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Monday, October 25, 2010


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"how we can nonetheless continue to live with each other in some semblance of peace despite our irreconcilable differences". First of all, we have to assume that peaceful coexistence should be not only a shared value within the members of a community but also that peace should be prioritized over other values like liberty and equality. If so, we are then obliged to accept compromises whenever we compete over scarce resources
"Federalism may be part of the answer": what if someone said, that equality (wealth redistribution) should hold also between federal states?


Great post, Bill!
- It reminds me of Gary Gutting's exposition of the role of 'convictions' in his recent book, What Philosophers Know:
Case Studies in Recent Analytic philsophy (Caombridge University Press, 2009).

AYC said:

"In the current context, conservatives seem to view liberty as a good in itself, whereas liberals are reacting against the apparent injustices that arise from inequality (rather than simply valuing equality as a good in itself)."

Conservative/libertarian types don't value liberty only as a good in itself. They value it for its consequent benefits too - the incentives, innovations and efficiency of a free market, for example. J.S. Mill gives some excellent arguments for the beneficial consequences of his principle of liberty.

Also, you fail to mention that inequalities yield benefits to the less fortunate which arguably offset the costs like (higher prices) you mention. Economies of scale, more efficient direction of resources, production of jobs, etc. benefit all of us. This fact is the basis of Rawls' Difference principle which says inequalities are unjust only when they fail to benefit the less fortunate. So how do you know the benefits of inequality are not greater than the costs?

As far as political influence goes, I think there are lots of mechanisms in our system that hold our representatives generally accountable, though it is by no means perfect. And what about the influence of unions, and the wealthy like George Soros or David Cameron who influence the political sphere in favor of liberal, egalitarian principles? The ultra- wealthy can represent many different points of view.

Haha. I meant James Cameron, the lefty Hollywood producer, not David Cameron.

I'm aware that inequality can yield benefits to society. My point was that the utopian leftist who wants to enforce absolute equality is a straw-man caricature. Few liberals are communists. In reality, liberals talk in terms of a "social safety net"; their goal is not to eliminate all inequality or reject capitalism, but to remediate the negative consequences of inequality.

That's why I question the premises used in the follow-up post; #1 and #3 are only contradictiory if you assume that any and all inequality is absolutely unacceptable. But no reasonable person would take that position (Marxist communists are not reasonable people.)

The moral position that all human beings have certain inalienable rights (our "civic religion"), grounded in the Christian belief that God loves ALL of mankind obligates us to do what we can to alleviate the woes of those who are not well off.

We should be clear about how much unequaity there is. When we look at financial wealth, which is net worth less the value of your primary residence (an illiquid asset), we find that top 1% possess 43% of financial wealth, while the top 5% possesses 72% of financial wealth. So the top 5% has twice the wealth of the bottom 95% (actually, it's closer to thrice the wealth). Is it really an outrage to ask people in the top 5% to pay a slightly higher tax rate? Keep in mind that they depend on the infrastructure and rule-of-law that the govt. provides to accumulate that wealth....

Good morning AYC.

I don't think the second follow up post is making a straw man caricature of liberals. Bill was just pointing out an asymmetry between the extremes - the libertarian position and the ultra-egalitarian position. The pure egalitarian position has an internal contradiction that the libertarian position does not even though the libertarian position may have other faults.

What is the point of arguing against a position that no serious person holds? Sounds like he definition of a straw-man to me....

Sorry to just jump in and change the subject, but I feel that branch 2 of the tetrad needs a closer examination. The belief that a coercively empowered agency is required to create an econmically "even" socitey requires basic assumptions about the nature and the possible natures of man that lie at the heart of this question to be made without exposing them to any evaluation or critiscim. To believe branch 2 you must believe that mankind as a whole will never be capable of motivating themselves to sacrifice on the behalf of others. That this will occur is improbable, but to elimante this possiblity from our discussion elimantes our ability to see man's need to achieve this state himself or at least to try to. The question is not wheter liberty or equality is more valuable to us but wheter or not we belive that these things may work to the other's end.

AYC says: "What is the point of arguing against a position that no serious person holds? Sounds like the definition of a straw-man to me...."

The fact that you don't take egalitarianism seriously, or that it is not a serious political option in the U.S. does not mean it is not taken seriously by lots of people in different parts of the world,(or in academia) here.

