Chips off the Block

Last week, I wrote to condemn the gang of angry yahoos who have piled onto Walter Block for making a perfectly reasonable argument about slavery, involuntary association, and Civil Rights legislation. Today I write to give Walter’s argument the respect it deserves by trying to pick it apart.

It’s important to recognize that Walter wasn’t making a formal argument. Instead, he was offering a rhetorical framework to clarify some of the issues. His (informal) argument, if I understand it, comes down to essentially this:

Look. We all agree that slavery is bad. And when you think about it, pretty much all of the badness stems from its involuntary nature. This should make us wary of involuntary associations in general, and hesitant to impose them. This applies, for example, to laws that require restaurant owners to serve people they don’t want to serve.

Now I happen to be quite sympathetic to that argument (indeed, I’ve been known to make essentially the same argument myself). In fact, I’ll go further and say that I think any reasonable person ought to be at least somewhat moved by that argument. But I can see where it’s not airtight.

To see why not, let’s take a pass at formalizing this:

1) Slavery is bad.
2) For a thing to be bad, some aspect of it must be bad.
3) Slavery has no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association.
4) From 1), 2) and 3), we can deduce that involuntary association is a bad aspect of slavery.
5) From 4), we deduce that involuntary association is bad.
6) Involuntary association is an aspect of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
7) Anything with a bad aspect is at least partially bad.
8) From 5), 6) and 7), we can deduce that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is at least partially bad.

Now let’s see where the problems are.

The First Issue

Consider:

1′) Hurricanes are bad.
2′) For a thing to be bad, some aspect of it must be bad.
3′) Hurricanes have no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association.
4′) From 1′), 2′) and 3′), we deduce that involuntary association is a bad aspect of hurricanes.
5′) From 4′), we deduce that involuntary association is an aspect of hurricanes.
6′) Involuntary association is not in fact an aspect of hurricanes.
7′) From 5′) and 6′) we deduce that this is a bad argument.

What leads us astray here is the clearly false assumption (3′): “Hurricanes have no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association”. That assumption simply ignores many bad aspects of hurricanes.

This means that in the original argument, much rests on the assumption (3): “Slavery had no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association.” What if that assumption simply ignores some other bad aspect of slavery?

I happen to believe statement (3) — and believe that with a little time and effort, I could defend it pretty effectively — but for those who don’t, the argument is at best incomplete.

Someone might reply that (3) is true because slavery is defined to be involuntary association, and nothing more nor less. But I don’t think that’s true. Murder victims are involuntarily associated with their murderers, but we don’t call all murder victims slaves. So slavery must have some characteristics other than involuntary association — and that creates the possibility that it’s those other characteristics, not involuntary association, that make slavery bad.

Walter’s argument, then, relies on the unproven assumption (3). (An alternative form of the argument simply takes it as given that involuntary association is bad, but then of course the mention of slavery would be largely irrelevant.)

The Second Issue

I happen to like chocolate, like peanut butter, and dislike chocolate and peanut butter in combination.

Now consider:

1”) Reese’s Pieces (consisting of chocolate and peanut butter) are (in my estimation) bad.
2”) For a food to be bad, some component of it must be bad.
3”) Peanut butter is not bad; therefore Reese’s Pieces have no bad components other than possibly chocolate.
4”) From 1”), 2”) and 3”), we deduce that chocolate is a bad component of Reese’s Pieces.
5”) From 4”), we deduce (falsely) that chocolate is bad.

The fallacy here stems from the false assumption 2”). By analogy, it is possible that no aspect of slavery is bad on its own, but instead that certain combinations of its aspects are bad. This would falsify assumption 2) and bring the original argument to a screeching halt.

The Third Issue

Some commentators have asserted that the Civil Rights Act did not incorporate involuntary association in the same sense that slavery did. Their argument is that that under the Civil Rights Act, a restaurant owner has the choice between associated unwanted customers or sacrificing his business, whereas the slave has no analogous option. Thus (according to these commenters) the phrase “involuntary association” has different meanings in different parts of the argument, rendering the argument invalid.

Resolving the Issues

The standards of public discourse do not require arguments to be fully dispositive. It’s enough that they be thought-provoking, and Walter has more than met that standard.

But if you subject the argument to a higher-than-usual standard by laying out the assumptions in detail, there are gaps.

For example, while I believe assumption (3) to be correct, it’s clear from last week’s comments that not everyone agrees. For those people there’s surely an important gap here — perhaps a gap best filled by some sort of empirical argument, which, at least on the most charitable possible reading, might have been the empirical argument that Father Wildes was asking for.

None of which excuses the venom, falsehoods, illogic and bullying to which Father Wildes chose to sink. But deep down underneath all that, he might just possibly have had a point worth making.

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106 Responses to “Chips off the Block”


  1. 1 1 Bennett Haselton

    It seems this is essentially a property rights debate (surely Block would not be defending the restaurateur’s “right of non-association” if he didn’t own the restaurant).

    So, why not just say: Some exceptions to property rights are good, and some are bad, depending on how those exceptions affect our quality of life. Most people consider the Civil Rights Act to be a good exception to property rights, and slavery to be a bad one (where slavery is an “exception to property rights” because it violated people’s right of self-ownership).

    Of course, some libertarians view property rights as a kind of moral absolute that lives outside of human laws, and therefore believe that all abridgements to property rights (tax laws, smoking laws, the Civil Rights Act) are a form of “slavery”!

    On the other hand, I believe that certain human rights are moral absolutes, but that “property” is different because as a concept it’s just a human invention. There’s nothing bonding the molecules in your body to the molecules in “your” car, but we invented the concept of “property”, and invented governments to enforce the concept, in order to pursue the general goal of improving our quality of life. So if you need to make exceptions to property rights in order to improve our quality of life in other ways, fine.

    And the consensus seems to be that the Civil Rights Act does improve the quality of people’s lives on average, while slavery does not (as long as you count the slaves as “people”).

  2. 2 2 Jim W K

    Steve, I asked this on another thread – perhaps you missed it – but my question is, given the foregoing discussion in the past few Blogs, I feel it is essential to ask this question: if exploitation is a spectrum, do you have or know of a good rule of thumb for ascertaining when labour sold voluntarily should still be seen as exploitation?

    Be glad to hear from others on this too, but hopefully it is something that Steve has thought about, as it’s an important question.

  3. 3 3 Harold

    “From 5), 6) and 7), we can deduce that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is at least partially bad.”

    I don’t think your paraphrasing represents the argument fully. Most of what we do has some costs and benefits, and could therefore be called partially bad. I think he is trying to persuade us that the involuntary nature is a central feature of the Civil Rights Act, and therefore the Civil Rights Act is fundamentally bad in the same way that slavery is fundamentally bad. This is stronger than “at least partially bad”.

    “3) Slavery has no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association.”
    Slavery has taken many forms over the centuries. I can argue that the slavery in the USA contained a particularly pernicious element of racism. I believe ancient Roman and Greek slaves, for example, were not taken from a particular race. So it is different if we are talking about slavery in general, in which case we are back with the definition of slavery being involuntary association, or slavery in the American context. In the latter case, the institution of slavery required the slavers to believe black people to be inferior in order to justify the institution. There is a strong case that this was a bad aspect of American slavery and we are still dealing with the consequences.

  4. 4 4 Biopolitical

    Involuntary associations can be bad, good or more or less neutral. For example, without asking for my permission, someone throws a pollutant, money and a bunch of oxygen molecules into my property.

    If I had complete control of my property I would reject the pollutant (except in exchange for something good), accept the money and tolerate the oxygen molecules.

    Slavery is an involuntary association. Just by knowing it is involuntary we can’t know whether it is good, bad or neutral. When people have more control of themselves, they accept some of the things that occur under slavery and reject others.

    Control of oneself and one’s things has costs. When deciding how much control or “degree of ownership” we want, we should weigh those costs against the benefits it confers.

  5. 5 5 Pat

    I think you’re rewriting his argument. The conditions of slavery were so awful because it was involuntary. Block was not saying that the badness of slavery stemmed from it being involuntary. He explicitly said that other than it being involuntary, it wasn’t so bad.

    These are two entirely different arguments. If he felt that awful things were stemmed from involuntary nature of slavery, why would he go through the trouble of saying “otherwise”.

  6. 6 6 Ben Kennedy

    Walter Block is known for defending the “voluntary slave contract”, so I don’t think he would even agree with “Slavery is bad”. The ultimate problem with involuntary slavery is that you can’t sell yourself as a slave, if that were your preference. Block writes extensively on slavery, contrasting his views with Rothbard and others, in this article:

    http://mises.org/journals/jls/17_2/17_2_3.pdf

  7. 7 7 Daniel

    @ Biopolitical,

    I agree there are other things that are involuntary association that aren’t necessarily bad. In most cases humans are involuntarily bonded to a parent (most of the time they get no choice in the matter). This is a good things since consciousness does not form any ability to reason what parent would be best for them until at earliest after puberty at which point it’s a little too late. As we can see by the adoption system, no better system has been thought of to match parents to children.

    Thus, there must be some aspect of slavery that in combination with involuntary association makes it bad. I think the chocolate and peanut butter reason is the best argument against Block’s reasoning, even if in actuality chocolate and peanut butter is one of the best associations known to mankind.

  8. 8 8 iceman

    Bennett – I’m not sure the issue is property rights per se, other than to the extent that exercising a right of association (or in this case dissociation?) would seem to require a non-public place to meet.
    It does seem to me libertarians have an easier time dispelling of things like slavery – on the grounds that people are *not* property — than do utilitarians, who end up having to basically reverse engineer individual rights (aka side constraints on our actions), but inconsistently via “ad hoc” rules (so ‘some exceptions are good’…).
    E.g. I doubt you’d be comfortable sticking with a standard of “the consensus believes such and such makes people better off on average” in a case where it could be shown that making one person miserable actually did make several other people much happier.

    Perhaps this is why people tend to take offense at the very notion of introducing empirical arguments into this issue.
    Perhaps that was the point Block was trying to make.

  9. 9 9 Neil

    I do not think the badness of slavery can be settled by empirical argument about working conditions. Sixteen hours of back-breaking labor under the hot sun with the threat of the overseer’s whip is unpleasant to be sure, but had the workers been there of their own choice to collect a paycheck that compensates them for the unpleasantness, it wouldn’t have been “so bad.”

  10. 10 10 Ken B

    SL: “I happen to believe statement (3) — and believe that with a little time and effort, I could defend it pretty effectively — but for those who don’t, the argument is at best incomplete.”

    I happen not to believe statement (3). I’d like to give a few reasons.

    First, I might be called upon to enforce slavery. I would find that odious. So would most people. So aside from any importance one places on the perceived odium there is the problem of the legitimacy of the law, and the extent of the powers required to enforce such unpopular laws. These are costs of slavery not fully captured in 3.

    Consider the hortatory effect. Children raised in an environment where whipping and rape are, for some, seen as acceptable. I think it’s wishful thinking to imagine this has no effect.

    I have other objections, but these are not the first that come to mind, so perhaps ones Steve hasn’t thought out yet.

  11. 11 11 James

    Bennett Haselton:

    You wrote “On the other hand, I believe that certain human rights are moral absolutes, but that “property” is different because as a concept it’s just a human invention.”

    How does this not pertain to all rights? Even the very concept of rights is, at least according to some, a human invention. The same could be said for the concept of moral absolutes for that matter.

