Monday, 6 January 2014

Libertarianism and Utilitarianism

In my previous blog I mentioned that many people view taxation through the lens of either libertarianism, utilitarianism, or a mixture of the two. I thought it would be a good idea to write up some of my thoughts on these approaches. I’ve got a lot to say about libertarianism so I’ll do that over the course of several separate blogs.

Regarding utilitarianism, I will just make the brief point that Rawls’ well-known insights against utilitarianism from his Theory of Justice are still powerful. When applied to the distribution of goods in society (distributive justice), utilitarianism requires these goods to be distributed in the way that maximises overall happiness. But it does not matter who gets the happiness.

Rawls correctly diagnosed that this approach therefore ignores the fact that, even if we accept that all that matters is overall happiness (which is patently false anyway), people are separate from one another. It matters what resources each person has to live their life.

An improvement on utilitarianism is therefore prioritarianism, an idea presented by Derek Parfit. This still holds that the total utility matters, but allows that people who have less should receive priority in the receipt of goods even if this results in a lower overall maximum. (In fact, this is similar to the way that many economists appear to refer to Rawls’ view even though Rawls explicitly talks about the distribution of primary goods such as income and wealth rather than utility.)

While I accept prioritarianism is preferable to a classical utilitarian approach to distributive justice I still don’t find it the best approach. Prioritarianism shares with utilitarianism the problem that it takes human beings to be receptacles of utility rather than individuals who might have other concerns.


Physiocrat said...

Where does justice come in all this? If I go and pick berries and you stay at home and lie in bed all day, why should I, in justice, give you any of my pickings?

Unknown said...

I think the flaw in that argument is the idea that those who do not pick berries do not do so out of their own choice.

While that may be the case in some instances (certainly, no large-scale system is without flaws), you are ignoring those who can't walk to the bushes, who have no bushes to pick from, or who are, by physical force, actively prevented from picking.

Where is the justice in someone starving because his legs are broken, or because someone else decided that all the berry bushes are his, and uses hired muscle to keep everyone else away?

Like I said, all systems will have some sort of "injustice" inherent; humanity is too vast in scope and variation to avoid it. But given the choice, I would prefer one that "lets" a few be "lazy" and the greater number of needy live than one that would starve them all in the name of greed.

To call the starving of many to serve the overabundance of the few "justice" is a misnomer at best, in my opinion.

dougbamford said...

Cheers for the comments. This is the first of a series of blogs on libertarianism so you

Physiocrat (Hi Henry!): You provide a fairly common example (see also the fable of bees). As it happens with my tax proposals someone would not have to pay tax on picked berries from their own land or common land. However, even with this example, if the land did belong to the picker the important question is how they got the land and did they pay the fair amount of tax on that?

Indeed, Matt has hit on some similar points to those I'm making in the subsequent posts.

Physiocrat said...

A few people might be unable to work and obviously they need to be provided for by the remainder of the community, but surely, as a general matter of principle, people should be allowed to keep for themselves the product of their labour?

Physiocrat said...

Ah yes, now you are talking. If the land is not open to free access, whoever picks the berries will have to pay a fee to the person who claims to be owner, and whose claim is upheld by the community at large through its institutions. A good reason why it is the landowner should hand over the rent to the community to cover the expenses of government.

dougbamford said...

Apply that same logic to people's trades of shares in companies or for their labour; the value of the labour arises because of the community at large and so it is fine to tax people on the value of those trades. You therefore have to claim (as you would) that land is somehow special and different from other forms of property. It might have some unusual properties but there is nothing magically different about it; it operates according to the same kinds of ownership rules as other property and it can be treated exactly the same way by economic theories (unless they start with the premise that it is different).

I'm actually planning a blog on Land Value Tax in the near future Henry, though I'm not sure you'll like the conclusions!

Post a comment