Procrastinating on March 3, 2016

Hoisted: Deriving Their Just Powers from the Consent of the Governed...

February 1, 2011: Deriving Their Just Powers from the Consent of the Governed...: With respect to whether Ayn Rand's receiving more in Medicare services (a lot more!) than she paid into the system was honorable, Alex Tabarrok asks:

Alex Tabarrok Asks a Question...: Regarding Rand, so it was hypocritical for Karl Marx to buy vegetables at the market?

I answered: Yes, it was:

  • On Marx's principles, he had a moral duty to find those whose surplus value was extracted and who were thus underpaid for their labor on the commodities he consumed, and compensate them.
  • You can sleep easy if you play by the rules even if you think the rules are non-optimal, as long as you point that out. That's Milton Friedman.
  • You cannot sleep easy if you play by the rules if you think the rules give you a license to steal. That's Robert Nozick, Robert Bork, and Ayn Rand.

That's the difference between utilitarian and deontological theories. Deontology is a bitch.

Alex Tabarrok replies:

A fair and very interesting answer. I expected you to say something like DSquared which would let Marx off the hook but Rand also. In your view, a non-hypocritical moral philosophers must bears a huge burden to live in a world not of his or her making, perhaps only Jesus and Peter Singer can apply and I'm not even sure about Jesus.

I think I want to extend my remarks. The distinction I see is not quite deontology/utilitarian--although it is related. The best place to start on this, I think, is with TJ:

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • that all men are created equal
  • that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights
  • that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness hat to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

Start with this.

One stand you can then take is to say that the government's powers are just--for I have consented to the procedures by which the laws are made, and I participate in making the laws to which I then subject myself. You can then go on to say that the rules of the economic game we have set up using the government as our collective instrumentality are non-optimal because they do not lead to the greatest good of the greatest number. And you can argue that we should change the rules of the economic game.

In this case, there is no dishonor in playing by the rules of the economic game, as they have been established by us through the instrumentality of our government.

The other stand you can take--the stand that Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, Robert Bork, and Karl Marx take--is to say that you don't care whether or not people have consented to these procedures. You then go on to say that the rules of the economic game are illegitimate. You say that the government's just powers do not extend to establishing legitimate rules of the economic game that tax me to pay for medical care for parasites, restrict the rent Eric Segal can charge me for living in his apartment, allow the filing of frivolous slip-and-fall lawsuits, or force proletarians to sell their labor-power for less than the value of their labor. And you say that those who play by the rules of the game are thieves.

In that case you do not merely assert that the rules of the economic game as set up are unwise but go further and say that they are illegitimate. And then you do have a duty not to be a thief--even under color of law.

And so:

  • if you are Ayn Rand you cannot honorably receive more in Medicare services than you paid into the system,
  • if you are Robert Nozick you cannot honorably use the Cambridge Rent Control Board to perform an action you would characterize as theft from Eric Segal,
  • if you are Robert Bork you cannot honorably perform an action that you would characterize as extorting a tort settlement from the Yale Club of New York, and
  • if you are Karl Marx you cannot honorably monetize a bourgeois's extraction of surplus value from a proletarian.

I am not sure where Peter Singer falls on this issue.

I have never been sure to what extent he is a performance artist.

I have never been sure to what degree the modality of his philosophy is an 'should' and to what degree it is a 'must.'

And it is not a huge burden--if you are a non-hypocritical moral philosopher who regards certain activities not just as the result of unwise government regulations but as the equivalent of theft, you have an obligation to undertake not to do them.

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