patients than one with a bad record; and doesn’t the first physician deserve his  greater reward? There is no one wage which one can describe as a just  wage (surely this depends on the health of the economy, and what employers can  afford to pay): if one wants a definition of a just wage, one could simply say  that it is the wage that one’s services can command on a free market. The fact  that some persons’ labor is worth more than others’ is largely taken account of  by the market itself.

A foreman complains that the manager who sits behind a desk all day receives  more pay than he does. But the manager has the responsibility of coordinating  workers’ efforts and turning out a quality product. And the president of the  firm, who earns more than the manager, has the awesome responsibility of trying  to anticipate next year’s market, and thus deciding how much of what to produce,  what materials to order and from whom; on such decisions depends the continued  existence of the firm. Doesn’t the successful discharge of such responsibilities  merit a higher income? Workmen and foremen who later become managers and members  of the board seldom complain any longer about the disparity in income.

There are those who say that no one deserves the high pay received by  some executives and corporation heads—that such high incomes somehow constitute  an injustice. But what if the executive who receives $500,000 a year is talented  and ingenious enough to save the company two million dollars a year without  sacrificing quality of product? He has certainly been worth more than his pay to  the company. The stockholders are anxious enough to pay him this, and even more  rather than see him captured by another company. Should they be prohibited from paying him what they believe he deserves?

Misfortune vs. Injustice

If someone is unemployed because there is no longer any demand for his skill,  he will have to set about acquiring another. But where is the injustice in this?  Who is the perpetrator of the alleged injustice? The buggy-maker who no longer  has any demand for buggies? Wouldn’t it be unjust to the buggy-maker to force  him to retain a worker he doesn’t need, when most customers are buying cars  instead of buggies?

Or suppose a man does have a marketable skill but at the moment there are no  openings in his area. Is this unjust? It is unfortunate for him that he must  either be unemployed or change jobs or move to another area, but there is no one  who can be accused of treating him unjustly. The more a free market is permitted  to operate, the more likely it is that he will soon find an outlet for his  skills. Again, his unemployment may be a temporary misfortune, but not an  injustice.

Suppose a farmer decides to grow soybeans this year, endeavoring to enrich  the soil and to increase the output of the same product that made him  considerable money last year. But suppose that many other farmers have the same  idea, and as a result there is an overproduction of soybeans and the price of  soybeans this year suffers a sharp decline. This is simply a reality of the  market: “Given constant demand, if there’s more of a product the value of each  unit declines.” Is this an injustice to the farmer?

If the farmer’s crops are lost through drought or flood, this is a  misfortune, not an injustice; but the fact that other farmers also planted  soybeans is a deliberately undertaken human action, not a condition of nature.  Still, where is the injustice? If the farmer had been wise, perhaps he should  have planted something else this year; but how is the fact that other farmers  also wanted to make money by planting soybeans an injustice to him? If he can  plant soybeans, why can’t they? It may be a misfortune that too many are grown  this year and a surplus results; but where is the injustice? Who has been unjust  to whom? If he had a reason to anticipate what other farmers would do, he is  stuck with the results of bad planning on his part; but if he had no way of  knowing, the financial loss can be described only as a misfortune, not as an  injustice.

Justice vs. “Social Justice”

Those who are engaged in “social engineering” often characterize the concept  of individual justice, described above, as outdated. What we need, they say, is social justice.[7]

But what exactly does this term mean? If justice is treatment in accord with  desert, and deserts are unequal, then justice demands that treatments also be  unequal. If everyone were given the same wage regardless of effort or  achievement, we would have a society in which hardly anyone would choose to work  at all; in the end there would be nothing left to distribute, and starvation  would stalk the land. The ideal of justice as complete egalitarianism—everyone  receives the same regardless of who does what or how much, or even if they do  nothing at all—is contradicted by the most elementary facts of reality. It is  not the idea of forcible redistribution that deters egalitarians—they have no  objections at all to that—but only the fact that once the goose has been killed  it can lay no more eggs.

Proponents of “social justice” do not, then, usually demand that every person  (or every family) receive the same income. For reasons of sheer survival, this  is not done even in the Soviet Union. What the proponents of “social justice” do  demand, however, is that everyone, regardless of effort, ability, or  achievement, receive a “decent standard of living”-which in urban America may  include not only food, clothing, and shelter, but a telephone, a television set,  and convenient means of transportation as “necessities of life.” And who shall  be required to pay for these things? Those whose income is higher; “justice  demands” that those who are “more fortunate” be required to contribute to those  who are “less fortunate.” These are the popular name tags, and the underlying  assumption is that if one person has more and another less, this is solely a  matter of “luck” or “fortune,” as if somehow individual ability and initiative  had nothing to do with im proving one’s lot.

It is far from clear, however, how A being forced to give part of his  paycheck to B is an example of justice: it would seem to be a case of injustice  to A, and a windfall for B. And even if such transfer payments should be made,  should they be done in the name of justice? The basis of justice is desert; the  basis of charity is need: in charity, we give to others because they need it; in  justice, we receive compensation (or punishment) because we deserve it. The  difference between justice and charity should not be obscured.

The “Underprivileged” and Why They Are  Poor

The poor are usually classified as “unfortunate” or “underprivileged,” as if  those who earned more had purposely deprived them. But this label, which social  planners automatically attach to everyone who is below a certain level of  income, applies only to some of them, certainly not to all. We must first  investigate, which social planners almost never do, why they are poor.

1. Suppose a neighbor of yours is about to make an investment which you know  to be fraudulent: he will lose everything if he makes the investment. Undeterred  by your pleas, he does it anyway, and the result is that he loses everything.  Would most people, including champions of “social justice,” be willing to hand  over part of their paychecks in perpetuity to a person who has merely been  foolish?