Also, philosophers are interested in thinking about ideas even if they may sound nutty to many people. The Ontological Argument or David Lewis's actual possible worlds are not taken seriously by most people but philosophers still discuss them and figure out new ways where they might go wrong or how they might be defended.

AYC writes: "We should be clear about how much unequality there is, etc."

Adding the house back in the top one percent own only 16% of the wealth. Speaking of homes, owning a house is a great asset. More people own homes in the U.S. than most more egalitarian countries, including Sweden, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany. (At least in 2002, but the inequality was there in 2002). So the inequality does not prevent people from owning the most important asset in most people's lives.

That the wealthy have used the infrastructure and other benefits of government or society to make their wealth is hardly a compelling argument to justify taxing them more. By investing their money, they have created the wealth that the government taxes to build the infrastructure and run the governmemt to begin with. They also create jobs that employ people who can buy homes and be taxed to create more revenue for the government. Further these employed people create all sorts of new products and inventions that improve our lives. Opportunity costs of wealth creation are offset by opportunity benefits. Government does not create wealth. It takes it from people and mostly from the wealthy who pay much more into the treasury per capita than the non-wealthy. Raising their percentage rates, in addition, is rather arbitrary.

Your numbers are for income, not net worth; the top 1% has 35% of net worth and the top 5% has 62% of net worth. As I said before, a primary residence is an illiquid asset for most people... but even if we include them, the top 5% still has nearly twice the wealth of the remaining 95%.

"Government does not create wealth"

That is an ideological declaration which is simply untrue. Govt. employees make up 8% of the US workforce; the money they pump into our consumption-based economy counts just as much as anybody else's. So even if every single service the govt. provides is entirely ineffective, the govt helps the economy by employing people. But of course, the govt isn't entirely ineffective, is it?

As for tax rates, you're right that they are arbitrary... but how about setting rates that cover our obligations? Clinton did that and ran budget surpluses in his last 3 years. Bush cut rates and added 5 Trillion to the national debt.

PS The ultra-wealthy don't make most of their money in earned income, they make it in long-term capital gains, which are taxed at 15% thanks to the previous administration. That's why Warren Buffett's secretary pays twice the % he does

The economic power of the Government comes only from its abillity to spend money. If the Gov't gets into debt they are putting up the people's money effectively becoming the owners of the people's debt bought from another source. They then have the power to tax or demand payments on our debt. This removes economic power from the people in general therefore limiting the people's ability to increase their future economic power by means of their present capitol. Taxation is a modernized national form of indentured servitude when the debt of the Gov't is greater than can be overcome by the production of the people.

There's nothing modern, and nothing inherently injust, about taxation; remember "render unto Caesar...?"

There's a logical contradiction in opposition to progressive taxation; opponents think it's wrong for the govt. to use tax policy to enforce "fairness and equality." But this claim is based on an appeal to... fairness and equality! Opponents think it's unfair to tax citizens at different (unequal) rates. Rather than choosing "liberty" over "equality", they have chosen one type of inequality over another type. Of course, wealth inequality is far greater than the tax-rate inequality meant to remedy it.

By the way to demand absolute equality is as contradictory as to demand absolute liberty, if in both cases we accept the role of the State as a law enforcer.

Tony Hanson,

Thanks for the comments. You're a bright guy and you have made useful comments in the past. I want to see if you agree with my post and if not, why not. First, do you agree that the problem as I have set it up is genuine? Second, do you agree that the problem is intractable due to a value-difference that is objectively irresolvable? And if yes to both of those, then what should we do to mitigate tensions and advance comity? I suggested a return to federalism as part of a solution. Do you have any ideas?

AYC, originally you gave two reasons why it is okay (not an outrage)to tax the wealthy at a higher rate:

1) There is a great deal of inequality.

2) The wealthy use the benefits of government to make their wealth.

With respect to 1 is it just an a priori pronouncement on your part that great inequality justifies taking property from those who have a lot more? How is this a priori truth of yours distinguishable from mere envy? Why does equality trump things like desert, entitlements, property rights so much so that even though the wealthy pay a lot more taxes in real dollars already (as Warren Buffet does), they must pay a higher percentage, too (and despite the fact that most of those below the 95th percentile own homes, etc.)

Regarding 2, I do not yet see any good argument from you that the wealthy should have to pay a higher tax rate as an opportunity cost for using the benefits of government to help make their wealth, when the wealthy have also generated opportunity benefits like taxable income which funds the government benefits to begin with. Where is your argument that the wealthy have gotten too good a deal on the government benefits and need to pay more?

