Chris Freiman joins us today to argue that the liberal egalitarian rejection of free market regimes rests on a crucial methodological mistake. Liberal egalitarians regularly assume an ideal “public interest” model of political behavior and a nonideal “private interest” model of behavior in the market and civil society.
Why do we need the state? What is the free rider problem? What is ideal theory? How did Rawls mix ideal and non-ideal theory when analyzing institutions? What kind of state would we have in a perfectly just world? What kinds of institutional designs is Rawls aiming at? How is voting an expressive behavior?
Unequivocal Justice (Political Philosophy for the Real World), written by Christopher Freiman
Rawls, Ideal Theory, and the Public Goods Argument for the State, written by Christopher Freiman
A Theory of Justice, Post-Trump Edition, written by Christopher Freiman
A (Revised) Theory of Justice, written by Brian Kogelmann
The Federalist No. 10, written by James Madison
The Virtue of Justice, Free Thoughts Podcast
00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: And joining us today is Christopher Freiman. He’s an associate professor of Philosophy at William & Mary. His new book is Unequivocal Justice. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
00:18 Chris Freiman: Thank you.
00:18 Aaron Ross Powell: Your book begins with a striking claim. You write, “The very reasons why the state is needed are reasons why the state won’t work.” What do you mean by that?
00:29 Chris Freiman: So I’ll give you a simple case. So a standard argument that you see from economists and political philosophers as for why we need the state points to a public goods problem. Take something like clean air. They say we need the state to coercively enforce clean air laws, maybe that’s through carbon taxes or a cap and trade scheme or something like that. You say, well, why won’t people just do the right thing voluntarily? Why won’t they buy hybrids voluntarily? Why won’t they install solar panels panels on their own? And the answer is, well, their individual contribution to clean air is insignificant, so even if you buy a Prius, even if you put solar panels on the top of your house, that’s not going to make a meaningful difference as to whether or not the atmosphere is clean or not. What’s more, if other people are actually cleaning up their acts and driving Priuses and putting solar panels on their houses, you can free ride off of this.
01:28 Chris Freiman: And so no individual has an incentive to voluntarily, let’s say, buy a Prius, so we have this horrible air pollution problem, and we’re all worse off. And so this public good’s problem is a justification for the state. We need the state to force people to contribute to this public good of clean air. That’s the justification for the state in the first place.
01:50 Chris Freiman: But if we take seriously this free rider problem, then we see that the state that’s introduced as a solution to the public good’s problem, is also subject to a free-rider worry. So this is the standard kind of public choice analysis of voting. You’re asking yourself whether or not you should cast an informed vote, an intelligent vote, a vote for good governance, you say, well, my casting a vote is not actually going to affect the outcome of the election; the odds of that happening are beyond infinitesimal. Meanwhile, if other people are casting good votes both for good governance, you can just free ride off of that. So if other people elect a really good president, you get all the benefits of that president without casting the vote yourself.
02:32 Chris Freiman: And so the very same incentives that cause the public good’s problem that allegedly creates the need for a state is also going to have this kind of boomerang problem, or when we’re trying to devise a just and efficient state, we can’t get it because people are looking to free ride on the contributions to the state itself.
02:50 Trevor Burrus: And how is this related to another important distinction in your book and something that’s discussed a lot in political philosophy, ideal versus non-ideal theory?
03:00 Chris Freiman: Right. Ideal theory is this term coined by Rawls. He means different things by it in different places, but the meaning that I focus on in the book is what you might think of as ideal institutional theory. So he says, “Let’s theorize about institutions for a perfectly just society made up of people who are more or less fully compliant with justice.” Sometimes we’ll say that we assume everybody complies with justice. Other times we’ll say, nearly everybody complies with justice but that’s, I think, not a huge issue. The main idea is just what does government look like in a world of nothing but just people?
03:37 Chris Freiman: Non-ideal theory takes the problem of injustice more seriously, where it says, look, what kind of institution should we have for people who can be corrupted, who might be short-sighted, who might be selfish, and so on. And Rawls thinks both are important, but he thinks that we need to do ideal theory for a variety of reasons. One thing we might just care about what the ideal society looks like, but we might also need ideal theory as a way of giving us a target for real world institutions to aim at.
04:06 Chris Freiman: My objection to ideal theory is that a society of fully just people is actually a society that has no need for the state. So if you think of the state as an institution that has a monopoly on coercion, you might ask Why do people need a state if they’re willing to fully comply with justice just out of the goodness of their heart? So you say, look, if people are fully ideal, then they will just drive the Prius without having laws mandating it or something like that, because they care about doing the right thing. My argument is that when Rawls is doing ideal theory he actually kind of shuffles back and forth between ideal and non-ideal assumptions. In a truly ideal world we have anarchy, because people are doing the right thing out of the goodness of their heart, and you don’t need the state threats of incarceration and so on to motivate them to do the right thing.