2. Suppose a lady has been thrifty all her life, saved for her old age, and  has a small house and yard; a second lady, with considerably more income, spent  it all on riotous living and is now destitute. Should the first lady be required  to give over part of her limited income each month to the second? (That is the  way things work out under the current welfare system; but is this justice?)

3. Assume that a worker has been able to pay into old-age insurance but  simply failed to do so, spending everything she earned. Now she is destitute.  Should others, who have provided in advance for their old age, be forced  to hand over a portion of their savings to the person who has not so provided?  To do so may be charitable, but is it just?

4. Now let us take a different kind of case. A person is ill or has a  physical handicap which does not enable her to work; she would like to, but she  can’t and her family has no resources. Shouldn’t “society” take care of her?

Coercive or Voluntary

This is certainly the best case for welfare; but the question remains whether  it should be government welfare (compulsorily paid by all wage earners) or  privately financed welfare (voluntarily contributed by those who are able).  Though the matter would require a lengthy discussion that is not possible here,  I suggest that the persons who answer to this description are a comparatively  small minority of the population, and that, once the enormous ball-and-chain of  high taxation (including social security payments) was removed from every wage  earner, and would-be entrepreneurs could start small businesses and take on  employees without the present high probability that their enterprises will be  bankrupted by taxes and regulation, there would be such a resurgence of  prosperity that government welfare would be quite unnecessary: private funding  would be quite adequate to the task, as it was during the first century of  American history when the standards of living were much lower than they are  now.[8]

Herbert Spencer was much wiser than today’s planners when in 1884 he  criticized “the tacit assumption that Government should step in whenever  anything is not going right. ‘Surely you would not have this misery continue!’ exclaims someone, if you hint at demurrer to much that is now being said and  done. Observe what is implied by this exclamation. It takes for granted, first,  that all suffering ought to be prevented, which is not true; much of the  suffering is curative, and the prevention of it is prevention of a remedy. In  the second place, it takes for granted that every evil can be removed: the truth  being that, with the existing defects of human nature, many evils can only be  thrust out of one place or form into another place or form—often being increased  by the change.

“The exclamation also implies the unhesitating belief . . . that evils of all  kinds should be dealt with by the State. There does not occur the inquiry  whether there are at work other agencies capable of dealing with evils, and  whether the evils in question may not be among those which are best dealt with  by these other agencies. And obviously, the more numerous governmental  interventions become, the more confirmed does this habit of thought grow, and  the more loud and perpetual the demands for intervention.”[9]

Try Freedom

With an unfettered economy, and a minimum of charity (and most Americans have  more than a minimum), the problem of poverty would become almost obsolete.  Economist Thomas Sowell may have overstated the case, but he had a valid point  when, in answering the question “How to get rid of poverty?” he answered, “Hold  a meeting of all the leading experts on poverty some where in the middle of the  Pacific and not let them go home for ten years. When they came back, they would  discover there was no more poverty.”[10]

It will be apparent by now that the demands of “social justice” are  incompatible with those of individual justice; to the extent that the first  demand is met, the second must be sacrificed. If the government takes money out  of Peter’s wallet to put it in Paul’s, it may have achieved greater equality,  but not greater justice. It is impossible for individuals to receive a just wage  on a free market and then be forced to part with a portion of it, for then they  receive less than a just wage.

The final irony is that the ideals of the champions of “social justice” are  not even achieved when they are put fully into practice. Because people will  not—and cannot—produce indefinitely without compensation, the final result of  massive transfer payments is equality of zero—universal destitution. That, after  all, is how the excesses of the late Roman welfare state gave way to the  destitution of the Dark Ages.[11]  It has happened many times in history, and it could happen again if the  proponents of “social justice”—that is, enforced collectivism—push their demands  so far as to cancel out the requirements of individual justice.


1.   See, for example, Frederick Schoeman, “On  Incapacitating the Dangerous,” in John Arthur and William Shaw, eds., Readings in the Philosophy of Law (Prentice-Hall, 1984), and in Joel  Feinberg and Hyman Gross, eds., Philosophy of Law (Wadsworth, 1981).

2.   Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov,  Modern Library edition, p. 254. (First published 1882.)

3.   Ayn Rand, “Racism,” in The Virtue of  Selfishness (Signet Books, 1964).

4.   See Louis Katzner, “Is the Favoring of Women and  Blacks in Employment and Educational Opportunities Justified?” in Feinberg and  Gross, Philosophy of Law.

5.   See also Walter Williams, The State Versus  Blacks (McGraw-Hill, 1982); Warren Brookes, The Economy in Mind  (Universe Books, 1982).

6.   Vladimir Bukofsky, To Build a Castle: My Life as  a Dissenter (Viking Press, 1977), p. 123.

7.   See, for example, Richard Brandt, ed., Social  Justice (Prentice-Hall, 1962); Nicholas Rescher, Welfare (University  of Pittsburgh Press, 1972); Norman E. Bowie, Distributive Justice  (University of Massachusetts Press, 1971); Robin Barrow, Injustice,  Inequality, and Ethics (Barnes & Noble, 1982); Michael Bayles, Principles of Legislation (Wayne State University Press, 1978).

8.   See, for example, Henry Hazlitt, The Conquest of  Poverty (Arlington House, 1978).

9.   Herbert Spencer, The Man .versus the State  (Caxton Press, 1940), pp. 34-35. Originally published 1884. See also John  Hospers, Libertarianism (Laissez Faire Books, 1971), Chapter 7.

10.   Thomas Sowell, in Reason, December 1980  issue, p. 5.

11.   See Ludwig von Mises, Human Action  (Regnery, 1945), esp. pp. 767-769; also Isabel Paterson, The God of the  Machine (Caxton Press, 1943), pp. 38-40.