And when I said the government cannot create wealth, I meant that any money the government has or generates must come from the coercive act of taxation first, not through free exchange or capitalist acts between consenting adults.

And finally, no I would not support any raise in tax rates to cover the debt until true fiscal conservatives are in office. This obviously does not include Obama, Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi.

"There's a logical contradiction in opposition to progressive taxation; opponents think it's wrong for the govt. to use tax policy to enforce "fairness and equality." But this claim is based on an appeal to... fairness and equality!"

AYC, you seem to have very loose standards for the presence of a logical contradiction!

First disagreements about what is fair in a certain situation are common, and disagreements between people are not logical contradictions, they are just disagreements. I can easily say without contradiction that it is not fair to make some people pay higher tax rates than others, while it is fair that people should generally be self reliant and not depend on the ceorcion of others for their economic well-being. Feel free to disagree.

Second, don't you need to distinguish economic equality and equality under the law? Why is it a contradiction to say I don't think coercion should be used to make people economically equal, but if it is used, the burden of coercion should be distributed as equally as possible on people? I don't think I should enforce equality in the sense of giving all my students A's, while I do think that if I have a policy about attendance I should apply it as equally as I can?

Hi Bill,

Yes, in my opinion you have a great proof of ethical pluralism here! I have been reading the great Isaiah Berlin lately and the only way to logically reconcile liberty and equality is the rather sinister solution adopted by Rousseau and Marx (and post-modernists to some degree) that true (positive) liberty requires an identification of the self with the community. The cold warrier Berlin describes well the horrific results of forcing people to be equal and truly "free."

Yes, federalism as well as the other checks and balances our founders were wise enough to incorporate into the Constitution is one solution, though I don't know whether moving to another state more agreeable to their prioritization of political values is a live option for most people. Weather and job opportunities (in that order) have always been my reasons for moving :-)


Perhaps you have noticed that Bill has refrained from commenting on any posts (with the exception of one comment to T. Hanson). I suspect the reason for Bill’s abstaining is that most of the commentary on this thread failed to properly challenge his primary contention. While some posts have hinted toward such a challenge, they proceeded to defend one choice or another in resolving the aporetic tetrad presented in Bill’s main post. However, doing so merely confirms Bill’s principal contention rather than challenge it. In the present post I will restate Bill’s primary contention and outline one way it can be challenged. In a sequel post I will further develop this challenge.

Bill’s primary contention can be divided into two steps:

Step (A). Aporetic Tetrad: This involves sentences 1-4 which appear to be inconsistent.

Step (B). Meta-Argument: this involves three premises and a conclusion. The meta-argument is designed to answer in the negative the following question: Is there a *unique solution* to the apparent inconsistency of 1-4 that is based upon rational considerations and that renders any other solution irrational?

(I) There are two individually admissible but jointly incompatible solutions to the aporetic tetrad 1-4: one either rejects 1 or one rejects 4 (Bill maintains that 2 and 3 are uncontroversial);

(II) Each solution relies upon a preference between the values of liberty and equality which in turn yields alternative rankings of these values: the solution that rejects 1 ranks liberty over equality, whereas the solution that rejects 4 ranks equality over liberty.

(III) The differences between the two rankings cannot be rationally adjudicated because neither empirical facts nor *abstract reasoning* (nor their conjunction) can uniquely determine which value objectively ranks higher.


(IV) There are no rational considerations that yield a unique solution to the inconsistency of 1-4.

Bill’s primary contention is stated in his meta-argument. Can it be challenged? The first question to ask is whether the meta-argument is sound. It certainly seems to be valid. Let us assume that it is (we will take this assumption back soon). Then the next question is whether the premises are true. Are they? Since the premises of the meta-argument are about the aporetic tetrad 1-4, their truth or falsity depends upon whether or not the meaning of each of the sentences included in the tetrad is clear. Is it?

I suggest that none of the sentences in the aporetic tetrad is clear. Since the cogency of the meta-argument depends upon the clarity of the underlying aporetic tetrad and since the sentences included in the later are unclear, Bill’s meta-argument cannot be properly assessed until the meaning of each of the sentences in the aporetic tetrad is clarified. We cannot even tell whether the meta-argument is valid, since we do not know whether some of the central terms of the aporetic tetrad are free of ambiguity for instance. Hence, Bill’s contention cannot be properly assessed until we clarify the sentences included in his aporetic tetrad. I shall take up this question in a sequel post.


