Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Chris Dillow on Pre-Birth Insurance

A couple of Chris Dillow's posts have particularly troubled me lately. I'll deal with his arguments on power in the market tomorrow. First, this article which he wrote last September, I'm afraid I missed it at the time but he is linking to it a lot. It leaves out some of the most potent critiques of Rawlsian theories of justice. There are others but I'll discuss three which I find important here:

1. It requires complete moral luck: The interesting result here isn't really created by the new logic of the original position but by the assumption that no one can earn anything and success is entirely a gamble. This is enough to cut Nozick and Locke to pieces but most other moral theory as well. The only basis that can really be established for this is scientific determinism which is more of an assumption than an established fact. While, as the Economist noted in its Christmas issue, the sphere of free will which has not been questioned by science is shrinking any role for it at all would cascade and cause enormous trouble for the logic of the original position.

One other thing to note is that moral luck completely undermines the position Chris takes on the inheritance tax which is about taxing unearned wealth more than that which is earned. Why do you earn what you make with the talents and character luck gave you any more than you earn what luck gave you through inheritance? City bankers were lucky to be born able to earn their bonuses so why do they deserve that wealth more than inheriting children?

If that doesn't trouble Chris and undermine his position on the inheritance tax then he doesn't really buy the concept of moral luck at all and should give up on Rawls.

2. We don't really know how we would behave in the original position: Would people be risk averse before they knew what they had to lose? The risk averse tendency may well be contingent upon a hand in life which you have been dealt and become attached to. This kind of question is clearly unanswerable and hints to the weakness of the original position as an abstraction.

3. While the Rawlsian position can tolerate such things as art, which has little value to the common man, in the name of a free society or incentives which might benefit the poorest, it assigns no independent value to them. After all, to be an artist is to sit in a room painting pictures most likely only the middle class will value while others starve; art is cruelty. Alykhan Velshi responded to my post on this subject and the Mirabella V with a quote from Harold Bloom:

"The pleasures of reading are indeed selfish rather than social. You cannot directly improve anyone's life by reading better or more deeply. I remain skeptical of the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination, and I am wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good."

Tolerating this is not enough. Any theory of justice which fails to appreciate the higher instincts of mankind is a manifesto for venal banality, for the last man. While Chris might see it as ignoble to want to take the results of a gamble you would not have chosen it would seem, to me, to be mean spirited and low to value some having the comfort to read, paint and own big boats lower than avoiding the risk of being born in Burnley.

I hope that, were I to find myself in an original position, I would choose that some be comfortable enough to read, paint or own stunning yachts (I am still in close to an original position with regards owning a luxury yacht) even if that came at the expense of me risking being worse off. Being born disadvantaged would be a sacrifice I hope I would be happy to risk so that humanity might, on occasion, do something glorious that might ennoble us all.


Gracchi said...

Matthew can I just push you a bit on this- you talk about higher pleasures and enbobling us all but how do you define that. Why does art ennoble us all and what are the higher pleasures? Is there for instance a moral duty to have taste in some sense. It strikes me that you need to define this in order to justify your position.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Good question. There are two ways I can think of to look at that problem.

First, there is the old injunction that man is a thinking being, that thinking is our function. When we think and create we are at our best and most human.

In another sense, all moral reasoning needs to start from a pure value judgement of some kind and I'd prefer to celebrate the creative aspect of humanity rather than focus on avoiding risk of hardship. A moral philosophy built around avoiding risk seems small minded.

Cleanthes said...


Very interesting stuff. The other problem with using redistributed taxation to insure against *bad luck* is that that is ALL you should insure against.

Poor parental choice/decisions ought to be excluded or otherwise you will have the ultimate in perverse incentives at the bottom: the worse you can make yourself look at conception, the more you stand to make for your child's bad luck insurance payout.

Not an attractive prospect for society...

Alex said...

We don't really know how we would behave in the original position: Would people be risk averse before they knew what they had to lose?

But this is a shot next to the target. The Rawlsian original position isn't an end in itself, it's a thought experiment designed to guide our actions.

Regarding art, I think you're forgetting that wealth doesn't have constant returns to scale. Rather, wealth (and income) exhibit increasing returns up to some point and then diminishing returns. Starting in extreme poverty, an increase in your income is likely to increase your ability either to appreciate it or, just as importantly, to create it, quite rapidly. But at the other end of the scale, reducing Bill Gates' income by a few percentage points is very unlikely to prevent any works of art.

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