What is Justice?

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:30 pm by RueTheDay

Massive tomes have been written in an attempt to answer this question, but I’ll try and be a little more succinct. I suppose I should have posted this earlier on, since technically a theory of justice is prior to a theory of rights and obligations.

Justice is “like for like”. This means a sense of equivalence or correspondence between what one does and what one receives, either in the case of crime and punishment for retributive justice or economic division in the case of distributive justice.

The Old Testament maxim “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life” is clearly a first pass at expressing the like for like principle. However, it is incomplete. For example, if I acidentally poke someone’s eye out and then society intentionally gouges my eye out as punishment, is that really like for like? No, there is an asymmetry there based on intent, and virtually all modern moral and legal systems recognize this.Likewise, the Golden Rule - “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” is another attempt at expressing the like for like principle. It’s a good start, but requires a little modification to be be more meaningful - “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you if you were them” is a better way of putting it. Given a certain set of facts about human nature - that people possess empathy for others, that people are instrumentally rational (i.e., they select the appropriate means to reach their desired end), and that they desire and engage in reciprocity, one can come up with a set of ground rules. Thus, the above reformulation of the Golden Rule - instrumentally rational individuals applying reciprocity in their relationships with others, but doing it in a manner that reflects their empathy for others, in other words, putting themselves in the others’ shoes when deciding upon a course of action.

Now for the application of the like for like principle to distributive justice. In my opinion, Marx got it all wrong when he said, “to each according to their ability”. It should be “to each according to their contribution“. One’s rightful due is what they have contributed or its equivalent. Some might immediately object to this on the grounds that some may be unable to contribute, due to injury or other circumstance, and that a strict interpretation of the above would give them nothing. This is not true. There are risks in life that we can’t foresee ahead of time. It would be perfectly rational for two parties to agree to help each other in times of need with the expectation of reciprocity. That takes us right back to like for like.

Books on Economics I Like

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:32 pm by RueTheDay

The Wealth of Nations - Adam Smith
Principles of Political Economy and Taxation - David Ricardo
Essay on the Principle of Population - Thomas Malthus
Principles of Political Economy - JS Mill
Capital - Karl Marx
Elements of Pure Economics - Leon Walras
The Theory of Political Economy - WS Jevons
Principles of Economics - Carl Menger
Progress and Poverty - Henry George
Principles of Economics - Alfred Marshall
Theory of the Leisure Class - Thorstein Veblen
Economics of Imperfect Competition - Joan Robinson
Theory of Games and Economic Behavior - John von Neumann
General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money - JM Keynes
The Foundations of Economic Analysis - Paul Samuelson
The Theory of Economic Development - Joseph Schumpeter
Essays In Positive Economics - Milton Friedman
The Theory of Monopolistic Competition - E. H. Chamberlin
Individualism and Economic Order - F.A. Hayek
Value and Capital - J. R. Hicks
The Distribution of Wealth: A Theory of Wages, Interest and Profits - J.B. Clark
Risk, Uncertainty and Profit - Frank H. Knight
The Calculus of Consent - James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock
The Firm, The Market, and The Law - Ronald Coase

Same comments as the prior list apply.


Books on political philosophy I like

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:51 am by RueTheDay


Politics - Aristotle
The Republic - Plato
Leviathan - Thomas Hobbes
The Social Contract - Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The Second Treatise on Government - John Locke
On Liberty - JS Mill
Reflections on the Revolution in France - Edmund Burke
The Federalist Papers - Hamilton, Madison, and Jay
The Anti-Federalist Papers - various
Democracy In America - Alexis De Tocqueville
The Prince - Niccolo Machiavelli
The Spirit of Laws - Baron de Montesquieu
Common Sense - Thomas Paine
The Communist Manifesto - Marx and Engels
Progress and Poverty - Henry George


The Liberal Tradition In America - Louis Hartz
The Open Society and Its Enemies - Karl Popper
Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy - Joseph Schumpeter
Anarchy, State, and Utopia - Robert Nozick
A Theory of Justice - John Rawls
Liberty - Isaiah Berlin

NB: Liking a book in this case does not imply agreeing with all or any of its arguments. It implies recognizing the contribution it has made to the history of thought for the subject.

”It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
– Aristotle

In the near future, I’ll post a similar list for economics.