    Also, even if property rights are not moral absolutes that still does not mean we should not live as if they are. There is a strong historical case that whenever people decide to trust their governments to identify cases where violating property rights is a good thing to do, there is a bias to finding far too many cases for violating property rights and the results are more often bad than good. It’s not unreasonable to believe that property rights are not moral absolutes but that humans have so many false positives when we try to identifying exceptions that the best course of action is to act as if property rights are moral absolutes.

  12. 12 12 Jack

    I am sympathetic to Steve’s assertion that restaurant owners be free to serve whom they want.

    However I am also sympathetic to the African Americans who fought to force white people to serve them.

    After all, white people had been forcing blacks to serve them for hundreds of years beforehand. Can you blame blacks for fighting back and giving us a taste of our own medicine?

  13. 13 13 Thomas Purzycki

    I don’t think statement (3′) is false, let alone clearly false. If you could choose whether or not to feel the impacts of a hurricane, then a hurricane isn’t so bad. Obviously this doesn’t conform to reality, but in a video game like SimCity, if a hurricane hits your city, you can always rewind and play again without the hurricane.

  14. 14 14 nobody.really

    I agree there are other things that are involuntary association that aren’t necessarily bad. In most cases humans are involuntarily bonded to a parent (most of the time they get no choice in the matter). This is a good things since consciousness does not form any ability to reason what parent would be best for them until at earliest after puberty at which point it’s a little too late.

    To restate: 100% of associations are involuntary — in the sense that none of us consents to being born. We may find our birth and subsequent lives to be agreeable, but no one can demonstrate that he or she volunteered for the project.

  15. 15 15 Harold

    #13 good point, a hurricane is only bad if it affects people. The fallacy here is #1′ – hurricanes are bad. Without people they are not. Involuntary association is a component of bad hurricanes, but not all hurricanes are bad. Slavery cannot exist without people, so we may (or may not) accept that 1 is correct – slavery is bad.

  16. 16 16 Daniel

    @ nobody.really,

    exactly.

  17. 17 17 Will A

    @ Jim W K #2:

    “I feel it is essential to ask this question: if exploitation is a spectrum, do you have or know of a good rule of thumb for ascertaining when labour sold voluntarily should still be seen as exploitation?”

    This seems like a pointedly Marxist question. It’s like asking “if evil is a spectrum, what is a good rule of thumb for ascertaining when a company is evil”

    An argument could be made that there is no exploitation in labour sold voluntarily. For sure you could probably measure the output of a person and the “take” of a company for the persons work. I.e. Bob generates 1 million in revenue/year and his total compensation is $ 250,000/year. So the company’s take of Bob’s compensation is $ 750,000/year.

    Marxists would probably call this exploitation. Libertarians would probably call this the free market.

    You could possibly argue that there is a spectrum of what it means to be voluntary. “if a person is dirt poor, that person will accept any job for any pay”. This again though seems like a Marxist way to describe employment.

    I think the reason you hear the term exploitation thrown out is that many people have Marxist tendencies without being willing to admit it:

    “I paid into the social security, so the state owes my funds when I’m 62.”

    “I did everything right but the bank reposed my house. Banks shouldn’t be allowed to repose the homes of those who did thing right”

  18. 18 18 Harold

    It is not valid to label everyone who thinks exploitation is a spectrum as a marxist. There are other philosophies that allow the concept.

    Nonethelesss, the question is worth responding to. As I see it, a fully informed and rational choice can not be exploitative, so exploitation is possible only when those entering into the agreement are not fully informed or fully rational. Unfortunately this applies to every agreemnent we enter into. To me this makes exploitation possible, but not every case where it seems that someone is exploited is actually a case of exploitation. Lower wages in the developing world is not exploitation. The same workers exposed to dangerous working conditions may well be, since they are not in a position to asseSs the risks. Employment of children always has the risk of exploitation, since we understand that children are not able to fully rationalise their options. we are thus reliant on their parents being able to a. fully rationalise the consequences of their childrens employment and b. act only in the interest of the children, not themselves.

  19. 19 19 Jim W K

    Will A, I’m actually a libertarian who hates Marxism. :-)

    As Harold says, the question is a valid one (if Steve doesn’t respond to it, I will be surprised he doesn’t think the question worth considering) – and whenever we have a spectrum (exploitation, evil, or whatever) there is always a worthwhile discussion about where a good demarcation line may be.

    Will A says >>An argument could be made that there is no exploitation in labour sold voluntarily>>

    It could be made, but I don’t know that it can be made well. Even a free market libertarian like myself can acknowledge that people selling their labour for a day for a bowl of rice under harsh conditions are dangerously close to being exploited, where it is their weakness being exploited.

    But it also must be said – a $30,000 per year office job probably sounds intolerable for a top physicist or Bill Gates, so it’s relative too.

  20. 20 20 andy

    As for the third issue – I quite struggle with this, as this should be easy to refute.

    Libertarians would define voluntary association as ‘you shall not be limited in choosing who you associate with’. This is clearly a problem both in slavery and in 1964 civil rights act.

    How would a definition of (in)voluntary association look so that it would apply to slavery and not civil rights act? Something like ‘you shall have an option not to associate with’? In such case, if there was an option for the slaves ‘can leave, but be forbidden to by employed by anyone’ (i.e. you can decide not to serve blacks as long as you don’t serve anyone), would such ‘modified slavery’ meet the criteria of such commentators?

  21. 21 21 Will A

    @ Harold and Jim W K

    I wasn’t calling Jim W K a Marxist. I was saying phrasing employment in the terms of exploitation is a Marxist way of putting things.

    I would consider myself a socialist/marxist/social democrat (Marxist Tendencies) and anytime someone wants to talk about employment as a spectrum of exploration, it makes me say that you are preaching to the choir.

    The reason I like it is that the term “exploitation” has the connotation of being very bad and something that should be stopped. And typically the only thing that can stop exploitation are laws preventing exploitation (however the law defines it: Maternity Leave, Overtime pay, Child Labor Laws, Health and Safety Regulations, etc.).

    In fact I find it very comforting to know that a libertarian can’t make a good argument that there is no exploitation in labour sold voluntarily.

    It could be made, but I don’t know that it can be made well. Even a free market libertarian like myself can acknowledge that people selling their labour for a day for a bowl of rice under harsh conditions are dangerously close to being exploited, where it is their weakness being exploited.

  22. 22 22 Will A

    @ Harold and Jim W K

    If you are looking for a definition of exploitation, the following might be good:
    The level of alienation imposed upon individuals in the form of coercive social relationships as well as material scarcity, whereby the individual is compelled to engage in activities merely to survive.

    The measure of exploitation would be how much the activity (employment) affects an individuals ability to survive/have off-spring.

    E.g.
    Risk of loosing a daily bowl of rice and staving vs. risk of needing to cut back on Starbucks.

  23. 23 23 Walter Block

    Dear Steve:

    Thanks for another thought-provoking article. What do you see about slavery that is objectionable apart from it being compulsory? Surely, it is not the cotton picking, people non-objectionably pick cotton all the time. It is not the gruel; ditto. It is not living in shacks, ditto again. It is not even the whipping; sadists whip masochists with mutual consent, and boxers pummel each other, consensually. Is it not incumbent upon you to show some other aspect of slavery that is per se problematic if you want to pick apart my argument. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, I greatly appreciate you support of my views vis a vis the NYTimes, the letters of Fr. Wildes SF and that gang of 18 yahoos. I also welcome this very cautious, thorough and incisive attempt on your part to get to the bottom of this intellectual challenge. Best regards, Walter

  24. 24 24 Steve Landsburg

    Walter Block:

    What do you see about slavery that is objectionable apart from it being compulsory?

    Nothing. I’m on you side on this. My only point is that I cannot, a priori, rule out the possibility that a reasonable person might have some other objection to slavery (perhaps an objection that you and I do not share, but nevertheless a reasonable one), and that person will not be convinced by your (and my) argument.

  25. 25 25 Harold

    If you look at my #3 you see one example of something bad about American slavery – the reinforcing of racism. You may argue that that is not a feature of slavery per se, but it is understandable that it was American slavery to which you refer (e.g. cotton picking).

    The “institution” of slavery in the USA was inherently racist, and re-inforced irrational stereotypes. This was a bad aspect of American slavery that was not defined by the involuntary association. People may pick cotton voluntarily, but they do not choose to be thought of as inferior. By owning people as slaves the view of them as inferior is reinforced.

  26. 26 26 iceman

    Will A – you’ll have to elaborate on what “imposed upon” means within a system based on voluntary exchange and association. [Passive tense suggestive of those evil dark lurking hidden forces keeping us down again?] E.g. on its face deciding to give someone a job would only seem to improve their prospects for survival / procreation

  27. 27 27 Harold

    Historical examples of what is considered exploitation are often dependent of some other restrictions. This is bit like slavery – if the options are reduced to such an extent we call it compulsory. If I point a gun at your head to make you work, you always have the option of being killed, but we generally consider you to have no choice, and thus exploited. Peasants in 18th century England were thrown off the land by the enclosure acts. This removed their option of scratching a precarious living on a few strips of land, leaving the only other option of working in the mill for subsistence wages. Is this exploitation? The worker has not really had a free choice, so exploitation is a possibility. Taking away access to land is like pointing a gun. The mill owner exploits the worker, made possible by the land owner removing the choices.

    This could be avoided if peasants were not thrown off the land, but offered compensation instead. Scratching a living is not too much fun, so they may well have accepted a bit of compensation from the landowner and a bit higher wages from the mill owner. The land owner and the mill owner would transfer some of their wealth to the peasants, and the result is happy efficiency, and everybody feels better off.

    If we ask is someone exploited, we have to consider if their choices have been restricted without compensation. This could go back generations.

  28. 28 28 Jim W K

    This involves a bit of further analysis.

    With the sorites paradox, we don’t have a clear demarcation of a heap at any point, we have a probability estimate, which is basically this: the probability of the grains of sand being a heap increases with the addition of each grain.

    I think the same can be said to be true for terms like ‘exploitation’ and ‘voluntary labour’. So possible examples could be:

    Exploitation:
    1) The probability of voluntary labour being exploitation increases with every increase in economic scarcity for the individual worker against increased profit for the corporation.

    But that’s not wholly satisfactory, as supply and demand largely dictates the price of labour, not some moral metric. Yet it must be said that the law of supply and demand can be a mechanism that capitalises on desperate people’s need to sell their labour, which rather begs the question and leads us back to the very thing we are discussing – at what point does opportunity capitalisation stop become a healthy part of the free market and turn into exploitative opportunism?

    Another possibility could be…

    2) The probability of voluntary labour being exploitation increases with every decrease in viable labour-selling alternatives for the individual worker.

    But that doesn’t suit either – it is not the corporation’s fault that opportunities in Bangladesh or Nigeria are scarce. Quite the contrary, actually – the corporation is helping create opportunities.

    Or maybe….

    3) The probability of voluntary labour being exploitation increases with the reduction of every currency unit below x, where x is equal to an agreed minima per country.

    The trouble is, who is to say what x is? And even if we agree on an x, our figure is bound to be either too low or too high. If it’s too high then it stops some people selling their labour, and if it’s too low then it is ineffectual

    Then we have voluntary labour…

    Voluntary Labour:
    1) The probability of voluntary labour being voluntary decreases with each imposition of coercive social forces linked to a person’s desperation.

