The Corner

Promises, Promises

While I ultimately disagree with Will Wilkinson’s larger argument about nations, I really do like this point:

Do I deserve my salary? Of course I do. I’ve got an agreement with the Cato Institute. I give them certain services, they give me a certain salary. If I’ve done my job, I’ve got it coming to me. Do Cato Research Fellows deserve to make more than dingus tighteners? Again, the question is just a category mistake. Dingus tighteners deserve what their employers promise them. You can ask “What justifies the gap in pay between Research Fellows and dingus tigheners?” But what kind of question is this? Doesn’t it amount to: ”What justifies the fact that employers of Research Fellows offer more than employers of dingus tighteners”? Or: “What justifies the fact that Research Fellows have labor market alternatives that pay better than the labor market alternatives of dingus tighteners”? Or: “What justifies the fact that that certain skills are in shorter supply relative to demand”? Do these questions make any sense? There are explanations to offer, but there is no room for questions of justification. To whom is this question supposed to be addressed anyway? Society? Whatever society is, it’s some kind of international network of cooperation, so, again, it’s super confused to attempt to address an already meaningless question to something, the nation state, which is not the kind of unit to which this kind of question of justification can sensibly be posed.There are an indefinite number of sets of people bound by relations we might think are interesting. What’s the point picking out one of those sets of people and then ask whether the pattern of incomes or wages among them tracks desert, or anything else? What would make you think this kind of tracking is even possible? What would make you think this is desirable?

I think this a very good way of illustrating a point made by Robert Nozick and others. Nozick famously said that “the socialist society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults.” Most liberals (and of course libertarians) passionately believe that it would be just absurd and tyrannical for the state to get into the business of dictating the terms of sexual relationships between consenting adults. I think they have many good arguments — and a few bad ones — on this score. But when it comes to economics (and, to one extent or another, questions of diet, “diversity,” environmentalism etc), they throw that logic out entirely. Sex is a sphere of autonomy and liberty. Economics is a sphere for social control and statism. The libertarians are consistent in that they think both spheres are realms of autonomy and liberty. Conservatives, too, are inconsistent, at least from the libertarian perspective.

The task for those on the left and the right is to explain why what appear to be inconsistencies are in fact important and necessary distinctions.

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