Inequality and Consequentialism

This post is a response to two related posts on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, one by Duke Professor Jonathan Anomaly and one by Richmond Professor Jessica Flanigan.

Professor Anomaly’s post asks the question: “Is global wealth Inequality unjust?”. He cites Dan Moller in an article about economic growth divergence which is pretty convincing.  Moller points out that most of the disparities in wealth can be attributed to exponential economic growth that certain nations seemed to stumble upon. The causes for these are not known, but they seem to be long-term over the course of hundreds of years. Likely candidates include scientific advancement and technology, political and economic institutions, bourgeois social norms, etc.  Since growth was similar across countries that participated in colonialism and ones that did not, over the course of hundreds of years and many different policies, it seems clear that colonial exploitation, while awful and unjust, isn’t a good explanation for differences in wealth.  The resources exploited were trivial in terms of how vastly the differences in economic development are. I would highly recommend reading the whole article.

Part 6 and 7 bring up the major point underlying both Professor Anomaly’s post and Moller’s article and its differences with Flanigan’s followup post; differences in the theories of justice the two are using.  Anomaly and Moller are fairly libertarian in their theories of justice; if the rich just happened to stumble upon the right political institutions to push for growth, then simply growing their economies isn’t an injustice. But under a Rawlsian theory of justice, we can point out that poor people did not choose to live in poor countries, and the fact that rich countries have a lot of resources beyond which can cover their basic needs, they have a moral obligation to reduce this global inequality. In this sense, past injustices are fairly irrelevant.

Flanigan makes a couple points, one reminiscent of Rawls’ position, and one more vaguely so. The first is that poor people didn’t really ask to be born into a “coercive global property system” that they have no say in.  There’s a lot of murky rhetoric around here, and in this short blog post there isn’t much of examples of what is coercive about the global economic system, but I think a major part of the argument is that we should give everyone resources so that they have enough.  This is sort of Rawlsian, but if the “global property system” were coercive, I think she would mean coercive in a libertarian sense of violating one’s natural rights. But this just needs more clarification.

The second point is that borders and immigration policy are an example of unjust policy, since they are, in some sense, an unfair trade policy.  Specifically: “but one thing is clear, poorer people are poorer because of the border system.”  I think this is by no means clear though; poor people are not getting poorer because of the border system, in the individual rights sense.  Border agents are not crossing over the border and stealing from the homes of poor people and then harboring their spoils where poor people can’t go. What I think Flanigan means is that restrictive immigration is stopping poor people from immigrating and becoming richer than they are now. This could be a critique stating that  (1) there is an alternative policy that would be better off for the poor, and (2) the very existence of this alternative violates a moral principle. Dan Moller refutes this claim fairly well in part 6 of his article, and here is a quick excerpt:

It follows from the possibility of an alternative system that would, say, require the rich to give the poor lots of money, or (equivalently) a medical patent system that would require rich countries to transfer their intellectual breakthroughs to anyone poor and in a position to benefit. The serious question is whether in “arbitrarily favoring” their own interests, the developed countries violate a moral constraint, and I don’t see any reason to think so. For what constraint could it violate?

I’m also not sold that people don’t have a moral right to restrict immigration.  In particular, a section of this Slate Star Codex post (ctrl+F “Keep Your Tired And Poor To Yourself”) points out that if Berkeley, CA started having massive immigration from a fictional conservative alternate dimension, they would be perfectly within their rights to restrict immigration to preserve Berkeley as their residents like it. (Aside: that post is about neoreactionaries, and neither I nor Scott Alexander subscribe to their beliefs)

So it’s fairly difficult (I’d say impossible) to prove that global wealth inequality is unjust under a libertarian moral philosophy.  Under a more Rawlsian morality, it’s fairly easy, because you just ask whether global wealth is too unequal and that’s about it.  I tend to find the Rawlsian/”justice is fairness” philosophy highly unconvincing, but that’s just me. Nonetheless, there is unlikely to be a good intermediary between these two theories of justice. So what do we do?

In my first post on the minimum wage last year, I argued against relying on rights-based approaches and instead using a consequentialist approach.  Since then, I’ve found a much more comprehensive argument for consequentialism with Scott Alexander’s Consequentialism FAQ. The most important point for me however, is that arguing whether there is an injustice is irrelevant; if there is a policy that we can take that will make things “better”, we should follow that policy! Whether it’s Rawlsian or libertarian or Burkean or whatever should add zero weight to policy selection.

Once you get to this point, discussions are much easier and can advance. For example, I can say that economic growth has cut the global poverty rate in half in 20 years. Therefore, I’ve got some good evidence that developmental economics (and free markets) is the way to go to fight poverty. But then you can come back with a differing study, or point out that economies develop best with government intervention or something.  But the bottom line is that we can have a discussion that gets somewhere, and we don’t waste time arguing who is to blame for massive economic disparities that have arisen over hundreds of years of human history.