Thursday, December 19, 2013

Liberty, Coercion and Just Redistribution

An unrelated stranger can't decide to take your money and spend it on something you don't want to.

But there are entities that can. There are libertarians who will immediately assume I'm talking about governments. "How can this be just?", they will say. "Taxation is theft!"

In this case, I'm not. The description also applies to a simple partnership where you are outvoted by the other partners. Or any corporation where you are a minority shareholder. Or a homeowner's association.

"But that's different! The non-government entities are voluntary agreements!"

Except they aren't always. You can inherit a minority interest in any of the above. You had no role in negotiating the original terms, and perhaps you never agreed to them, but you are still bound by them. Unless it's a publicly traded corporation, you may find it very difficult to sell your assets on acceptable terms. It may actually be easier to move to a different country.

A common libertarian position is that being outvoted in a non-government entity is freedom of contract, but when a government does it it becomes something akin to or even identical to theft.

"Yes, well, but the government only took the rights they claim by force and theft!" But almost all private landholdings have a similar problem. The rights of previous occupants were extinguished by violence, and the current occupants trace their claim back to that theft, with rare exceptions. Lockean homesteading is a just-so fable, and at best only held true for a distant past when unimproved land was so abundant that it could be privatized without later claimers being measurably disadvantaged. That social contract, if it ever existed, was torn up and rewritten in England in 1066 at the edge of the sword.

We come to a final puzzle. An individual with specific skills can usually earn significantly more in the United States than Mexico, even if some of the skills (fluency in Spanish, for example) are less useful in the United States than Mexico. How can exactly the same labor be worth much more after crossing the border?

I suggest that the answer is that an individual's productivity results from at least two factors. The first depends purely on what he can provide as a a self-owning person. The second depends on where they add their labor to the final product. Working in a polity that has abundant natural resources, favorable geography and climate, and efficient infrastructure and institutions will allow them to be more productive than they would in a less favorable state or in a state of nature like Robinson Crusoe. I will call this productivity boost the commonwealth surplus.

I don't know of any state today that allows entirely unrestricted immigration. There is clearly some level of immigration that can disrupt native culture and institutions: this was the case for Mexico before 1835, the kingdom of Hawaii, and Palestine. Totally unrestricted immigration is not a right that any state  now recognizes.

The United States allowed unrestricted immigration only briefly, from 1776 to 1875 under federal law. In practice, the window was less than that, since California passed several laws intended to discourage immigration from 1850 on, and we didn't control California and its west coast ports until 1846. Before that, restricting Chinese immigration required no law: distance was more than sufficient.

In most rich and developed states, the allocation of the commonwealth surplus is somewhat arbitrary. In the United States, it it goes to those lucky enough to be born within the borders, other children of citizens, the lucky individuals that have been able to legally migrate, and illegal immigrants that haven't been detected and deported yet.

Given that the commonwealth surplus is scarce and valuable, there is much to be said for charging those that enjoy it a rent equal to its value, and distributing the amount collected equally among all legal inhabitants of the commonwealth. Or perhaps a portion could go to foreigners who wish to immigrate, but are prevented because the natives believe the limited level of immigration they allow is justified by necessity.

So. I arrive at a theory that in a developed state like the US that does not allow unlimited immigration, some level of redistribution is just and desirable, even according to many libertarian theories of rights.


hudebnik said...

I think you mean 1850 and 1846, not 1450 and 1446 :-)

Anyway, interesting idea. You are deriving concrete benefits from simply being in this society, and the society has a right to get something from you in exchange. What's not so clear is what the society may/should do with the revenues.

Will McLean said...

Right you are. 19th century dates were intended, and the post is now fixed. I can't imagine why I might unconsciously type in medieval dates. :-)