Utilitarianism, Too, Is “Agent-Relative”

R&D tirelessly proclaim that while we may talk of “flourishing” in general, any individual flourishes according to his own personal ideas. Such agent-relative flourishing

reflects the valuation of weighting (which is ultimately expressed by an individual’s time and effort) that is proper for… different persons. There is no single agent-neutral model to which each person’s pattern or weighting of these goods [intellectual pursuits, health, friendship, honor, etc.] must conform. None of these forms of flourishing is inherently superior to the other. Each has the necessary generic goods, but their proportions or weightings vary. The proper proportion must be worked out by practical wisdom in light of each individual’s nexus, community, and culture. (147-8)

I’m not so sure that our authors understand what they mistakenly call “agent-neutral” theories correctly. Utilitarianism aims to maximize the good over the entire society or impart it to the greatest number, but it does not deny that each person’s good is individualized and unique to him. Utilitarianism does not attempt to distill the maximum possible amount of utility serum and inject it into the masses to make them swoon with orgasmic pleasure. It says: let us structure the social institutions in such a way that people’s pursuit of their own happiness (or indeed flourishing), in whatever it consists for them, is most successful. It’s true, it does not privilege any particular man’s welfare over all others. But everyone counts, equally but still each as an individual. Utilitarianism aggregates good, but wills to each individual exactly what he wills to himself.

Why Does Walter Block Do Philosophy?

My guess is that he falsely thinks that it’s easy. He argues against minimum wages law as follows:

Posit that the “moderate” economists were right. A few people will lose their jobs, but the overwhelming majority would either find or keep their employment slots, at higher compensation rates.

Suppose I were to go to the inner city (which contains a disproportionate number of the unskilled), and did the following. I went to one in every 20 people I met, and, at the point of a gun, I relieved them of, oh, $10,000 (40 hours per week time 50 weeks multiplied by $5 per hour). Whereupon I turned to the other 19 out of 20 people and dispersed these stolen funds amongst them.

If I did so, I would be promoting the precise effects that the moderate members of the economics profession who are supporters of minimum wage claim will occur. Namely, this law, they contend, they concede, will hurt very few but benefit the many.

But how would my excursion into the inner city, and my wealth transfer, be considered by law? Of course, I would be considered a criminal, and very properly so.

This is a really amazing piece of reasoning, blithely confusing ends and means. The end, namely, the transfer of income and the means by which it is actuated are separate variables that can change independently of each other. The consequences can be either good or bad; the means by which the consequences are caused, lawful or unlawful. Let’s further call Block’s raid into the inner city, Blockian robbery or BR.

We can take note of the following 4 permutations:

Good Lawful — Minimum wage (according to current mores)
Good Unlawful — BR
Bad Lawful — Losing money in the stock market
Bad Unlawful — Common robbery or theft

The very same event, namely, the transfer of control of a sum of money from me to another party, can be good or bad for me or society as a whole; and can occur lawfully or unlawfully. Observing only the act of transfer does not provide us with enough information to determine either. Rothbard understood this point well:

Suppose we are walking down the street and we see a man, A, seizing B by the wrist and grabbing B’s wristwatch. There is no question that A is here violating both the person and the property of B. Can we then simply infer from this scene that A is a criminal aggressor, and B his innocent victim?

Certainly not — for we don’t know simply from our observation whether A is indeed a thief, or whether A is merely repossessing his own watch from B who had previously stolen it from him. (EoL, 51)

The exact same transfer of $30 can be unlawful if I am threatened with death unless I give it up, and lawful if I pay with this amount for my dinner at a restaurant.

Again, suppose that company X made $100,000 in profits this year through purely market activities. Block grants, for the sake of argument, that laissez-faire economists are right and property is not theft. But he says, even then it is easy to prove them wrong. Suppose instead X’s security department went out into the inner city and robbed people there until the amount of money it thereby collected became equal to $100,000. Surely, the company would then be considered a criminal enterprise or even a terrorist organization! See? This “shows” that it obtained its profits illegitimately.

The fact that a certain transfer is made criminal by one set of circumstances surrounding it does not make it criminal in all sets of circumstances.

The criminality of BRs is completely irrelevant to the questions of either the criminality of minimum wage or the utility of minimum wage. Here’s an example.

