Against Fake Libertarian Clarity

This exchange reminds me that many (maybe most) self-styled libertarians think that libertarianism is, by definition, a philosophy that conceives of liberty as a lack of coercion, and, additionally, that coercion is something easy to understand. For these libertarians, just as one might decide to take up an interest in the plight of foreign war orphans, one might decide to be troubled by the fact that some people's lives are stunted or ruined by arbitrary yet systemic social exclusion, or by having the development of their interests and talents constantly discouraged and their aspirations and confidence constantly undermined. But, they say, these elective worries cannot flow from an interest in liberty, because liberty is about not being threatened with involuntary confinement in a small room, while these things are about being threatened with involuntary confinement in a small life.

These libertarians are usually guilty of defining “coercion” ideologically, and then acting as though the word has always meant what they use it to mean. But it is abuse of language to deny that many emotional or social threats are coercive–that they can strip a person of her liberty by raising the price of its free exercise beyond what she should be made to pay. You can choose to welcome the knifepoint. But we agree that this is too much to ask, so we agree that going along at knifepoint doesn't count as an exercise of freedom–as something for which you bear responsibility. There are many other things that are too much to ask.

These libertarians are also notoriously guilty of pretending that their favorite kinds of coercion aren't. Threatening force to deny another person use of one's land, or one's house, is coercion. A system of private property is a system of coercion. It may be justified coercion. It is justified coercion. But then the question is: What justifies it? The coercive protection of property is justified because people do better with it than without it. If people do better in a system that defines rights to property a bit less strictly, and coercively guarantees an economic minimum, then that is justified coercion. It's not really a philosophical question whether it is or not. Justified coercion, like the coercion in the protection of property, isn't wrongfully liberty-limiting, but it does limit liberty. 

If libertarianism is the view that coercion is never social or emotional, and that coercive limits to liberty are justified only in defense of private property, or in the enforcement of contracts, then libertarianism is false, and I am not a libertarian. If libertarianism is the view that human well-being is best promoted by ensuring “that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty to every other man,” then I am a libertarian. If this is a libertarian view, then the goal to minimize or abolish wrongfully liberty-limiting social norms is a libertarian goal.

  • Gareth Morley

    Your point works against people who think it is inherently unfair that people’s advantages are caused by differences that they had no moral responsibility for.

    But it doesn’t work against people who think there’s nothing wrong with that. Previous generations of Morleys worked and gave me advantages I don’t claim moral responsibility. Previous generations of Canadians worked at building a relatively functioning society and gave me advantages I also don’t get moral responsibility for. But the Canadians, like the Morleys, did so in part to make a better world for their progeny. If previous generations of Argentinians made worse choices, why is that any different than being the grateful recipient of human capital your family acquired.

    The only corrective injustice occurs if, and to the extent, previous generations of Canadians looted some other group, and I am still benefiting from that looting while someone else is suffering the continuing detriment. That can plausibly be said about the Cree, but not of the Mexicans (Your mileage may vary if you have title to land in the Southwest United States.)

    However, the fact that I am relatively advantaged — either as a Canadian or a Morley — does mean I have more power to do good than I am in fact exercising. Human nature being what it is, I could probably be required to do more and the overall benefits to others would exceed the cost to myself. At some point, the incentive effects would mean that overall utility would be reduced, but I doubt we are at that point, especially for redistribution across national boundaries.

  • John O’Sullivan

    Let’s lighten this up with an economst joke.

    A physist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on an island, with nothing to eat. A can of soup washes ashore. The physist says, “Lets smash the can open with a rock.” The chemist says, “Lets build a fire and heat the can first.” The economist says, “Lets assume that we have a can-opener…”

    If the laughter has died down, let me quote a long excerpt from “Liberalism” by Mises, which Mr Wilkinson cites approvingly.

