Redistribution Isn’t About Sympathy

Many people say they favor redistribution from the rich to the poor because they feel sorry for the poor.  The poor suffer from having too little money, and it doesn’t take much money to help them a lot.  In contrast, the rich won’t miss that money much.

These redistribution advocates usually aren’t very interested in redistributing across the world to poor nations, or across time to poor eras.  So they usually explain that they just don’t feel much sympathy for such distant poor.

Such advocates also usually aren’t very interested in giving money to people who suffer because they are short, ugly, boring, clumsy, unpopular, etc.  Yet a bit of money might go a long way to brighten these lives as well.  Explanations offered for why folks sympathize with the poor but not the short etc. have long left me puzzled.

Garrett Jones has just convinced me that a pretty simple explanation is available: the redistributive urge just doesn’t have much to do with sympathy.   Our ancestors would sometimes notice that some folks in the tribe had a lot more tangible portable stuff than the rest, and those with less would then be tempted to find an excuse to grab a bunch of that stuff.

Would-be-grabbers would look for the most believable excuse they could find.  Sometimes the excuse would be that stuff-holders had violated some tribal norm and needed to be punished.  (Hence our hyper-willingness to believe the rich freely violate treasured norms.)  But lacking a better excuse, they’d fall back on the old favorite, that those with less stuff would sure appreciate each thing more than those with lots.

Our ancestors weren’t in the habit of making up similar excuses to grab stuff from the tall, pretty, witty, coordinated, or popular, for the obvious reason that those people didn’t usually have much stuff to grab.  So our ancestors focused on finding excuses to grab stuff from people with lots of stuff for the same reason folks have given for robbing banks, “Because that’s where the money is.”

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  • Cyan

    Anyone who favors redistribution and has given the sentiment more than a moment’s thought has probably come up with a more consistent rational(e/ization) than just feeling sorry for the poor. I know I have.

    If would-be-grabbers are successful at their resource grab and have higher differetial reproduction as a result, then all humanity would be redistributionists. The mere existence of libertarian thought is a reductio ad absurdum for the ev psych story you presented.

  • J

    The logic is amazingly simple. A poor person gets more utility from each marginal dollar than a rich person. I’m not claiming that I can prove that but I think it’s a pretty reasonable assumption (the counter argument is that those who value wealth more than leisure are likely to be richer).

    Now, while that’s the logic I’d present if asked, I admit that my real reason for being a redistributionist might have more to do with guilt. I feel guilty blowing money on completely unnecessary junk while others don’t have enough to eat so I give money to charities, tip generously and support redistributionist policies to assuage my guilt. Paying somewhat higher taxes doesn’t really affect my quality of life after all.

    I also admit that I might be completely unaware of my real reasons for being a redistributionist. One thing I’m pretty sure of though – it can’t be explained by evo psych pseudo-science (more accurately described as story telling not science).

    • Maximum Liberty

      J,

      I challenge you to prove, objectively, that an additional unit of stuff creates more marginal utility for the poor person than for the rich person.

      This is a misuse of marginal analysis. Marginal utility is about the preferences of an individual. It cannot make comparisons across individuals.

      Max

      • TCK

        Would you risk your life for a loaf of bread right now? Probably not.

        What if you and your family were on the verge of starvation? You probably would.

        A loaf of bread clearly has different utilities to different people.

  • Eric Johnson

    Cyan,
    Not so. Suppose grabbers are indeed fitter than non-grabbers (ie, they reproduce more). But suppose that above the 85th percentile for wealth, we find people whose fitness is higher still than that of the grabbers (going all the way up to Genghis Khan, one of the fittest people of recent millennia as far as we know). These guys argue against redistribution, and their wealth and attitudes are susbstantially heritable via both genetic and non-genetic means. Viola, anti-redistributionist attitudes persist stably.

    These assumptions are not a stretch. Indeed, while I don’t know the data, I hear it’s likely that wealth correlated positively with fitness pretty much everywhere, until the industrial revolution.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      But suppose that above the 85th percentile for wealth, we find people whose fitness is higher still than that of the grabbers (going all the way up to Genghis Khan, one of the fittest people of recent millennia as far as we know).

      Genghis Khan was about as grabby as they come, wasn’t he?

  • Neil

    Seems simplistic to me.

    It’s hardly a surprise people don’t feel as much sympathy for those they only know abstractly as compared with those that are here and now, and are in-group. That doesn’t invalidate sympathy as a genuine feeling.

    And it’s odd to say there isn’t sympathy for people for reasons other than poverty. I have a great deal of sympathy for people who suffer from social exclusion or awkwardness or people who suffer for their appearance. I’d hope I’m not unusual in doing so. It’d be great to help these people, but cutting them a cheque is hardly getting to the nub of the issue. They could very well benefit from pyschological or other forms of direct help, but not monetary. Their problems are not ones of distribution, and I think that is why re-distribution is not the go-to solution for them.

    As for redistribution itself I’d agree this relates back to basic human social strategies, but is clearly reflected in modern politics. In a tribal context one can work for or against the existing social heirarcy. To work for it one allies with the rich and powerful and works for one’s cut, to work against it one attempts to build an alliance of the disaffected that have interests in a redistribution. This isn’t necessarily about total overthrow, but sometimes just extracting concessions.

    Now we know from an evolutionary perspective that whatever side you’re on in this, you’re also representing your own self interest. However this doesn’t mean that the emotions involved aren’t genuine on the part of particpants. Fairness, justice, sympathy, resentment, moral outrage are all going to be involved in the playing out of these strategies, and while they may be faked as required, the fakes only work because they exist in the context of largely genuine emotions.

    Hence I’d put it to you that the role of sympathy in desiring redistribution is very likely just as real as any other emotion that leads us to carry out our personal advancement strategies.

  • Phil

    I have often wondered what would happen if attributes other than wealth could be transferred. I would suspect that geniuses would be taxed IQ points, strong people would be taxed muscles, and so on without end.

    Humans will always find a rationalization for whatever is in their interest.

    • bob smith

      This is certainly true. HIstory shows that the poor, if they are poor and desperate enough, won’t turn to guilt tripping and abstract moral doctrines, they’ll turn to violent and revoutionary ones. Perhaps it’s in the wealthy’s self interest to redistribute wealth if the alternative is a Maoist cultural revolution.

      A dollar is a unit of means, it is a substitute for trade in goods or services, trade in goods and services is a substitute for force, as in the violent physical force that determines who survives and who does not elsewhere in nature. We trade because it’s a lot easier that killing one another to get the things we need to survive, but if trade does not work, we’re back to killing. I’m suggesting this is how it should be, but only that this is how it is, regardless of how you feel about it. Crack a history book if you don’t believe me. Reality is an important aspect of public policy, don’t you think?

      Because we don’t kill one another to survive and because we divide resources in collectivized enterprises organized around the goal of survival, we get to pretend that economic transactions are something other than what they are: a matter of life and death.

      The only reason the wealthy enjoy their property is because the poor consent to their private property rights by not staging a revoution. Rights only exist insofar as power can create consequences for violating them. There is no morality at any point in any economic transaction – only self interest and rationalization which allows individuals to persue self interest under the banner of some ideological, political, or moral banner.

      • Dan

        I mostly agree, someone once said that “Philosophy ends at the stomach” I don’t now if that’s a quoute by someone famous or some quip of a commentoer somewhere. There is no “property rights” the only natural laws and rights can be written down on paper with some really complicated maths…

        “The only reason the wealthy enjoy their property is because the poor consent to their private property rights by not staging a revoution.”

        Nope how do you explain Pinochet, Franco etc? Mass murder, torture and international terrorism is also effective.
        All tangible change comes from revolution and that is rare (Russian and French revolutions were almost by accident.) . Even modern liberal democracy flowed out of the french revolution, we were really lucky…

      • http://twitter.com/dirtycarrie Caroline

        Another reason we trade is because certain things can’t be stolen- i.e. muscles.

        If you kill the really muscular guy (using your advanced sneaking skills, say), you can’t make the really muscular guy move the big rock. His muscles die with him.

        It’s the same principle herding societies use. You could kill a cow, and have some steak for a bit. Maybe even a long bit, if you’ve got good storage. Or you could keep the cow alive and have milk for years.

        Trading isn’t a substitute for force. It’s a way to get things that force can’t give you.

      • Constant

        Trading isn’t a substitute for force. It’s a way to get things that force can’t give you.

        That may be true as a general statement, but it does not apply to your example. You can use force to get the use of a person’s muscles to move big rocks, by enslaving them.

  • Mike

    I think this post is a stretch.

    First of all, what poor people lack is money, which is what rich people have. If we could take height from tall people and give it to short people, then there might be a legitimate comparison of attitudes on these matters.