It is true that BR, unlike minimum wage laws, will be considered to be criminal. But presumably it will still be a holy act. We may even regret that the law will treat it this way, but it may be because it is rule utilitarian not act utilitarian. A single BR will produce good consequences, but a policy of allowing anyone to redistribute income in this way at any time at his own pleasure will be counterproductive and is prohibited for that reason. However, it can be argued that the government’s minimum wage law will be a way of mimicking BRs appropriately and orderly without any disturbing chaos of vigilante economizing.

Other Good Unlawful acts may be the paradigmatic stealing from a miser or emergency situations where a good is commandeered for the sake of saving a life.

Thus, if minimum wage is good, then Block should perform the robberies described routinely but try not to get caught. He will be forever honored as a “people’s hero,” despite the undiscriminating formalism of the law. There’ll be statues on him erected in the inner cities!

Utilitarianism Does Not Justify Political Obligations

Again, utilitarianism rightly understood is addressed to the lawgivers or to the people in their capacity as voters. For example, the criminal code should according to utilitarianism be so structured as to:

  1. Maximize the benefits to the citizens from deterrence of crime;
  2. Minimize the pain to the criminals from their punishment;
  3. Minimize the costs of enforcing the law.

These goals of course conflict, and an optimum should be properly calculated.

But once the law has been laid down, a citizen is told to seek his own happiness as he sees fit and pay no heed to general welfare or total utility.

This implies that utilitarianism voices no opinion as to whether a man should seek his happiness by obeying the law or by disobeying.

Thus, utilitarianism does not generate any political obligations.

Banning Muslims vs. Banning Guns

Roderick Long argues that gun control is wrong because most gun owners are law-abiding, and restricting their liberty is therefore unjust. Similarly, most Muslims are peaceful; hence restricting travel from certain countries is unjust.

Now Long is mistaken in holding that the Trump travel ban applies to Muslims; in fact, it applies to all citizens of Libya, Sudan, Syria, Iran, Yemen, and Somalia, irrespective of religion.

But we are philosophers, so who cares about empirical facts? Very well then, I agree that both gun ownership and travel are human rights. From that point of view, the two cases are identical.

But there is also a difference, and Long’s case is incomplete. The pro-gun advocates argue, correctly in my view, that guns control will increase violent crime by greatly encouraging criminals who will be emboldened by their realization of the people’s defenselessness. It will bring about results opposite those the gun haters want to achieve.

Yet those who favor Muslim immigration do not propose, in an analogous move, that allowing it will make the natives more secure. It is fully admitted by everyone that the dangers of living in America will increase as a result of such immigration.

The rights-based argument works to establish the parity between guns and immigration.

The consequentialist argument highlights the difference between them.

As a result, the pro-gun case is on a more solid footing than the pro-immigration case.

But of course, there is even more to it than that. Open borders is not a rational policy in a world marked by cheap transportation and great disparities in the standard of living. Open the borders, and within a month, 100 million of the world’s poorest will arrive to the US. The disruption will be enormous; the impoverishment of the natives, certain; the reign of chaos will truly be upon us. This move undercuts the rights-based argument.

Or, if Long insists that the rights of no individual foreigner are affected by these considerations, it at the very least strengthens the utilitarian argument. Here’s how.

Assume with me that preventing mass migrations through managed borders is a desirable policy. Then immigration will have to be limited, even severely so. But with half the world to choose from, why pick people from Libya, Sudan, etc.? Why not carefully let in only the best and brightest? Why not prefer Christians to Muslims? Or educated people to barbarians? Or wealthy people and businessmen to paupers?

Now perhaps there are some good pickings to be had in those miserable countries, too. Why single out them explicitly to reject everyone in them? Well, the utilitarian argument now comes into play. The dangers of making a mistake by letting in a terrorist outweigh, in Trump’s judgment, the utility of possibly finding a useful immigrant who would be competitive with all the other contenders. The rights argument is defeated at the outset, and the utilitarian argument is inconclusive. Trump is therefore entitled to his opinion and policy.

