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Thanks for your comments, Paul, but I don't think I am making a claim about the pre-tax distribution being sacrosanct. In fact, when I write that property rights are not absolute, I regard that as implicitly rejecting what you call "natural property rights." Maybe my post wasn't clear, but I view the issue much more as one of personal virtue. Sometimes people don't want to do what we would like them to do; how should we as individuals react when this happens?

One answer is to coerce or manipulate people to do the things we want them to do. This is a natural human impulse; I, for one, was born with it. But I think that as we mature and (hopefully) morally progress, we learn that the path of greater virtue is often to invest in a willingness to be disappointed. We learn to respect the autonomy of others not because there exists some objective baseline of autonomy, but because at the margin this is the more virtuous path. I think that no one will deny that this is true of our personal relations; my claim is only that it is true of our impersonal ones as well.

Paul Kelleher

Thanks for the clarification, Eli. I hope the version of liberal thinking I paint above will help explain why many liberals view redistribution from pre-tax incomes as *required* by a compelling ideal of respect for others. If we are co-participants in a project that employes coercive devices of state to sustain prosperity, then we need a conception of how benefits are to be shared. If fair outcomes are not the same as pre-tax outcomes, then fair social cooperation requires tax policy to address that. This isn't about making people give up what is rightfully theirs. Liberals argue that refusing to depart from pre-tax income amounts to using those who cooperate but do not receive their fair share for doing so. There is no vice--personal or impersonal--in seeking fairer outcomes.

That said, it really is up for debate what fair outcomes amounts to. Glad to be in the conversation with you about that.


Glad to be talking about this with you as well. What I wonder is this: is it really true that there can be no vice in seeking fairer outcomes? Perhaps dispositions, not just outcomes, matter.

Suppose that there is some social safety net known to be objectively the fairest. Suppose further that 80% of the population is on board with implementing this fairest-possible social safety net, but that doing so involves coercion of the other 20% in the form of taxation. Now, let's grant that the 80% is justified in taxing the other 20% in order to implement the social safety net; as you say, this isn't about making people give up what is rightfully theirs. Nevertheless, the 20% believe (wrongly, by assumption) that it is a violation of their rights to take their resources to fund a social safety net of which they do not approve.

Suppose that the social safety net is implemented. What is its moral status? We have already allowed that it is morally justified as an outcome. Nevertheless, to my mind, the disposition of the 80% toward the taxation of the 20% matters as well. The wrong beliefs of the 20% alienate them from the community of peaceful cooperation. The coercion necessary to bring them in line further alienates them. This alienation is regrettable, just as, per the example in my post, it is regrettable when one justifiably shoots a dangerous intruder. On my view, the failure to lament this alienation is a personal failing, a vice. Consequently, if the 80% feels no regret for the alienation of the 20%, that taints an otherwise-inspiring moral achievement of implementing the fairest-possible social safety net.

Empirically, I think there is widespread disregard for the alienation that we cause through our politics (liberals, libertarians, and conservatives are all guilty). That is enough in my view to make taxation morally problematic, even if we grant that it is ultimately justified as an outcome.

Paul Kelleher

Eli, I agree that the matter of the issue--whether the taxation is justified--and the manner--the attitudes expressed by various parties--are each relevant. When supporting taxation, one should always be willing to engage with dissenters in respectful ways that responds to their conscientiously raised objections. I'm with you there.

Perhaps we'll get to the point where all parties are part of a wide enough consensus that even when there is dissent, relations remain respectful. But if that is a far way off, then I guess we're back to a balancing act. In that case, it's also relevant that your hypothetical 20% fails to see that their objections are not sound, and that if they get their way we'll have others whose lives are worse than they are entitled to be. The thing is, those at the bottom--who need your hypothetical safety net the most--are those whose complains are most likely to go unheard or even unarticulated (see here for a current example: http://nyti.ms/pTCp2E).

So we may have a trade-off in the imperfect world that is rightly your focus. Either we leave the door open to the alienation of the well-off that you warn about, or to the unjustified neglect of those who are entitled to the resources the well-off refuse to give up. For my part, since the objections of the well-off are by hypothesis mistaken, it's hard for me to see how their resentment compares to the complaints of those who (again by your hypothesis) are entitled to the resources they refuse to give up.

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