    Yet I personally do not view progressive taxation as a simple redistribution scheme. There are many different perspectives one can take. One is, people should pay for govt in proportion to the extent they benefit from govt. The richest people benefit the most, by virtue of the fact that they are the richest. Therefore they should pay the most.

    I’m surprised I don’t hear this simple argument given by other people, so let me explain. A person’s benefit from living in society can be gauged by comparing their livelihood in society to that they would have in the wilderness. Clearly this difference is much greater for a very rich person than for a very poor person. We have an individualistic culture that attributes a person’s success to their personal attributes and actions. But it seems clear to me the level of wealth that even a middle class American enjoys is beyond the means of any individual effort. An individual couldn’t even create a wrist watch.

    People tend to think of govt spending benefiting all people roughly the same, or even benefiting poor people more than rich people, and contrast this with the fact that rich people pay more. This misses the effect of policy, which can be very cheap to enforce, but has broad power to dramatically shape who gets what in society. Seeing as how the market is ultimately a social construct managed by govt, the effect of policy is large indeed. For example, the existence of patent and copyright law plays a crucial role in certain people’s abilities to acquire wealth. There are more abstract underlying issues, like for instance the very notion of personal property (which is, I think, ultimately another social construct, granted authority by the enforcement power of govt).

    My view of things, and I think many share it, is that govt should adopt policies that tend to maximize net (across society) wealth. Insofar as these policies cause a concentration of wealth in a few people, govt should fund its policies drawing primarily from them. Thus I support the legal framework that allows to construct a public corporation, because I think this has great value to increase net wealth, but insofar as equities markets tend to inordinately benefit investors, I support to recoup some of these benefits and use them to defray the costs of other govt functions.

    • Alex

      Wow, I’ve never seen progressive taxation argued for in this way before. I think I may steal this justification. It’s very good + original!

  • Mike

    Sorry, I guess I missed your point. My post is in agreement with the statement “Redistribution isn’t about Sympathy.”

    I guess I got caught up in my distaste for the term “redistribution,” which makes it seem like one’s taking from the rich to give to the poor, when in fact there’s a lot of money going lots of directions, and obviously the net flow is toward the rich.

  • spacenookie

    In the EER, the stuff redistributed would have been survival equipment and the people redistributing it would have been highly related and/or codependent.

  • Wollff

    Those are the simple explainations I like. Removed from the facts and clouded by political sentiment.

    In tribal societies and probably the farming village there was not enough difference between people to have “havers” and “grabbers”. Tribal societies often don’t even have the concept of personal ownership and primitive farming villages mostly work the surrounding fields as a commune with only little difference in the roles of the individuals.
    From then upwards you have stratification of society and class building. But in the resulting feudal systems you normally don’t find any “grabbers” grabbing, that aren’t quatered the next day. The “havers” are at times feeling sorry for the poor and giving them a morsel or two, but that’s not redistribution, that’s charity.
    And then, about let’s say 1850, some people had the idea that real redistribution might be a good idea.

    What does that say about the “simple exlpaination”?
    When society was simple, the model it didn’t apply, since the categories of “havers” and “grabbers” weren’t there.
    When those two started to exist, the “simple explaination” delivered the wrong predictions: The “grabbers” generally didn’t grab and the “havers” didn’t have to redistribute anything.
    But wait, the “simple explaination” featuring the stone age “grabber” and “haver” applies in the last 150 years of US history!

    And wait, it’s actually not a model.
    It’s not even an explaination.
    It’s a metaphor.

    A politically charged metsphor, posing as a scientifically grounded “simple explaination”.

    Wonderful.

    • Eric Johnson

      > Tribal societies often don’t even have the concept of personal ownership and primitive farming villages mostly work the surrounding fields as a commune with only little difference in the roles of the individuals.

      This is not convincing. Tribesman certainly don’t communalize their wives – so not everything is pooled, and thus there’s a point to having high status. Don’t you suspect there are net flows of goods between certain individuals, and that these help determine status and who gets the most desirable wife, regardless of whether these things are formally stated? I do. I know hunter-gatherer groups divide when they become too large for everyone to get along. When our group divides, I want to go with your half, if you are +2 sigma in your hunting productivity and I am -1 sigma. So, I may kiss up to you for years prior. My point is, neither of us needs to have private property for differences in productivity to matter.

      • Wollff

        I don’t argue against the fact that there are differences in status also in your average hunter gatherer group. But how does that relate to the original concept of “havers” and “grabbers”?

        Okay, let’s assume somebody “owns” a nice wife (I’m not sure how the situiation of women in tribal groups is seen today, but I’ll just go along). According to the “simple explaination”-paradigm a “grabber” will reason that those with a less desireable wife / without a wife would have a much greater benefit from “having” her, justifying her “redistribution” among the tribe.

        I hope you see that the argument doesn’t really work that well in this situation. It needs a quantitative difference in material goods in order to apply. If the “haver” had 15 wives, the argument would work. But that normally doesn’t happen in tribal societies.

        Sure there are differences in status. And differences in productivity do matter. But as long as there are no quantitative differences in redistributable goods there are no “havers” and “grabbers”.

        There may be “asskissers” and “bosses”, but that’s an entirely different thing again. The “bosses” distribute their favors among the group and give more to the “asskissers”. But here we enter the realm of charity, which is a redistribution from the top (the “boss” gives away what he doesn’t need in order to raise his status), opposed to the “grabber”-theory, that features a redistribution-urge from the bottom.

        So to trash it again: The “simple explaination” needs a quantitaive difference in posession of material goods among individuals to apply.
        That doesn’t happen in tribal societies. That doesn’t happen in the primitive farming village.
        And when there is enough of a difference to apply we stand, through long cultivated “boss”-“asskisser” relationships, with one foot in the realm of feudalism. In feudalism you are broken by the wheel if you even think about grabbing.
        So the “explaination” applies only in modern times, doesn’t explain anything and emerges as a politically clouded metaphor, posing as a scientifically grounded explaination.
        And those are my absolute favourites.

  • http://www.QandO.net Bryan Pick

    Mike –

    First of all, what poor people lack is money, which is what rich people have. If we could take height from tall people and give it to short people, then there might be a legitimate comparison of attitudes on these matters.
    [...]
    A person’s benefit from living in society can be gauged by comparing their livelihood in society to that they would have in the wilderness.

    It’s not terribly straightforward to talk about the redistribution of height, but let’s talk about redistributing beauty since that’s certainly within our powers.

    It’s not a stretch to say that the beautiful have an advantage in securing important life outcomes — they’re generally treated better by others (I read somewhere that even parents care better for beautiful babies), they tend to do better in job interviews, and they have an easier time attracting mates.

    Suppose someone proposed a policy of taxing the beautiful to pay to the less well-endowed. If it helps for this example, let’s say the recipients can only use the money for:
    * cosmetic medical and dental care,
    * gym memberships and exercise equipment,
    * beauty products (makeup, fancy shampoos, etc.),
    * nice clothing,
    etc.

    I’ll take it a step further: for the fabulously beautiful, we could not only tax them but disfigure them in some way. After all, how beautiful do you think people usually are without the benefits of society, with its sanitation and dentistry and beauty products and nutrition and brassieres and magazines with beauty tips?

    By your logic, what society “giveth”, society can taketh away, right?

    the market is ultimately a social construct managed by govt [...] There are more abstract underlying issues, like for instance the very notion of personal property (which is, I think, ultimately another social construct, granted authority by the enforcement power of govt).

    Be very careful with that generalization. Seems to me that children start trying from a very young age to appropriate things exclusively to themselves, and feel wronged when people take things away from them — do they only do that when taught to do so? Even animals exhibit this behavior.

    It’s hard for me to believe that in the absence of enforcers or “society”, people would be fine with, say, growing food only to have someone else come along, take the food away and eat it without the consent of the farmer.

    Property–the exclusive use and disposal of things–is something humans seem to desire universally; dare I say it, naturally. It’s also true that humans covet what others have, but when they try to take it by force, they are committing aggression — force and aggression both being pretty universal concepts that are useful even to those with no society or government.

    If someone comes along and claims a special privilege to use force against everyone, regardless of whether those people have aggressed against him, he better be making it worth my while or I’m not going to tolerate him. (Enforcing a nonaggression principle in property disputes seems to me to be a pretty good way to earn broad tolerance.)

    I don’t compare my life under his reign to what my life would be like in the wild; I compare it to what my life would be like under all kinds of possible sovereigns. I don’t owe him gratitude — he owes it to me to be the best of all possible alternatives.

