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Caplan on Slavery

May 3, 2012

Bryan Caplan wrote a post that gets under my skin, entitled “The Able Slave”. In it, he proposes a quandary:

“Suppose there are ten people on a desert island. One, named Able Abel, is extremely able. With a hard day’s work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island. Eight islanders are marginally able. With a hard day’s work, each can produce enough to feed one person. The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable. Harry can’t produce any food at all.


1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to support Harry?

2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to raise everyone’s standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone’s standard of living above subsistence?”

I’m just going to go ahead and give you the answers: 1. Yes. 2. Yes. 3. Yes. 4. Yes.

Caplan’s phrasing of “the right to force” is at the center of my disagreement. Force itself grants all rights. Force needs neither explanation nor justification. Maybe people don’t like this fact, but it is a fact. As humans, we live in a large interconnected society. No one of us could survive on our own. Our relationships with others are either sympathetic (family and friends), exchange (shopkeepers, employers, etc), or coercive (government, criminals, police). Coercive/dominance based relationships are just as much a part of the human experience as the loving relationships between you and your friends and family, and exchange relationships based on mutual advantage. Wishing does not rid the world of them.

If Abel wishs not to be coerced, he must convince the rest of society not to coerce him. Economists often point to disincentive effects and the gains to society from investments in order to help the Abels of the world to produce as much as they can without interference. Low tax rates *do* increase production. That effort, which Caplan is a part of, is not wrong or wasteful, but it only bears some similarity with the thought experiment. In small groups, where survival is at stake, most people’s moral intuition is that the more able are required to do more.

Maybe 80%.

To call income taxes slavery is hyperbole. There is a clear difference between being someone’s slave and having to give them money. Slaves are low status, tax payers are neutral status. Slavery is also associated with non-economic forms of abuse: beatings, rapes, horrible working conditions, etc. While there are some similarities, this rhetorical technique is more likely to alienate people from more moderate libertarian solutions to problems rather than recruit them.

“Unjust treatment of the able may not be the greatest moral issue of our time.”
No, it’s not. Are you kidding me? Of all the war and poverty and injustice in the world, and the best you can come up with is “unjust treatment of the able”? And I know, or at least I think I know, that I’m being unfair to Bryan Caplan with this quote, but he’s being unfair to himself too. He has written much high quality passionate articles about open immigration, which would be a good contender for the greatest moral issue of our time: the lack of access of most of the world to the high quality institutions of liberal democracies. Institutions which include, by the way, access to welfare for the disabled, such as Hapless Harry.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Locke permalink
    May 3, 2012 5:31 pm

    Might makes Right, but is it Good?

    • May 3, 2012 7:45 pm

      No, but might doesn’t care. Try convincing the IRS not to tax you sometime. Here’s the thing, if Abel could convince the masses not to tax him, then fine. That, in a sense is Caplan’s task. But if he can’t, all the “being right” in the world isn’t going to stop them.

      There are two tasks facing an economist. Convincing people of what is right and observing the world as it is. In my role as convincer, I am mostly in agreement with the standard libertarian line: low taxes, laissez faire, etc, but I chose those policy positions for mostly utilitarian reasons, not for deontological reasons. As an observer of humanity, I say that a coercionless society has never been observed, and no one has ever successfully convinced the government not to tax at all.

  2. May 4, 2012 12:08 pm

    Good post Azmythecon,

    I find it interesting that you have said in the same post that we should have completely free and open immigration, AND that slavery is “OK” as in the right to use force. I am not being sarcastic, I don’t mean this as a “gotcha” moment or anything like that, but let us be very clear that the only reason Slavery is “currently” illegal is becaue society says it is. All of human history before 200 years ago, and a good chunk of humanity even today disagrees with that setiment however. So if we allow poor Hispanics over here without controls and in 50 years Americans have a change of thought on the legality of owning humans….Well, I am just saying.

    • May 8, 2012 1:14 pm

      You’re right. Norms change. Once slavery wasn’t a big deal and now it is. But I think what people were objecting to when they fought against slavery were the other forms of abuse and control inherent in slavery, not necessarily the fraction of the income produced. And we all know that immigrants are perfect in every way. 😉


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