Archive | March 16, 2011

Class Dismissed?

David Friedman writes:

David Friedman

Looking through your essay “Left-Libertarianism, Class Conflict, and Historical Theories of Distributive Justice,” I was struck by what seems to me to be a problem with what you describe as “libertarian class theory.” You write:

“Recipients of tax-funded welfare won’t be assigned to the parasitic class either, so long as the extent to which they benefit from governmental handouts is exceeded – as left-libertarians think it generally is – by the extent to which they are immiserated by governmental regulations.”

The problem with this is that transfers are not a zero sum game – the fact that you are made worse off does not imply that someone else is better off. If people on welfare produce nothing and consume something – provided by taxpayers – then they are a net burden on others, even if they are on net worse off than in a laissez-faire society.

To put the point a little differently, under your definition it is possible that nobody in our society, or very nearly nobody, belongs to the parasitic class. After all, a laissez-faire society would be, in your opinion (and mine) much richer, and much more advanced technologically. The government bureaucrat who dies at seventy of cancer in our society might, in a laissez-faire society, die at 95, having occupied a lower position relatively than in our society but a higher position absolutely. If so, the consistent application of your principle puts him too in the industrial rather than the parasitic class.

Is that the result you want?

My more general problems with the approach are the subject of a chapter in The Machinery of Freedom.

(Thanks to David Friedman for allowing me to post his letter.)

I find class analysis far too useful and illuminating to be tempted by Friedman’s proposed solution, but I think he has put his finger in a genuine problem: how exactly are we to identify the ruling and ruled classes? We cannot merely identify them as those who on balance benefit or lose out from the existing system, because it might well be that everyone loses out.

Here’s a first stab: the test of whether one is in the ruling class or the ruled class is not whether one is better or worse off (either subjectively or objectively) than one would be without the system, but rather something like this: where there are two groups A and B, and A occupies a superior socioeconomic position relative to B, and A owes its superior socioeconomic position non-accidentally to the systematic exploitation and/or oppression of B, then A is the ruling and B the ruled class, even if A and B would both be better off than they are now without the exploitation/oppression.

I wanted to capture, first, the idea that what matters is relative rather than absolute position, and second, that the ruling group wins out at the expense of the ruled group.

On the other hand, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that everyone in the ruling group has to be wealthier than everyone in the ruled group; that seems wrong. Obviously “non-accidentally” would need to be filled in too. It surely needs fixing in other ways as well; consider it a first draft, and I want to turn it over to more minds. Suggestions?

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