    One could easily argue that social norms and enforcers make trade much more secure and easier, but property and trade shouldn’t be dismissed as mere social constructs.

    We have an individualistic culture that attributes a person’s success to their personal attributes and actions.

    That’s a pretty strong generalization. When I see a person with any amount of wealth, I think it can come from a variety of places:
    1. trade
    2. inheritance, gifts and charity
    3. acquisition by force

    In #1 and #2, they got their wealth from someone who gave it voluntarily.

    In the case of trade, that meant they had to create something of value; I know nobody learns how to create something of value without a lot of help, but why should I care?
    What matters at every step in the creation of that wristwatch you mentioned is that nobody trades unless they think they’ll benefit somehow from the transaction.

    In the case of inheritance, gifts and charity, somebody thought that person worthy to receive it. I don’t begrudge anyone the things other people give to them, because I don’t believe in cosmic notions of desert. If you acquired your wealth without aggressing against anyone, it’s not my business whether or not it makes you happier to give it away (even to your brat kid) than to spend it on yourself.

    I’m more impressed with wealth that seems to come from trade than from the other sources, because that tells me that a person proved himself so valuable to other people that they all thought they were benefiting when they handed him his wealth.
    With that in mind, a country with a more limited government and good property protection is bound to make me attribute more of a person’s success to his attributes and actions. It makes sense.

    • Wollff

      The redistribution of beauty, what a wonderful example!
      Let’s take a six year old beauty queen on the one side. And a child with harelip on the other side. By swooshing your magic wand you fix the child’s harelip, but in turn our little beauty queen gets a little scar on her cheek.

      To take it one step further: The little beauty queen doesn’t see the need. She shouts that she is beautiful by nature, that she is beautiful by merit, that it’s her right to bask in the full extent of her naturally given and god bestowed beauty and that the girl with the harelip is at fault and that all people want to disfigure her beautiful face because they are enviouis.

      Welcome to the US.

      • Konkvistador

        Some people like living in a world where there exist truly beautiful or intelligent people.

    • Dan

      “By your logic, what society “giveth”, society can taketh away, right?”

      That is his exact point…
      Trying going Galt on on some island and show me your superior productivity after throwing of the shackles of society or socialism or whatever…

      No watch me cue the laughter track.

      The rest are just libertarian prattle. By the way why are you allowed to enclose a natural resource and exclude me by force again… Force is only OK when it benefits ME, in other words…

      • http://www.QandO.net Bryan Pick

        That is his exact point…

        Are you saying that you, or he, would approve of a policy of beauty redistribution?

        Trying going Galt on on some island and show me your superior productivity after throwing of the shackles of society or socialism or whatever…

        That taunt would make a lot more sense if I had said I would be better off without society, or if I hadn’t made the explicit point that I don’t just compare living under the current government to living in the wild, but comparing life under the current government to life under all other possible governments.

        The rest are just libertarian prattle.

        So you wouldn’t mind if someone dismissed your political or moral ideology simply by saying, “Oh, that’s just _______ prattle” instead of actually answering your arguments, right?

        By the way why are you allowed to enclose a natural resource and exclude me by force again… Force is only OK when it benefits ME, in other words…

        Now who’s trying to throw off the shackles of society? Everyone excludes other people from things by force. Hunters and gatherers do it, totalitarian governments do it, and so does everyone in between.

        The practice of making property out of natural resources is justified in a few ways.
        First, the ultimate act of exclusion is consumption. When you eat anything, even if you hunted for it or gathered it on a piece of land that nobody calls his property, you are enclosing that natural resource and excluding everyone else from it by force — assuming you claim a right to defend your own body. Survival depends on it.
        (The same goes for whatever you drink or breathe.)

        Second, no one will go to the trouble of making something useful out of a natural resource if people can simply come and take the refined product away from them without compensation. Why expend all the effort to raise crops or livestock for seasons at a time, if people can come in and consume your produce without your consent?

        Property is not aggression, it’s defense of the values you’ve created. And defense is pretty universally considered an appropriate use of force.

      • Dan

        “Are you saying that you, or he, would approve of a policy of beauty redistribution?”

        You cannot distribute which can’t be distributed… Still if it was something scarce subject to a non-linear utility function then yes people will do it, and most won’t find anything wrong with it.

        Natural Resources may be enclosed SUBJECT to terms and conditions. Recognitions of property rights is up to society, it may grant total or none, it can also demand a 99% cut or a 0% one.No force is involved only a contract, in contrast you can actually use force and have society assist you if it is recognized, for the agreed on exclusivity.

        “Property is not aggression, it’s defense of the values you’ve created.”
        Yes, but only that which society chooses, you cannot arbitrarily declare (regardless of value added) natural resources your property.

      • http://www.QandO.net Bryan Pick

        I detailed the ways in which beauty could be redistributed in my comment above. Or how less beautiful people could be compensated for their handicap, at the expense of people who have natural advantages.
        Would you or he support a policy of that sort? Why or why not?

        You have asserted that property rights are subject to society’s permission, but you offer no evidence to support your claim.
        It complicates your position that society is not a decision-making unit, so I’d also ask that you clarify what you mean by society. Do you mean to include criminals? Bureaucrats, judges and politicians? The eligible voters who actually turn out?

        “Property is not aggression, it’s defense of the values you’ve created.”
        Yes, but only that which society chooses, you cannot arbitrarily declare (regardless of value added) natural resources your property.

        By “cannot”, do you mean you personally disagree with people using unclaimed natural resources without getting permission from “society”, or are you saying that it’s flatly impossible to claim property without getting said permission?

        Lots of American colonists who defied the British crown and settled land west of the Atlantic watershed would have disagreed with you on either count.

        Why should you have to ask permission to use something that nobody else has claimed as his own property? You haven’t aggressed against anyone.

      • Dan

        I gave the criteria for redistribution.
        Firstly it must obviously be redistributable also the “beauty bucks” must be subject to a non-linear function, in other words after redistribution the society must be more beautiful than before. So that will exclude your scarring argument to bring people down to the ugly ones.
        The little beauty queen is a good example… would you swoosh the wand? I probably would.
        I hope that answers your question.

        “You have asserted that property rights are subject to society’s permission, but you offer no evidence to support your claim.”

        Uhmm the real world… reams of legal code and philosophy. Yes you don’t need societies permission to make CLAIMS, everybody can do that with minimal effort :). But to actually have any tangible exclusive right over anything (and subsequent value) you damn well needs “society’s permission”. If there is no consensus that something is your property it also magically loses value :). Property rights is up to a democratic consensus, and if that consensus is that something is not property regardless of value added then it is not. And needless to say it seems to be working just fine.

        “It complicates your position that society is not a decision-making unit, so I’d also ask that you clarify what you mean by society.”

        Society is well reality… basically any system with more than one person and all their actions, activity and institutions. It does NOT have to make decisions but any society that doesn’t have some collective action mechanism is markedly worse off for the whole AND the individual.

        Do you mean to include criminals? Bureaucrats, judges and politicians? The eligible voters who actually turn out?

        Criminals are of course persons and apart of society, to ignore problems and dealing with them would be to the detriment of society. Bureaucrats, Judges etc. are of course executives of important institutions, if you have an alternative to them, that will result in a consensus bring it on.
        Voters that doesn’t turn out “votes” and shapes society by not voting, which is their right.

        By “cannot”, do you mean you personally disagree with people using unclaimed natural resources without getting permission from “society”, or are you saying that it’s flatly impossible to claim property without getting said permission?

        You can make any wild claim you want. But to actually HAVE any rights you need that pesky “permission” thing. You are going to find it difficult to engage in any value extraction from just your claim and say-so.

        Lots of American colonists who defied the British crown and settled land west of the Atlantic watershed would have disagreed with you on either count.

        A distant undemocratic government with no or weak local institutions, I think we can call this a Frontier system?

        You may have a point in frontier systems. But also there everybody ultimately agreed on what can be taken and how it may be used, and as soon as they could they built town halls, courts, revenue and sheriffs offices. The West was not as Wild as everybody think it was. Frontiers doesn’t stay frontiers for long.

        Needless to say we live in a hot overcrowded planet today with few if any frontiers left.

        Why should you have to ask permission to use something that nobody else has claimed as his own property? You haven’t aggressed against anyone.

        If natural resources was infinite and it was impossible to destroy value there will be no problem with this. If you enclose a finite source, sadly it is aggression by exclusion. So ultimately life has been pre-determined by chance, those that came there first will hold the most resources and leverage… and for the late-comers it is just tough. The problem is that to extract any value you need the majority to play along in other words recognize your “property rights”. And for that to happen they must derive some benefit from your rights and so it is just that there is terms and conditions attached to any force full exclusions.