    “[Immigration] is of the most momentous significance for the future of the world. Indeed, the fate of civilization depends on its satisfactory resolution. On the one side stand scores, indeed, hundreds of millions of Europeans and Asiatics who are compelled to work under less favorable conditions of production than they could find in the territories from which they are barred. They demand that the gates of the forbidden paradise be opened to them so that they may increase the productivity of their labor and thereby receive for themselves a higher standard of living. On the other side stand those already fortunate enough to call their own the land with the more favorable conditions of production. They desire?as far as they are workers, and not owners of the means of production?not to give up the higher wages that this position guarantees them. The entire nation, however, is unanimous in fearing inundation by foreigners. The present inhabitants of these favored lands fear that some day they could be reduced to a minority in their own country and that they would then have to suffer all the horrors of national persecution to which, for instance, the Germans are today exposed in Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Poland.”

    “It cannot be denied that these fears are justified. Because of the enormous power that today stands at the command of the state, a national minority must expect the worst from a majority of a different nationality. As long as the state is granted the vast powers which it has today and which public opinion considers to be its right, the thought of having to live in a state whose government is in the hands of members of a foreign nationality is positively terrifying. It is frightful to live in a state in which at every turn one is exposed to persecution?masquerading under the guise of justice?by a ruling majority. It is dreadful to be handicapped even as a child in school on account of one’s nationality and to be in the wrong before every judicial and administrative authority because one belongs to a national minority.”


    “It is clear that no solution of the problem of immigration is possible if one adheres to the ideal of the interventionist state, which meddles in every field of human activity, or to that of the socialist state. Only the adoption of the liberal program could make the problem of immigration, which today seems insoluble, completely disappear. In an Australia governed according to liberal principles, what difficulties could arise from the fact that in some parts of the continent Japanese and in other parts Englishmen were in the majority?”

    What is Mises actually saying here? “Assume the existence of a world populated by people who have no interest in dominating one another and are devoted to the idea that the state should be a non-interventionist one, and that people should trade peacefully with one another for their mutal benefit”.

    He is utterly oblivious to the fact that the people living under those “less favorable conditions of production” are very frequently doing so by their own choice. In fact they have begged their governments to pass the laws requiring those “less favorable conditions of production”.

    The mass immigration of Japanese people to Australia would result in the same “less favorable conditions of production” there, because those conditions are the result of cultural beliefs held by Japanese people.

    We are currently seeing outward migration of American citizens from the once Golden State of California. The policy positions favored by those people have ruined a once wonderful economy. Now those people, bearing with them those same beliefs, are moving to other places in America, where they will duplicate California all over again.

    The fundamental flaw of Mises-style liberalism is that it ignores people as they actually are in favor of people as it wishes they were. As the communists can attest, the price for doing this is always very high.

    • Ben

      So you think that people in Europe and Asia in 1927, when “Liberalism” was first published, can be said to have chosen their governments? And that immigrants do not adapt to the countries they migrate to?

      • John O’Sullivan

        The people in all countries can be said to have chosen their government, yes.

        Of course immigrants don’t “adapt” to their countries. If this were true we would not have such a thing as demography, and we’d talk about blacks and Jews as if they were interchangable terms.

        Why do YOU think that China is China, Sweden is Sweden, France is France, and Egypt is Egypt? Do you think it has anything to do with their being peopled by Chinese, Swedes, French, and Egyptians respectively? If not, then to what do you attribute the differences?

        • Matt Rudary

          Has each person chosen his government by the time he is born, or does he get a few days’ to make the decision?

          In a world where very few choices of government are available, has a person in a small minority (opinion-wise) chosen the government where he lives?

  • muirgeo

    “What justifies the barriers to entry that privelege some members of society at the expense of others. To draw the bounds of society at the border is a completely specious move to ignore the most basic question of justice by defining it away.”

