I know it is low-hanging fruit, but I found myself really tickled at a recent post from Bryan Caplan. So Bryan Caplan doesn’t care about poor people and doesn’t think people should have to “give” to them. He also thinks that we should allow immigration because not doing so would hurt poor people. This seems irreconcilable right? He doesn’t think so:
But suppose instead that John handcuffs Julio to a tree to prevent him from going to the interview. Julio says “Let me go. I deserve a shot at this job too.” At this point, it’s ludicrous for John to reply, “No. You’re a stranger and I don’t owe you anything.” Julio isn’t demanding help; he’s just demanding that John leave him alone. And if John were to object, “You’re not leaving me alone. That job is MINE, and you’re trying to steal it from me!” we’d have to answer, “The job isn’t yours. It’s up to the owner of the business to decide who he wants to employ.”
You see it is different because one involves procedurally using force to prevent Julio from accessing the job. So there is a difference between forcing someone to give to the poor and telling someone that they should not remove access to the poor. But this difference only exists in the question-begging imagination of libertarians. Watch this parallel story:
Suppose Julio needs somewhere to sleep and goes to the house that John usually sleeps in, and sleeps on the sofa therein. John then handcuffs Julio and takes him to jail. Julio says “Let me go. I deserve access to this piece of ground and the pieces of matter that make up the sofa.” At this point, it’s ludicrous for John to reply, “No. You’re a stranger and I don’t owe you anything.” Julio isn’t demanding help; he’s just demanding that John leave him alone. And if John were to object, “You’re not leaving me alone. That piece of ground and the matter that makes up the sofa are MINE, and you’re trying to steal them from me!” we’d have to answer, “The piece of ground and the matter that makes up the sofa aren’t yours. You are just relying upon violent property law institutions to take away his otherwise-existing access to it.”
I am not here to argue against immigration; rather, I want to make a broader point about distributive justice by talking about Caplan’s failed attempt to distinguish “refusing to give” and “excluding access.” There simply is no functional or procedural difference between “refusing to give” and “excluding access.” Think about it in the “give to the poor” case. I am not asking you to give anything to the poor. I am asking you to stop using violence to keep the poor from certain pieces of matter that you seem to think you have ownership over. I am asking you to leave the poor alone as they help themselves to those pieces of matter that you wish to violently exclude them from.
Ownership is, by its functional operation, a refusal to leave other people alone if they do certain things, i.e. step foot over certain invented lines. If we are going to make any meaning out of the distributive justice disputes, we can’t do it on purely procedural grounds. We have to figure out when someone should able to violently exclude others from a piece of the world, and why. If you think “not leaving others alone” should be forbidden as a procedure, then you also think that property ownership should be forbidden as an institution.
In reality, everyone knows what Caplan is doing here, except perhaps Caplan himself. He is, like all libertarians, doing the property ownership question-begging dance. He believes certain distributive institutions involve forcing him to give to the poor because he assumes his views on who owns what are correct. So he uses his antecedent theory of who owns what to prove that other antecedent theories of who owns what involve “forced giving.” But this completely begs the question because it assumes exactly what is in dispute, i.e. who owns what.
My view is that the amount I think should be distributed to the poor belongs to the poor. They own it. If your argument has as an underlying premise that they don’t own it, you are not engaging my position. You are assuming the very thing we are debating about as an unstated premise in order to show that you are right. But two can play that game. Since I think the amount distributed to the poor belongs to them (given my theory of who owns what), I can confidently say that laissez-faire advocates like Caplan advocate forcing the poor to give to the rich. He advocates using guns to give rich people things that poor people actually own (again under my theory of who owns what).
Process-focused libertarian arguments are so transparently question-begging that it is pathetic that anyone takes them remotely seriously. The real debate is about who has a distributive entitlement over what — i.e. who owns what — and why. When you can actually force a libertarian to justify their theory of distributive entitlement in a way that does not just beg the question, they always fail miserably.