Karl Marx secularized religious ethics by advocating an egalitarian social system based on the principle that each person must work according to his ability, but consume just enough to satisfy his needs. Despite the horrendous humanitarian disasters that this principle has wrought, it keeps resurfacing.
The latest incarnation of Marx’s principle that I have seen comes from University of Notre Dame Philosophy Professor James P. Sterba under the guise of libertarianism. (Yes, libertarianism!) In an article for Philosophy Now magazine, titled Liberty Requires Equality, with the subtitle “libertarianism implies a right to welfare.” As we'll see, the term "welfare" way understates Sterba's argument. The article appears in the October/November 2015 issue of the magazine. The cover subject is “Liberty and Equality” and includes several articles besides Sterba’s on that subject.
Sterba contends that “the ideal of negative liberty”—understood as “the absence of interference by other people from doing what one wants or is just able to do”—inevitably leads to “conflicting liberties,” and thus must be rejected. Sterba’s example of conflicting liberties should tell you all you need to know about his argument: The example goes as follows, which I condensed to its essentials:
Now, in order to see why libertarians are mistaken about what their ideal requires, consider a conflict situation between the rich and the poor.
[Conventional Libertarian view, as Sterba sees it]:
[T]he rich . . . have more than enough resources to satisfy their basic needs. In contrast, imagine that the poor lack the resources to meet their basic needs even though they have tried all the means available to them [i.e., political and economic freedom] that libertarians regard as legitimate for acquiring such resources.
[S]ince . . . the liberty of the poor is not at stake . . .,
the rich should not be required to sacrifice their liberty so that the basic needs of the poor may be met.
[Sterba’s Libertarian View]:
In fact, however, the liberty of the poor is at stake in such conflict situations. What is at stake is the liberty of the poor not to be interfered with in taking from the surplus possessions of the rich what is necessary to satisfy their basic needs.
There are basically only two ways for human beings to interact; by physical force or by voluntary agreement. I would say that’s the basic alternative faced by all political theorists. Anyone who advocates any manifestation of a “right” to material goods that others must supply necessarily obliterates any distinction between the two alternatives. That’s exactly what Sterba does, by asserting that the ideal of liberty must be “viewed as a conflict of liberties.”
To justify his “conflict of liberties” premise, Sterba must obliterate any moral distinction between force and voluntarism. And that’s exactly what he does.
To Sterba, liberty means doing whatever the hell you feel like, no matter the consequences or effects on others. Doing an honest day’s work, volunteering time to Habitat for Humanity, and grabbing a gun and going out and robbing what you believe to be your neighbor’s “surplus” wealth are morally equal. (As regards the armed robbery, it makes no difference if the government is your hired gun. Electing politicians to be do the crime of forced redistribution of wealth is still a crime. The only difference is, when government does it, the crime is organized and the victims are stripped of governmental protection of their property rights; the government having become the criminal rather than remaining within the moral and constitutional bounds in its proper function of rights-protector.)
What facts of reality support Sterba’s view? None. The observable facts of human nature provide only evidence of the “negative” view of liberty. Material goods, whether basic or surplus, don’t pre-exist in nature, like rocks, poison ivy, or contaminated streams. Only raw materials exist. Human life and flourishing requires turning those raw materials into resources, and those resources into material goods. The creation of goods requires someone’s work. Productive work—reason-guided physical labor—requires a long-term effort. Long-term effort and planning requires peaceful coexistence, including being safe from human predators. If people are “free” to take by force what they please when they please, how can anyone engage in the productive work his life depends on? The facts of reality support only a moral code that incorporates the non-initiation of force principle. The non-initiation of force principle necessarily invalidates any notion of the “liberty” of the poor, or anyone else, to take from others by force; i.e., to steal.
But Sterba advocates the right to take only “surplus” wealth, you might ask? But what does surplus mean? A Yacht or a 20,000 square foot mansion or a 3-karat diamond ring might be one poor man’s conception of surplus wealth, while a second car or a 2000 square foot house might be another poor man’s idea of surplus. Besides, most of the surplus wealth of the rich is tied up in the production of material goods, including basic goods of necessity. Once the production stops for lack of investment capital, which has been seized by poor people as surplus wealth of the rich, how will anyone’s needs be satisfied?
Lest anyone misunderstand where Sterba is going with this, consider what he advocates as “A Peaceful Road to Justice.”
Clearly, the political and social changes required by my argument are both massive and wide-ranging. Just imagine a world where each person has just enough resources she needs to meet her basic needs, for a decent life, but no more, and think about the many changes that we would have to undergo to get from here to there.
The emphasis is mine. There can be no misunderstanding. He is not an advocate of, nor is he trying to justify, the modern welfare state, which features a government-imposed “safety net” but otherwise leaves people more of less free to earn and keep as much surplus wealth as she can, after taxes. Sterba forbids “surplus wealth” altogether; i.e., he forbids human flourishing. Haven’t we seen this movie before? We’ve seen Sterba’s ideal in action in every socialist country ever created, from Soviet Russia to Venezuela, but especially in Soviet Russia, which featured the socialist ideal of a single world-encompassing communist state as the goal. (The communists’ cousins, the fascists, advocate national socialism; the tailoring of socialism to individual societies’ unique cultures. It’s a distinction without a fundamental difference.)
Of course, Sterba doesn’t advocate leaving to each person the liberty to determine what constitutes surplus wealth, what constitutes basic needs, and the “right” to take matters into his own hands the job of “taking from the surplus possessions of the rich what is necessary to satisfy their basic needs.” Even Sterba would probably acknowledge that every man for himself in this way would be chaos. So who, in the end, would be in charge of deciding such issues? Why, the state, of course, through the only method possible; totalitarian democratic powers over our economic lives on a world scale. Universal acceptance of Sterba’s “should lead us to take steps to transfer our present and future surplus [to] appropriate institutions to guarantee that everyone has the resources for a decent life. . .”
Sterba pays lip service to voluntarism, as he fantasizes over a scenario in which “the entire adult population of the world came to accept my argument and began to act in accord with it.” But it’s clear that his “massive and wide-ranging” changes require that the state must have the final say, and the unfettered power to enforce the ideal. Why? Because all it will take to blow up Sterba’s ideal, if it is rooted only in voluntarism, is one or more people of self-esteem to say “no,” and assert their legitimate, “negative” rights to be free from forcible interference.
What kind of a life is it where basic needs, not justice, is the standard—and enforced at the point of a governmental gun? When government guarantees basic needs, and forbids surplus wealth—the ultimate ideal of economic equality—the result is universal grinding poverty; poverty as the ideal, the end to be achieved, with every person a slave to everyone’s else’s needs. Sterba’s moral code is just another version of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Who would wish such a hopeless existence on their fellow human beings?
I am not a philosopher. But one doesn’t need a philosophy degree to recognize the evil, and silliness, of Sterba’s perpetually unworkable economic ideal. Given its history, there is no excuse for Sterba’s peddling of this new version of Marx’s ideal. There is no place for freedom in Sterba’s egalitarian ant-colony world; and no place for rational human beings. What kind of person has the most to gain from such a system? The parasites and the seekers of unearned accolades, for sure. But the power-lusters will be the biggest winners in such a need-based system, and always have been. Just ask Ivy Starnes, heiress to the Twentieth Century Motor Company fortune and that company’s “Director of Distribution.”
Why Marxism—Evil Laid Bare—an article by C. Bradley Thompson for The Objective Standard
Radical Capitalist Episode 13: Why Socialism Won't Die—Yaron Brook