    That is quite abstract, but given that these spectrums are all but impossible to measure accurately, that might be the best that we can do with the spectrum of involuntary-to-voluntary.

  29. 29 29 Will A

    @ iceman #26

    In regards to what “imposed upon” means specifically, you would probably want to read Marx’s explanation of the term. I pulled this off of the wiki page on Socialism (Marxism).

    But I think imposed upon is a decent term and used by both libertarians and socialists:
    -The need to hold a job for a mother who goes on maternity leave is imposed upon employers.
    -The need for a person needing to work to have something to eat is imposed upon individuals living in a country without food support for the unemployed.

    In fact the free-market libertarian Jim W K used it above (comment 28) in his explanation of what it means to be voluntary:
    The probability of voluntary labour being voluntary decreases with each imposition of coercive social forces linked to a person’s desperation.

    To be clear though iceman, the point I’m trying to make is that Jim W K is framing the discussions in a Marxist way (at least in a way a socialist appreciates).

    It is possible that Jim W K is a free-market libertarian. It is also possible that Jim W K has grown up in a world in which once Marxist ideas/memes become mainstream, they cease to be called Marxists. Also a world in which once capitalist ideas/memes become mainstream they are still capitalist.

    And as such any accusation that one has Marxist ideas/uses Marxist memes becomes extremely uncomfortable.

  30. 30 30 andy

    @Harold
    If I point a gun at your head to make you work, you always have the option of being killed, but we generally consider you to have no choice, and thus exploited.

    I think some libertarians define ‘voluntary’ in a sense ‘what happenes if I ignore the offer’. If I ignore the offer ‘work or I will kill you’, I will be killed. My rights would be infringed; such decision is not voluntary. However, if I am in a desert and I will be offered water in exchange for my work (and it could be reasonably inferred that I do not have rights to access the water), such decision would be considered ‘voluntary’, because nobody would infringe my rights if I decline the offer.

    I find this explanation reasonably consistent; ‘morality’ is something that has to do with ‘people’. The fact that ‘options are reduced’ is not important; what is important is if other people did infringe or threatened to infringe my rights.

    The question of land rights in the UK in 17/18 century is rather muddy in this regard. The industry owners were probably not connected with landowners, therefor calling it exploitation seems to me strange. The wages were determined by supply and demand. Given the situation in the cities, it was the best they could do. Calling such behaviour immoral seems to me rather strange considering that this was the best they could do.

  31. 31 31 Will A

    @ andy # 30

    Are you saying that a libertarian would say that the choice to work in exchange for water is voluntary? Or are you saying that a libertarian would say that this is not voluntary?

    If a libertarian wouldn’t say this is voluntary, who would say that this is voluntary?

  32. 32 32 Ken B

    @Walter Block 23
    I raised issues. Why not answer them?
    For example, you own Steve, having won him in a bet. Thus as a result of consensual action. He flees. You wish to enlist me, via the police power and taxes, to retrieve him. That to me is a cost. It will be to many, and will erode the rule of law. That is a cost, born by me, for your ownership of Steve.
    I expect your answer is you are an anarchist. But that would be no answer, because the question isn’t, what’s wrong with slavery under anarchism.

  33. 33 33 andy

    @Will A 31

    Yes, given the situation some libertarians would say that work in exchange for water is voluntary.

    In a situation ‘work or die’ the ‘or die’ is irrelevant to the question if the decision is voluntary or involuntary/compulsory (in a moral sense). If you come to the rich person and tell him ‘give me $1000 or I will burn your car’, you certainly wouldn’t call such transaction voluntary even though the rich person certainly has an option to live without one of his cars easily.

    Also, if millowners and landowners were not somehow connected, the question is if you could say the mill owners were ‘exploiting’. Suppose that instead of people being forced out of land, a boat full of people voluntarily deciding to take the journy would have landed at the shores of England. The situation would be perfectly identical, these people would get exactly same wages as the poor british, yet only the british could be called exploited?

  34. 34 34 Steve Landsburg

    Ken B, #32:

    For example, you own Steve, having won him in a bet. Thus as a result of consensual action. He flees. You wish to enlist me, via the police power and taxes, to retrieve him. That to me is a cost. It will be to many, and will erode the rule of law. That is a cost, born by me, for your ownership of Steve.

    But this is less a problem with slavery than a problem with property, no? Any time Walter’s property is stolen, and he calls on the power of the state to help retrieve it, he imposes a cost on the taxpaying population at large.

    Of course you might argue that for property in general, this is not a big enough problem to constitute a serious objection to the institution, whereas for slavery it is. But I think that would take a lot of arguing.

  35. 35 35 Ken B

    SL: “But this is less a problem with slavery than a problem with property, no?”

    It might be. I’ll get to that in a sceond. I just want to ask, do you think this is a reasonable objection? Because I think that’s the standard I have to meet.

    Is it a problem with property? partly, but not entirely. Most property does not fight back, or suffer when manhandled. I can I think rationally refuse to beat you senseless whatever property rights are involved without making any commitment about how I’ll treat a purloined sack of flour. Animals can be property too, but similar issues arise.
    I also don’t think you have answered both my points. It’s not merely my fastidiousness, it’s the widely felt illegitimacy of the institution. That was not perhaps a problem in 14 BCE, but it is here and now. the claim atr issue is whether there is anything objectionalble about slavery tout court, not just in an anarchist order.

    My objections really boil down to this. Slave holding does not just imply a relationship between slave and master; it implies a *slaveholding society*. I freely admit that many, Block certainly and perhaps yourself, don’t believe in society, just individuals. That might be right but it is certainly not inarguably right. (I don’t think it’s right at all.) After all if you argue that all there is s individuals, why is that the right level of division? You have individual neural circuits, and they have indivudual neurons. Why is only one level of constituents relevant? And once you grant that, that slavery like marriage or cartels has a social aspect, then you have conceded the issue. Because social concerns need not consider only the slave and master in isolation.

  36. 36 36 Ken B

    Sigh. Submitted too fast
    “After It’s not merely my fastidiousness, it’s the widely felt illegitimacy of the institution.” I meant to recap the point I made earlier: this raises the social cost of law enforcement by eroding legitimacy and requiring extra powers of compulsion.

  37. 37 37 Ken B

    Can a three year old consent to becoming a slave for life? If not please explain how the objection is just an objection to compulsion.

  38. 38 38 iceman

    Will A: I’d say allowing for the possibility of isolated ‘transactions’ where one party is desperate and unable to seek out a competing bid or offer (i.e. the notion to which JimWK may be trying to bring an open mind), versus claiming systematic exploitation of all workers, define the opposite ends of the spectrum. I note your first example invokes the govt, and of course that institution can place impositions on others via the legal monopoly on force. [Harold – enclosure acts also sound like things the govt did. Again beware the passive voice e.g. “peasants…were thrown off the land”.] In order to read a similar dynamic into voluntary exchange, Marx had to construct as his ‘passive-tense protagonists’ the bogeymen who “control the means of production”…but of course don’t take risk, forego consumption or more effectively organize production processes (all legitimate sources of profit).

    Just tossing this out there as a possible candidate for judging exploitation – would you be better off if the alleged imposer (or their company or the product or service they offer) didn’t exist?

  39. 39 39 iceman

    Ken B said “social concerns need not consider only the slave and master in isolation.”

    RJ care to comment?

  40. 40 40 Walter Block

    Dear Steve:

    You say you: “… cannot, a priori, rule out the possibility that a reasonable person might have some other objection to slavery (perhaps an objection that you and I do not share, but nevertheless a reasonable one), and that person will not be convinced by your (and my) argument.”

    We part company here. I do rule this out, apriori. We also part company in that while it would be nice to convince people, to me that is a long way, second, or fifth, or whatever, to getting to the Truth. I’m sort of surprised at this view of yours. I regarded the both of us, and I still do, despite this minor disagreement, as “full steam ahead damn the consequences” kinds of scholars, who really didn’t much concern themselves about convincing others, although that is always nice, but rather fixating on the truth as we see it.

    Best regards,

    Walter

  41. 41 41 Steve Landsburg

    Walter:

    I absolutely agree that the goal is to discover Truth. But I also think that if there’s a step in your argument that you believe might fail to convince a reasonable person, then, in the interest of Truth, it’s a good idea to give that step a closer look.

  42. 42 42 Henri Hein

    Since you are talking about exploitation again, I will mention Venditio again. Locke defines an unjust price as mostly market prices, in either directions. He does have some other examples, like this:

    A man has a horse. Another man wants to buy it, but the first man will not sell. The second man says, “But I really want your horse. Name any price!” The first man then says, “OK, for $40,000, I’ll sell you my horse.” The second man rescinds. Another man then comes along and really, desperately needs a horse. His business will go bankrupt if he doesn’t get one. The first man can not now charge more than his previous offer, because that would be taking advantage of the last man’s situation. He can justly charge him $40,000, but no more.

  43. 43 43 Henri Hein

    s/rescinds/retracts (rescind is a transitive verb)

  44. 44 44 Will A

    @ iceman #38

    To me (I can’t speak for Marx), the “who” in the passive voice for both cases in the government (more specifically those who control the government).

    I believe that social democratic governments can alleviate exploitation by providing programs like health care to the poor, wages to the unemployed (social security, et. al.), food to the poor (food stamps), etc. (I think that is active voice)

    A person who won’t starve when loosing a job isn’t likely to take a job that just gives him food where he is beaten.

    In my mind if a government can take action to avoid exploitation of its citizens, but doesn’t, then the government is at fault for the exploitation.

    Governments(technically those who control them) impose holding a job for maternity by passing a law

    Governments(technically those who control them) impose exploitation of children by not passing/enforcing child labor laws.

    To me this is what makes most Americans socialists. The EPA, FDA, Labor Laws, Civil Right Laws, Americans with Disabilities Act, social security, food stamps, etc. were all enacted because “The government needs to do something to prevent exploitation”

    This seems to be a very foreign concept to Libertarians. “That’s like saying if I see 10 gang member beating someone up, I’m at fault for not stopping it.”

    It’s almost as if a socialist mindset has been ingrained into Americans and Europeans.

  45. 45 45 Ken B

    Henri Hein
    Are you changing what you sed?

    :)

  46. 46 46 Ken B

    @40
    How convenient to dismiss a priori arguments you do not answer. I guess my goals are more modest than your lonely search for Truth. I’ll settle for good reasons, and doubt.

  47. 47 47 Brian

    “We also part company in that while it would be nice to convince people, to me that is a long way, second, or fifth, or whatever, to getting to the Truth.”

    Walter,

    Yes, it’s all about the Truth, not convincing people per se, but in the interest of Truth one must acknowledge the tendency of all people to favor their own pet arguments beyond the limits of logic and evidence. While one’s goal might not be to convince others, failure to convince almost everyone else should give one pause that either one’s arguments are weak in support of the Truth, or that your ideas are not the Truth at all. Careful scholars seriously and carefully consider the counterarguments against their positions as a way of holding their own bias in check.

  48. 48 48 Brian

    “What do you see about slavery that is objectionable apart from it being compulsory?…Is it not incumbent upon you to show some other aspect of slavery that is per se problematic if you want to pick apart my argument.”

