Lecture 3 of Michael Sandel’s ever popular course on Justice is now online. Here’s the summary of material covered by the newly added lecture. It’s provided by Harvard’s course web site:
Part 1 – FREE TO CHOOSE: With humorous references to Bill Gates and Michael Jordan, Sandel introduces the libertarian notion that redistributive taxation—taxing the rich to give to the poor—is akin to forced labor.
PART 2 – WHO OWNS ME?: Students first discuss the arguments behind redistributive taxation. If you live in a society that has a system of progressive taxation, aren’t you obligated to pay your taxes? Don’t many rich people often acquire their wealth through sheer luck or family fortune? A group of students dubbed “Team Libertarian” volunteers to defend the libertarian philosophy against these objections.
In Lecture 3, on libertarianism, a lot of emphasis is placed on the premise that individuals own themselves. What does it mean? If they own themselves in the sense that they own property, then we’re born unequal because willy nilly we come into a world with such givens as brains, ambition, looks, and families that are wealthy or poor. If we truly own ourselves, some of us own a lot less than others.
In arguing for M. Jordan and Bill Gates’ right to keep what they have made, Sandel notes that Jordan has had help in achieving success from others — his team mates and his coach, eg., — so he may owe them something. A student objects that team mates and coach have already been paid. But nobody mentions the particular culture, the social arrangement, within which all individuals work, that provides the framework necessary for Jordan’s (or Gates’) success. Individuals aside, a social system exists on its own level and got along fairly well with Michael Jordan’s basketball and William Gates’ Microsoft, hard as that is to believe.
Ethics, the fundamental underpinnings of any society, are ignored in all of the objections that Sandel raises to Libertarianism.
The basic principle of all ethics is the non-aggression principle – that should be the driving principle for every culture and society – sadly, it is not.
1. The poor NEED the money more. Sure they do. Noone argues that, but using this argument, all of the people in a neighborhood should be redistributing their incomes until they all have the same. In effect, the NEED argument is an argument to be equally poor until noone needs money more than anyone else.
2. Taxation by consent of the governed is not coerced. The cannibalism discussion surrounding the eating of the cabin boy should be enough to understand that the majority rule, when it comes to self-ownership, including economic self-ownership, is indeed coercion.
3. The successful owe a debt to society. Do they? Don’t the successful people in our society already provide a great benefit to society by being great at what they do? Had Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and others in the computer industry not been driven to success would we still be suing abacuses today? Who owes who a debt? How about Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine. He gave away the patent. Did society not owe him? Using this libertarian objection, everyone in society who was potentially saved from this horrible disease should have to give some of their income to Salk’s family.
4. Wealth depends partly on luck so it isn’t deserved. So what? Some were born with movie star looks and can gain substantially by using them to their advantage, but it doesn’t make them a better person. From the many biographies on Hollywood persona it appears that quality relationships are a rarity for celebrities. Perhaps those who use argument would like to redistribute looks so that celebrities don’t rely on the luck of being born pretty?