      • http://www.QandO.net Bryan Pick

        So your personal criteria for redistribution is that society as a whole must be more beautiful than before. That’s one piece of confirmation for Robin’s argument that redistribution is not about sympathy for the lowly. By your criteria you would support using force to make the beauty queen even more dazzlingly beautiful if it meant making a less comely person just a little more homely.

        And I’m glad you’ve clarified about rights and society. You say that tangible rights require society’s permission, and rightly point out that property is quite insecure when one is surrounded by people who aim to take it.

        I wonder how you feel about slavery. Is the right not to be a slave not subject to society in the same ways as the right to property?
        What I’m really getting around to here is getting you to take an explicit position on whether you and I have inalienable rights.

      • Dan

        By your criteria you would support using force to make the beauty queen even more dazzlingly beautiful if it meant making a less comely person just a little more homely.

        I don’t think you understand non-linearity and marginal utility. That would be impossible. 100 beauty points from the homely one, would increase the queen by only one and society would be 99 points uglier. While 1 point from the queen may increase the homely one by 100, and society would be 99 points beautifuler.

        That’s one piece of confirmation for Robin’s argument that redistribution is not about sympathy for the lowly.

        Not necessarily after all I could try to exclude the ugly ones from my view and “not care”. But if I do that I may have this nagging feeling. Dare I call it sympathy for the less fortunate? Also why can’t I try to make my sympathy also serve a utilitarian function?

        You say that tangible rights require society’s permission, and rightly point out that property is quite insecure when one is surrounded by people who aim to take it.

        But what if you are surrounded by people that doesn’t necessarily aim to take it but also think you don’t deserve it and withholds respect? Yes you may be able to hang on to it and even exploit some of it, but not at any modern rate of efficiency or productivity. And if a stronger aggressor attacks you, you lose it all…

        Property rights cannot be enforced by force alone, because all force even justified force destroys value…
        Thus it requires respect and the vast majority will have to WANT to respect your “rights”. And for that to happen they must derive some benefit from that, and for that to happen you have to get “permission” and have to agree to terms to conditions that may include taxes, regulation and even the type of exclusivity granted. In return aggressors almost completely disappears, This minimize value destroying force, and that force is stronger than all aggressors, that of societies collective action.

        What I’m really getting around to here is getting you to take an explicit position on whether you and I have inalienable rights.

        The only inalienable or “natural rights” is that which you see in nature. Which is might is right, survival of the fittest etc. pretty landscapes and that, but if you look closely, not somewhere you want to live or live by…

        If human rights and ant-slavery is so inalienable why was (and still is) there so many mass and gross violations of it. It shouldn’t even be rare, it just shouldn’t happen.

        They only feel inalienable because society and individuals derived enormous benefits from extending these rights to each other and we have been taught from very young to have an revulsion for slavery and human-right abuses. Yet still this “innovation” only happened quite recently and if a system of slavery or human-right abuses worked in your favor, your moral qualms about it will be greatly blunted as history amply illustrates.

      • http://www.QandO.net Bryan Pick

        I don’t think you understand non-linearity and marginal utility.

        We’re talking about marginal beauty, not utility. You said “more beautiful than before”, not “happier”. By your own criteria, you would support making the ugly person a little more ugly to make a beautiful person more striking, if the end result was a more beautiful society.

        And if, say, all it takes is a bit of makeup to highlight the best features of a beautiful face, it doesn’t seem clear to me that you’d get a greater benefit out of the same effort applied to an ugly face.

        On the matter of rights, a right is a just claim. The concept of a natural right is that certain things by their nature have just claims to be treated a certain way, and rights cannot be taken away — only infringed upon. So you have a right to free speech even if nobody respects that right.

        It seems to me you’re saying rights don’t exist where their objects aren’t secure (e.g., if your speech is restricted by the locals, you don’t have a right to free speech). Is no cause just until it has been won?

  • http://macroethics.blogspot.com nazgulnarsil

    poor people aren’t poor because they lack money.

    • kevin

      This is important, but unsurprisingly ignored.

  • http://ajourneybeyondlimits.blogspot.com Daniel J

    But lacking a better excuse, they’d fall back on the old favorite, that those with less stuff would sure appreciate each thing more than those with lots.

    Would you say that you do not believe in sublinear utility functions? With a sublinear utility function, society gets richer with redistribution. And from an evolutionary perspective, furthering the other people in your society may well increase the chances for your genes to survive. Sending money to the poor in another society (tribe, country) will not have that effect. This seems to me to be a much better explanation.

    • Patri Friedman

      With a sublinear utility function, society gets richer with redistribution.

      With a sublinear utility function, society gets richer in the short-term with efficient redistribution. In practice, a redistributive government will do a shit ton of stuff that makes society poorer and has nothing to do with redistribution to the poor. Like redistributing to farmers via subsidies, to steel producers via tariffs, and in general, redistributing (at a loss) from dispersed interests (all of us) to concentrated ones (special interests). The scale of this activity dwarfs the scale of redistribution to the poor – go look at the federal budget if you don’t believe me.

      Un the long run, these types of governments make us all poorer, because their massive waste reduces the exponential growth of wealth (by about 1% in annual GDP growth per 10% in govt spending as a percentage of GDP). OB readers should be able to understand what a difference 3% growth vs. 6% growth makes in everyone’s long-run wealth.

  • Err

    It’s not about sympathy. It’s about rectifying an unfair playing field. Redistribution of money is not about money. It’s what money gets you: freedom, security, and most importantly, opportunity. Basic things to allow people to potentially be successful:

    Education and related materials
    Basic health care
    Access to transportation
    Security

    Without money – either through social services spending or direct cash transfers, how do you get the above in any capitalism-flavored society? You don’t. Therefore your chances of success go way, way down. Yes, there are amazing exceptions who have succeeded even though they started with nothing, but those are exceptions for a good reason.

    Redistribution is not about money. It’s about opportunity. If you can find a way to magically supply equal opportunity without using money, you may be a genius who can answer many of our world’s problems and we await your proposals.

  • Cog

    Boy, you really seem to be tying yourself in knots over that explanantion. I see no reason to assume that there is or ever was a single argument for redistribution, but maybe our ancestors came to understand that gross disparities in wealth just cause trouble. Maybe the ones in charge thought up redistribution in order to stay in charge. Maybe personal surpluses in the ancestral environment just weren’t that interesting – rotting meat serves no one.
    Trying to find an argument for low taxes in the veldt strikes me as fairly silly – but in any case there does seem to be one very good social reason to provide access to the necessities across all levels of a modern culture – because it works.

  • Nico

    Prof. Hanson,
    The althought I find your conclusion plausible, I think you give somewhat short shrift (sp?) to the redistributionist position. Redistributionists can and do argue that, while a height tax might in principle be desirable, it’s a political non-starter. Redistribution of income, however, is both politically feasible, and can raise net utility, given the diminishing utility of income.
    I think most redistributionists don’t give enough consideration to the incentive effects and the resulting social cost of heavy income redistribution, and I do suspect that the zeal with which some call for redistribution seems more instictual than rational. But I still think we owe a bit more generosity to the position.
    This leads me to a nagging suspicion I’ve had about these kind of evo psych and signaling theories- isn’t there a pretty big tendency to psychologize, and thus trivialize, the positions people you disagree with? How do we create a reliable process to avoid that?

    • Patri Friedman

      Redistributionists can and do argue that, while a height tax might in principle be desirable, it’s a political non-starter.

      This is exactly Hanson’s point. It is a political non-starter because people find it non-intuitive or even repellent. Since there seems to be no rational basis for that belief, it is probably due to a cognitive bias. Hence the question – what is that bias?

      Saying something is “a political non-starter” doesn’t do anything to answer the question of why we don’t do it.

  • Nico

    *correction- the above should read “Although I….”

  • Jotaf

    Basic things to allow people to potentially be successful:
    Education and related materials
    Basic health care
    Access to transportation
    Security

    Don’t forget food and a place to live. I’m not trying to turn this conversation around, but one thing that intrigues me is that I’ve always heard some people propose pseudo-communist systems where basic needs are provided by the government and superfluous things are run in a capitalist way. (This is redistribution taken to the extreme.) It’s often pointed out that this wouldn’t work because many people would be content to just stay home and watch TV all day, on minimum income; and usually that dispels the topic.

    But many people today live that kind of life – they receive little money through some government help or the help of their family, and the “benefit” of not having to work outweighs the “costs” of being poor (at least that’s what I gather from talking to some acquaintances in that situation).

    Who’s to say that, if that kind of support was available to everyone, that a sufficient number of poor people wouldn’t grab that opportunity? What if the net wealth of society would actually grow that way (because there were more potential workers than potential slobs)? If people had no excuses, would they realize their potential?

