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That’s an OpEd from the NY Times, and I’m sure I’m going to see it pasted all over FB this afternoon.

And I’ve got a few things to say.

The first is that I know from off that the writer doesn’t understand a word Nozick said.

How do I know?

Because he cites as evidence of a more “Nozickian” society the fact that there are more “protections for corporations.”

One of the biggest difference between society today and a Robert Nozick/Ayn Rand/Adam Smith social order is that there are protections for corporations, lots of them.

In a N/R/S society, there would be no bank bailouts.  There would be no GM bailouts.

If you run your business into the ground, you fail. You lose the business. People can sue you and make you lose your money.

In a “more Nozickian” society, Dick Fuld would be living in a raised ranch in Hoboken and Linda Lay would be selling burgers at McDonald’s.

What we have is not a free market society, but a corporatist one, run by and for large institutions of several types (not just private corporations, but large nonprofits and many large government departments).

The first objective of such a system is to make sure that such institutions never fail, and that the people who head them are safe from competition of any kind.

Such a system will, indeed, produce HUGE income and wealth inequalities, because the full weight of government is brought to bear to protect the already-rich from every being in any danger of not being rich any more.

It also protects the upper middle class from ever being not upper middle class any more, and makes sure the children of all these people have safe sinecures for life.

It does this in ways it is often difficult to see, and therefore manages to get lots of enthusiastic cheerleading from the very people it is milking dry.

This includes virtually every one of the people who put up articles like this one to “show” that their version of “welfare state liberalism” is ‘more moral.”

They’ll shell out $300 to get somebody else to do their taxes because they don’t understand the forms, watch one small business after another drop out of the field leaving them with nobody but corporations to work for, find that they need “insurance” to pay even routine medical bills because regulations forbid doctors from charging less than Medicare rates to patiencts who aren’t covered–

And never connect the dots.

I also object to this article’s contention that you “have to” answer yes to each of the writer’s four questions if you agree that a free market is more moral than a welfare state. 

On that, he’s just flat out wrong. And mostly because he continues to confuse what we’ve got now with a free market economy.

But let’s get to his questions, and sometimes a few parts of his answers:

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

I won’t give his answer at length, you can look at it yourself.

But it comes down to the usual confusion between “free” and “without any compelling circumstances whatsoever.”

My answer to the above is yes.

And yes, I DO believe that a woman whose children are starving and who sees no other way to make money but whatever some individual offers at any particular time IS FREE to make a choice.

The fact that one of those choices results in consequences that are highly negative for the chooser doesn’t mean the chooser can’t choose.

The freedom to choose does not mean, and never has meant, that there are no circumstances recommending one choice instead of the other.

It means only that when you choose, you could have chosen otherwise.

And yes, you could have, no matter how compelling your and your children’s starvation might be.

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

The answer to this is no, and I have no idea why this writer believes I would have to answer yes to it in order to defend a free market economy.

Is it the case that, in a free society, some people will choose to do things that are morally reprehensible?

Yes, of course they will. 

And some of these things will be illegal, and some of them will not be.

I have no patience with legislating morality.  We should have the laws we need to keep the peace. After that, you should be free to go to hell in your own handbasket.

But the example the writer gives is–well, here it is:


If you say yes, then you think that any free exchange can’t be exploitative and thus immoral. Suppose that I inherited from my rich parents a large plot of vacant land, and that you are my poor, landless neighbor. I offer you the following deal. You can work the land, doing all the hard labor of tilling, sowing, irrigating and harvesting. I’ll pay you $1 a day for a year. After that, I’ll sell the crop for $50,000. You decide this is your best available option, and so take the deal. Since you consent to this exchange, there’s nothing morally problematic about it.>>>

And I look at it and go–what?

Yes, I find this morally unproblematic. 

Assuming, again, an ACTUAL free market society–not a corporatist one–then you make the offer and your neighbor has the option to say yes or not, to strike out on your own, to sell your labor to somebody else, whatever.