Absurdity of the Welfare State: “Knowledge”

I submit that a safety net can only be usefully maintained within personal institutions like the family or church, in which the helping actions are joined with charity in the heart, and charity in the heart is joined with keen discernment in the intellect. Impersonal bureaucracies responsible for handing out dole have no way of distinguishing when help is truly needed from when it is superfluous and even destructive.

Thus, Lindsey worries about “excessive and overweening bureaucracy.” Doesn’t he realize that the bureaucracy has to be large and Byzantine and unapproachable without lawyers and a long process rife with arbitrariness precisely in order to deter potential welfare recipients? The easier it is to get on welfare, the more people will happily try to. Even the state understands the danger and deals with it in the only way it can: by erecting irrelevant obstacles to obtaining aid to everyone, whether deserving of aid or not.

Now the word “charity” has its root in the Latin “dearness,” from carus “dear.” It implies holding the beloved dear, as if one’s own child. But a man who is raising a child is not in so doing being a cold utilitarian, considering the child to be just one among many undifferentiated and replaceable humans into whom “utility” is to be imparted. The giving of charity is fundamentally an investment. It is not pouring fish heads down someone’s insatiable maw to satisfy his most base and ignoble urges, so that, having devoured his allotment, the person would watch TV all day and later on plop into fully contented sleep. But the welfare state is not charged with investing into the poor in this way. Once it approves a welfare application, it sends the guy checks, no further questions asked, forever.

The state then does an extremely poor job at discriminating between applicants properly. For one, the funds are limited and must be used prudently to achieve the most good. Some people simply do not “deserve” charity and must be, for their own good and for the good of those who on the contrary ought to receive charity, turned away. Still others are malicious and unscrupulous and only pretend to be helpless, and they need, “to improve the quality, effectiveness, and efficiency of the safety net,” to be ferreted out and refused aid.

On the side of the recipients, personal safety nets offer reproach for being supported by the gifts of others, a dose of shame if you will, thereby instilling a desire in the poor person to become self-sufficient. Many government welfare recipients falsely think that their benefits are richly deserved, and that the taxpayers are suckers for authorizing them.

Then there is the disparate impact of welfare on different demographic groups as wholes. The state deliberately and by explicit design does not discriminate in an area where discrimination is in fact vitally important. It should be obvious, for example, that welfare affects blacks and whites differently. Despite its evil in general, the welfare state has not caused the white society to collapse entirely, though plenty of damage is still being done. But it has, due to well-understood race differences, devastated the black community. Of course, blacks choose of their own free will to become degenerates under welfare state. They enjoy the handouts even as they reduce themselves to monsters. All the same, for their own good and for the good of society, even private charities would be well-advised to take demographics into serious account, which they can do, unlike the state; can you imagine the howls from the left if the government were not color-blind in distributing the loot?

Now there are people who are permanently disabled and must be permanently supported; and even here, they should be urged to take every opportunity to heal themselves or make themselves useful to fellow men. Economic progress in a free society occurs at such a rapid pace that an incurable condition 10 years ago can become treatable today. But there are many people who may truly need welfare only temporarily, even for a very short period of time. Again, others psychopathically will try to take advantage of others’ charity by faking disability or malingering. But careful discernment on the part of each individual giver can minimize such perversions. Again, unlike the state.

Financing the safety net by taxes constitutes naked unvarnished theft, in which some members of society are forced to relinquish their money for causes for which they themselves do not care. Capitalism is a system of consumer sovereignty. Items of consumption include charitable donations. It is the people individually not the state or political majorities that decide, under capitalism, whom to bless with works of mercy. The local government is praxeologically necessary, and taxation for the sake of supporting it may be justified, if no better way gets invented. But not charity. Again, either we have laissez-faire in its entirety, or we lose the ability to argue against out-and-out socialism.

The one-size-fits-all social security system, even assuming that it operates not as pay-as-you-go but as a forced savings scheme with a personal account for every citizen, presupposes falsely that people are unable to save for themselves; that they are imprudent, while the state is there to save the masses from themselves. This, I want to suggest, is the exact opposite of truth: the state is profligate beyond belief, having in the US, for example, amassed an enormous debt. Further, what it does is prevents people from customizing their retirement plans for themselves. Payroll taxes are a massive drain on the income of young people and worsen their quality of life and hamper their ability to save for the future. It is the young people in their 20s who are society’s most vulnerable group, not the old. Yet the government treats them like dirt.