    (Sidenote: there’s also the matter of redistributing tickets that you trade directly for food etc, instead of money; but that would be a nightmare to control as a parallel market. Maybe an electronic account system, where you can’t trade at all.)

  • Name

    @Mike

    “My view of things, and I think many share it, is that govt should adopt policies that tend to maximize net (across society) wealth.”

    That would be ideal. Unfortunately you’ve got no one above the government in this system who would ensure it. As it currently is, the government’s purpose is staying as the privileged caste after the reelection by adopting policies that _seem_ (and not _serve_) to the majority (and not to the whole population on average) as the best. Those who discuss things on blogs like this would share your opinion of course. But in democracy the majority would go for a beer that their idol drank on the television rather than have any opinion on your issue.

  • Constant

    Robin, surely you are right at least about the general approach. People are self-interested and at the same time people are in the habit of clothing their self-interest in layers of nice-sounding justification.

    However, you mention that international redistribution is not that popular. It is, nevertheless, popular enough to exist – aid to Africa, the world bank, aid to the victims of the tsunami in 2005. Since you used its supposed unpopularity as evidence for your own thesis, its existence therefore poses a problem for your thesis. This seems to be something that is happening much more nowadays than before, and it may be the result of some currently widespread ideology rather than a result of eternal human nature.

  • http://www.pursuitoftruthiness.wordpress.com James

    I don’t think we need to restrict the grabber-prevention explanation to the tribal days; this largely explains the positions of Keynes and Bismark on redistribution.

    • Wollff

      You mean we don’t need to apply the “explanation” to the tribal days and see it as a metaphor for the positions of Keynes and Bismark on the matter ;)

  • Robert Scarth

    Mike

    I live in the UK, and I’ve heard your argument – or ones quite similar to it – many times. I’ve never been very convinced by it, and I didn’t find your version convincing either.

    (1) “people should pay for govt in proportion to the extent they benefit from govt.”
    (2) “The richest people benefit the most, by virtue of the fact that they are the richest.”
    (3) “Therefore they should pay the most.”

    (1) sounds reasonable, but it depends on being able to determine to some extent how much people benefit from government. I have real doubts about whether this is possible.
    (2) is highly dubious. I could quite plausibly argue that a person who has the wherewithal to become rich in society would also be able to survive outside of society due to their superior intelligence, energy, drive, foresight, planning ability, and ability to defer gratification; whereas a person lacking the ability to become rich is less likely to survive outside of society. Therefore poor people benefit more from society than rich people. I’m not claiming that this is the case, merely that it is no less plausible that your claim.
    (3) this does indeed follow from (1) and (2).

    “A person’s benefit from living in society can be gauged by comparing their livelihood in society to that they would have in the wilderness.”

    I don’t understand what this means. Are you comparing someone’s life in society versus taking that person and dropping them down in a depopulated, undeveloped area of land, so that they must survive alone, based on their own actions only? (must they make their own clothes and tools?) If so, why is this a relevant comparison? I think everyone would agree that life in society is vastly superior to a lonely life without any civilisation, but so what?

    “People tend to think of govt spending benefiting all people roughly the same…”

    Your evidence for this claim? Most people that I know think that the benefit from government spending is very unevenly spread. In fact this unevenness is an important part of the argument for a smaller government.

    “…or even benefiting poor people more than rich people”

    Likewise, most people who argue for smaller government do so, in part, because the benefits of government spending do not go to the poorest, but to the interest groups that helped the government get into power.

    “the market is ultimately a social construct managed by govt”

    What do you mean by the term “social construct”? As Hayek said the market is of human action, but not human design. Does this make is a “social construct”? And even if the market is a “social construct” then so what? What bearing does that have on the issue of whether the government has the right to forcibly take some people’s wealth and give it to other people? Does a carpenter have the right to tell you what books to keep on the bookcase he made for you? Does the person who made Roger Federer’s racket have a right to seize some of his prize money because Federer couldn’t have won without him? If not, then why does the fact that the market is a “social construct” give the government the right to take away people’s gains in the market and give them to other people?

    • Dan

      “I don’t understand what this means.”

      It means exactly as Mike has written it: “A person’s benefit from living in society can be gauged by comparing their livelihood in society to that they would have in the wilderness.”
      That is a fairly simple and understandable hypothesis…

      “I think everyone would agree that life in society is vastly superior to a lonely life without any civilisation, but so what?”

      LOL, yes I don’t really care or have an interest to maintain a society that almost guarantee me an 80 year compared to 30 years of life in relative luxury compared to eternal struggle to survive, I mean just pffft.
      ::rolls eyes::

      “What do you mean by the term “social construct”? As Hayek said the market is of human action, but not human design.”

      Hayek!! Oh noes were demolished!
      Sadly not.

      “And even if the market is a “social construct” then so what?”

      See above for the “so what” “argument”.

    • Mike

      Robert,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply! You say (2) is dubious because people with superior aptitudes would do better in the wild. They would, but I think the difference would be relatively small. I have nothing against very hard-working, intelligent people earning a couple times more than average people — in fact I think even wider pay gaps are important for creating the best distribution of incentives. But our market produces pay gaps orders of magnitude beyond this. I don’t know how to understand those pay gaps except in terms of an “amplification” made possible because social organization can empower people with measure of control over others.

      I don’t care to argue about other people’s perceptions of who benefits from govt.

      The market and concepts of personal property are social constructs. Someone above said children gather things for themselves without being “taught.” But the rule among children is things go to the person who can take and defend them. Society has different rules. What I mean with respect to the market is, it is created by rules — rules about what kinds of contracts are obliging and what are the consequences for reneging, rules about disclosure, about who can sell what when and where, etc. These rules are created and enforced by govt (though mostly they are handed down from past generations).

      The distribution of wealth would be very different, for example, if there were not laws protecting innovation and trademark. In a “freer” society I might be allowed to copy without limit. I could make shoes that look exactly like Nikes. I could figure out the ingredients to medicines and sell my own versions. Etc. To me, this is the “natural” order of things. As a society, we make these things illegal, because it is perceived this increases incentives to innovate, which benefits everyone. And I think it does. But, it also creates large wealth concentrations, because differentiable goods allow for larger profit margins. This might be seen as providing more incentive than is really necessary — and distributing money from the masses to the wealthy in the form of higher product prices. Then progressive taxes can be seen as a means to partially undo the effect.

      Your examples are meant to be silly, but they are not. Why cannot a racket company claim some of Federer’s prize money? Or a teacher collect some of the salary of his students? Only because we haven’t structured such rules. But we have structured rules where an agent collects part of the salary of an actor. Or, where I can give someone some money in exchange for stock, which gives me partial ownership over her enterprise. Or where I can have an idea, and force other people to pay me to use that idea. These and many other things play a part in formulating our conception of “private property,” and in the end they are made up — the rule of nature is might equals right — and enforced by the collective power of society in the form of govt.

      • http://www.QandO.net Bryan Pick

        The market and concepts of personal property are social constructs. Someone above said children gather things for themselves without being “taught.” But the rule among children is things go to the person who can take and defend them. Society has different rules. [...] These rules are created and enforced by govt

        It’s true that codified property rights are more sophisticated than just the universally felt desire for property, but my point is that there are underpinnings of property in human nature at the individual level; it’s not all just arbitrary.

        It’s also true that governments (and other groups) create rules and enforce them, though I’m sure there was enforcement of property with various rules of trade before the creation of states. There are, after all, such rules in black markets — including trademarks and partial ownership.

        I don’t know how to understand those pay gaps except in terms of an “amplification” made possible because social organization can empower people with measure of control over others.

        Famous example: say we start with a society of 1000 people with $1000 each, one of whom is Wilt Chamberlain. The other 999 of them each voluntarily pay Wilt Chamberlain $10 to watch him play basketball, so now you have one guy with $10,990 while the other 999 people each have only $990. Wilt has more than 11 times as much money as everyone else; did Wilt exploit all those people who paid to watch him play?

        PS – Sorry to the OB editors for the length of my earlier comment. I’d forgotten the guidelines for commenting here.