    So let’s imagine strict property rights are finally observed and national boarders are dissolved. 100 years in the future all the land of the 50 states that were once these United States are now each owned by an individual family who accumulated massive wealth and passed it fully to its successive heirs. Serfs return to the scene to toil others land. They must beg and compete with each other to enter the property of the Lords to ask permission to till some soil. One becomes infamous and realizes the injustices all around him. He works in the shadow to distribute a propaganda piece to all his fellow serfs….. he is wanted by the law and by the Lords of all the lands for he dared to ask in his flier, “What justifies the barriers to entry that privelege some members of society at the expense of others.” The flier gets wide dispersion, the serfs secretly organize, they revolt… gates are crashed and castles burned. The aristocracy, the affluent and the moneyed are sent fleeing for their lives. A new Nation is born and the Founding Fathers call it The United Club of American States.

    “I’m sincerely arguing that nationalist liberal egalitarianism is morally unserious arbitrary nonsense.”

    Makes me wonder if Will’s new home in Iowa has borders that others are to respect. If not I’ll be right over I need a few eggs from your fridge as I am all out. However, if as I suspect so, he does who is to enforce those boundary lines? Winston? His private army? the city ? the state? the nation? Each with its own border lines? Morally Unserious? Arbitrary non-sense? Wow! That’s pretty demeaning unless indeed you HAVE actually figured it all out like apparently you think you have.

  • muirgeo

    Oh and I would pretty much characterize your “job” as a modern day Vassal in service to a Lord. Your job is to protect the Lords borders and to help expand them. Since the early 70’s when men of wealth started such “institutes” to promote their title income and wealth inequality have BOOMED! Your job is to paint those who question this massive expansion of private wealth among the few as promoters of morally unserious arbitrary nonsense. You unseriuosly have not thought this through because a return to primacy of private borders to national ones is simply a return to aristocracy or serfdom. Or wait maybe you have thought this through and you are simply writing for the Lord as a Tory in 1776 might have done comfortable with THEIR position in life.


    Economics is the alchemy of the 21st Century.

    I was just born here, is all. Not much choice in it, really. I was yelling “Paris! Fucking Paris!” from the womb, but no. . .it had to be Jersey.

    What will our leaders do with us next, I wonder?

  • Muzzy

    Wow, Will. I am in awe of your power to parse out such complicated issues. I’m currently working on getting my partner’s legal status in this country all smoothed out, and it is shocking to me how many more rights and benefits I inherited, for no good reason other than my good luck at having been born slightly north of the Gadsden Purchase.

    My partner is a smart, capable entrepreneur who provides valuable services to several American clients, services which many Americans can’t or won’t do.

    Why is it OK for foreigners to buy American products, even buy stock in American companies, but they cannot physically stay in the US for more than a few months at a time? If capital can move freely across borders, then labor should cross freely, too.

  • Leon

    You seem to be suggesting that questions about social justice or fair economic distributions don’t make sense because it’s not entirely clear whom they’re addressed to, and that they’re not “moral” in the same way because they’re not universal or eternal — i.e., the institutions involved are contingent.

    But the same surely goes for rights like freedom of association and freedom of movement. Freedom of movement is a claim upon some coercive institution — you’re asking them to stop any other coercive institution or person stopping you from moving around the place. Same goes for freedom of association — you’re asking some Leviathan-like “club administrator” to come and kick the ass of anyone who prevents you associating with someone.

    In other words, your libertarian interest in rights and individuals seems like an updated version of the obligations of kings to the bourgeoisie. If you think you have access to a moral vocabulary/stock of ideas that is somehow independent of political organization and institutions, you should look at their history.

    Also, I don’t know if it’s pressing to interrogate the “club”/nation-state structure of the world before you do political philosophy. If your political goal is to make good changes in the world, and the present nation-state/”club” structure has existed for an awfully long time, is pretty universal, and doesn’t look like changing soon — and if changes to this order might cause unpredictable unintended consequences — then it seems fine to just assume it, and deal with institutions as they exist in the present. Including “clubs” which enforce laws based on membership, separate different ethno-cultural groups to some extent, etc.

