Tuesday, November 19, 2002

The Leftist Cooperation Argument

John Jay Ray posts today about an email he received from a leftist. The topic is the often heard argument that the wealthy should be willing to redistribute wealth to the unwealthy (those below upper-middle class), on the grounds that society is a cooperative enterprise. Without the unwealthy, the wealthy would not be able to become wealthy. A workforce is needed, a monetary system, an infrastructure, etc. In other words, you can live high off the hog, but only because there is an elaborate society, and any elaborate society requires laborers. These people deserve payment, a fair share of the take. Fully fledged egalitarian leftists would say that everyone should have the same amount of wealth. In any event, this is the cooperation argument in favor of leftist economic justice.

It seems like a seductive argument. But it's little more than a thinly veiled threat. For an unwealthy person to say that he deserves a bigger piece of the pie because he makes society possible is tantamount to his threatening to rebel, to undermine society. The unwealthy participate in society of their own volition. They could leave or commit suicide. Since no one is forced to contribute to society, the cooperation argument is spurious. There are no grounds to complain about the contract if you are always free to leave. The contract says that we are going to work together to create society, and luck, skill, and market forces will determine outcomes. The cooperation argument merely threatens to disrupt this endeavor, to return society to the Hobbesian state of war, unless the terms "luck, skill, and market forces" are stricken.

Maybe I'm being uncharitable to the cooperation argument. However, if it's not a mere threat, then the argument merely says that anyone who contributes to society deserves a comparable share to anyone else. But there is no good reason to accept this premise.

There ought to be a minimal welfare net for those unable to support themselves. After that, it should be a free-for-all.