  • Unnamed

    Robin, your counterexamples to the sympathy hypothesis don’t seem very convincing. Support for redistribution to poor nations is weaker, but we’d expect sympathy to be weaker to more distant people, and support for international redistribution is still fairly widespread (and it seems to be stronger among those who are domestically pro-redistribution). Transfers between eras are kind of weird and not normally thought of as “redistribution,” and it’s not clear what sort of intergenerational redistribution you think that redistributionists should be supporting since people tend to get richer over time. Money is not that great a substitute for height, attractiveness, interestingness, coordination, popularity, etc., but it is an excellent substitute for money, which makes money for the poor a better option than money for the short, ugly, etc. Is someone who is clumsy and makes $40k/year going to benefit any more from an extra $5k/yr than someone who is coordinated and makes $40k/yr? I doubt it. You may feel sympathy for the clumsy person, but you aren’t going to make up for their clumsiness by giving them money. A person who makes $15k/yr is a better target for the $5k in aid. Assistance usually addresses the specific problem that the person is facing, rather than just being a generic “we feel bad for you, so here’s something good.” That’s why there’s support for many other sorts of in-kind aid – food for the hungry, housing for the homeless, medical care for the ill, assistance for the disabled, etc.

    I also don’t understand how your alternative hypothesis is supposed to work. Presumably, any person would benefit from grabbing stuff from anyone else. So why is it that the poor grabbing from the rich is the one form of grabbing that became systematized? Is it because they had the most plausible excuse for the grabbing: “those with less stuff would sure appreciate each thing more than those with lots”? But what makes that excuse so plausible? Is it because people feel sympathy for the poor? Additionally, redistribution gets a lot of its support from the relatively well-off. It’s not about poor people making excuses for grabbing from the rich. What happened?

  • Yvain

    The grabber hypothesis suffers from so many flaws that, imho, it deserves to be dismissed as political trolling (ie “Anyone who wants redistribution is just a greedy grabber who wants to steal from his betters.”) For one thing, it doesn’t explain why sympathy-based charity suffers from the same flaws as sympathy-based redistribution: people donate money to the poor from their own country more than would be expected, nor is there charity for the ugly, boring, et cetera. It also makes predictions that are false, like that rich people would always oppose redistribution or that people who were very unlikely to gain any of the redistributed stuff wouldn’t have much interest.

    But even if the grabber hypothesis were true, I think there’s a more fundamental problem, which is that it definitely doesn’t feel to people like they’re trying to make up a flimsy excuse to grab stuff from the rich. Even if that was the evolutionary reason, it would still have to be mediated through something that brings the evolutionary level down to the personal level (in the same way that the evolutionary level of “wide hips -> better childbirth” is mediated by emotions like sexual attraction and love). The best candidate for that mediator would be the emotion of sympathy, which is what people think they’re feeling when they redistribute wealth.

    So I think whatever we give as the fundamental reason for why some people want to redistribute wealth, whether it be the grabber hypothesis or something else, the title “redistribution isn’t about sympathy” is misleading. A better one would be “Redistribution seems to be about sympathy, but what’s sympathy about?”

    • Daniel Burfoot

      The best candidate for that mediator would be the emotion of sympathy, which is what people think they’re feeling when they redistribute wealth.

      I submit that the best candidate for the mediator is the emotion of envy; specifically, the envy felt by the intellectual/professoriat/democratic elites towards the business/republican elites. The wealth of the latter group gives them a lot of status and power; the former group feels this is unjustified and undeserved, in the same way that all groups feel their rivals’ status is unjustified and undeserved. To remedy the problem the intellectual elites advocate “redistributing” the wealth to the lower classes. It is really just a status war among the elites. Of course, no one will admit that envy is their primary motive, for reasons as obvious as the one that causes men to overreport and women to underreport their number of lifetime sex partners.

      • http://lesswrong.com/user/SoullessAutomaton a soulless automaton

        On the contrary, I submit that the best candidate is whatever makes people who disagree with me look worse. After all, my opponents can’t have reasonable motivations, if they did they’d obviously agree with me.

        It’s all social status games in the end, but lacking convincing evidence to the contrary, what people say motivates them probably is what they subjectively experience. To assume otherwise is unnecessarily multiplying entities.

    • TCK

      Charity to the boring is paying attention to them anyway, or even better, motivating them to become more curious, more interested and therefore more interesting.

      Charity to the ugly would be to focus on the other things they have to offer. Although I think the idea of inherent ugliness is rather silly. Ugliness correlates strongly with lack of health, something which can often be changed. If someone is healthy, fit and happy, can they be anything but beautiful in the aspects that really matter?

  • lxm

    Your argument seems to assume that only those who do not have lots of stuff are grabbers and that the rich got rich due to their various virtues. Well, in some cases the rich got rich because they were just better grabbers than your average shmoe. Look at the leaders of our financial industry for some current examples. If stealing was not so attractive to so many, there would not be laws against it.

    Some people, apparently, have a hyper-willingness to believe the rich are some how better than the rest of the community.

    I believe, and I have no facts to back this up, redistribution from the wealthy to the less wealthy will result in a net increase of wealth for society as a whole and that too great a divide between the richest and the poor will break the social fabric.

    You know, “let them eat cake.”

    • Err

      The various flavors of the “pragmatic” Objectivist/Libertarian arguments (as opposed to the actual economic ones) tend to ignore the following:

      Wealth concentration and intergenerational wealth transfers
      Cheating and gaming
      Most importantly: an unlevel playing field

      You’re born. You have no choice about who your parents are. You have no choice about where to live. You have no say in what type of security the place you live offers. You have no say in the type and quality of education you are given early on. You have no say in the type or quality of food you eat. You have no say in the transportation options offered where you live. You have no say in how virulent the diseases are where you live. You have no ability to change parents if they are useless scrubs. You’re helpless.

      You’re born without the ability to consent, quite possibly into a horrible situation which drastically lowers your chance of success. Your parents may be complete losers, and this may all be their fault, but saying the child who grows up this way is lazy or unskilled is to willfully put 10 foot thick blinders on.

      The day we can choose whether or not to be born, to whom, and what opportunities we have early on is the say you can make these arguments about virtue. Until then, it’s still horribly unfair in many places in this world.

      • Patri Friedman

        Not all the arguments. I argue that redistribution is bad because a redistributionist government will inevitably get bloated (like the US did), bloated governments significantly reduce the annual growth rate of wealth, and that massively impoverishes everyone in the long-run.

        Nowhere does this argument depend on any of the beliefs you cite. I’m not claiming it is unassailable – you may propose to be able to create an efficiently redistributive government (Super-Singapore) or you may choose to value equality now over the wealth of your grandchildren. Heck, you can just point out that we don’t have any idea how to make a non-redistributionist country actually happen! But there is a pretty solid empirical case for redistribution being a disaster in the long-term.

        3% annual growth vs 6% annual growth doesn’t take very many decades to make the bottom income classes much richer in a callous libertarian society than they are in a kind social democracy.

  • http://ssmag.wordpress.com PeterW

    I think it makes more sense to say that redistribution IS about sympathy, and sympathy has all sorts of irrationalities and is a pretty poor substitute for considerations of merit and utility.

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    Robin, your post is the best ever one-page explanation of the origins of envy and self-righteous hypocrisy, the two features amply on display in the comments above.

    Rafal

  • David

    Is it just me or is this forum becoming more and more of a platform for the blog writers to espouse their political views under the pretense of addressing bias issues? It’s their blog and they are free to do with it as they please, but it makes me less and less interested in visiting.

    Perhaps you should change the name of the blog to “why you should be a civil libertarian”.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      civil libertarian

      I think you might have Robin confused with Glenn Greenwald.

  • http://lesswrong.com/user/SoullessAutomaton a soulless automaton

    @Jotaf:

    It’s often pointed out that this wouldn’t work because many people would be content to just stay home and watch TV all day, on minimum income; and usually that dispels the topic.

    This is superficially true, but wouldn’t remain a stable state of affairs. The reason why many people would currently choose this option is that they value leisure more than they value their current wages–often rightly so. The only reason they work at all currently is because of the massive imbalance toward supply for low-skill, unpleasant work, combined with the coercive force of requiring money for food and other necessities.

    Providing the basic necessities of life for everyone would remove the implicit coercion and allow multitudes to abandon the jobs they were stuck with. Many of these jobs would have been important, so wages would have to go up for unpleasant but necessary work. As wages would increase, increasing numbers of people would choose to go back to work in order to afford luxuries, until some natural equilibrium point is reached.

    Furthermore, such a scheme would probably also serve to increase the number of people engaged in artistic pursuits, which (perhaps) provide some small positive externality to society, and would likely increase small-scale entrepreneurship, due to reduced risk from a failed business. It would probably also spur development of automation technology, for obvious reasons.

    This kind of economic structure can actually be observed in some online environments where free trade is allowed, particularly games, because in-game avatars generally don’t have upkeep costs such as food, &c.

    The real argument against implementing such a scheme is that it would involve massive social upheaval until the new equilibrium is reached. (Not to mention all the people who currently benefit from the coercive nature of the labor market and would rather see it stay that way.)