  • Joshua Livingston

    I think Wilkinson frames this issue incorrectly. To see this, let’s assume the Wilkinson’s theory of justice. The question of economic and social justice reduces to the question of what barriers of entry into careers is justified. Now, this is an extremely important question. For instance, the civil rights and suffragist movements claimed that it was unjust to discriminate (deny entry into a field) on the basis of race or gender. The justification for this claim was that there is no reason to think that race and gender are good reasons to deny entry into careers–that they are morally arbitrary. Thus, if an African-American is competent for a particular career, he should have to opportunity to enter it if she desires to do so.

    Wilkinson’s claim is that from the standpoint of justice citizenship is in the same category. Citizenship is a morally arbitrary aspect of a person’s identity and so not a legitimate reason to deny entry into a career. But, since states can place barriers on entry into careers, they can discriminate against people from other countries. Thus, the question of whether someone is a citizen or not becomes a matter of injustice.

    However, the issue is not, as Wilkinson says it is, one of the membership criteria of citizenship. As he says, citizenship is a morally arbitrary category. As such, it cannot be a matter of justice whether you are or are not a citizen. All that he shows is that it would be unjust to deny jobs to non-citizens. We can see this by comparing the claim to the civil rights movement. The injustice was that they were being discriminated against. A just society would not use race as a barrier of entry into jobs. However, a just society certainly doesn’t grant black people the right to become white. In the same way, while a just society shouldn’t discriminate against non-citizens (on Wilkinson’s grounds), that doesn’t mean that non-citizens also have the right to become citizens. In other words, the injustice is the discrimination against non-citizens, not the fact that they are non-citizens.

    Why is this relevant? Because it shows that Wilkinson is wrong to claim that social justice thinkers ignore this issue. The relevant issue is not the membership criteria of citizenship, but rather the rights of non-citizens. And this is a huge issue in the political philosophy literature. Essentially, this is the question of whether national partiality is justified, a question addressed by Rawls, Pogge, Appiah, and many other philosophers.

  • Michael Buckley

    “Club” is useful metaphor, but not perfect. The word is a diminutive — clubs are what you participate in apart from the “real world”. But when we talk about nationality (current and origin), skin colour, class identity, etc. (i.e. “clubs” that are difficult if not impossible to leave or join) and the outsized influence these involuntary memberships have on our freedom and wealth, the metaphor obscures as much as it reveals.

    Who is less serious: the progressives with an embarrassing blind spot for the unjust “club” of nationality, or one who thinks this one omission undoes all other arguments?

  • Joshua Livingston

    Evidently, even if blacks don’t become whites, when I write, men become women.

  • Patrik

    While I do agree with the moral treatise you propose in this post, I believe it is an ideal to be worked for. In the modern reality I think a nation less world will leave failure. It is a government’s job to have a monopoly on coercion, ideally to prevent coercion between members of society. A liberal democracy I believe is the best form of government currently presented in the modern world (yes, my history textbooks taught me well to love my countries form of government) because it spreads the power vested in the organization that ideally maintains a monopoly on coercion, and therefore minimalize the chances that the government will break the ideal on liberty and abuse it’s monopoly on coercion. In the current society I believe having multiple smaller national governments is the only realistic way to have organizations that prevent cohersion in society as a global democracy would likely fail as it would be to big. This does create problems though as more powerful nations will likely abuse there cohersion on other nations. Still governments are needed to be a buffer on cohersion from corporations (I do not mean to critique corporations, I believe market capitalism in most cases is best, but it breaks down when the capitalists become the policy apparatus). Now I do believe societies should promote an ideal like Will proposes, ideally free immigration, although if immigration was completely free and there was a lack of sovereign boarders there would be great political backlash, and possibly a deterioration of government on a global level, without an institution to prevent coercion by corporations or ethnic groups to take over. I do believe that immigration should be quite lax, and not controlled by unionist special interests. Even though I do believe you are a little bit of an idealist in this post I did enjoy it a lot, and I am glad to see you are back so I can get my daily dose of Will Wilkinson, oh I do love your classical liberal philosophy. I think if everyone read WW there would be no more war.

