Caplan on Slavery
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.
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.