Like everything else, your labor is worth what somebody is willing to pay for it.

And nobody owes you a living.  The purpose of an offer of employment is not your well being, but an exchange to get X done.

Nobody is morally, or otherwise, obliged to pay more for it than it is worth to him.

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

If the word is DESERVE–then yes, that’s all you DESERVE.

And that would be the way I would answer it, except the writer gives us this:

>>>If you say yes, you think that what people deserve is largely a matter of luck. Why? First, because only a tiny minority of the population is lucky enough to inherit wealth from their parents.>>>

Here, I’ll give him his due–Paris Hilton doesn’t DESERVE her money.

But it’s not Paris Hilton’s just desserts that are at issue here.

Paris Hilton might not deserve to have it, but old Conrad Hilton deserved to do with it what he wanted to do with it, since he DID deserve to have it.

The matter of right involved in a case of inheritance is the right of the person who made the money to dispose of it as he willed. 

Then we get to this:

>>>Second, people’s capacities to produce goods and services in demand on the market is largely a function of the lottery of their birth: their genetic predispositions, their parents’ education, the amount of race- and sex-based discrimination to which they’re subjected, their access to health care and good education.>>>>

Finally, an actual address to the issue, instead of an attempt to change the subject.

This is absolutely true. Some of us are born smarter, prettier, with better parents, in better places and at better times.

Welcome to reality.

No, it is NOT therefore “more moral” for the state to attempt to fix this.  The state cannot fix this, and will actually make things LESS fair every time it tries.

The simple fact is that in a free market society–NOT a corporatist one–lots of people who start at the bottom will make it up, and lots of people who start at the top or close to it will find their way down.

In fact, absent a lot of tinkerers trying to rig the game, shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations is a pretty good bet.

And finally:

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

The answer to this one is downright peculiar:


If you say yes, then you think the only moral requirements are the ones we freely bring on ourselves — say, by making promises or contracts. Suppose I’m walking to the library and see a man drowning in the river. I decide that the pleasure I would get from saving his life wouldn’t exceed the cost of getting wet and the delay. So I walk on by. Since I made no contract with the man, I am under no obligation to save him.>>>

And it’s peculiar for a number of reasons.

The first is that the answer above pretty much describes the law–you’re NOT legally obligated to try to save the drowning man. 

In fact, it goes further than that. 

There are lots of times when trying to save the man will leave you legally in the wrong.  Saving a man trying to commit suicide when he really wants to die can end you with a wrongful life suit.  Messing up while you’re trying to save him and causing him an injury can end you with other kinds of lawsuits.

Whether our laws should be this way is an open quesiton, but it makes the example problematic in itself.

The real problem with this answer, though, is that it entirely ignores the reality of the web of obligations we take on by being a member of any society.

We live in a society that was formed almost three centuries ago.  Once we accept the protection of such a society–by allowing it to uphold our contracts, for instance, and police our streets so that we’re no mugged when we try to come home for work–we take on the obligation to follow its laws whether we agree with them or not.

BUT our obligation to follow such laws is predicated on the assumption that the society will keep up its part of the bargain by remaining within the terms of our contract with it.

This includes things like restricting its interference in our lives to those areas we have granted it (tell me again where in the Constitution it says the federal government is allowed to even know what my weight is, never mind try to get me to do something about it).

At the moment, I don’t have a free market government.  I have a corporatist government hell bent–no matter which party is in power–in shoring up the power and privilege of the already rich at the expense of me.

It offers me (in the Democratic Party guise) tenth rate medical insurance and a few crumbs of “food assistance” and “housing assistance” on the condition that I allow it to regulate every aspect of my life, what I eat, where I send my children to school and what they can learn there, even what I can think and say (see “hate crimes” legiation), never mind who I can hire and on what basis, etc, etc, etc.

