The Able Slave
By Bryan Caplan
Suppose there are ten people on a desert island. One, named Able Abel, is extremely able. With a hard day’s work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island. Eight islanders are marginally able. With a hard day’s work, each can produce enough to feed one person. The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable. Harry can’t produce any food at all.
1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to support Harry?
2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?
3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?
4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?
How would most people answer these questions? It’s hard to say. It’s easy to feel sorry for the bottom nine. But #1 and #3 arguably turn Abel into a slave. And #2 and #4 clearly turn Abel into a slave. I suspect that plenty of non-libertarians would share these libertarian moral intuitions. At minimum, many would be conflicted.
Yet bleeding-heart libertarian Jason Brennan doesn’t seem conflicted. At all. He begins by quoting one of his earlier posts:
Imagine that your empirical beliefs about economics have been
disconfirmed. Imagine that a bunch of economists provide compelling
evidence that life in a strictly libertarian polity would go badly.
Imagine that they showed conclusively that if people everywhere were to
live in a Nozickian minimal state or a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist
civil society, with everyone strictly observing property right rules,
that 10% of people would starve (through no fault of their own), 80%
would be near subsistence (through no fault of their own), and only 10%
would prosper. However, imagine that they also show that in a liberal
social democracy with significant redistribution or social insurance,
most people would prosper, just as many people living in such welfare
states are doing pretty well right now.
In a followup, Brennan adds:
If you are a hard libertarian, you respond to this thought experiment
by saying, “Well, that’s too bad things turned out that way. But,
still, everyone did the right thing by observing property rights, and
they should continue to do so.”…
If you have at least some concern for social justice, you
respond by saying, “If that happened, that would be strong grounds to
change the economic regime. In that kind of society, it’s unreasonable
to ask people to observe the basic institutions and rules. They have a
legitimate complaint that the rules works as if they were rigged against
them. Perhaps we’d need to tweak property rights conventions. Perhaps
we’d even need some sort of redistribution, if that’s what it took.”
This is a good example of what puzzles me most about bleeding-heart libertarians: At times, they sound less libertarian than the typical non-libertarian.* I’m not claiming that the “hard libertarian” intuition is certainly true. But in a thought experiment with ten people, the hard libertarian intuition is at least somewhat plausible. And once you start questioning the justice of the islanders’ treatment of Able Abel, questions about the justice of the modern welfare state can’t be far behind.
Needless to say, bleeding-heart libertarians usually sound a lot more libertarian than the typical non-libertarian. Yet this just amplifies the puzzle. Unjust treatment of the able may not be the greatest moral issue of our time. (Then again…) But unjust treatment of the able is a serious moral issue. And it’s a serious moral issue that mainstream moral and political philosophy utterly ignores. My question for bleeding-heart libertarians everywhere: Why don’t your hearts bleed for the able slave?
* The most egregious example is Andrew Cohen’s musings on parental licensing.