It’s not your money

Among sophisticated arguers, outright contradiction is not common. It is too easy to spot, and therefore both easy and necessary to avoid. Instead of contradiction, what often plagues the arguments of the sophisticated is question begging. That is, individuals will assume as an unstated premise the very conclusion they are arguing towards. In normative debates about the best distributive institutions, one of the most common ways individuals beg the question is by talking about “their money.”

I’ve brought this up before indirectly in my posts about the incoherent way the concept of redistribution is used by political commentators. But here I have in mind the way people phrase their objections to certain distributive policies by talking about how they don’t want “their money” spent on certain things. Importantly, this is not an objection merely to having economic resources dedicated to the production of the disfavored things; in fact, often the objector clarifies that they are totally fine with those things being produced and consumed, so long as it is not “their money” going to it.

The problem with this characterization is that once a distributional policy choice is made that redirects money from one receiver to another, the former can no longer actually say it is “their money.” Speaking in purely descriptive and functional terms, the distributive institutions of society are what makes any given bit of money “your money.” There is nothing else to descriptively hook money ownership onto.

If the distributional institutions allocate some bit of money to you, you can say it is “your money.” If the institutions allocate some bit of money to someone else, you cannot call that money “your money.” To say you are opposed to a distributional policy because you do not want “your money” spent on it is, by definition, a nonsense sentence: if the distributional policy exists, the money is not yours.

This might seem like a pedantic point and a deliberate effort to misconstrue the point being made by the “my money” style of arguments. But it’s actually the most charitable way to read the point. Every other way of reading it just leads to the argument begging the question. For instance, suppose the arguer is trying to actually say that they believe we should adopt distributional institutions where they receive the money instead of the person who receives the money under the policy they oppose. Using as a premise of the argument that it is “their money” begs the question in the debate. It involves assuming that the money is theirs to prove that it ought to be theirs.

Since distributional institutions are what make people’s money “theirs,” it is purely meaningless for an individual to argue against a distributional institution by relying on the premise that the money is “theirs.” Yet this is an enormously popular style of horribly bad argumentation, and all sides fall prey to it. People complain that they do not want “their money” going for war. People object to using “their money” to subsidize this or that thing. Religions institutions object to having to use “their money” to purchase contraception.

There are certainly good arguments against using economic resources for war when they could be used for other things, and good arguments against subsidizing certain things. But these “my money” style of arguments are just pure nonsense. Money belongs to you only if the distributional institutions award it to you; if they don’t award it to you, then it is by definition not yours.

Of course, we know what is actually plaguing the minds of people who make these mistaken points. They are assuming that there is this sort of default, neutral, not-based-on-distributive-institutions baseline distribution (usually one that tracks market incomes in some sort of stylized laissez-faire economy). And the money they would be distributed under that sort of system is somehow really and in a deeply true way “their money.” Other distributional institutions simply move around “their money” to other places.

As I have said before, this stylized baseline is not the default neutral baseline of the cosmos, and the distribution that results from it is no more natural than any other. Since all distributions are the result of intentional institutional decisions, it is absurd to take the distributions that would result from one hypothetical set of distributional institutions and assume them as somehow real and true when those hypothetical institutions do not even exist.

You can certainly make normative arguments in favor of adopting those institutions and trying to generate such a distribution, but that is not what is going on when people talk about “their money.” These are not normative arguments about distributive justice at all. The only argument is that X shouldn’t be done because X involves use of “my money” where “my money” is simply “money I would have been distributed under a laissez-faire set of institutions that do not exist and for which I am offering no argument in favor of, but merely assuming as somehow natural and default.”

I fear this point is a complicated one because of how deep this ideology runs, but it is an important one. This style of argument is utter garbage, and it ruins from the very beginning any meaningful discourse on distributive justice. Sadly, most — even on the left — are willing to engage the argument as serious, and in so doing, accept the covert laissez-faire distributive assumptions packed deeply inside of it.