I even suggest that old people are far more grasping and selfish than the young. They’d kill their own children and drink their blood if it helped to prolong their lives for an extra week. And these are the sort of people for whose sake our kids are eagerly sacrificed by society!

The reason why Social Security in the United States is the third rail of politics is also related to money and banking. For business cycles undermine people’s attempts to save for retirement “quickly” and spectacularly; inflation undermines the same “slowly” but surely. As a result, crypto-socialists of all parties obtain recourse to the argument that the community should be charged with providing for everyone’s old age. Make banking honest and money private, and Social Security will fast come to be seen for what it is: intergenerational theft. There is no principle of justice that takes the fact that young Smith was robbed by old Jones to permit Smith, when he himself gets old, to rob young Robinson.

Is it at all conceivable to people these days, I must wonder, that a society is possible in which there are no looted who become looters simply by turning 65, that one can be neither a victim nor a perpetrator but a free person?

I conclude that Lindsey’s belief that “government social programs greatly improve outcomes in key dimensions of human welfare” is deeply implausible. I urge him to take into consideration the arguments in my last two posts.

Landsburg’s Take on Some Utilitarian Dilemmas

Our author is a fanatical consequentialist, saying for example, “I’d cheerfully cut off the ears of a small child to cure malaria.” (155) Fortunately, there is an interesting method to his madness. For example, he considers “the Headache Problem”:

A billion people are experiencing fairly minor headaches, which will continue for another hour unless an innocent person is killed, in which case they will cease immediately. Is it okay to kill that innocent person? (161)

The first question is: would you as one of the headache sufferers personally be willing to enter into a compact with others likewise afflicted to have one of you randomly sacrificed to the headache god in order to cure everyone’s headache immediately? But that depends on whether other people, too, agree to enter this compact. If only I and no one else agrees, the probability of me dying is 100%. If only 1 other person out of the 1 billion agrees, then I have a 50% chance of dying for the sake of curing our headaches.

What’s the “rational” decision here? In the absence of coordinated decision-making, I may think it’s too risky to agree. But everyone else is in the same position I am. So everyone reasons similarly and declines to enter the compact.

On the other hand, if my decision “determines” everyone’s, I may as well say “yes” and magically, everyone will agree, too.

Alternatively, it may be agreed that the compact will come to be in force only if no fewer than 100 million people enter it. In any case, such a compact, when entered into or refused voluntarily, does not seem to me to be morally problematic.

Second, what Landsburg in fact is proposing is that we make him a benevolent despot and force everyone to enter. Even if the answer to first question is “no agreement,” he judges that government coercion can in this case produce superior results for the following reason:

First, virtually nobody will pay a dollar to avoid a one-in-a-billion chance of death. (We know this, for example, from studies of willingness to pay for auto safety devices.)

Second, most people — at least in the developed world, where I will assume all of this is taking place — would happily pay a dollar to cure a headache. (I don’t actually know this, but it seems probable.)

Third, this tells me that most people think a headache is worse than a one-in-a-billion chance of death.

So if I can replace your headache with a one-in-a-billion chance of death, I’ve done you a favor. And I can do precisely this by killing a headache sufferer at random. (161-2)

Landsburg seems to be able to avoid the charge that he is illicitly weighing utilities interpersonally by saying that he is straightforwardly respecting our own preferences and is simply helping us overcome some coordination problem. And if the answer to the first question is “everyone agrees,” then there is no need even for that.

In other words, Landsburg, upon making some plausible assumptions, is initiating a Pareto-superior move, i.e., getting every member of the compact from a worse to better situation unanimously.

At the same time, the answer “yes, it is Ok” to the original question seems somewhat morally controversial. It may be because no man can be a benevolent despot capable to maximizing total utility, and we all understand that and refuse to do an obvious injustice such as killing an innocent person for the sake of an unknown outcome. Again, however, Landsburg’s reasoning that the outcome is easily known seems persuasive.

Note that by joining the compact, I impose nothing on other people. I bear the full costs — the chance of dying by being randomly picked to be sacrificed to the headache god — myself, yet benefit all other headache sufferers by lowering their probability of dying in like manner. After all, the more people enter the compact, the smaller the probability of each person’s getting unlucky. Thus, my entering is a socially virtuous act which again suggests that there is nothing morally problematic about such a compact.