  • DMonteith

    I find
    this to be a fascinating exercise in concern trolling.

    • DMonteith

      Ugh. No preview mixes poorly with my pathetic HTML skillz.

  • KinkyKathy

    Ken, John, et al…I could care less about your laborer/academic bona fides. Just hit my site for some hot electronica.

    I love you all.

  • Michael Drake

    Question 1. Some members of Clubs A, B and C muse about Club D: “Wow, club D really watches out for its members; they really make sure everyone gets more equal use of the benefits of membership.”

    Is the nature of this admiration “moral” or not? If so, why isn’t it moral with respect to nation states?

    Question 2. Why assume egalitarianism (which I would charitably construe as just a desire for more equitable inequalities, but anyway…) has to be realized at the level of wages/prices? One obvious alternative approach is let price signals rule economic activity, then tax and redistribute; the question of whether one kind of economic activity is more ‘deserving” than another then becomes moot.

  • jtlevy

    Ignoring the troll…

    Will, I wonder whether there are political facts which you think can be taken as given for purposes of moral inquiry in the same way that you take economic facts as given…?

    Evidently you don’t attribute to them just the same status. The gap between the Canadian and the Mexican dingus-tightener is to be the object of direct moral criticism in a way that the gap between the American dingus-tightener and the American widget-polisher is not. T

    I know some of the moves that could be made here, but I don’t want to provide too much of a prompt. So let me start with: Do political facts about the world occupy a categorically different status from economic facts about the world for purposes of moral inquiry? If so, why? If not, then why is the fact of the border-controlling ‘nation-‘state up for moral criticism in a way that market outcomes aren’t?

    (As always, I agree with your analysis of nearly everything! But I’m pulling on a loose thread to see what unravels, partly because it seems relevant to your argument and partly because I’m independently interested in it.)

    • Will Wilkinson

      These are awesome questions. I think I may just reproduce most of this comment and try to give my answer when I’ve got a free couple hours.

    • mk

      Without presuming to anticipate Will’s response, here’s what I would offer:

      Market outcomes are outcomes of market processes. The market process itself is very much subject to moral criticism. Libertarians believe that the process “passes the test” of such criticism. As part of critical analysis we consider alternative systems and we say, market systems are the best systems for reasons XYZ.

      Political outcomes are outcomes of political processes. The political process itself is very much subject to moral criticism. Libertarians believe that our current political process “doesn’t pass the test” of such criticism. As part of critical analysis we consider alternative systems and we say, “constitutional democracies with a heavier-than-current emphasis on fundamental rights ABC are better than what we have now, for reasons XYZ.”

      So both economic and political systems are subject to moral criticism. One escapes unscathed, the other doesn’t.

      • DMonteith

        I think you’re confusing allocation with distribution here. The efficient allocation of resources, also known as markets, is morally neutral insofar as it works equally well for any previously existing distribution of resources. The distribution, however is where the moral rubber meets the road and where politics and economics intersect.

        It is politics that determines distribution and distribution determines the particular shape of a market.

  • John O’Sullivan

    No personal attack intended. I was merely pointing out the divergence between your life and your rhetoric. You suggested in your essay that your occupation in life was an example of capitalism in action. As you are conceding here, you are actually a moral philosopher, not much different from a priest or rabbi.

    Your admirers who think you are a libertarian are doomed to be disappointed, I think. Your actual economic theory (or I should better say, your conception of morality) is closer to socialist internationalism and borrows heavily from leftist thought about the “unfairness” of the unequal distribution of wealth. But in that regard, I think you’ve been pretty upfront.