  • anon

    The reason why many people would currently choose this option is that they value leisure more than they value their current wages–often rightly so.

    This is untrue. What generally happens is that we tend to work very hard during booms (when productivity is highest) and compensate for this by taking a lot of leisure time during recessions (when productivity is lowest).

    Unfortunately, labor markets are not completely flexible, because of fixed costs, regulatory and institutional constraints and the like: many workers cannot freely negotiate their wages or choose the number of hours we work per week. As a result, we tend to feel overworked during booms, and we become completely idle during recessions — we call this “unemployment”.

    (Because the choice of whether or not to work has massive external effects which are not captured by the worker or by the employer, the pattern of working a lot during booms and taking leisure time during busts feeds back on itself and causes massive swings in economic activity. This is a primary cause of what we call the business cycle.)

    • Yvain

      Anon, I’d never heard that idea put quite that way before. Can you link me to some resources on it or some statistics that support it?

  • Dave

    I don’t know how to deal with the questions except with a few analogies and broad historical trends. First, Egalitarianism was not a prime concern before the Enlightment was well developed. Before this inequality was part of God’s plan. Helping the poor and sick was the function of the Church.

    With the disempowering of religion, the State took partial responsibility for the poor and sick. Due to highly visible urban poverty, poor houses were established. This was paid for by taxes and over the time has expanded. As religion has progressively atrophied, the moral sentiments have migrated over to government programs. Many people think government has the moral duty to help people. Due to bureaucratization and scientism, the system has grown, and become professionalized, but its moral character remains. Now its priesthood inhabits government, academic posts and foundations. Visible signs of poverty have largely disappeared, so now poor people are well dressed and obese. they are born and die in hospitals and have central heating and flush toilets. There has been a progressive shift in focus from the original definition of poverty to emphasize inequality. It takes scientific and statistical studies to uncover these disparities that are now considered unfair and requires tax payer funded social programs to address. The original moral fervor remains.

    I will make an analogy between the dental profession and social sciences. The dental profession is not neutral about tooth decay. The social sciences are not neutral about poverty. Like the dental profession, it will not go away, when it the problems it addresses get better. It will now find new problems to address. For example dental profession now fights crooked teeth. Now the social sciences fight inequality more than physical impoverishment.

    This is done by the process of scientism and medicalization. Studies show its not just rotten teeth that are bad for dental health, so are plaques and crooked teeth. Likewise Social studies find less physical poverty, so emphasize that statistical social inequality is bad, not just starvation and holes in you cloths.
    (Now the rich pay extra to have crappy looking cloths that have patches and holes in them.)

    In our society, if a condition can be made into pathology, not just a human variation it merits moral concern and government action. An analogy can be made with the medical profession and helps explain why some social conditions are not the governments business.

    I said earlier that the churchly moral dutys to help the poor and sick have been moved to government purview, giving social sciences its moral fervor. If a normal variation can be medicalized, it becomes a moral/social responsibility. Jesus healed lepers and the deformed. Government/society now helps poor people with harelips with their surgical repair-( medicalization)

    Medical missionaries go to South America to fix children’s harelips. The same is not true concerning persons with a big nose. This is considered a normal variation, just as inequality used to be considered a normal variation. Shortness, shyness and physical unattractiveness or the inability to get a date are currently considered normal variations, not warranting the serious remediation by the church, social scientists or government.

    Things could change. Now it is recognized that there are social phobia disorders which may be treatable. Some short rich kids are being treated with human growth hormone. Why shouldn’t poor kids get treatment for their short stature? Don’t worry though, the government is aware of this and help is on the way.

  • Floccina

    Supporting generous redistribution could be the result of one being risk averse. Especially when one is young and starting out he may fear of not being able to provide for oneself and so one might support generous redistribution.

  • http://lesswrong.com/user/SoullessAutomaton a soulless automaton

    Another thing to note on this topic, that people often lose sight of: Historically speaking, the only way to become rich was to steal from others. The idea of a rich person whose wealth was not attained primarily by “grabbing” but by creating new wealth is a peculiar, essentially modern concept.

    So keep in mind In any context other than certain modern societies, “stuff-holders” and “grabbers” are pretty much inevitably the same people.

    • Constant

      I question the completeness Paul Graham’s history. While it has always been true that organized robbery worked for many people, the Old Testament tells us about many people who accumulated their wealth peacefully. For example, Job was rich, but as far as I know he did not accumulate his wealth by robbing people. He seems to have been a wealthy agriculturalist. He is described as owning many, many animals (“His substance also was seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses”), but I don’t recall any mention of him having obtained these by force. Doubtless fictional, he was presumably based on real models.

      The truths of economics were as valid in the distant past as they are now, and the conclusion is hard to avoid that many people must have managed to become wealthy by peaceful means.

      • anon

        Since Job was a wealthy agriculturalist, it is quite likely that much much of his wealth derived from the productive powers of his land. Land is a pre-existing natural resource, so property rights in it are a matter of social policy, not of natural right. Indeed, other books in the Bible prescribe such policies as taxes on land-ownership and periodic land reform. A number of modern economists have independently endorsed similar policies.

      • http://www.QandO.net Bryan Pick

        Land is a pre-existing natural resource, so property rights in it are a matter of social policy, not of natural right.

        All goods are formed from pre-existing natural resources. Indeed, all people are formed out of pre-existing natural resources. Please clarify.

    • Patri Friedman

      Agreed. There are numerous examples of psychological biases based on differences between hunter-gatherer economies and modern economies. Significant evolution has occurred in the last 10K years, so we have partly adapted to modern economies, but just like with grain and lactose digestion, there hasn’t been enough time to completely adapt.

      As Constant says, there has been generation of wealth for thousands of years. But not for tens of thousands of years, so we are only partly adapted to it.

      On the other hand, there were no riches to steal in hunter-gatherer times, so that kinda blows out this whole argument. It’s really just the period from the Agricultural to the Industrial Revolutions when stealing was a major way of getting wealth. That’s a pretty short time to evolve a “riches are stealing” intuition.

      • http://econstudentlog.wordpress.com US

        Territory? (relevant for hunting, gathering, water supply, amount of natural (non-human) enemies ect.)

        Food? (Grab the dead grizzly bear the other tribe just killed and eat it yourself. This is a lot less work than killing it yourself)

        Females? (need I elaborate?)

        There were plenty of stuff to steal in tribal pre-agricultural societies as well. That “grabbing” didn’t take place much back then is just wrong. There wasn’t much to grab compared to now, but to grab even a little still could make a very big difference in the long run. It could easily be a difference of life and death.

  • http://oftherealm.blogspot.com/ Lord

    I would say it is far, far, simpler. Money is easy to redistribute and if people suffer because they are short, ugly, whatever, this redistribution will benefit them and if not it won’t. We simply have no means of redistributing height, beauty, etc. We could devise some creative solutions, match the shortest with the tallest, let the ugliest have first choice of the best looking, pay the shortest more to compensate them, subsidize cosmetic surgery for the ugliest, but these (other than the last) would not really address the shortfall directly. Is it even redistributive if we don’t assure they have more than their share as compensation? I have yet to hear anyone, even redistributionists, propose that. Money on the other hand is easily measured and balanced whereas beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  • Mike

    Famous example: say we start with a society of 1000 people with $1000 each, one of whom is Wilt Chamberlain. The other 999 of them each voluntarily pay Wilt Chamberlain $10 to watch him play basketball, so now you have one guy with $10,990 while the other 999 people each have only $990. Wilt has more than 11 times as much money as everyone else; did Wilt exploit all those people who paid to watch him play?

    This is a good example of my point. Because Wilt lives in a society of 1000 people, he can collect ~1000 times the income for the same amount of work as if there were one other person in that society. His ability to make money is increased by a huge amount by virtue of his living in a large society.

    The other 999 people could very well see Wilt become very wealthy and decide they don’t like the arrangement: they thought $10 was a fair price at first but now seeing he’s getting it from everyone they want to renegotiate. One way to renegotiate would be to create a tax that skims off large incomes like Wilt’s next time around.

    • Constant

      His ability to make money is increased by a huge amount by virtue of his living in a large society.

      His ability to entertain other people is also increased by that huge amount. He received a lot more money because of the size of the society, but he also produced a lot more entertainment. Each person got his ten dollars’ worth (otherwise they would not have paid it).

      One way to renegotiate would be to create a tax

      That’s not renegotiation. That’s not negotiation.

      • Mike

        His ability to entertain other people is also increased by that huge amount.

        I don’t deny this. The same is true of, say, Bill Gates. On his own his value would be much the same as anyone else’s, but in our society he builds an enormous corporation that employs many people and provides a desired product to many many more.

