There are those who say they only want free markets if they make the world better and poor people rich. On the face of it, this is bizarre: an unhampered market must lead to both, it can do no other. Markets, therefore – whether free or not – are perfectly irrelevant to whoever says this. It is plain that we are not dealing here with an empirical, “wertfrei” statement, but a moral one, based on an underlying moral belief about what are “the right kind” of consequences. Namely, a policy is good if we expect it to have the consequence of helping the poor; bad (or indifferent) if we do not expect it to have this consequence.
Other moral positions are possible, of course, even ones that are diametrically opposed to this. And, as every fashionable moral sceptic knows, each is good as any other. Moral propositions have no factual basis, no empirical content; this being so, it is only ever a case of “my word against yours”. Suppose, then, a man (it might help, reader, to picture him with a top hat, a monocle, a glass of port, and a cigar) comes along and tells us, “Though some libertarians really do not like this, I only want free markets if they make the rich richer and the poor poorer”. As unhampered markets do not make the rich richer and the poor poorer, any move towards them will be, according to our Mr Moneybags, bad, wrong. Or, what is the same, the consequences of the unhampered market are not to his taste. Well now, what can we say in reply to this vicious monster? Absent a moral belief that it is right for us to help the poor, not a lot; and even then, not a lot. We are at an impasse (a sophisticated impasse is no less an impasse for being sophisticated). Perhaps we might put our fingers in our ears and shout “na na na, can’t hear you!”. It couldn’t hurt, and it’d be no worse than any other moral argument.
This moral “nonsense on stilts” is based on a belief in a peculiar metaphysical substance, for which there is a peculiar metaphysical name. Sadly, it has slipped my mind at the moment. No matter – I’ll just utilize “liking” instead, because that’s exactly what it means. How it is supposed to work is this: People like things. Some people like some things a lot, some people like some things a little. If you add up all the separate likings that separate people do, you get “society’s total liking” or “social liking”. And “social liking” allows social engineers to do wondrous things. For example, say that one woman really likes apples, and that another really, really likes oranges, – only she can’t afford them. If, using the most precise and up-to-date methods, we subtract apples from oranges, we are left with some amount of liking. If this amount of liking is more than we imagine would be left over if we took oranges from apples, “social liking” increases if we transfer resources from the first woman to the second so that she can buy herself some oranges. And as we are all a part of society, we all share in, and profit from, this additional “social liking”.
This is utter gibberish, of course. The subjective valuations of different people are incommensurable. This becomes wholly obvious (if it wasn’t already) when we say what we actually mean – “liking” – instead of needlessly utilizing ‘scientific’ terminology. My likes and your likes can no more be aggregated, no more be subtracted one from the other, than apples can be subtracted from oranges.
Mind you, having said all that, while it is true that “to add one man’s quiet contentment to the exuberant joy of another, to deduct a woman’s tears from another woman’s smile, is a conceptual absurdity,” it is a conceptual absurdity that empowers us to make policy recommendations whenever the mood takes us. And at the end of the day, perhaps that is what really matters.
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