Libertarianism

Libertarianism

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 8 1997 12:30 AM

Libertarianism

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Dear Charles Murray,

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       You say that it is always wrong to tax the rich to help the poor, assuming the rich haven't acquired their riches through force or fraud. You add that this doesn't mean you favor a society in which "the rich sip champagne while the poor huddle in cardboard boxes." But this raises a question: Why not? Provided no one committed force or fraud, what would be wrong with such a society? If people were free to exercise their talents and to buy and sell the fruits of their labors as they chose, some would wind up with more, others less, perhaps dramatically so. What grounds would you have for objecting to the outcome? You say it is "always wrong," as a matter of principle, to tax the rich to help the poor. This must be because you think that people have an absolute, categorical (natural?) right to the fruits of their labor as bestowed by a market economy. But if this is so, then what is wrong with a society in which the rich sip and the poor huddle?
       You might reply that the huddling poor might eventually rise up and disrupt the sipping of the rich. But this is a practical difficulty, not a moral one. It can be addressed by expedients like more police officers, or television sets. Do you have a moral objection to such a society as well? If so, don't you thereby acknowledge the force of some value independent of the right to liberty, and possibly in competition with it?
       I would agree that, in many circumstances, there are good reasons to distribute certain goods through the mechanism of the market. But I don't see why we should view the outcome of market exchanges as morally sacrosanct. Consider the case of Madonna. She makes millions, without force or fraud, by catering very successfully to the desires of the people who buy her CDs or watch her movies. Neither the desires nor Madonna's ability to satisfy them are morally admirable. (I assume you would agree?) What then is so morally important about the distribution of income and wealth that results? Consider, by contrast, a schoolteacher. He or she lacks the talents (or perhaps the disposition) to cater to the desires of people who like Madonna. This inability (some would say virtue) is reflected in a paltry salary. What, morally speaking, should we conclude? Do you think that Madonna deserves to make more than the schoolteacher? Isn't it morally arbitrary that, given the qualities our society happens to prize, Madonna winds up with millions more than the schoolteacher? If so, why attribute to Madonna some privileged claim to the bounty the market bestows, such that she cannot be taxed for worthy social purposes (defined democratically)? Doesn't this example show that a "right to liberty" that bars taxing the rich to help the poor is founded on morally arbitrary considerations?

Michael Sandel

Charles Murray is a Bradley fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of What It Means to Be a Libertarian. Excerpts of his book are available on the MSNBC Web site. Michael Sandel is a professor at Harvard University and author of Democracy's Discontent: America In Search of a Public Philosophy.