Liberalism and conservatism

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:24 am by RueTheDay

The fundamental difference between conservatism and liberalism is a difference in philosophical approach. The hallmark of conservatism has always been the combination of 1. respect for existing structures and institutions on the basis that they are the result of historical processes that have ferreted out structures and institutions that do not work in the real world and left us with those that do work and 2. a generally pessimistic view of human nature. The hallmark of liberalism has always been pretty much the opposite - 1. a respect for the power of human reason, particularly with regard to its capacity for dismantling old structures and institutions and assembling new, better ones in their place and 2. a generally optimistic view of human nature, sometimes going as far as to believe in the perfectibility of man.

Under this definition, I suppose that I am a moderate. I can certainly respect tradition as the embodiment of past experience. However, traditions are fallible and it is also important to recognize that when circumstances change or experience provides us with additional insight, that conventions can and should be changed. My view of human nature is that people are neither inherently good nor inherently evil.


Property, part 3

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:25 pm by RueTheDay

I’ve spent the past couple of years reading the works of Henry George and others in what’s typically known as the Georgist/Geolibertarian tradition. This philosophical tradition differs from the standard libertarian tradition (more appropriately called the propertarian tradition) in that it distinguishes property in land and natural resources from property in the products of labor.

The critical assumption in Georgist philosophy (the deontological variant anyway) is that all people have the right to life, liberty, equal access to land and natural resources, and property in the fruits of their labor. One is entitled to use land and natural resources, provided that either 1. no one else wants to use that specific parcel of land or natural resource or 2. one pays compensation equivalent to the market economic rent of those resources to all those being deprived of the use of the land or natural resource. This is typically handled through the imposition of the Land Value Tax (LVT) on land and the Severance Tax on extractive non-renewable resources. A property right in the products of labor is then obtained, assuming that appropriate compensation is paid for the land and natural resources that served as inputs, on the basis that the final product came into existence in the hands of the laborer. The product would not have existed at all had the person not expended effort in its creation, therefore, his exclusive use of the product cannot be said to deny anything to anyone else, and a property right is legitimately obtained on that basis.

In general, I find this argument in favor of property rights in the products of labor to be far more logically coherent and justifiable than the sort of absolute property rights examined in previous entries. Nevertheless, there are still unresolved issues.

Just as Georgists use the historical fact that land titles were often forcefully expropriated from one group by another to criticize private property theories of justice, we cannot ignore the fact that throughout most of history the products of labor were not made from rent free resources or from resources for which fair market compensation was paid to those deprived of them. Thus, Georgism can only provide a theory of justice for the point in time at which it is implemented forward. Even then, it is unlikely that full resource rents can be publicly captured in all cases. While it would be a vast improvement over the current situation, the private capture of resource rents would still entail a degree of injustice. This is the same dilemma Nozick faced with his Entitlement Theory of Justice - we can never completely prevent violations of justice in acquisition and justice in transfer, thus we need justice in rectification to ensure justice in present holdings, and this is difficult to obtain in reality. This ultimately led to Nozick proposing a bequest tax system, whereby one is entitled to bequeath only the property that one has acquired through their life themselves (the value of their estate minus any inheritances they themselves received). It’s an imperfect way of preventing injustices from becoming accumulative across generations.

Another issue is that in a modern economy, it is a difficult task to identify the exact product of labor. In a modern economy, virtually all products are joint products, that is, production of an end product typically requires the combination of the labor of numerous individuals as well as the capital of numerous individuals. Such a system requires one to sell one’s labor as a commodity in exchange for a wage/salary. Contrast this with earlier economies where individuals actually created products and then exchanged their products directly, rather than selling their labor. It is difficult to reconcile the view that a just property right derives from the object “coming into existence in one’s possession” with a modern system of production. One can attempt to get around this by using the neoclassical argument that the wage rate will equal the marginal product of labor, but this requires some fairly stringent assumptions (differentiable production functions and constant returns to scale, at a minimum) that are unlikely to exist in the real world.

I am not particularly keen on deontological arguments in general. In this specific case, I think that far more compelling arguments in favor of Georgist proposals like the LVT can be made on consequentialist rather than deontological grounds. For example - it is more economically efficient to tax things that have a very inelastic supply, untaxing productive activities like labor and investment creates greater incentives to work and invest, taxing land specifically reduces the incentive to hold land idle thus reducing land speculation which in turn lowers the cost of living and dampens boom/bust real estate cycles, taxing land and untaxing improvements to land encourages the improvement of land, taxing site value, which is largely the result of a positive externality created by government spending, better aligns the recipient of the benefit with the funding that creates the benefit, etc.