T.Hanson, I was just trying to play along... see how easy it is to oversimplify a complex issue? Shouting about "Liberty" vs. "Equality" doesn't really tell us anything at all about whether the top marginal tax rate should be 35% (Liberty!) or 39.6% (Tyranny!)

Anyway, we have had the income tax, and progressive taxes for almost 100 years now; at the very least, those taxes have not hindered the growth of the economy, which has had some impressive booms over that time; in the 1990's the economy boomed after Clinton raised rates and made the tax code (slightly) more progressive. As I'm sure you know, the grand-daddy of modern market economics, Adam Smith, advocated progressive taxation; and most current economists agree. So I need to hear a pragmatic, rather than ideological reason (Liberty!)for why progressive taxation is bad, and you have failed to provide it.

Peter, I realize my posts have not attempted to challenge Bill's argument, and that most of the discussion consists of defending one or the other of the limbs of the tetrad apparently confirming Bill's conclusion.

Clarifying the important terms - liberty, property rights, equality and so on - is just too much work for me. But I look forward to seeing you do some of it :-).

AYC:"There's nothing modern, and nothing inherently injust, about taxation; remember "render unto Caesar...?""

JdeS: If you will cast your mind back you will remember that the whole quote is "render unto Caeser what is Caesar's", which substantiates my point. What we give to the government is that portion of our interests the government owns and the more of our finacial interests the government owns the closer we grow to slavery. Debt has always resulted in a loss of liberty. Indentured servitude, debtor's prison, deportment, and, yes, slavery
are the results of irreconciled debt.

The arguments here are premised on the maxim that man dose not do good of his own accord. This is sound and well-founded, but the accepted conclusion, that we must force man to do good, takes away from life allmost all possibillity of growth. The essence of life is the individual quest to fill it with the good. To rob life of this attempt in our debates builds a flawed debate system.


Glad we agree. Do you have a Berlin reference for me?


Thanks for the excellent comments. I am busy for the rest of the day, so a responce will have to wait til tomorrow.

AYC, shouting "Liberty!" is a very good response, among others to increaded tax rates, since the more you take from someone, the more you are infringing on their liberty to use their property as they see fit.

I am interested in the question of whether progressive taxation is just. Pointing out that it has been done for a long time and that most economists endorse it does not entail it is just. Unjust actions against some could improve the economy or benefit lots of other people. (Also there is no reason to think it was progressive taxation that improved the economy under Clinton since this was the era of the dot.com boom.) Progressive taxation seems entirely arbitrary. And arbtitrariness in the law is a feature of injustice.
It seems nothing more than a ruse by "progressives" to take more money for their pet projects.

"Debt has always resulted in a loss of liberty. Indentured servitude, debtor's prison, deportment, and, yes, slavery
are the results of irreconciled debt."

Johannes, thank you for acknowledging the fact that economic inequality inhibits liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Libertarians need to explain why they see massive inequality in private wealth as perfectly just, while a tiny bit of inequality in the tax code is outrageous


There is a good discussion of Berlin's essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" with references, in the SEP:


The actual essay is ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in I. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, London: Oxford University Press. New ed. in Berlin 2002.

You might like this youtube video on the distinction which also features some footage of a discussion between Malcom Muggeridge and Isaiah Berlin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84wJlDC8--o

"Johannes, thank you for acknowledging the fact that economic inequality inhibits liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Spoken like a true totalitarian. If I don't have as much as the other guy, my freedom is inhibited more than his, but since we should all have the same freedom, I should be able to force the other guy, through the agency of government, to give me as much as he has, even though I may be a useless bum, and he may be a productive person.

Being blind inhibits liberty and the pursuit of happiness too. Should we all poke out our eyes to be equally free?

Oh, and Johanne is saying being enslaved by coercive debt takes away freedom, not mere economic inequality. See the difference? Or do you think if I irresponsibly run up my credit card and I am now economically unequal to you, I am justified in taking your property so I am as equal and free as you are?


I need to know why you think the limbs unclear. Send me something by e-mail, and I'll start a separate thread.


One minute after midnight tonight is Halloween; I shall be out resupplying my sourly needed resources. Hopefully that will inject some powerful fuel into my system and will enable me to put together something and deliver it to you tomorrow.

Peter, Tomorrow night is Halloween. Good hunting!

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