    Walter,

    This is a reasonable challenge to direct at your detractors. Unfortunately for your position, it’s not hard to identify conditions of slavery that are objectively objectionable, apart from the issue of compulsion. Picking cotton, eating gruel, and living in a shack, etc.? OK, those are fine. But being whipped, having families permanently separated, and so on, seem to be objectively harmful to the individual. It is no defense to say that some people do those things consensually, since that makes your point by definition. In fact, people frequently choose things that are not in their best interest, and the lack of compulsion does not make them become advantageous. Whether chosen or not, whipping is not only painful and traumatizing, but it exposes one to the risk of disease and possible fatality. That’s why almost no one chooses to do such things. When people DO choose such things, we suspect they are not really right in the head.

    But beyond the obvious horrors, there are more subtle effects of institutional slavery. Harold and Ken B have already commented on negative social consequences, but even on the individual level there are clear problems. Slavery makes people think there are no other options; even if they are not compelled to think that way, their strategy space (if we express this in a game-theory sense) becomes artificially limited. This a serious limitation on their freedom, even if they don’t realize it. Oddly enough, it similarly limits the strategy space of their oppressors, who are certainly acting freely. The slave owners and slave-based community members become unable to see the advantages that would come from having all the slaves be free. They cause themselves and everyone in the community great harm through opportunity costs. These are objective harms that are embraced willingly, yet are inherent in the institution of slavery. Unless you are willing to analyze such considerations seriously and with an open mind, your arguments for the good of slavery (apart from compulsion) are not worthy of any scholar.

  49. 49 49 Jim WK

    A man has a horse. Another man wants to buy it, but the first man will not sell. The second man says, “But I really want your horse. Name any price!” The first man then says, “OK, for $40,000, I’ll sell you my horse.” The second man rescinds. Another man then comes along and really, desperately needs a horse. His business will go bankrupt if he doesn’t get one. The first man can not now charge more than his previous offer, because that would be taking advantage of the last man’s situation. He can justly charge him $40,000, but no more.<<<

    I think Locke failed to consider here that supply and demand need not be just about quantity of demand (i.e. number of people demanding) but about strength of demand and willingness to pay. Locke is probably right when the commodity is a non-specialised commodity like a horse, but replace horse with Van Gogh painting or signed C.S Lewis book, and things change.

    Tom offers $5000 for your signed C.S Lewis book. You need the money and think that's a pretty good price, so you accept. Tom agrees to give you the money at the weekend, but later rescinds. Friday night comes, and along comes Jeff who really really wants that signed copy and offers a handsome price – let's say $10,000. What's happened is that strength of demand has increased, meaning you can sell for $10,000 consistent with the fact that Jeff wanted the book twice as much as Tom.

  50. 50 50 Ken B

    Slave S is accused of murder.
    Who “owns” his right to a fair trial? I think this an absurd question, but the Block faction see EVERY right as a property right.so they need to answer.

    Can non slave N sell his right to a free trial, and what does that entail? By Block’s reasoning, and I think Steve’s, this requires an answer.
    Can the gov’t or anyone else sue in civil court andconfiscate this right to a fair trial? What happens if the govt the files criminal charges.

    Again I think these are adsurdities. That’s my point, since Block’s positions imply this stuff.

    If we find him guilty can we punish him or do we need Block’s permission? Can we execute him? Do the answers differ when the property is a sack of flour? If so I think Steve stands refuted.

  51. 51 51 Daniel

    @ Walter,

    Part of the problem I see here is that you equate two things, slavery and the civil rights acts as if the consequences of compulsion are of equal magnitude. The compulsions of the civil rights act forces individuals to serve others from time to time when they otherwise wouldn’t in return for compensation. In contrast, slavery forces people to serve others all the time for no pay. So sometimes, it’s “what” is being forced upon me that magnifies the harm of this compulsion. Maybe you said this at some point in the interview, if so I apologize, but if you had explicitly stated, “obviously the consequences of compulsion in the case of slavery are of much greater magnitude, but the civil rights act does compel people to a lesser degree”, I don’t think you’d have seen quite the same level of outrage from your colleagues. I was also “forced” to go to school from the age of 5-18, but I felt I was gaining much in return. If I was forced to eat a burger every Tuesday there might be times that I’d rather not eat a burger that day, but for the most part it would have minimal impact on the way I live my life. If such a law existed would you have used this as an example of compulsion in the same way you invoked the civil rights act?

  52. 52 52 Harold

    Andy# 30 iceman 38 et al. Lets say for arguments sake we start from a position that no truly freely chosen exchange can be exploitation. Say we have a peasant scratching a living. A landowner offers him some money to give up his right to access the land. If the fully informed peasant accepts then he is not exploited. However, he will probably not sell his right without some other way of surviving. If a factory owner exists that will offer him a job for a small wage, he is able in theory to weigh up the costs and benefits of scratching a living and working in the factory. If the factory job is preferable he may sell his right to access to the land cheaply. If he prefers work in the open air he will demand either higher wages or greater compensation to leave the land. All of these options can be arrived at without exploitation. Without doubt, the land becomes more productive when enclosed, and the factories need labor, so everyone can be made better off through voluntary exchange.

    Now lets say the landowner influences the Govt. to enact enclosure acts which result in loss of access to land without compensation. The landowner has exploited the peasant by getting his land for free. The peasant now finds himself destitute, not thorough choice but through circumstance. The mill owner offers him a wage below that which he would have willingly accepted in our first example, and through this makes “excess” profits. The mill owner exploits the workers lack of choice by getting his labor on the cheap. I don’t think we can say that the mill owner has not exploited the worker because he has not himself reduced the options of the worker – he has taken advantage of them for gain, that is exploitation.

    A properly working market would through competition prevent the mill owner exploiting the worker, and there would never be more than normal profits made. That is a different argument. I am trying to define exploitation.

    There are other ways to exploit. A fraudster exploits gullability by dishonestly convincing the victim of the inflated worth of a forgery for example. Although freely entered into, the exchange is still exploitative.

    The landowner may exploit the peasant’s ignorance by offering much less than the land is worth. The peasant is exploited through not being informed, and thus unable to make a rational choice. This may be freely given, but it is still exploitative. This may result in the mill owner further exploiting the peasant as in the enclosure example.

  53. 53 53 Harold

    Steve says “Someone might reply that (3) is true because slavery is defined to be involuntary association, and nothing more nor less. But I don’t think that’s true… So slavery must have some characteristics other than involuntary association — and that creates the possibility that it’s those other characteristics, not involuntary association, that make slavery bad.”

    Steve says slavery must have some characteristic other than involuntary association. If this is true, then this other characteristic may be objectionable. This is a simple matter of logic.

    Then we have this:
    WB: What do you see about slavery that is objectionable apart from it being compulsory?
    SL: “Nothing… cannot, a priori, rule out the possibility that a reasonable person might have some other objection to slavery (perhaps an objection that you and I do not share, but nevertheless a reasonable one), and that person will not be convinced by your (and my) argument.”
    WB: We part company here. I do rule this out, apriori.

    Walter does not examine this other aspect and rule it non objectionable; no, it is a priori. Objectionable means “arousing distaste or opposition; unpleasant or offensive.” How can we conclude without evidence that these other aspects to slavery are not objectionable? I think only by denying they exists. So Walter effectively rules out Steve’s assertion that there is some other aspect to slavery apart from involuntary association. Walter gives examples of things associated with slavery to which people sometimes consent to demonstrate that the only objectionable thing is involuntary association. People cite other objectionable aspects of slavery, such as slavery necessitates brutalisation, narrow mindedness and encourages racism and imposes costs on other members of society. Walter does not directly counter, but we surmise that he would say those aspects are not slavery, so not relevant.

    Which again brings us back to “An alternative form of the argument simply takes it as given that involuntary association is bad, but then of course the mention of slavery would be largely irrelevant.”

    This appears to be Walters position.

    It is not that Walter is wrong, but that he uses a arguments that do not allow him to be wrong, and thus the conclusions are largely useless when dealing with the real world. By a priori ruling out bad aspects of slavery, it narrows the meaning of slavery to such a point that we are dealing more or less with tautologies.

  54. 54 54 Ken B

    @Harold 53
    Sort of like this?
    “The only problem with small pox is when people catch it. People don’t catch it just because you release it it in a crowded theater. So there is nothing wrong with releasing smallpox in a crowded theatre.”
    Artifically isolating things by definition and ignoring real effects.

  55. 55 55 Harold

    Let’s run with that a bit. If we were to say that smallpox would not be bad except that people catch it, that is true if we define badness as harm to humans. If it were not transmittable, it wouldn’t be bad, no matter how much it would do to you if you could theoretically catch it. However, smallpox would also not be bad even if you catch it if caused no symptoms. So we cannot really say that the only bad thing about smallpox is the transmissibility. It is the transmissibility linked to pathogenicity that makes it bad.

    Would slavery be bad if there were no symptoms? Would the fact of ownership be bad if the owner exercised no control over the owned and the owned were not aware of it? If so, in what way is it bad? The owned suffers no loss, so what is the criteria for good and bad? Sure, no harm could follow if there were no ownership, but equally no harm follows if there is no exercising of the ownership.

  56. 56 56 Daniel

    @ Harold,

    It’s definitely a combination of things that leads to the horror of slavery. If it was just the involuntary part making it horrible, than we wouldn’t be able to come up with any examples of involuntary things that occur that are actually good. Nobody.Really pointed this out earlier but our entire existence is, as far as we know, involuntary. So, we can’t say categorically that all things which are involuntary are bad.

    I think it’d also be helpful to give another analogy which will help explain why Walter’s colleagues had such a strong reaction to his statement. Let’s pretend you have a friend. Your friend is undergoing cancer treatment and he tells you that “the pain of treatment was so terrible, and that the treatments for cancer wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the pain.” You than remark, “Yeah, pain is terrible, like that time I stubbed my toe. Stubbing my toe wouldn’t have been nearly as bad if not for the pain.”

    Can anyone say that this is not an absurd reaction to what your friend just told you? It’s this type of faulty logic with Walter’s claim that so upset his colleagues. When you equate two things through a single condition without giving any caveats, especially when including something as obviously horrible as slavery without giving an equally horrible analogy you should you’re opening yourself up for all sorts of ridicule. What Walter was doing was equating two things on a single condition and expecting people not to point out the other obvious differences between slavery and the civil rights movement that could be the source of horribleness (sorry bad word).

  57. 57 57 Henri Hein

    Jim WK:

    I can assure you, Locke was keenly aware of the difference between commodities and novelties. Don’t judge him based on my hashed excerpt. I just wanted to give a nugget from the essay to entice people to read it.

  58. 58 58 Harold

    Daniel: “It’s definitely a combination of things that leads to the horror of slavery.”
    But Walter says “I do rule this out, apriori.” – that is that there is something objectionable about slavery other than the compulsion. He does not believe it is a combination of things but only a single thing. If we accept this then he is just making a point, maybe in a way that is intended to provoke, but that can be a way of making your point. The problem as I see it is that he has failed to make this point with his explanation. Because something is a necessary cause does not make it the only cause.

    Slavery would not be bad if not for the compulsion. However, that only makes compulsion a necessary cause of badness, not the only cause. The ability to compel would not be bad unless it is exercised against the wishes of the enslaved.

    “than we wouldn’t be able to come up with any examples of involuntary things that occur that are actually good.” Perhaps Walter only recognises ability to make choices at adulthood, although I am guessing here. Thus accident of birth does not count. I suspect that he would not believe there are examples of compulsion of adults that are good, again I am extrapolating, perhaps unfairly.