If the answer to the headache problem is that it is Ok to execute the killing, then replace

“1 billion headache-sufferers-for-an-hour” with “all the children sick with malaria now or in the future”; and replace

“killing one innocent person with the headache” with “cutting off the ears of one child with malaria.” Then a fortiori (i.e., for an even stronger reason), it is fully permissible to get cutting.

The only issue is whether Landsburg would still cut off the ears even of a child who is not (nor ever will be) sick with malaria; or, which is the same thing, whether he would sacrifice a person who does not have the headache. For such a child / person would obviously not agree to enter the compact of his own free will. The “economic” logic would then break down, and his rights would be straightforwardly violated. Then Landsburg could indeed be accused of playing God, as in weighing lives or at least utilities interpersonally against each other yet without the essentially divine ability to do so competently.

Why Is Theft Wrong?

Landsburg’s idea on this question is fully in tune with his consequentialism:

A well-executed theft takes time and energy, which could have been used productively. If I spend an hour stealing your bicycle, we still have only one bicycle between us; if I spend an hour building (or earning) a bicycle, we have two. By diverting productive resources from useful activities, theft leaves the world an unnecessarily poorer place. …

“Don’t leave the world worse off than you found it.” …

You are productive when the benefits of actions (to everyone, including you) exceed the costs (to everyone, including you). (164-5)

Now there are other utilitarian reasons why theft it bad. First, it sows fear and panic among the populace, diminishes the security of property rights, and, if widespread and undeterred, may harm both consumption and production with severe disincentives to both.

Second, awareness of the danger of being robbed causes potential victims to spend money pro tanto on defending themselves. A pointless “unproductive” arms race is initiated between the thieves and their prey in which scarce resources are wasted.

Third, theft is a particularly inefficient form of predation. The thief may even kill a person in order to enable himself to take his stuff. Sporadic theft is an instance of a war of all against all. A more sophisticated and prudent system, for example, is serfdom, wherein the thief imposes permanent taxes on his victims. Everyone gets to live, and the victim even retains an incentive to accumulate wealth, while the thief is enjoying a permanent stream of looted income in relative safety. After all, the richer the people are, the more there is to steal. But ordinary theft just kills the goose that lays the golden eggs.

All these, however, are minor considerations.

As I have argued, utilitarianism is not an ethic. More specifically, utilitarianism is addressed not to the citizen but to the legislator. A good illustration is traffic regulations. (The government is the organization that issues them because it owns the roads.) These regulations are utilitarian in the sense that they are meant to maximize the overall efficiency of traffic, perhaps with a few other requisite goals, such as avoiding deadlock and starvation, thrown in for good measure. But an individual driver is supposed and even required simply to look after himself and seek only his own advancement on the road.

Landsburg’s argument provides a reason for the government to outlaw theft, to threaten to punish potential thieves, and actually to punish thieves that are caught and convicted. This is so, again, especially if the costs of law enforcement are smaller than total expenses the citizens individually would make to protect themselves from thefts. But it provides no reason for any individual thief to become an honest man. For we may indeed imagine (falsely) the government to be in charge of “general welfare,” such that its laws are utilitarian. But an individual citizen is asked not to be a utilitarian but simply to seek his own self-interest. For the thief, the benefits of stealing may outweigh the costs. The calculation proper to him as a citizen and not a legislator impels him to steal. Therefore, a different argument is needed if one wants to prove that the thief is acting immorally.

Landsburg urges us to consider our neighbor’s interests on par with our own: “A cost is a cost and a benefit is a benefit, whether they’re felt by you, your neighbor, or a stranger in Timbuktu.” (165) But when one does that, the most he can muster is disinterested benevolence, and when animated by this type of love, one acts as a legislator. As a citizen, one can only realistically love himself and closest friends and family. This love is no longer disinterested but deeply personal. In such a case, in one’s personal life, one privileges his beloved and treats all others as strangers according to mere deontological natural law.

In other words, for a large community, utilitarianism will take the form of general rules created by a prudent lawgiver. Practicing act utilitarianism can be done successfully only in the tiniest of communities, most plausibly one’s own family.