    Since you’re a bright fellow I’m sure you have thought through the political, social, and economic consequences of your “one world society” concept. And you know, though you don’t mention to your libertarian followers, that those consequences are as anti-libertarian as it’s possible to imagine. In other words, you are being as creative with the word “libertarian” as you are with the word “society”, redefining it to mean whatever’s useful to you. You are taking a political theory which has defined itself as being “selfish” and swapping in the belief in utter selflessness and self-sacrifice for the good of others. That’s a pretty good trick if you can manage it. Of course, you’re not going to tell your wealthy benefactor that he needs to make any similar sacrifice ….

    “having the good luck to have been born into a good club”

    I don’t begrudge you that. I am bemused at your eagerness to impoverish your less well off countrymen for the benefit of other even less well off people in other countries, and for the benefit of some well off people in this country, and your ability to tell yourself that you are being “moral” by doing so. But then I’ve never really understood limousine liberalism. As best I can tell it’s animated by a desire on the part of its adherents to feel noble about themselves, but to pay zero cost or to even turn a profit by so doing.

    I guess I’m saying that I don’t rank you as a very serious moral philosopher either. Not a personal attack, just an observation.

  • Will Wilkinson

    My views on freedom of movement are basically the same as Ludwig von Mises in his classic work Liberalism. It’s not really much of a trick to point out that armed border guards pose coercive limits to freedom of movement and association. There is ample evidence showing that there is no single policy that would increase the welfare of the world’s poor than a small increase in openness to immigration among the world’s wealthy countries. The net effect of this to the wealthy countries is mildly positive — not even a net cost. You can try to argue that it is not immoral to forgo a huge costless gain in human liberty and welfare, but you’ll fail and leave people wondering what kind of person you are.

    I own a 1996 Honda Civic, not a limousine, by the way. And there are in fact markets for policy analysts, moral philosophers, priests, and rabbis. It’s not capitalism if it’s not welding girders on skyscrapers? I don’t get it.

  • Micha Ghertner

    Libertarianism, rightly understood (i.e. as I understand it) inexorably leads to questioning and then ultimately rejecting the morality of the nation-state itself. Will is not an anarchist, so he somehow pulls off this balancing act in a way I’ve never fully grasped, but hey, no one is as perfect, ideologically speaking, (or as humble) as me.

  • mk

    This is a good response. I’m sympathetic to Will’s attitude but I do think it is likely too simplistic, as written, to count as a fleshed-out moral theory, for the reasons cited here.

    Will did write:
    We would then be able to ask questions about how we, the club members, would like the club’s institutions organized and governed, how we would like the holdings of the members distributed, etc., But it would then be pretty hard to characterize this sort of theorizing as the core of a theory of social justice … while running away from the obviously prior question about the justification of the rules of membeship and exclusion that constitute the clubs.

    Mike responds:
    I assume that you, like most libertarians, would defend the absolute right of clubs to exclude or include at their pleasure.

    But Mike’s assumption does not seem warranted, as it contradicts Will’s paragraph. So maybe there is where the disagreement lies.

    But if so I think Will is on the wrong end. If Will asserts that citizenship simply is a club membership and that moral questions thereof simply are moral questions about clubs, then due to his commitments about immigration he seems to be saying that clubs like the Scranton softball rec league are morally obligated to let anyone into the club. Is Will really committed to this idea?

  • Tara

    “It’s funny that you hit on the metaphor of the club, but then fail to follow it to its logical conclusions. I assume that you, like most libertarians, would defend the absolute right of clubs to exclude or include at their pleasure. Why doesn’t the same standard apply to the ‘club’ of the nation-state?”

    The same standard does apply, but I believe Will’s point was simply that you shouldn’t take the benefits of membership in an exclusive club and dress them up as “social justice.”

  • Adina

    Ignore that guy’s ad hominem attacks. It is absurd to suggest that, because someone has decided to pay your salary, without expecting profits in return, this is somehow not ‘free market.” Free markets just means that money is exchanged voluntarily. That money can go to investments, grants, charities, or whatever the hell the owner of the money wants. You could have gotten a different job, but somebody saw value in employing you to do what you do, and was willing to pay you to do it, even though it doesn’t help his bottom line.