  59. 59 59 iceman

    Harold – clearly we can agree that fraud is theft, so we have govts enforce laws against such exploitation. It gets more dicey when you get into whether people of ‘sound mind’ and ‘consenting age’ are ignorant or irrational. But setting those caveats or ‘special cases’ aside, I would say in your enclosure example technically the govt is the only entity that had the power to steal the guy’s land (the landowner may be complicit and guilty of graft & corruption or something). However the mill owner made the situation marginally better (see my proposed definition in 38).
    I’m still trying to understand how Will A defines exploitation and, therefore, who other than the govt he thinks can be the *source* of it.
    Will A – I would add that it’s possible for people to decide a) to help people because they simply need help for reasons that may have nothing to do with exploitation (e.g. food stamps); and b) to vote for a govt program as the means to help someone due entirely to reasons of pragmatism not principle (perhaps done with reservations and conflicted sentiments)

  60. 60 60 Daniel

    @ Harold,

    Right, I understand that, obviously if I could choose something bad not to happen to me, it would make it not bad since it wouldn’t occur. But that doesn’t mean that everything that happens or whom I am involuntary associated with will necessarily be bad even on an individual level. Things that are forced upon us that can be good as an adult:

    The sun setting
    Street performers
    Crickets in the spring
    The first snow in winter
    etc.

  61. 61 61 Ken B

    Here’s a thought experiment. O has a magic can opener that completely controls S. S is enslaved but this was done with O’s consent. Blockburg argue that in this case there is no harm. Only O and S are involved.

    My main point is that since there is no magic can opener the arrangement must involve others, and so there are grounds to object.

    I think there are other objections possible even with the magic can opener. What if O lied to S? What if O tricked S? What if S is a three year old?

  62. 62 62 Harold

    Iceman 59. I don’t agree with your proposed definition. “would you be better off if the alleged imposer (or their company or the product or service they offer) didn’t exist?” Technically in this case it would not be exploitation if a slave were bought by someone who treated them slightly better.

    I think if someone takes advantage of another’s misfortune for their own gain they are exploiting them, even if they are improving the lot of the exploited. We come back to similar examples again. I pay my worker $10 and hour and obtain $12 benefit and I am happy with the situation because it is worth $2 to me to employ him. I am making normal profit – that which makes it worth while to me to carry on with the enterprise. If I were to pay him less he would move to the employer across the road. If I had to pay him more I would not bother to employ him at all. I think this is economic efficiency. Now the employer across the road shuts down, so I offer my worker $8 an hour. He has little choice but to accept, since his elderly bedridden mother needs him to stay around and there is no other employer. Since he has accepted, his situation is better for my existence, but I am still exploiting him. I am now making more than normal profits and the worker suffers poverty and does not receive proper compensation for his labors.

    Perhaps a better definition is if someone is paid less than they would be in a perfectly competitive market they are being exploited. Thus no employer should be making more than normal profits long term.

    So exploitation can occur through any failure of the market – be it Govt. interference, monopoly, monopsony etc.

  63. 63 63 Harold

    Ken B can you elucidate on your can opener? It is not clear to me.

  64. 64 64 andy

    The mill owner offers him a wage below that which he would have willingly accepted in our first example, and through this makes “excess” profits. The mill owner exploits the workers lack of choice by getting his labor on the cheap. I don’t think we can say that the mill owner has not exploited the worker because he has not himself reduced the options of the worker – he has taken advantage of them for gain, that is exploitation.

    But it seems you assume something that is not so. Let’s assume you have 2 people – one didn’t have any land rights, the other did have them, but had them taken away by the government. The mill owner operates on a market and offers strictly the market wage; when market passes the law, there are excess workers which push the market wage of these workers down.

    Are you saying that the mill owner is not exploiting worker no.1 and is exploiting worker no.2? In order to act morally, is he supposed not to employ worker no.2? Or is he supposed in such case pay worker no.2 more than worker no.2, because sometime in history worker no.2 would not work for such wage had the government robbed him of his property?

  65. 65 65 andy

    Perhaps a better definition is if someone is paid less than they would be in a perfectly competitive market they are being exploited. Thus no employer should be making more than normal profits long term.

    If somebody is paid more than on perfectly competetive market, does it mean that the employer is being exploited?

    How do you know somebody is being paid less than on perfectly competitive market when… there is no perfectly competive market? Do you mean that anything except perfectly competitive market is immoral? What if a product cannot be produced on perfectly competitive market (P=MR=MC), but given the structure of demand and supply only on discriminating monopoly market?

    Is generating above-normal profit ‘exploitation’? If so, than those startups are immoral; 90% loses, 10% gets above-normal profit. If a company invests in Africe precisely in order to handsomely profit, are you saying it is ‘exploitative’? If they decided to pay the workers more (above-market-clearing-wage), they would have significantly less profit and there would be significantly less firms investing in africa. And that is supposed to be ‘good’?

  66. 66 66 iceman

    61 – on your minor points, I think any thoughtful libertarian would consider transactions involving people who are deceived or very young to lie outside the description of “voluntary arrangements among consenting adults”.

  67. 67 67 iceman

    Harold – I’m trying to focus on voluntary exchanges (I presume a slave’s wage is well below any standard of fairness we might set). My tentative standard of “at least doing something” also seems consistent with SL’s comments on the oddity of the minimum wage burden being targeted at those who are actually doing some hiring. You may or may not feel that adds to its credibility :)

    But I think you’ll have a hard time fleshing out yours into something workable. For starters, some like RJ say PC is imaginary. I tend to agree in the sense that increased efficiency is not just a legitimate real-world source of profits but a net social good. And as andy suggests, even in your ‘stylized example’ it’s not clear how to determine what constitutes a competitive wage in a 1-shop town (e.g. a location can be more or less desirable for a host of reasons…btw if we lured the factory with incentives did we exploit taxpayers?). So maybe we’re better off sticking with the notion of a ‘normally expected’ price. Regardless we seem to have a problem of fairness being “path dependent”. E.g. we reach a different conclusion if there never was another factory there? What if they both leave? Then your guy has no choice but to move with his mother, at least in your scenario he has the option of staying. So maybe the real source of any injury is the departure of the other factory…in which case do we have cause to forbid that?

    I actually sympathize with the case you’re trying to make, but at best I can subscribe to it in the short term (i.e. people are less mobile), and even that can get thorny. Consider the classic case for alleged “gouging”, when prices rise after a natural disaster for basic essentials or building materials. The classic response is, how better would you expect to encourage suppliers to move resources to an area that’s in shortage? That’s about as real world as it gets.

  68. 68 68 nobody.really

    WB: What do you see about slavery that is objectionable apart from it being compulsory?
    SL: “Nothing… cannot, a priori, rule out the possibility that a reasonable person might have some other objection to slavery (perhaps an objection that you and I do not share, but nevertheless a reasonable one), and that person will not be convinced by your (and my) argument.”
    WB: We part company here. I do rule this out, apriori.

    Walter does not examine this other aspect and rule it non objectionable; no, it is a priori. Objectionable means “arousing distaste or opposition; unpleasant or offensive.” How can we conclude without evidence that these other aspects to slavery are not objectionable? I think only by denying they exists. So Walter effectively rules out Steve’s assertion that there is some other aspect to slavery apart from involuntary association.

    I sense Block is embracing a stylized libertarian concept of “objectionable.” He doesn’t use the term to mean subjectively “arousing distaste or opposition; unpleasant or offensive”; he uses it to mean “violating the norms of libertarianism.” You may find plenty of things unpleasant or offensive, and they may arouse your distaste or opposition, but Block does not acknowledge any of your concerns that extend beyond your personal sphere of autonomy. He doesn’t care if you disapprove of his religion – or his practice of torturing Labradors to death on his own property, but in plain sight of all the neighbors.

    And here’s a huge problem with libertarianism: Evidence strongly suggests that the great majority of humans are inflicted with COMPASSION – the unwilling and unbidden drive to identify with the plight of others. Thus, you may freely make a decision to enter into slavery, and may subsequently come to regret that decision. You will bear the cost of your decision. But so will everyone who feels compassion for you – including people who had no voice in your choice to sell yourself into slavery.

    Compassion creates HUGE externality problems – at least for people who experience it. (In my experience, libertarians rarely seem to recognize this problem – perhaps because they are blessed with a lack of compassion?) Thus, many societies seem to adopt rules that putatively protect people from themselves – but, I surmise, are actually designed to protect the sensibilities of compassionate bystanders. The prohibition on voluntary slavery may well fall into this category.

  69. 69 69 Ken B

    @iceman 66
    Well if so then block is wrong because this is something other than compulsion. Right? I tricked you, or drugged you, but I didn’t kidnap you.

    Anyway I’m sure you are right, that,they’d say it. But that’s not demonstrating it. Libertarianism cannot handle children. Full stop.

  70. 70 70 Harold

    Andy “If somebody is paid more than on perfectly competitive market, does it mean that the employer is being exploited?” Someone is being exploited – the employer directly, then he may pass this on to other employees by exploiting them in turn.

    “How do you know somebody is being paid less than on perfectly competitive market when… there is no perfectly competitive market?” You don’t, but this is not important for my definition. Defining something and identifying it are different things. It may be possible to identify obvious cases – such as the peasants thrown off the land.

    “Is generating above-normal profit ‘exploitation’?” I did say long term. Above normal profit is necessary as a signal to the market – as Ken B pointed out in another post. This should not persist beyond the time it takes for others to join the market.

    “What if a product cannot be produced on perfectly competitive market (P=MR=MC), but given the structure of demand and supply only on discriminating monopoly market?” Then exploitation is possible. Clearly nothing can actually be produced in a totally competitive market.

    Iceman – I think your objections are included in my comments above. Identifying exploitation is probably going to be difficult, but my definition gives us a starting point.
    “it’s not clear how to determine what constitutes a competitive wage in a 1-shop town” Whether we can determine the competitive wage is different from whether there actually is one. My definition can still work even if we struggle to identify it. If we can accept a definition, then we can work on how to recognise it.

    If we say any voluntary exchange is not exploitation, then to my mind this misses obvious cases of exploitation. Effectively, what my definition says is that any voluntary exchange that is based entirely on previous voluntary exchanges is not exploitation. “At least doing something” does not get us close. The mill owner employing the destitute peasant thrown off the land for very low wages is exploiting the peasant. The slaver who offers slaves an extra bowl of gruel may get then to choose him, but he is still exploiting them. He is “doing something” but he is clearly exploiting them. This demonstrates the principle that one can exploit others even if they choose to work for you.

    “transactions involving people who are deceived or very young lie outside the description of “voluntary arrangements among consenting adults”. We exclude children because they are not capable of making rational informed choices. It seems absurd to claim that the system of voluntary exchange will fail in children, but work perfectly in adults. If everyone over 15 suddenly vanished, the best way of running things may be through voluntary exchanges among the children, but we accept that this will be far from perfect. It seems reasonable that the same applies to adults.

  71. 71 71 iceman

    Ken B – “I tricked you, or drugged you, but I didn’t kidnap you.” Mmm sounds like semantics to me – all ways of making someone do what they wouldn’t choose to do — but I suspect you could convince me otherwise :)

    “Libertarianism cannot handle children.” Not some fatal flaw – for practical purposes even the most ardent statist has to draw arbitrary chronological lines for driving, voting (?), serving in the military, drinking alcohol etc. And in terms of a guiding principle I guess the alternative – generally preferred by the statist – is to treat adults like they’re children.