Don’t kid yourself that the “welfare state” is anything but what it is–putting the muscle of the government behind the preferences of the people in that one percent you’re always yelling about.

Give me an ACTUAL free market government any time.

Written by janeh

October 28th, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Free'

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  1. That OpEd was published on October 20 and evidently did not make FB.

    I read both John Rawls and Nozick many years ago and found Nozick much more convincing.

    Let’s consider the first case. “Suppose a woman and her children are starving, and the only way she can feed her family, apart from theft, is to prostitute herself or to sell her organs.”

    Rawls would say that in the “state of ignorance” we would decide that such a woman should get help because we might turn out to be in her position. In practice, that means the government decides that R has too much money and taxes R to provide welfare to such women.

    Nozick would say that if you think the woman needs help, you are free to start a charity and ask people to voluntarily give money to the charity.

    There is nothing in Nozick that says you can’t help the woman, he only says you can’t force others to help her.


    28 Oct 13 at 3:27 pm

  2. I do not know why you keep acting as though progressives who say they bring equality are sincere but misguided. Maybe a century ago, but after three generations of increasingly wealthy rulers–even Poly Sci majors aren’t THAT stupid. (Mostly.) Powerful government is a rigged game, and everyone writing rules knows it.

    If they are sincere, I can’t see what they have against theocracies. If “progressive” rule is fair because they get to decide what’s fair and enforce it, then a theocracy is a very moral form of government because the rulers get to decide what’s moral and enforce that.


    28 Oct 13 at 7:27 pm

  3. I haven’t read either Rawls or Nozick and probably never will, so I don’t know whether Srinivasan’s questions were an accurate paraphrase of Nozick’s positions. But I had no problem answering yes to all the questions for pretty much the same reasons Jane gave. Indeed, I found it very hard to take seriously her (Srinivasan’s) “if you answer yes…then you must agree (or ignore) these inevitable downsides”. Non sequiturs abound.

    What these social moralists never seem to understand is that no two people on this planet are identical, and that even so-called “identical” twins with identical educational and other opportunities will have different experiences and outcomes. They’re chasing impracticable objectives.


    28 Oct 13 at 9:05 pm

  4. For once, the comments to the NY Times article are worth reading. I’ve read about 10 of them and not one refers to Democrats, Republicans, Bush or Reagan!

    Mique, I read Nozick in the 1970s and can’t claim to remember the details, but I doubt if he discussed those questions. He was arguing that morality only supports a minimal state – fire, police, and defense. He claims it doesn’t support a welfare state. I would guess that things like sewers and garbage collection and pasteurized milk might sneak in under police. But I don’t recall how he dealt with them.


    28 Oct 13 at 10:27 pm

  5. Ping Cheryl.

    This from Christopher Snowden just turned up. http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the_disease_of_public_health/14204#.Um9OrPmnptg

    Not precisely on topic, but near enough. Nail head, hammer, WHACK!


    29 Oct 13 at 2:08 am

  6. Saw that, Mique. Snowden is good at poking holes in the arguments of ‘well-wishing’ public health advocates!

    Unfortunately, many people, including many professionals like nurses working in public health, swallow the pseudo-scientific claims about second and third hand smoke and alcohol, hook line and sinker.

    I dislike science being misused. It’s gotten to the point that I automatically disbelieve any mass-media article that starts ‘Scientists have proven…’ I used to check the original journal articles once in a while, and quite often the scientists hadn’t made the statements attributed to them about the dangers of X or the benefits of Y.


    30 Oct 13 at 7:12 am

  7. Cheryl, I agree with you about the pseudo-science but I don’t consider medicine to be a science.

    On the subject of a free market, this link was on the front page of the NY Times.


    I didn’t bother to read it because the text immediately below the link was

    “Republicans defend the right of insurers to offer terrible products.”

    How about the right of people to decide for themselves if the products are terrible?


    30 Oct 13 at 4:07 pm

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