Amia Srinivasan was recently published in the New York Times with an article titled, “Questions for Free-Market Moralists.” It is a fine example of the anti-market arguments being made in the United States today, particularly in the way it cleverly implies that free markets are economically and morally unjust. To be fair, Srinivasan’s heart is in the right place. She seems to honestly believe in the goodness of welfarism. Thankfully, one of America’s best traditions of governance is putting good sense above heartfelt emotion.
First, the stage is set as a battle between two American political philosophers. “[John] Rawls and [Robert] Nozick represent the two poles of mainstream Western political discourse: welfare liberalism and laissez-faire liberalism, respectively.” Srinivasan exhibits a clear preference for Rawls and the welfare ideals he promoted. She attempts to deliver the intellectual victory to Rawls through a coordinated attack on Mr Nozick’s theories. Her opening salvo against them is a condemnation of their implied effects:
On the whole, Western societies are still more Rawlsian than Nozickian: they tend to have social welfare systems and redistribute wealth through taxation. But since the 1970s, they have become steadily more Nozickian. Such creeping changes as the erosion of the welfare state, the privatization of the public sphere and increased protections for corporations go along with a moral worldview according to which the free market is the embodiment of justice. This rise in Nozickian thinking coincides with a dramatic increase in economic inequality in the United States over the past five decades — the top 1 percent of Americans saw their income multiply by 275 percent in the period from 1979 and 2007, while the middle 60 percent of Americans saw only a 40 percent increase.
Where is this “rise in Nozickian thinking”? Government regulation has increased exponentially since the 1970s, and there has certainly been no “erosion of the welfare state.” Federal government transfer payments to individuals roughly doubled from 30% of spending in 1970 to 59% in 2009. In 2009 those payments required the taxation and redistribution of $2.1 trillion. Since the 1970s the Medicare program grew, the Medicaid program grew, Social Security Disability payouts increased, and more food stamp money was given out. The welfare state hasn’t been eroded, it has been fortified to the extent that it now accounts for the vast majority of federal government spending. It was actually a rise in Rawlsian redistributionist thinking that coincided with the increase in economic inequality in the United States.
After first misleading the reader about the historical facts, Srinivasan invokes the old socialist “genetic lottery” argument to imply the government should play a role in ensuring equal circumstances in society:
…people’s capacities to produce goods and services in demand on the market is largely a function of the lottery of their birth: their genetic predispositions, their parents’ education, the amount of race- and sex-based discrimination to which they’re subjected, their access to health care and good education.
What if parents have worked hard to find good mates, in order to assure good “genetic predispositions” in their children? What if they strove to educate themselves to the highest possible degree, to help ensure they could provide for and teach their children? What if they labored exhaustively to secure their children the best possible health care and education? Where is the “lottery” in that deliberate struggle and sacrifice? Children are not a product of random chance, they are largely a culmination of the choices of their parents. There may still be places in America where race- and sex-based discrimination plays a role in shaping lives, but nowhere does such discrimination play a more significant role than parents’ choices. It is absurd to suggest that society has either the responsibility or the capacity to compensate for parents’ bad choices.
Srinivasan hits her stride as she proposes a series of emotionally provocative scenarios. She suggests Nozick believed that “a desperate person who sells her organs or body does so freely, that it’s fine to pay someone a paltry sum while profiting hugely off their labor, that people deserve to get rich because of accidents of birth, that there’s nothing wrong with walking by a drowning man.” Srinivansan twists the stories to imply that Nozick was some sort of monstrous sociopath. A fair treatment of her scenarios reveal that they have little moral content at all. How is it a rebuttal of Nozick's theories to observe that a human being is not free from the demands of her stomach? Or to observe that an employer will pay the least possible amount for qualified labor? Or that children of wealthy parents may inherit that wealth? Or that someone is not obligated to risk death to help a drowning man (but may feel compelled to do so anyway)?
Srinivasan’s real aim is to promote Rawlsian welfare liberalism, but her argument is purely negative. She makes veiled ad hominem attacks of Nozick, and generally baseless indictments of free markets and individualism. But she offers no meaningful positive arguments for welfarism or socialism. She certainly has reasons for her silence on that count. Americans would first have to be deeply disheartened with their tradition of individualism before they could be talked into socialism. Regardless, Srinivasan's criticisms rely on bad historical presumptions and theoretical mischaracterizations. In failing to make the case against individualism, she failed to make any case in favor of socialism.
It is regrettable that the debate about government charity versus individual rights is growing in America. That being the case, Srinivasan does our generation the service of ably stoking the fire. However, both theory and history have already decided the question she raises. Social welfarism is oppressive on paper, and devastating in practice. American social programs have coincided with the decline of the American middle class and the widening of the wealth gap. Fully implemented socialism has coincided with the most oppressive governments in history. Socialism has a price, and it is measured in dollars, freedoms and lives. It is a road down which the American nation should not be willing to march.