Property, part 2

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:14 pm by RueTheDay

Here we move from a positive description of property to an analysis of normative justifications for the existence of property rights.

Any analysis of the justification of property rights in general must begin with property rights in land and natural resources. There are two primary justifications for property rights in land, both deriving from the natural rights tradition. The first is the labor-mixing justification, the second is the homesteading justification. It is my intent to demonstrate that neither argument is sound.

The labor-mixing argument was likely first proposed by John Locke in his Second Treatise On Government (1690). The argument is relatively straightforward - a man owns himself therefore he owns his labor therefore he owns the fruits of his labor; by mixing his labor with the land, he removes the land from the commons, transforms the land and comes to own the land as well as its product. From there, any sort of inheritance, trade, or other voluntary act of transfer preserves the right on the part of the new proprietor.

There are a number of logical problems with this exposition. Locke himself recognized the most glaring one, and made it explicit through what’s known as the Lockean Proviso - that the appropriation of land from the commons is only just to the extent that “there is enough, and as good, left in common for others”. In other words, the Lockean justification only holds for as long as there is sufficient good land that’s freely available for the taking. Since that is not the case in our world, the Lockean justification fails immediately on its own accord. Of course, even if that were not the case, there are other serious problems with Locke’s analysis. What does it mean to “mix” labor with land? Is such a concept coherent? How much labor must one mix? Even if it the concept were coherent and quantifiable, how does mixing something you rightfully own (your labor in this case) with something you do not own confer ownership of the whole thing? It’s just as logical to conclude that you either cede ownership of what you previously owned or that you only own the increment you provided. As Robert Nozick pondered in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) - “…why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so its molecules mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?”

The second argument used to justify property rights in land is the homesteading principle. This is a much simpler argument. One obtains a legitimate property right by simply declaring presently unowned land to be their property. The assumption here is that the primary ethical precept is that one must never “initiate force against others”. The idea then is that since the land is originally unowned, that one does not initiate force against anyone by claiming it as property. Any subsequent persons who attempt to claim the property would be initiating force against the original proprietor.

There are numerous problems with the homesteading argument. First, it assumes that land can only exist in one of two states - unowned but available for claiming as private property or owned as private property. In reality, there can be many other states - unowned and unownable, communally owned, held in usufruct, etc. Immediately, the homesteading argument falls prey to a false dichotomy fallacy. Additionally, the notion that homesteading the land initiates force against no one requires further examination. Prior to the homesteading of the land, all of the other existing humans were free to use the land, and in most cases, actually were using the land. Claiming the land as private property clearly initiates force against everyone who was free to use the land up until that point. Declaring the land to be one’s private property cannot extinguish the rights of everyone else who used the land up until that point, nor can simply declaring something to be one’s own create a positive duty on the part of others to respect that claim.

There are more pragmatic problems here as well. What is the “limit” of homesteading? Did Adam discover the entire world when he first gained consciousness? Did Christopher Columbus discover all of the Americas when he first landed on the shores of San Salvador? When one discovers land, how much can one claim? As much as one can see? All the way to the next ocean? There is no logically coherent way to set a limit, so people come up with arbitrary notions like, “you have to build a fence around the land”. But that just raises even more questions - How high does this fence need to be? Does a line of pebbles constitute a fence? Can I just draw a line in the dirt and say everything on this side of the line is mine? By what logic does building a fence even confer ownership of the land inside the fence instead of just the fence itself? An even bigger question is - How can one be sure that one is actually the first person to discover and claim a parcel of land? There were indigenous people living throughout the world when Europeans first stumbled on all of these lands, so why did the Europeans alone get to claim ownership? At the root, the fundamental problem is that land always existed and it existed independent of human action; therefore, claims of property rights based on homesteading cannot be logically coherent.

A number of simple examples can also be used to demonstrate the absurdity of the homesteading argument. Three men are lost in the desert when they see an oasis on the horizon. They run towards the oasis at full speed. The one man arrives at the oasis a second before the other two and declares the oasis to be his. There is enough water at the oasis for hundreds of people. However, according to the homesteading argument, the first man has an exclusive property right to the oasis, is morally justified in excluding the other two men from drinking the water, and may use force to protect his property from them. Another common example involves three men who are shipwrecked and floating unconscious in the ocean. They land on the shores of an uncharted island. One man regains consciousness moments before the other men and declares the island to be his exclusive property. Again, per the homesteading argument, he is now perfectly justified in forcing the other two men back into the ocean.