    On this Harold adds “we exclude children because they are not capable of making rational informed choices.” Correct, “full stop”. Nobody claimed this will “work perfectly in adults”, that’s a straw man. The alternative I just mentioned is far from idyllic as well.

    nobody.really – you identify a good issue – how much the psychic effect of our actions on others should count in our utility calculus — but watch the gratuitous ad hominems. Perhaps it’s not so much that someone “doesn’t care” whether you disapprove of his religious practices, but rather finds it too presumptuous to assert that you must change them simply because he “doesn’t care” for them (absent any other more direct, concrete impact on him…note we could assign some rights to animals too but that’s a whole nuther topic). Always a good exercise to imagine the power you think you want falling into the wrong hands. Perhaps libertarians also recognize that compassion *as pursued through non-voluntary means* has in practice been a source of much misery…the road to hell and all…

    Harold – I would suggest any meaningful notion of equilibrium wage in your 1-factory town would have to include the effect of people leaving for employment elsewhere (i.e. balancing pecuniary and non-pecuniary considerations). However you seem to have an a priori that if they’re driven to this point they’ve been exploited. Difficult to reconcile with the general proposition of a dynamic economy. Again we agree slaves are extorted. But you also say, again in passive tense, “the destitute peasant thrown off the land” – by whom? A govt act right? In my book if the mill owner bribed them to do it or something than they’re all guilty of exploitation. If not the mill owner is giving the peasant an option to improve his lot *relative to if there is no mill*. Is he duty bound to run a mill? I don’t think you’ve addressed issues like that. My standard certainly seems easier to apply.

  72. 72 72 Harold

    Iceman – the passive tense is deliberate. The mill owner does not have to do the throwing off to exploit the worker. The slave owners wife may exploit the slaves without any violence on her part. It is the husband who enslaves, but the wife may still exploit the slave because the slaves options have been reduced without consent by another.

    The one factory town in artificial – a model if you like. In this model the worker cannot move to another town for some reason. It is to demonstrate a principle rather than model the real world. Economic arguments often start with a world in which there are only apples and oranges to consider.

  73. 73 73 Ken B

    2iceman
    children are not a *logical* problem for most of us, or for nazis. they are for those who insist as a matter of principle on ‘non aggression’ or similar principles to derive morality and law deductively.

  74. 74 74 Ken B

    iceman, here s walter block stating the NAP
    ‘It states, simply, that it shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another.’

    Sounds nice and simple doesn’t it? But of course it omits the difficult cases, like children. So that means all its really really good for is pretending that you’re following some simple and supposedly clear principle when in fact you’re not. If you make exceptions you’re not following the principle as annunciated.

  75. 75 75 iceman

    Ken B – seems what bothers you is that not following “anyone” with “of sound mind and consenting age” — which I take as implied — makes it seem overly facile. Or you simply don’t accept a philosophy centered on the notion of consent for all who are able (thereby leaving a moral obligation to those who are not, at least in the view of many). Like I said it seems to me the alternative is to treat ALL adults like children to some degree, i.e. make the exceptions the rule which never seems optimal.
    I guess this hasn’t struck me as a *logical* flaw, just a line (bright in theory, blurrier in practice) that must be drawn. I’d expect any system (that we might actually want) encounters such blurred lines which can be a raison d’etre for judicial branch. Of course nazis certainly do offer the virtue of consistency.
    [BTW I had not heard of Prof. Block 2 weeks ago :)]

    Harold – I appreciate models (the simpler the better for me), and in your 1-shop universe then the notion of a competitive wage seems irrelevant so you’re back to “expected” or some other notion of fairness (still not sure how you establish it even in those terms, especially in your model…maybe you need RJ’s reservation wages after all?).

    And I keep trying to move past examples of slavery :), but ok – the analogy to the mill offering a job would be if the slaveowner’s wife, rather than making them work more, sneaks down from time to time to give them a few pennies they can stash away (call it just enough that her husband won’t notice). In which case you still say she’s exploiting them (assume she has no way of persuading her husband to free them or otherwise change their conditions). In which case we simply part ways I guess.

  76. 76 76 Ken B

    Iceman
    What I object to is the claim that morality or good law can be deduced from a simply stated principle or small set of them. We always know more about a particular case than about the generalities. When you probe you always find these exceptions, but you never find the recognition that therefore the claim to consistency, rigor, and principle is a pretense. Serious debate looks at the particulars and not just logical consistency with some previously enunciated “axiom”; that is dodging debate not advancing it. I object to the bogus claim to the high ground, made from the low ground.

  77. 77 77 Harold

    “the analogy to the mill offering a job would be if the slaveowner’s wife, rather than making them work more, sneaks down from time to time to give them a few pennies they can stash away” No! This would be like the mill owner giving money to the poor – that is clearly not exploitation and very clearly not the same as profiting from their labor.

    “notion of a competitive wage seems irrelevant so you’re back to “expected” or some other notion of fairness”. It seems to me that the best definition of “fair” is that which would arise from a properly free market. I don’t see why this is a problem in principle. I of course still leaves quite a way to go to define “properly free market”, but it does benefit from actually maximising efficiency. I don’t see why this is a problem. Despite the difficulties of identifying the actual “free market rate”, it does allow us to at least spot the more egregious cases of exploitation and to clearly say why it is exploitation. Remember, it still requires more than just an individual suffering an injustice. It is quite possible for a mill owner to employ a destitute peasant at the “proper” wage, and not to exploit him. Just because he has been “thrown off the land” does not mean that any future employer has exploited him.

  78. 78 78 iceman

    Ken B – I understand, while admitting it’s hard not to feel that since you have to start somewhere in evaluating cases, a principle of non-aggression (/preference for outcomes that minimize aggression) is inherently preferable to…something that does not eschew aggression? (Now surely that’s too facile.) But as a general rule I choose to assume everyone has good intentions.

    Harold – but to call it charity, while remaining consistent with your mill example, you seem to have to discount the fact that the slaveowner’s wife is surely benefitting from her husband’s coercive actions? Here’s how I was looking at it:

    You posit that a govt kicks someone off his land, or a mill shuts down (= a loss / injury), subsequent to which another mill owner (for whom let’s assume these are exogenous events, i.e. he is not complicit in them and unable to change them) voluntarily offers more money than the person is *currently* making (as jobless and landless), *which they voluntarily accept*. You call that exploitation because the mill owner “benefits from his labor” – seemingly ignoring the benefit to the worker *relative to their actual alternative*. Your basis for this seems to be a presumption that the owner is in a position of relative power to push the wage below a fair split of the benefits — as assessed by some appeal to a market wage that reflects more equally balanced conditions.

    Trying to work with your coercion-based example, I compare this to a man who enslaves someone (the loss / injury), subsequent to which his wife (who let’s assume with similar charity is not complicit in her husband’s decision and is powerless to change it) voluntarily gives the slaves some compensation — but in this case presumably still *less than they would voluntarily accept* for such an arrangement. You do NOT call this exploitation because she has improved their situation relative to the *current* alternative, seemingly ignoring the fact that the wife is already benefitting from the labor / economics of her husband’s actions. I.e. you are not ascribing to her the benefits of being in a position of relative power. (Obviously if she simply puts them to work for her own purposes with no compensation, as implied in your original example, she’s complicit or worse in her husband’s exploits. But you were suggesting this is analogous to the mill owner hiring someone.)

    It seems to me this notion you require of a proper or competitive or expected wage hits a cul de sac – confining the example to a 1-shop universe doesn’t seem to allow any basis for construing these notions, and an expanded notion of equilibrium has to allow for wages in one town to fall to levels that would induce people to leave. That would seem to serve efficiency and not be unfair. And this provides a basis for wages to fall after your two-mill town becomes a one-mill town, one that doesn’t support assigning the injury to the mill that is still hiring.

    Gotta run, that’s about as coherent as I can try to make it for now.

  79. 79 79 Ken B

    Iceman
    Block and others do not present the NAP as a start, but as the whole. Just read the Block formulation I gave. He means it, he argues parents can starve their children. Because that principle allows it.

  80. 80 80 Harold

    Iceman, just to summarise –
    1) I think it is possible for voluntary exchanges to be exploitative. 2) I have defined a criterion for exploitation based on a hypothetical “free market”.
    Do you disagree with 1), 2) or both?
    If it is just 2), what is your alternative definition?

  81. 81 81 iceman

    79 – Well I confess that’s a new one – can’t quite imagine how one would square starving a child with a principle of “non-aggression”…e.g. at some point it seems you’d have to actively prevent them from accessing food? Anyway I guess there he and I would part ways – not that he would likely care, but most libertarians I know put children (or anyone not deemed capable of informed and mature content) in a different category.

    80 – Concision is good at this point. 1) yes I hold open the possibility, but in limited and isolated circumstances, again say where one is desperate (e.g. in a sense of immediate subsistence) and lacks any viable alternatives, and/or is otherwise not capable of informed consent. Whereas you would seem to allow this notion to apply more systematically, which I think is a much more difficult case – especially, I would note, within your “competitive” model. Which brings us to…
    2) I think trying to cast this moral issue in economic terms is a tricky business – even circular as I suggested. My proposed definition (mostly for the sake of argument) was a price that deviates substantially from “expected”, based on the specific circumstances and alternatives.
    But I guess the bottom line is it’s great for you to have a personal notion of fairness; trying to objectify it into some general standard to apply to voluntary interactions that those directly involved deem mutually beneficial seems to me to be quite problematic.

  82. 82 82 Harold

    “But I guess the bottom line is it’s great for you to have a personal notion of fairness; trying to objectify it into some general standard to apply to voluntary interactions that those directly involved deem mutually beneficial seems to me to be quite problematic.”
    Problematic in practice or in principle? My definition has the benefit of objectivity. We can in principle identify a single point of maximum efficiency which incorporates everybody’s preference. If we deviate form this by someone taking a greater share, then by definition other people get worse off by a greater amount than he gets better off. This is exploitation.

  83. 83 83 iceman

    I think we’ve already agreed it’s problematic in practice (whereas mine seems to involve much less theorizing about what some mythical equilibrium might look like), and I’m suggesting that reflects some deeper issues as well. I think your standard has an *illusion* of objectivity to it, e.g. on its face “maximizing benefits” has a distinctly utilitarian ring, while seeking an “objective” justification to interfere in (at least if as broadly applied as you seem to desire) mutually acceptable outcomes. Of course negotiations and transactions often don’t actually wind up meeting precisely in the middle; some here seem to see a systematic problem in that based on the presumption that employers generally have “the power”, which I think warrants closer inspection. This certainly seems to fit your construct, where I also maintain it’s not even clear how the notion of a “market wage” is applicable, since equilibrium requires interaction, which is why in your 1-shop universe it would seem on its face that whatever arrangement is reached is the (new) market wage. Which is why I say your position seems really to devolve into a personal notion of what’s “fair” (some people think fairness or justness importantly includes the *process* by which ex post outcomes and distributions are reached). For example it’s not clear to me why we would expect two separate 1-shop universes (between which interaction is not possible and within which all other circumstances and preferences are presumably not equal) to produce the same “market” wage. So anytime circumstances change, especially if we expand the model to allow for interactions between towns, fairness doesn’t seem to have much to do with “but I used to get this”.

  84. 84 84 Harold

    “fairness doesn’t seem to have much to do with “but I used to get this”.”