    And the complaint that many libertarians are academics is also unsound. Should I not be allowed to become a doctor, simply because government has already pervaded every single aspect of medical care? According to his argument, libertarians just can’t have jobs, because there is no job that has been untainted by government. So is the solution for libertarians to remain unemployed altogether, as some kind of giant protest?

  • Mike Fransella

    Where this argument falls apart is the word “costless”. Assuming arguendo what I’m not ready to concede but not qualified to dispute, that the changes Will wants would increase total GDP for the wealthy countries, and even assuming what is certainly not the case, that their per-capita GDP (which is more relevant to me as an individual citizen) would also rise, there’s still no neutral basis for saying that increased crowding, proportionate loss of political power, loss of cultural cohesion, environmental degradation, and other not-easily-quantified effects of increased immigration are not “costs” that we can legitimately take into account, nor for saying that we may not legitimately judge that they outweigh any purported benefit to GDP.

  • John O’Sullivan

    “My views on freedom of movement are basically the same as Ludwig von Mises in his classic work Liberalism.”

    Which happen to be the same as those of Marx and Engels. That’s convenient for you. Mises makes the fundamental error of all liberals- and Marxists – he assumes that people are interchangable “factors of production”, like so many bushels of wheat.

    “The net effect of this to the wealthy countries is mildly positive — not even a net cost.”

    The median male wage in the United States has been a flat lne for the past thirty-five years. There is no positive net effect to open borders for the people who live in the West.

    You have already conceded that you are no economist. So I’m not sure why you feel the need to try to engage me on economic grounds. Better to stick to arguing for “social justice”. FYI, there is no such thing as a “huge costless gain”, or a free lunch. Poorer countries have been getting richer these last hundred years or so. They have not been doing it by immigrating to the West. Why don’t you put down your works of abstract theory, step outside of the Ivory Halls of the CATO Institute, and observe the world around you? It’s a lot more interesting than anything you’ve studied so far.

    You could begin by pondering the question “Why are poor countries poor?”

    It’s not because they don’t have wonderful people like Mr. Koch in them.

    “It’s not capitalism if it’s not welding girders on skyscrapers? I don’t get it.”

    Yes, Mr. Wilkinson, I get that you don’t get it. I suggest that the reason for the difficulty here is that you are basically a non-libertarian making libertarianish sounding arguments in an effort ro reach non-libertarian goals. That is, “social justice” and the well-being of the worlds poor.

    Those are noble goals, by the way. You’re just going about them badly.

  • mk

    Actually to be clear there is no explicit contradiction between the two italicized passages, it’s just that I am guessing that Will would say that (1) barriers to entering a nation-club are presumptively unjust, and that (2) the nation-club is such a strong analogy to the local rec league that moral presumptions about barriers to entry and membership are much the same in either case. In that case it follows that (3) barriers to entry in the local rec league are presumptively unjust.

    But since I don’t think (3) is true, I believe there must be something wrong with either (1) or (2).

  • Greg N.

    Cato’s pretty much glass and brick. Other than that minor point, I’m convinced. Two cheers for libertarianism, the philosophy that’s against “the well-being of the world’s poor.”

  • Ben

    So, if the median male’s wage has stayed flat, and, presumably, the median female’s wage has increased, we have a net increase in the median wage? How is this not a net gain?

    Also, why is assuming that people are “interchangeable factors of production” an error, if that is indeed what von Mises and Marx and Engels claimed? Why would it be that von Mises is in error because he came to the same conclusion as Marx and Engels on a discrete point?

  • Glen Raphael

    Given the presence of significant immigration, it is actually possible for *every single person* in your sample to be better off over the measurement period while the average wage – no matter how you calculate it – stayed unchanged or declines over time.