Property, part 1

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:53 pm by RueTheDay

This entry is the first in what will be a series of ruminations on property. First, we start with definitions.

A property right refers to a relationship between a person and all other people regarding an object. It does not reflect a direct relationship between a person and an object. The reason for this is that a right (any right) implies a duty on the part of others to respect that right, and an object cannot have a duty.

A property right is not a single right, but is actually composed of a bundle of rights that the proprietor has regarding the object. At a minimum, the bundle of rights that make up a property right are:

1. the right to use the object
2. the right to prevent others from using the object
3. the right to derive benefits (e.g., income) from the object
4. the right to transfer the object to another party

Property and possession are not synonymous. A possession is something that is yours based upon the physical facts of occupation and use, and is only yours for as long as you can maintain that occupation and use (i.e., as long as you can defend it from others who would take it from you). Property is based upon title, and implies a set of rights to something even when you are not occupying or using it. Property rights are thus a social construct and only arise when other people agree that you have such a right and agree to help you to retain (and if necessary, regain) an object. It is a common mistake to confuse possessions with property.

Rights, liberties, and duties

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:07 pm by RueTheDay

One hears considerable talk of rights and liberty, unfortunately there is quite a bit of confusion surrounding these concepts. This entry is an attempt to provide some clarification by clearly defining the terms, their relationships among one another, and their logical implications.

Liberty, in the political sense, is a type of freedom. Therefore, we will start with a definition of freedom. I personally favor the definition of freedom expressed by Gerald MacCallum in his 1967 Philosophical Review article, “Negative and Positive Freedom”: Freedom is a triadic relationship between an agent X, an obstacle Y, and an action or state Z, where X is free from Y to do or become Z. IMO, this is the most general and logical description of freedom. It allows one to clearly state who is free, from what they are free, and what they are free to do/become. In this model, distinctions between positive and negative freedom (e.g., Isaiah Berlin’s analysis in “Two Concepts of Liberty”) just become different Ys.

With the aforementioned definition of freedom in mind, we can move on to definitions of rights, duties, and finally liberty. This analysis is based in large part upon the writings of Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld (in Fundamental Legal Conceptions, 1919). A right is a claim held by an agent or group of agents against another agent or group of agents. A duty is an obligation on the part of an agent or group of agents to do/not do something. For every right, there is a correlated duty. This simply means that if A has a right against B, that B has a duty to honor A’s right. Without such a duty, B has no obligation to perform or refrain from performing any action related to A’s claim, and therefore there is no basis for A’s right. In most matters of political philosophy, A will be an individual agent, and B will be taken to mean all other agents apart from A. Given the above relationship between rights and duties, a liberty can be expressed as the absence of a right and its correlated duty. If A has no right to X against B, then B has no duty to A related to X. B is then said to have a liberty with regard to X. He can choose to do or not do X without an obligation to respect a right possessed by A.

It is then relatively straightforward to synthesize Hohfeld’s conception of rights, duties, and liberties with MacCallum’s abstract definition of freedom to arrive at a definition of political liberty. Political liberty is the relationship between an agent X, the set of all other agents X’, an obstacle Y, and an action or state Z, where X is free from Y to do or become Z and Y is the duty to respect a right on the part of a member of X’ against X with regard to Z.

One logical consequence of this analysis is that the concept of a “right to liberty” is incoherent. Liberty is not right; rather, liberties are a class of entity on the same level as rights. Thus, an action can be prohibited on the grounds that it is either a violation of a right or a violation of a liberty.

Another logical consequence is that any question regarding the origin or justification of a right on the part of A against B can be equivalently reformulated into a question of the origin or justification of a duty on the part of B with regard to A. Likewise, any question regarding the origin or justification of a liberty can be equivalently reformulated into a question of the absence of a right or its correlated duty.


Posted in Uncategorized at 11:59 am by RueTheDay

The next few entries will be summaries and modifications of posts I’ve made on various internet forums.


New beginnings

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:47 pm by RueTheDay

The last blog fell into a state of disuse and became a haven for comment-spam and trackback-spam. Time for a new beginning.