        My only point is all this is predicated on living in society, and you have to accept society on its terms. Part of those terms is who funds public goods. And my original contention is that it makes sense to ask those who benefit the most (financially) to pay the most. And so that’s what we ask of Wilt and Bill.

        That’s not renegotiation. That’s not negotiation.

        Well, a disagreement has arisen, and the disagreement is resolved by one of the legitimate channels offered by society.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      Did you see the diavlog between Will Wilkinson and Lew Daly from the Demos Institute? They discuss the kind of issues you’re getting at.

      • Mike

        Great… thanks for the link.

        I came to these conclusions myself: the contributions of any contemporary individual are microscopic compared to those we inherit from thousands of years of human ancestry. The bulk contributors are huge numbers of dead people, from which I think it is reasonable to conclude that “rights” to the wealth of their legacy belongs to society.

        But, that’s not the end of the story. What should society do with that wealth? It could collect it all in taxes, and spread it evenly. But I don’t think this is a wise choice. It seems to me history provides good models that the way to generate even more wealth in the future is to create strong incentives for people to make personal sacrifices for the common good. A market economy to some degree accomplishes that. I’m happy to support an economic system that unfairly rewards certain valuable members of society, because the effect of which is to increase the wealth of most people. But the market economy is a sort of experiment at creating incentives to maximize wealth, and if you think the wealthiest end up getting more wealth than they need as incentive, why not take some back, especially if you intend to use it to fund projects you think further the generation of wealth in other ways (like public works).

      • Dave

        The idea that any economic benefit you get is due to your standing on the shoulders of everyone else, is accurate but the analogy does not go far enough.

        In a market economy, what you get for your enterprise is supposed to be equal to the good others get from purchasing your produce.
        Say you and others buy McDonald Hamburgers. The owners get rich. The hyper egalitarian will say. “You owe part of the profits because you shipped in your beef on public roads.”

        Mr. McDonald would say “You got the chance to buy a hamburger so you wouldn’t have to kill you own cow to make a hamburger. Plus you got it cheaper because I was able to use public roads.” I know things get more complicated than this but the idea that profits are owed to the public depends on political factors, not moral principles because it discounts the side of the equation where the buyer got his part of the voluntary exchange. Hyper- egalitarians are blind to this principle.

  • http://twitter.com/dirtycarrie Caroline

    And for gods sake, Robin, when you say “our ancestors” can you please be specific? Even if you don’t provide links, at least cite your source. Human evolution is hardly a field where one can resort to “everybody knows that…”

    -Frustrated Archaeologist

  • MineCanary

    What do you think sustainable development is if not re-distribution to poorer eras?

    The whole idea is that market forces that don’t take into account sustainability will cause society to reach a state of greatest wealth, and then decline (perhaps gradually, perhaps precipitously) due to the potential failure of the market to prevent environmental damage, to create a smooth transition between a fossil-fuel based society and one where demand for energy outstrips fossil fuel ability, etc.

    This is a very similar line of thinking to the hypothesis that redistribution of income may lead to reduced overall economic growth, which will cause future generations to be poorer than they would be without distribution. Some people may have serious doubts that current practices are unsustainable. I have serious doubts that, without redistribution, the majority of people will have a decent standard of living, access to education, and opportunities to stop being poor.

    Since wealth is often generated by poorer people striving to become richer, I think that redistribution is a very good thing in that it makes poor people more likely to be able to become rich–or at least to try. It’s also a very good thing in that I value people’s needs being met more than I value the total wealth of a society where much of that wealth is concentrated among people who could be just as fulfilled with much less wealth.

    And who said redistributionists do not want redistribution across national boundaries? I certainly see the development of the underdeveloped world as both an economic and a moral imperative. It’s just not an easy problem to solve–it promotes a lot more despair to think of pouring money and human resources into some part of the world only to see it ravaged by war or disease before you can do much good, whereas sending a child who couldn’t otherwise afford it to college has relatively predictable results (or at least feels that way psychologically). And people do become defensive when they realize that the moral thing to do might involve a huge transfer of wealth and co-occurring reduction in quality of living of their own society–but when it comes to lesser quantities, plenty of people give and support foreign aid.

    I think the real “wall” where people’s support for redistribution stops is when they expect it to reduce their own standard of living. They don’t have to benefit–they may even have to go without some things–but it can’t touch a cornerstone of their lifestyle. I think many people on this site who do not support redistribution do so for the same reason–they believe it threatens their lifestyle and that of their society in some way that is more important than helping others. (And they cannot comprehend, as most of us cannot, that damage or extinction of their way of living could still result in a good outcome for most of humanity.)

    • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

      What do you think sustainable development is if not re-distribution to poorer eras?

      I know someone who takes a dim view of sustainable anything, including economics, on the theory that the future will inevitably be richer than the present, and therefore we should rob it whenever possible.

  • http://t-a-w.blogspot.com/ Tomasz Wegrzanowski

    “Redistribution” is a highly politicized name, and it would be nice if you weren’t using it. What we want to do is mostly tax rich people more to fund things that benefit all, primarily because their marginal utility of money is far lower than poor people’s. This has proven track record of success.

    Direct money transfers (“redistribution”) is a small part of it, with a pretty bad track record. Equating progressive taxation with redistribution is intellectually dishonest.

    And we do cross-country “taxation” like that. For example rich countries fund virtually all research, and it benefits everybody. As you can see comparing growth rates of poor countries trading with rich countries vs growth rates of poor countries in the world before rich countries existed, people in poor countries get huge economic advantage from economies of rich countries.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      I don’t think Robin equated progressive taxation with redistribution, in his post he simply refers to redistribution. You are correct though to distinguish between the taxation and the service. Taxation can be highly progressive even if the redistribution is not. Bryan Caplan has noted that our welfare state primarily serves the elderly rather than the poor. If you ignore who it goes to then welfare spending takes up a very large portion of public expenditure. The military/defense also takes a huge chunk, but it’s hardly a “public good”, more of a “public bad”.

      I like your “trickle down” theory of trade between rich and poor countries.

    • Will

      They get some Tech, but at the cost of having their resources exploited and their local economies supplanted. One might hope for slightly smaller numbers of starving people before one calls this deal anything like “fair”.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Why are there occasional bloody revolutions? Those arise because the rich folk overestimate the extent to which they can screw the proles out of their hard-earned cash. The trick is to keep the serfs poor and miserable – but not so pissed off that they bother revolting. This is a delicate balancing act. Sometimes the rich build big churches to help house the poor, and instill into them a strong moral sense. That is one of the reasons we have organised religion – it helps those in power keep control over the masses.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      Actually, revolutions occur due to a crisis of rising expectations. If you keep your people mired in complete poverty, as Kim Jong Il does and Papa Doc once did, you have little to fear in them revolting. The tradeoff is that you will have very little economic growth. Edward Luttwak described the logic in Coup Detat’s Appendix A: The Economics of Repression.

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  • TGGP

    Speaking of redistribution, check out what Henry Farrell calls “one of the most important articles in political science over the last several years“.

  • benice

    Personally, I loath the poor. Poverty is a mode of irresponsibility, immorality, and weakness. But I support “redistribution” for the simple reason that it is cheaper than increasing policing, gating communities, and replacing my car stereo every time I want to dine in town.

    • bob smith

      The fact that you have money and yet can be this clueless blows a gaping hole in the meritocracy theory.

  • Wendy

    I’ve been trying to get this across for years. Redistribution is a social program for the rich.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Robin wrote,

    (Hence our hyper-willingness to believe the rich freely violate treasured norms.)

    Meanwhile, in my world, we are much faster to suspect the poor than the rich of violating norms. The police, security guards, and, well, all of us, watch poor people much more closely than rich people. When was the last time you crossed the street to avoid walking past a businessman late at night?

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Our ancestors would sometimes notice that some folks in the tribe had a lot more tangible portable stuff than the rest, and those with less would then be tempted to find an excuse to grab a bunch of that stuff.

    A problem with this theory is that, in hunter-gatherer societies, it is typically the rich (“rich” meaning being a physically powerful person with numerous/powerful relatives/subordinates/allies) who grab from the poor. See Chagnon’s Among the Yanomamo.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      The Yanomamo are primitive agriculturalists, not hunter-gatherers.

      I believe the people Bryan Caplan discusses here are agriculturalists though.

  • Jim

    I suspect that grabbing goes on in all societies and has been true throughout history. You can probably find examples in every culture and also among animals.
    Chimps live in tribal groups and are always taking things from each other. My 2 dogs steal food from each other even though I separate them at feeding time. and they never go hungry. So grabbing goes on at many levels. Forget all the economic theories.
    This is more basic and universal.