Case Against Mass Immigration

Landsburg makes cogent points in defense of freedom of immigration. His main line of reasoning is utilitarian:

When we admit an unskilled Mexican immigrant, his wage typically rises from about $2 an hour to $9 an hour — call it a $7-per-hour gain. …

He bids down wages, but that’s a two-edged sword: It’s bad for his fellow workers, but good for employers and good for consumers. (182-3)

I will continue the argument in a few seconds, but let me interject that the costs to the American workers outweigh the benefits to them. This is because the amount of capital goods per capita declines at least in the short term which lessens marginal productivity and makes Americans poorer. (The Mexican by Landsburg’s own assumption migrates without any real, money, or human capital.) Mises points out, for example:

There is only one way to improve the standard of living of the population — increase capital accumulation as against the increase in population. Increase the amount of capital invested per capita.

Landsburg estimates “from the labor-economics literature” that the Americans collectively incur a $3-per-hour loss. “To oppose that, you’d have to count an immigrant as less than three-seventh of an American.” Even worse, under even the most conservative assumptions about “how to value a poor man’s dollar against a rich man’s, … the immigrant’s $7 gain is worth about five times the Americans’ collective $3 loss. By that calculation, to justify keeping the immigrant out, you’d have to say he’s worth less than one-fifth of an American citizen. In other words, you’d have to be a pretty enormous jerk.” (183-5)

What makes the anti-immigrationist “Goofus” so callous? Landsburg has the following theory:

Usually we care about our loved ones more than strangers, and to some extent we care more about the poor than the rich: I’d rather help my daughter than help yours, and I’d rather help a starving Bangladeshi than a Microsoft vice president.

But Goofus favors neither his loved ones nor poor people; he favors relatively rich American strangers over relatively poor Mexicans.

Moreover, he favors them by at least a seven-to-three ratio, which is huge. (186)

Let me first concede the deontological argument. Americans cannot lawfully keep their wages up by doing what is unjust, namely, forcibly preventing migrations. It is everyone’s natural right to walk the earth. Further, I agree with Landsburg that “Goofus, by denying American landlords the opportunity to rent to José, is violating a property right (not to mention the rights of all those Americans who want to hire José, or sell him groceries).” (185n5)

The situation is relevantly different with mass immigration, however, which will inevitably be unleashed if the US borders are fully opened. I’m saying that within months, 100 million poorest Africans will land in the New York City.

Open borders are an extremely egalitarian institution, especially now with very low transportation costs and efficient language learning. It equalizes wages for the same work done over all the earth, unless some areas are naturally suited for certain specific factories or farms. Landsburg’s chief moral principle demands that Americans lower their own standard of living to that of Sudan, because the benefits to the Sudanese, etc. immigrants outweigh the costs to the natives, and on the net there is benefit, too. (Well, not really, since the population of Sudan will be restored in a short order, as its citizens mindlessly have more children; their plight will be quickly reintroduced.)

But Landsburg himself admits that his ethics “does not require Gallant to open up his living room” to strangers, because “Gallant values his privacy more than José values a spot in Gallant’s living room.” (185n4) In other words, turning one’s house into a refugee camp is too great a sacrifice to be casually demanded of people. Why then can’t we similarly argue that abject self-impoverishment on the part of the American people through 100% open borders is not an unequivocal injunction of morality itself?

As a result, Goofus can counter that he has his own interests not to become poor. It’s not that he loves an American stranger more than a Mexican or African one; it’s that all American strangers have an interest in common, namely, not to be crushed into grinding poverty by the huddled masses of immigrants. I love myself; every American loves himself, too; and these are sufficient reasons for all of us to limit immigration.

Look, the land in the world is parceled out among states. It so happens that although in my opinion all large states are illegitimate, some large states are better than others, even much better. Americans have through a Herculean effort managed to create a political and legal regime that, despite its numerous lamentable flaws, permits a measure of economic growth. Sudan, on the contrary, is a failed nation. I see no reason for Landsburg to punish success and reward failure by inviting mass migrations from Sudan to America.

How would that even differ from a military invasion of the Sudanese army into the US? Does Landsburg think that the Africans will be coming to America while clutching copies of Big Questions under their arms? What’s to prevent these hundreds of millions of barbarians from recreating here the exact sort of inhuman system from which they fled?