    I agree. If we re-visit our mill town. Say the lord of the manor steals the peasants’ land. That is irrelevant to the mill owner / worker relationship. We now have lots of new destitute workers on the market, so the wage will tend to go down. The mill owner will naturally pay less for his workers, but that is not exploitation under my definition. If the mill owner keeps on taking normal profit (maybe because of competition with other mills) then he can take on more workers and make more stuff, or reduce the price of his goods. He makes a little more, and the benefits of the reduced wage are also distributed to the eventual gain of all. However, if the mill owner puts the savings into his pocket, he does not make any more stuff. The benefits accrue only to him. This is exploitation.

    I am not here suggesting how it may be possible for the mill owner to pocket more than normal profits, merely saying that if that is the case, I would define that as exploitation.

  85. 85 85 iceman

    I think my basic problem is that your example seeks a remedy for an ‘injury’ not from the real injuring party, but from a third party who we’ve not only stipulated (for argument’s sake) is not responsible for or complicit in the injury, but rather has actually already improved the injured parties’ options. The peasants demonstrate that they prefer the mill owner’s offer to being landless and jobless, yet the lord of the manor gets away with stealing the land scot-free while we look instead to the mill owner to unilaterally sweeten his terms? That seems like a pretty weak position in terms of fairness. (Is it simply that the lord of the manor is too powerful, which somehow justifies looking elsewhere for the most convenient source of redress?) Arguably it gets even weaker when we extend the examples to other (non-criminal) factors involving an increase in the supply of labor relative to demand in a particular area (another factory closes, an influx of workers from another area for whatever reason etc.), and especially when we expand the time horizon to allow more ways for new equilibria to be reached.

  86. 86 86 nobody.really

    nobody.really – you identify a good issue – how much the psychic effect of our actions on others should count in our utility calculus — but watch the gratuitous ad hominems. Perhaps it’s not so much that someone “doesn’t care” whether you disapprove of his religious practices, but rather finds it too presumptuous to assert that you must change them simply because he “doesn’t care” for them (absent any other more direct, concrete impact on him…note we could assign some rights to animals too but that’s a whole nuther topic).

    I didn’t intend any gratuitous ad hominems; I intended only relevant ad homiems. That is, I conjecture that the difference in the conclusions individuals draw might reflect the difference in how those individuals experience the world – and particularly, that some people experience more compassion than others.

    That said, I regret saying that Block “doesn’t care if you disapprove of his religion – or his practice of torturing Labradors to death on his own property, but in plain sight of all the neighbors.” Block asked, “What do you see about slavery that is objectionable apart from it being compulsory?” I speculated that Block used the term “objectionable” in an objective sense of “violating the norms of libertarianism” rather than in a subjective sense of “arousing distaste or opposition; unpleasant or offensive.” Thus, it was not helpful for me to illustrate this point by using the phrase “doesn’t care,” a term that suggests a subjective rather than an objective sensibility. I should have said that Block may not find it relevant if you disapprove of his religion or his practice of torturing Labradors on his property.

    (And no, I have no reason to think Block tortures Labradors. It was just an example of things that Block might regard as within his sphere of autonomy – things that many people might find subjectively “objectionable” but not objectively “objectionable.” If this was the ad hominem you are referring to, I apologize.)

    Always a good exercise to imagine the power you think you want falling into the wrong hands. Perhaps libertarians also recognize that compassion *as pursued through non-voluntary means* has in practice been a source of much misery…the road to hell and all….

    Quite so in general. In this case, however, I did not propose any reallocation of power. My remarks were descriptive, not proscriptive. In this context, I wasn’t intending to argue against libertarian policy, but merely to argue that the policy leaves many interests undefended. A shift away from libertarian policy – say, toward civil rights — arguably better defends some interests that libertarianism does, but leaves some other interests more vulnerable. The point is not to say which trade-off is better, but to acknowledge that there *is* a trade-off. The objective use of the term “objectionable” obscures these trade-offs.

  87. 87 87 Harold

    Iceman 85. The land owner should not get off scot-free – it is just that the injury he causes to the peasant is a different one from the mill owner.

    Take an extreme analogy. The land owner knocks out a man, ties him to a tree and steals his wallet. Along comes the mill owner. He could untie the victim, which the victim would choose. Or he could offer to feed the victim in return for using him for sexual gratification. The victim may choose to be fed and raped rather than be left to die. However, the mill owner would have exploited the victim even though he did not tie him up and the victim volunteered for the service. That does not mean that the landowner is not also guilty of the initial offence. To say that the mill owner has improved the victims situation – because he will not now starve to death, does not get the mill owner off the hook.

  88. 88 88 iceman

    86 — no apologies necessary, I just find there’s this elephant running around many a room whispering in people’s ears “the only way to be compassionate is through govt” (i.e. with other people’s $…aka renting compassion on the cheap?). As you probably know there’s some evidence that those who prefer a charity state actually do give more to charity. Yes there are always trade-offs — importantly including that between providing aid & comfort and institutionalizing dependency. For what it’s worth I tend to think of it as, there are always some who are “vulnerable”, and part of the libertarian’s message is “either way it’s up to ‘us’ – via coercive means, or appeals to our better nature”. Many people seem resigned to a (strikingly) pessimistic presumption that the latter cannot be “enough” – one can only hope that they at least mean this in terms of an optimal level, as suggested anytime we acknowledge the presence of trade-offs. I also find it helpful to consider that there is a ‘market of ideas’ for how best to help people, and the best ideas are often not (or not often) one-size-fits-all. And finding optimal levels and tailored solutions are not characteristics I typically associate with a natural environment for govt policy to operate within, e.g. in terms of its “first functions”.

    87 — Setting aside a debate over legalized prostitution (which presumably no one ever engages in by preference (?) other than that they perceive it as their best alternative), your (previous non-sexualized) example still seems to boil down to wanting the mill owner to compensate the peasants for the injury inflicted by the lord of the manor to a greater degree than (s)he has already offered. My sticking point is that I think we both acknowledge the mill owner is not making the situation worse only better, not adding to the real injury (though perhaps you take his offer as adding insult). Again this suggests to me that at bottom we’re conflating businesses with charities. I can think it would be wonderful if the mill owner used some of his profits to donate to a fund for displaced landworkers, without drawing any broader conclusions about the *fairness* of *his* actions. I would instead reserve all of my outrage for the lord (of the manor – don’t want to risk appeasing the atheists here).

  89. 89 89 Harold

    Iceman- you are missing the point. I am not asking for the mill owner to be charitable. I am asking for him to offer the market wage from which the mill owner will benefit. The reason I keep going to extreme examples is because you do not see the point with moderate examples. If it is possible for the mill owner to exploit the victim tied to the tree whilst making the victims situation better (feeding him instead of letting him starve to death), why is this not also possible in principle for the mill owner to exploit the landless peasant whilst still improving the peasants situation?

  90. 90 90 iceman

    Nothing else going on here so…

    I think I’m making the point I wanted to make: the only reason you can claim you’re not asking the mill owner to be charitable is because you’ve defined fairness in this case as requiring more than what is necessary to achieve a mutually agreeable exchange. (You are clearly asking him to benefit less.) I.e. this is a bit circular. You’re couching your preferred standard of fairness in terms of a generic “market wage” (as opposed to the wage at which two market participants actually transact) to make this seem less subjective (e.g. grounded in good ol’ positive economics). But I’m suggesting that even on your terms, a) the broader your examples the less likely it is that conditions will apply where you can credibly declare an outcome to be ‘off-market’; and b) this external standard isn’t even applicable to your “extremely” narrow examples (since it requires reference to some other marginal transaction).

    If you want to drop the market wage bit and just talk about “fairness”, as I said I think we can find some agreement at least in the “extreme” category (in which someone is short-term desperate and unable to enlist competition on their behalf — including the ability to move).

    Let me try this one other way: I presume you do not think the mill owner is obligated to hire the displaced peasants, and would not describe it as exploitative if he does not make them an offer at all, right? Yet if he does, you’re in the position of saying one action is exploitative even if preferred by the workers to an alternative action of his that is not exploitative. Which frankly seems perverse. Is it simply because the owner benefits too? Some would call that a win-win and move on (maybe to lobby for that fund for displaced workers).

  91. 91 91 Harold

    “as I said I think we can find some agreement at least in the “extreme” category (in which someone is short-term desperate and unable to enlist competition on their behalf — including the ability to move).”

    So we agree that the extreme cases are exploitative, we agree that mutually agreeable exchanges can be exploitative, even if they are win-win. This leaves us with a bit of a problem to decide when a mutually agreeable exchange is or is not exploitative.

    If the person is not able to move, then exploitation is possible, but what if it is just extremely difficult to move? He could escape by cutting off a hand, but prefers to stay and be fed. I don’t see a demarcation that makes more sense than mine – not to say that there isn’t one.

  92. 92 92 iceman

    We agree the humane thing to do would be to untie the guy from the tree. And maybe give him some food if he needs it. But I see no role there for the notion of a market wage, and the only version of your mill stories I find at all analogous is the one where an individual desperately needed a job to pay for his sick mother so the owner squeezes him down to a fraction of what he currently pays his other employees (adjusted for productivity of course). Our judgments about fairness will likely (and properly) be case-specific. I don’t find it nearly as compelling where a bunch of displaced landworkers causes the owner to lower his “market” wage. And I believe this whole thing started with the suggestion that a “market” wage was less than some fair minimum wage.

  93. 93 93 Harold

    “I don’t find it nearly as compelling where a bunch of displaced landworkers causes the owner to lower his “market” wage.”

    I said earlier if a bunch of displaced peasants comes onto the market, the wage will reduce through market forces. The mill owner will be able to take on more labor since the marginal cost has reduced. This will make the product cheaper, or they will make more product, and the benefits of lower wages will be distributed. Everyone benefits. It only becomes exploitation (under my suggested definition) if the mill owner pockets the cash savings instead, taking more profit. The only person to benefit is the mill owner. In a free market this ought to be impossible, as the mill would then be uncompetitive.

    The victim tied to the tree was not supposed to be directly analogous to the mill worker, just to demonstrate that in principle you can have exploitation in a win-win situation.

  94. 94 94 Will A

    @ iceman #59:


    I would add that it’s possible for people to decide a) to help people because they simply need help for reasons that may have nothing to do with exploitation (e.g. food stamps); and b) to vote for a govt program as the means to help someone due entirely to reasons of pragmatism not principle (perhaps done with reservations and conflicted sentiments)

    I would totally agree. Many socialists such as myself donate money to charity and vote representatives and who support a Marxist net (food stamps, social security, etc.) for those who need help.

    Is the point that you are making that Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, etc. can be seen as libertarian ideas?

    Because I believe that point I’m making is that these are socialist ideas.

  95. 95 95 iceman

    Harold 93:

    “This will make the product cheaper, or they will make more product…”

    It’s clear you don’t like monopolies, and constructed an example of a monopolist who experiences a downward shift in its cost curves with no shift in demand. In order to characterize the outcome not just in the usual terms of efficiency (deadweight loss) but rather fairness (exploitation), you then compare it to a wage level that might prevail “if there were” the competition that by definition can’t exist in your 1-town universe – in that context at least, the objective (and unsurprising) reality is that if some exogenous factor increases the supply of labor for a particular purpose, all else equal, benefits will accrue to whoever uses that labor as an input. However…

    “[otherwise] the only person to benefit is the mill owner”.