    Super-simplified example: suppose the American economy consists of three guys all making $20/hour in Year 1. In year 2, a new guy (let’s call him “Jose”) moves to America and starts a cleaning/gardening service. Jose is *much* better off because he moved from a wage of $1/hour in his home country to $5/hour in the US. Jose’s work is more complementary than competitive with that of the other three guys – his cleaning and gardening means they have more energy to work at their jobs. So let us suppose the other three guys all get 10% raises and at the end of the year they are making $22/hour.

    The mean wage just *declined* from $20 to $17.75, yet all four people in the sample are better off than they were before. Repeat that story for ten years and you have ten years of “stagnating average income” during which everybody in the economy is getting 10%-or-better raises.

    If you’ve got *lots* of immigration, the median works even better than the mean for this kind of silliness. Just assume you get enough new $5/hour Jose-types to make that the new median wage. The median drops from $20 to $5, even though, again, everyone in the economy is better off than they were before.

  • GilM

    As I.

  • Ken

    Hey John,

    I am curious. What does your resume look like?


  • John O’Sullivan

    No. I think you need to look up the meaning of median, which you seem to be using interchangably with “mean

  • John O’Sullivan

    Is that a serious question?

    Let’s play economist and assume.

    Assume the existence of two people, both computer programmers. They are Peter and Paul. As workers they are identical down to the smallest detail. Both are equally productive.

    Peter is a hardline Marxist. Like Will Wilkinson, he has noticed that wealth is not distributed equally in the world and he thinks the the state needs to fix that. He has bookshelves filled with tomes on Social Justice. He’d like to abolish private property for the public good. Given a choice he’d vote for Hugo Chavez.

    Paul is a (sane) libertarian who believes in in free markets, private property, the rule of law, and what you might call “the Western tradition”.

    Do you think that Peter and Paul are interchangable? That it’s a matter of indifference whether the majority of your neighbors are Peters or Pauls?

    You’d better care about more than whether people are equal factors of production, or you soon won’t have the luxury of caring about economics at all.

  • Micha Ghertner

    I don’t understand what you think Glen got wrong. Median can indeed be less than the mean in cases where many small numbers are added to the sample (i.e. “If you’ve got *lots* of immigration”).

  • Glen Raphael

    Here’s a third example that should be more perfectly on point:

    Year 1: Adam and Jeff and Bill all earn $20/hour => the mean, median, and modal US income are all $20.
    Year 2: Adam and Jeff get raises to $22/hour; Bill doubles his income to $40. So Adam and Jeff and Bill are much better off by any measurement, right? But wait: there was some new immigration! New immigrants Jose, Felippe, Dino and Sasha earn $4, $5, $6, and $7 respectively per hour. The new median wage has dropped to $7.

    People who live in the west *are* better off due to immigration (both in my example and in real life), but the numbers are only likely to reflect this if you don’t include the new immigrants over that period in the sample.

  • DWAnderson

    These were good questions. It is a shame the later comments were dominated by John O’Sullivan and responders.

  • Tara

    And it’s (1) that is wrong.

    Will is an advocate of more-open immigration because of the belief that it benefits both the club members (citizens) and the applicants (immigrants), and this is a point which is not directly related to his thesis on the moral justice of the welfare state.

    What it comes down to is this:

    1. It’s perfectly fine and moral if a club (nation) wishes to extend certain benefits to its members, in order to make club membership attractive and worthwhile.

    2. So long as the club in question is excludes some people from being members, you can not make the case that what the club is doing is working towards social justice, any more than my grandmother’s luxurious downtown supper club was doing anything to fight world hunger.

    In other words, having the very good luck of being born in America rather than Ethiopia does not create a MORAL requirement for America to ensure your health and prosperity, beyond the contractual obligation which The America Club has established to “promote the general welfare” of its members, which most people would argue includes keeping you from starving to death. So long as The America Club lets non-members starve, you can’t really call what the club is doing with its welfare state “egalitarianism” or “justice”.