Open borders then is simply equally distributed poverty. With no tools of reasoning beyond his narrow-minded utilitarianism, Landsburg pines for this miserable and desperate world. Equal penury for all, how very progressive.

The situation is very different when it comes to private communities or even cities. If company X is being run incompetently and is losing money, it is a very good thing that the rats can start abandoning the sinking ship. A more profitable company Y and society as a whole will benefit from the resources thereby released. But for large states, there is a contrary argument: the Sudanese are poor not because they lack technological knowledge or even capital, but because they lack capitalism, and easy immigration gives them a chance viciously to free ride on other people’s economic wisdom.

My argument is valid not universally but only in our present unique situation of billions in great poverty and only a few countries with a decent standard of living. Since the ultimate cause of this tragic state of affairs is faulty ideologies on the part of the people, I would fully support open national borders in a world with universal laissez-faire capitalism.

If it is admitted that immigration will have to be limited, the only question that remains is whom to admit and how many. Relevant to this, there are factors that would greatly exacerbate the damage of mass immigration into the United States. These are:

  1. the welfare state;
  2. pressure on public services such as roads and emergency rooms which have not been designed to accommodate so many new arrivals;
  3. initial shortage of housing: where are these 100 millions wretches going to live?
  4. widely incompatible cultural practices that will lead to serious violent conflicts between immigrants and natives, i.e., an uptick in crime;
  5. political consequences — again, when Mexicans come here and begin to influence government policy, won’t they end up recreating here the very corrupt political system in Mexico?

In short, there will be a massive and terrifying disruption in our everyday lives as the immigrants try to settle in. Therefore, a case can be made for significant restrictions.

On the other hand, when businesses leave the US in search of cheap labor, I am unperturbed despite the apparent symmetry, because that, in addition to the net economic benefit of the sort Landsburg describes, encourages Americans to improve their country’s political system to give these firms an incentive to stay.

Open borders for wealthy nations here and today and the resulting mass immigration waves are not a rational policy in the age of cheap transportation and deep poverty in many parts of the world that remains largely brutal, cruel, and dark.

Public Goods and the Anarchist’s Intransigence

A tax is not a “price” for anything, including “civilization.” This is because taxes are levied on each person whether the benefit derived from the public goods produced with their help justifies the cost to him or not. He is forced by the state to pay the “price” whether “civilization,” or what the state in its fatal conceit imagines to be one, is worth to him or not.

People find it indisputable, for example, that the government of the city they live in ought to produce roads. The relevant attitude may be, well, what is to be done? I mean, we “need” the roads. How else can they be produced? It’s true that the roads will either be built or not. If they are built, then some people in the community will lose, and others will benefit. It may be argued that if in the final accounting, building the roads conduces to the overall good (perhaps with some form of hypothetical compensation from the winners to the losers), then they should be built. But that’s not the issue at all. The issue that the harm to those who lose is not morally neutral but in fact is unjust.

Let it not be said that the state owns all land. No sane individual or group or entire community would ever agree to grant the mayor allodial ownership over all the land in the city, such that they would end up mere tenants on his land, with the concomitant natural obligation to pay rent to the state which the state can dub “taxes.”

Perhaps people can agree to proclaim, “Let certain areas in the city be owned collectively. Let us then hire Jones to manage these areas bidding him to improve them one way or another.” Yet whence Jones’ power to tax? The taxes do not discriminate properly. Some people will not profit but rather lose from the exchange of the public goods for their tax money. Inflicting such a loss via a coerced “exchange” is straightforwardly unjust.

What then is the correct exchange rate between justice and utility? Let there be some people to whom the roads (or whatever) are not worth the money the state extorts from them. Moreover, among them is one philosopher who goes around teaching a novel doctrine that even the state may not commit injustices and that taxation is theft. These teachings are eloquent and stir people’s hearts, jeopardizing the entire road-building project. Would it be Ok for the state to murder this philosopher in order to allow the construction to proceed without any irritating snags? Why not? If it’s Ok to throw some citizens under a bus figuratively by making them pay more in taxes than they are willing for the roads, what is wrong with throwing them under a bus literally?