    Well anyone who needed and got a job benefited as well, relative to having no wage (and no longer any land). Of course at the end of the day they, along with any existing workers who experience a decline from their previous wage, bear a loss which in my mind stems entirely from the expropriation of land by the lord of the manor. I guess we simply disagree that it’s incumbent upon the mill owner to make restitution for that. I think it’s certainly nice if he offers something ‘extra’, but I don’t see it as extortion *on his part* if he doesn’t. I think this is supported to the extent we agree it’s not extortion if he does not offer them a job at all. Even your tree scenario is not really fundamentally different, it just puts things in more unseemly terms by bringing in the separate (and uncomfortable) issue of whether one should be allowed to sell his/her body. I presume we agree it’s clearly extortion to demand something from someone after *you* have tied them to a tree.

  96. 96 96 iceman

    Will A – I’m trying to remember the context of our previous exchange, but I think it’s safe to say you support these programs in principle, whereas a libertarian will always choose a charity state over a welfare state as the preferred means to help people; at the same time some may (at best) also try to be pragmatists in ‘the real world’ by supporting some level of a public safety net, e.g. to help ensure people don’t get fall through any gaps between the ‘1,000 points of light’. However that can be a tricky line to walk (e.g. some of them don’t even believe in voting).

    BTW Social Security is a good example of a program that was not just tailored to people who / when they need it, but designed to coopt everyone to feel they had a “stake” in the plan (i.e. they hope to get back at least some of the $ we’ve taken) for the purpose of making it more *politically* viable. That is certainly one way to get something “ingrained” in the public psyche, along with making unfunded promises and expansions, neither of which tactic may be viewed as particularly noble. Given the resulting financial state of the program, I guess we’ll find out over time whether the “ingraining” efforts have been sufficient to get people to support the kinds of tax increases that will be required.

  97. 97 97 Will A

    @ iceman #96

    I believe that many people who call themselves libertarians believe that a safety net is good:
    - Social Security
    - Child Labor Laws
    - Unemployment Insurance
    - etc.

    And you say, would vote for these programs.

    My point is that they in essence support some socialist policies.

    Here is a quote from Reason’s website (a supposed voice of libertarians):
    http://reason.com/reasontv/2013/07/10/3-reasons-to-fix-social-security-now


    If we want to protect seniors from poverty in old age, we should address that directly through welfare payments to the truly needy rather than creating a system that pits one generation against the other.

    To that I say “Amen Sister”.

    What I find ironic (and I think it is valid here) is that those at reason and other such libertarians have no issue with calling others socialists. “Bush’s disaster socialism”.

    Now you can say that you say that you support socialists programs because they are pragmatic solutions. This to me seems to be a cop out though. You and many of your ilk just can’t bring yourself to believe that you might actually be in favor for socialist programs.

    “Like all real men, I hate quiche, but I do like those breakfast pies that have egg, spinach and bacon.”

    I see this all the time on this blog. Prof. Landsburg proposes a flat tax where everyone pays the same fix amount (i.e. each person’s tax burden is $ 5000).

    I have no issue with someone who claims to be in favor of socialist policies arguing this point, but having so called libertarians argue this point seems sad and pathetic to me.

    “Hey can I join your group, I really am a libertarian see I’m saying that I’m a libertarian. I just said it twice see.”

  98. 98 98 iceman

    Couldn’t I could use the same logic to suggest that if you really wanted single-payor universal health care but supported Obama on the ACA and its “market-based exchanges” then you must be a closet libertarian? Sometimes people prefer not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and focus instead on getting as much of what they want as is actually achievable in the current environment. The Reason folks seem to be advocating a lesser of two ‘evils’, the one that involves smaller government.

    BTW child labor laws are categorically different as we’re not dealing with consenting adults.

  99. 99 99 Harold

    Iceman: “I guess we simply disagree that it’s incumbent upon the mill owner to make restitution for that.” I do not think he needs to make restitution for that and have said so in my previous posts.

    1) Peasants evicted. This is exploitation by land owner and has nothing to do with mill owner.
    Lots of ex peasants knock on mill door asking for job.

    2) Non-exploitation by mill owner. Mill owner responds by offering lower wages and employing more people. Productivity of mill increases. Previously unemployed peasants gain, previously employed workers loose in the short term since their wages are lower. Mill owner gains a bit thorough productivity gains, customers gain through lower prices. Overall gains are greater than losses.

    3) Exploitation by mill owner. He responds by reducing wages of current staff and not employing anybody extra. Anyone that leaves is replaced by peasant. Profit margins increase but productivity of mill does not increase. Mill owner profits directly from lower wages and everybody else looses or stays the same.

  100. 100 100 Will A

    Why a socialist would be in favor of the ACA is that it has medicaid expansion to cover the costs of health insurance for all of those below the poverty line. This has the same effect of a single payer system as it relates to those in poverty.

    The supreme court allowed states to choose this expansion and I think most socialists would be against this?

    What is the libertarian case for Social Security and Food Stamps?

    Lastly on the “BTW child labor laws are categorically different as we’re not dealing with consenting adults”. So libertarian position on child labor laws is that the state and not parents should determine the activities children are not allowed to participate in.

  101. 101 101 iceman

    99 – And I’ve said you ARE asking him to give something back. Maybe the difference is I see an exogenous shock inherently accruing to the benefit of the owner of a scarce resource (i.e. at your #1) whereas you focus on the point at which he actually monetizes the benefit (your #3), so when wages are re-set (the peasants are knocking on the door) you can say he is unfairly extracting something from them, rather than you are asking him to benefit less i.e. redistribute a gain. The fact is he has experienced a shift in input costs – could be an earthquake that threw people off their land, or a grain glut hurting the farmer (if the price of grain shot up would you ask the farmer to share the benefit?). Does your standard require that I be aware of all the circumstances that influence a price, or why people are applying for work? (How is that a reasonable expectation?) If I’m in my car and a guy comes up and washes my windshield for a buck… could I have just exploited him without even knowing it? Maybe a nearby plant just shut down and people used to get 2 bucks per windshield.

    I agree #2 seems like a better, and more likely, outcome for workers overall (more will have the option of having a job) than #3 which is just a wash between existing workers and the owner (and all the peasants lose). But why do you say the loss to existing workers is only short term? And consumers may benefit in the same sense that they prefer buying from a monopolist to no one at all, but it also seems that by expanding output and lowering price in response to a shift in costs (not an increase in competition), the owner increases his profits and the deadweight loss (the amount by which supply is restricted relative to a competitive outcome).

  102. 102 102 Harold

    “But why do you say the loss to existing workers is only short term?” The definition of short term is fluid, and it is quite possible that some workers will never personally obtain the benefits. Skilled hand weavers for example probably never recouped the lost wages when automated looms came in. However, many other workers did benefit from cheaper clothes, and the children of the hand weavers did benefit.

    “could I have just exploited him without even knowing it?” I suppose this is possible. We can never know what the “proper” market rate would have been.

    “if the price of grain shot up would you ask the farmer to share the benefit?” What if the price of goods the mill sold went up? Perhaps this is a clearer case. Two identical mills, one closes, supply drops, prices rise. This is natural, and in a proper market would attract more suppliers, so supply would restore and prices would drop again. We know from theory that perfect competition results in the most efficient use of resources. But lets say something prevents the new competitor. The mill owner was happy to produce and sell at the earlier price. The new increased price provides more than he required to continue in business. Competition should result in the new higher price being only temporary, but we have stipulated that there can be no new competition.

    2) Non exploitation. Mill owner takes his “normal” profit, and ploughs the rest back into his factory. He takes on more workers, and ends up producing more stuff – in fact the same amount of stuff as with two mills, and sells at the same price. He is effectively his own competition, but he takes the profit from all production, so he makes double the profit. Since we end up with the same situation as with competition, we know we have the most efficient use of resources.

    3)Expoloitation. Mill owner takes advantage of no competition by pocketing the extra revenue. Production stays the same and prices remain high. Mill owner is much better off, workers remain the same, customers worse off.

    Owners can respond to a market failure in exploitative or non exploitative ways. The exploitative way ends up with less than efficient distribution of resources.

    It takes more than the initial shock to lead to exploitation. If there is an earthquake combined with perfect competition, then the non exploitative situation naturally occurs and the new resources (perhaps more workers) are used in the most efficient way.

  103. 103 103 iceman

    100 – I think the (principled) “case” for things like social security and food stamps is simply respect for the democratic process.

    The case for laws against child abuse and neglect — even if the child says he doesn’t mind — is the presumption that children aren’t mentally mature enough to make certain determinations about what’s in their best interest. Essentialy the same as for adults who are mentally impaired. Of ocurse we want to tread lightly here. On the other hand one might say a socialist views ALL adults this way.

  104. 104 104 iceman

    102 – I keep coming back to the real issue being you don’t like monopolies because they’re inefficient (but check out the last slide in http://home.uchicago.edu/weyl/Lecture9_Regular.pdf), and trying to overlay a moral argument. At the end of the day this extra step would seem to require you to construct some notion of a right of workers / consumers to the status quo, a particular job, a certain price…something that essentially involves a claim on the services provided by the mill owner (who we are supposing has not stolen the land or anything else). The fact is the mill owner will expand if it increases his profits, but total production will decrease if the other mill had been providing some real competition, so we likely end up somewhere between your #2 and #3.

  105. 105 105 Harold

    “and trying to overlay a moral argument” I was trying to define exploitation: “the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work.” This requires some definition of unfair, so it requires a moral argument.

    My definition does not give anyone a right to a particular wage or price in money terms. It says they have a right to a fair wage, then defines the fair wage. When conditions change, the fair wage and fair price will change also. If more labor arrives on the market, the fair wage will drop. I think that we could use efficiency as the criterion for deciding fairness, since by definition the total benefit is less than the efficient outcome, so someone is better off only as a consequence of others being worse off compared to the efficient outcome.

    “The fact is the mill owner will expand if it increases his profits” That is only one theoretical outcome. Another is that he increases profits through exploitation – why then bother expanding? What happens in practice will depend on the case by case situation.

    Cheap labor in developing countries is not necessarily exploitative. Only if there is some other mechanism that allows firms to take above normal profits. Monopoly would be one such mechanism, but not necessarily the only one. That is just the way the example was set up. We could cite externalities, or lack of information, or other market failures.

    The extreme examples show that exploitation is possible in principle, even with “voluntary” transfers. So we need some way to define it other than the voluntary nature of the exchanges.

    It is far from perfect because we have no way to categorically identify the fair wage. But I believe it is an improvement on simply assuming exploitation is not possible because the transaction are apparently voluntary.

  106. 106 106 Will A

    @ iceman #103:

    ” I think the (principled) “case” for things like social security and food stamps is simply respect for the democratic process.”

    Seriously, you are now claiming that libertarians belief in the democratic process is that a law can never be changed.

    On my previous comment I asked if the libertarian position was that the state and not parents should determine activities children should be barred from. Thank you for highlighting a slight error in my wording:

    The case for laws against child abuse and neglect — even if the child says he doesn’t mind — is the presumption that children aren’t mentally mature enough to make certain determinations about what’s in their best interest. Essentialy the same as for adults who are mentally impaired. Of ocurse we want to tread lightly here. On the other hand one might say a socialist views ALL adults this way.

    So the libertarian position is that laws written by the state and not parents should determine what is a child’s best interest because SOME adults don’t be have in the best interest of their children.

    Or are you saying that the libertarian the libertarian position is that laws written by the state and not parents should determine what is a child’s best interest because NO adults don’t be have in the best interest of their children?

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