Saturday, February 11, 2006

Of Hayek, Rawls and Mountains

by Joe Miller

At Left2Right, Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher at the University of Michigan, takes up the question of economic justice. Anderson's post is far, far too long to summarize adequately. Go read it; it's very well done. Of course, having said that it can't be summarized adequately, I'm now going to summarize it inadequately. The nutshell version: Anderson offers a game to be played under conditions that approximate the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. In Anderson's game, people are climbing a mountain, sometimes singly and sometimes in groups. The mountain is beset by gales that blow harder at low elevations than at higher ones. There are a number of complicated arrangements about how climbing works, all designed, of course, to be analogous to life within a capitalist economy. Anderson then goes on to offer a number of different additional rule-sets from which we are supposed to choose, in good Rawlsian fashion, without knowing where we will be climbing.

Among the alternatives that Anderson offers: free fall (if you're knocked off the ledge, you hope that someone catches you; otherwise you fall until you die); safety net (there is a net between the bottom and the lowest climber); two versions of bungee cord, one long and one short (you're attached to a bungee cord which will arrest your fall at some fixed percentage of your previous height); maximin (classic Rawlsian version); strict equality (egalitarianism); and no rules dictatorship (a select group at the top decides how everyone else will climb and who will be kicked off the mountain). Anderson associates free fall with Nozick, safety net with Hayek, maximin with Rawls, strict equality with an oversimplified Marx, and no rules dictatorship with Soviet-style communism. Long- and short-bungee cord, Anderson claims, are the actual sorts of welfare policies enacted in the U.S. and most of the West. Anderson's point is that, oddly enough, philosophers haven't really much argued for anything like bungee cord, usually moving instead to defend either safety net or maximin.

I'm going to leave aside the question of which set of rules it would be most rational to choose. I tend to think that something like long bungee cord is probably the best route, but I'm going to leave that at the level of bald assertion. It's my blog. I can assert things without proof if I want to. So there.

What I would like to suggest, though, is that I think that Anderson's analogy might be flawed. Maybe I've just spending too much time around the Catallarchs, but I think that I can imagine the objection from marketists. You see, what Anderson's analogy ignores is the classic free market claim that capitalism increases the total amount of wealth in the world. That greater total amount of wealth benefits everyone even if no one ever receives a handout. How? Well, competition drives down prices such that, eventually, goods that were once considered luxuries eventually become cheap enough that they are considered basic necessities (think running water, electricity, radios, childhood vaccines, basic medical care, education, maybe even color TVs).

To fix Anderson's analogy, we might try something like the following. At various places on the face of the mountain, there are buttons hidden in hand- and toeholds, such that simply grabbing one of those holds will press the button. These buttons are scattered all over the mountain, but are concentrated in the higher regions. Pressing one of these buttons will cause the whole mountain to grow. Importantly, though, the mountain doesn't raise at the top. Rather, what had been the base of the mountain is now some random distance from the ground. The result; every single climber is now at a higher elevation than they were before. There is still exactly as much distance between climbers and everyone remains exactly the same distance from the top, but each person is now at a higher altitude.

Now since the buttons are scattered at random, having lots of people reaching around for handholds in the regions where the buttons are concentrated increases the likelihood of pressing a button. Slowing all of the climbers down, then, makes it take longer for anyone to reach the areas in which the buttons are concentrated. Pressing the buttons, though, makes everyone move higher, and it does so for free, so to speak; I don't have to set out to help others, but do so simply through the process of helping myself.

Two questions for my readers then. One is whether my modification of Anderson's analogy is accurate. The second is why, if that is the right analogy, the Hayekian safety net (which gets more people at higher elevations in less time) isn't the preferred strategy?


Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I think I'd go with something a little less broad. I'm thinking along the lines of the the following:

When climbing a mountain, someone has to go out ahead of everyone else, incurring more risk to themselves, yet with better equipment. As the first climber makes progress, (s)he leaves behind hooks and flags that allow the climbers behind to make progress without as much personal risk, ensuring an over-all safer climb for the group. Theoretically, anyone could grab their gear, leave the safety of the group, and move out ahead in order that others may have a better time of the climb. What happens, though, is that a few of the climbers group together, buy better equipment before hand, and make sure to remove all the hooks and flags along the way up the mountain. Then again, this makes the Rawlsian model break on the basis that some people _do_ in fact know where they will start: inheritance.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

To Mitch,
It seems if I am the one who gains an inheritance, I have a few choices ahead of me. Since I am the one who starts out ahead and has the better equipment (inherited) I can a)take responsibility for where I am and be the lead person making the way easier for everyone by planting flags or by virtue of the fact that there are more buttons the higher up you go, I can sit and wait for others to catch up and only move higher by others pressing buttons, or I can climb ahead not leaving any flags and by coincidence not pressing any buttons. In one way,no flags, I have improved my own life but not at the cost of anyone else (if I weren't up there they would still have to climb), in another way, waiting, I advance but through no action of my own, in fact it is you below me who are causing my advance by pressing buttons, in the last way, becoming leader, I advance and actively help you. In what way does my having that lead hinder you at all?

2:40 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

The inheritance remark was my way of saying that I think that while Rawls idea seems pretty good, the veil just doesn't work out.

4:18 PM  

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