In short, if you will tax for a road, will you also kill for one? And if not, why not?

This also impinges on the idea of state “supremacy.” Some may argue that from the conjunction of the facts that (1) x, say again, roads, is economically a public item, and (2) the state desires to produce x, and (3) the state has overwhelming power to crush any individual who might object to paying the tax to finance x, it follows that the state is justified in imposing the tax. But let Smith be the head of a Mafia crime family. He decides that it would be “good” for his fellow townsmen to have some y, also a public thing, say, a subway. Moreover, he has access to loyal well-armed henchmen who comprise a capable paramilitary force. He then goes door-to-door and demands contributions from individuals and local businesses for the construction of the subway. In this case, all three criteria are also satisfied. It does not seem to follow that Smith would be in the right to lay his own taxes on the people. But if the state can tax (or murder) for the “greater good,” why can’t Smith? Or is there perhaps some advantage in fully centralizing the sources of injustices in one individual or organization called “state”?

Certainly decentralization down to local level can make the problem less pointed, in that people who feel their taxes are too high will migrate out of their cities and into more suitable to them communities. But it will not eliminate it.

Pure consequentialism, such as utilitarianism, may be able to justify government extortion and coercion. It may even allow taxation while proscribing murders, if the latter would cause an unbecoming diminution of total utility.

A somewhat more plausible and flexible moral theory is called “deontology with thresholds”: “A threshold deontologist holds that deontological norms govern up to a point despite adverse consequences; but when the consequences become so dire that they cross the stipulated threshold, consequentialism takes over… A may not torture B to save the lives of two others, but he may do so to save a thousand lives if the ‘threshold’ is higher than two lives but lower than a thousand.” Thus, the threshold for doing evil for the sake of the roads could be above the wickedness of robbery but below that of murder. The state (however organized) will then “non-fanatically” or “pragmatically” tax the people without their consent but still refuse to kill the dissenters.

Utilitarianism would commend any action, regardless of how criminal, which improves things on the whole. Threshold deontology allows each person to use his own criteria for where to draw the line: there may be no objectively right answer. It can thus disallow some beneficial yet unjust actions. According to such moderate deontology, one would make the morally difficult decision as best he can and learn to live with it, without shame or regret.

Note that even if state coercion can be justified, it does not follow that one has a duty to pay the tax that makes him worse off. A person who shrewdly evaded such a tax need not feel any qualms for his perfectly reasonable and even praiseworthy actions.

Morality: Case of the Reluctant Superman

Suppose that Metropolis is in grave danger of being totally destroyed, say by a meteorite careening down toward it from space. For whatever reason, Superman refuses to save it. I am in a position credibly to tell him: “You son of a bitch! Either you save the city or I’ll kill Lois Lane.” Am I justified / permitted / required to do that?

For natural morality, we must assume that I do not love the citizens of Metropolis with any special love as myself. It is admitted, however, that I may prefer the city spared so that society and the free market are not damaged and production is not curtailed, which would make me, as a participant in the economy, somewhat poorer.

Natural deontology forbids me to coerce Superman, because I am not allowed to commit an injustice for any personal gain.

Natural utilitarianism enjoins me not to make things worse, but it does not command me to make them better. Therefore, I am not required to bring about the great good of the salvation of Metropolis. I am permitted to walk away with indifference. I am not responsible for the threat to the city, and I am not anyone’s keeper.

Deontology then prohibits coercing Superman, and consequentialism does not require me to coerce him. On the whole, coercion is not permitted, and I ought to let the city perish.

Christian deontology similarly forbids unjust coercion, such as threatening an innocent girl with death, in fact even more stringently, since we contrast with hatred not benign indifference but love.

But Christian utilitarianism now bids me to create good, to improve the world, and in particular to avert great evils. Saving Metropolis certainly qualifies as a huge work of mercy. I am now morally required to force the reluctant Superman to act.

The two approaches seriously conflict with each other. To resolve the conflict, we may invoke threshold deontology. Again, it seems to me that each person needs to establish his own personal thresholds upon some serious reflection and soul-searching and then act accordingly with single-minded confidence. In this case, for me, the greater good brought about is high above the threshold for coercing Superman. Consequentialism takes over, and on the whole, Christian morality compels me to threaten Lois Lane.