04:56 Chris Freiman: To give the state a function, to give the state a job to do, what you’ll see is Rawls actually assuming people acting in non-ideal ways in non-political contexts, so in the marketplace, they’re not going to buy the Prius and so we have the problem of air pollution. In civil society, they’re not going to donate enough to charity, so we have a need for some sort of state-enforced redistribution. And so this, I argue, leads to this kind of biased analysis where he says we need the state to be active in regulating the economy and redistributing income because look at all these problems that arise in the non-political world because people aren’t doing the right thing.
05:37 Chris Freiman: But I argue that this is sort of an unfair and frankly, uninteresting way of analyzing institutions. If you’re comparing perfect governments to imperfect markets, imperfect civil society, that’s not really a fair comparison, it’s not really an interesting comparison if we’re trying to figure out what the right balance would be in the real world. My argument is, essentially, if you’re doing full ideal theory, that’s fine, that’s cool, you could do that if you want, but then we’re talking about some kind of ideal anarchy. If we want to think about a world in which political institutions actually have a point, you have to do full-fledged non-ideal theory. This means taking the non-compliance of political actors seriously as well, so we can’t assume in the way that Rawls does that voters, bureaucrats, politicians and so on will comply with justice, we have to assume they’re subject to the same limitations, the same incentives as everybody else.
06:27 Aaron Ross Powell: It seems, though, that we can think of reasons why we might need a state that don’t have to do with perfect justice versus injustice, that so, as you said, if everyone was perfectly just, we wouldn’t need a state, so the question of what kind of state we have in a perfectly just world is moot, but states fill other roles. You mention this with the public goods prior but also coordination problems, information; perfectly just people may not have as much information as someone whose job it is to sit at the center and have all that information. And so, is there still a role for talking about it in those regards even if we’re assuming a way injustice elsewhere?
07:08 Chris Freiman: Yes, so I think that’s an important point, and I talk about that a bit in the book. My argument is fairly modest. I want to argue that, for those sorts of problems where you think even morally perfect people might have a need for government, I’m open to that possibility, but the problem is the very same reasons why morally perfect people might have problems providing public goods, coordinating, etcetera, etcetera, are also going to be reasons to think that morally perfect people might still get dysfunctional government. For example, I’m completely open to the argument that you can have public goods problems even among people who are perfectly just.
07:46 Chris Freiman: I think this is something that Rawls himself considered. The idea is not that you are driving the polluting SUV because you’re a bad person, it’s because you don’t want to have your own efforts exploited. Rawls talks about conditional co-operation, the idea is, I’m happy to contribute my fair share to the environment, so long as everybody else is doing the same. That’s why we need the state, we need the state to make sure that everybody is doing their fair share. It’s not really a deficit of morality, it’s just we don’t want to have our own contributions exploited, we’ll cooperate conditional on other people cooperating as well. But the argument that I make in the book is, if that’s a problem in non-political contexts, it’s equally a problem in political contexts.
08:29 Chris Freiman: So I might say, look, I am more than happy to cast a high information, low biased vote for the best political candidate, but I’m only willing to do that if I have some sort of guarantee that other citizens, other voters are doing the exact same thing. In the absence of that guarantee, I’m either going to sit home on election day and not cast a vote at all, or I will cast a vote, but I won’t do my research, or I’ll do my research but process it in a very biased way. I think if we’re worried about producing good outcomes in non-political contexts, because people aren’t willing to give unreciprocated contributions, that’s going to be equally a problem when we’re talking about contributions to the state. I think that’s actually what we see. I think when we see people, something like, I don’t know, half of eligible voters don’t vote, the information of voters is extremely low and even high information voters are extremely biased. I don’t know if that’s due to a moral failing, that just might be how they’re responding to the incentives.
09:30 Trevor Burrus: You said that ideal theory is a coinage of Rawls.
09:34 Chris Freiman: Yes.
09:34 Trevor Burrus: And it’s sort of interesting ‘cause I see the point of saying, okay, what are we shooting at. Let’s imagine what the just society looks like. It’s kind of like economics or physics of frictionless universe of physics, you figure out where the ball is going to go perfectly and then you add a noise and adjust your throw accordingly, but you know you want to hit it in the target. But it’s also kind of interesting ‘cause I’m trying to think of before Rawls. He coined the term, but political theorists like Locke or Hobbes or Mill, or even Marx to some extent, were talking about real world human institutions. You’ve got to read the opposite of Rawls for ideal theory will be like James Madison, I’m a constitutional lawyer, so you’ve got everything in the Federalist Papers, is people are not going to be perfect, people… We cannot… We have to plan to eliminate or control vice and this is what our institutional design is about and then what results is going to be just, kind of like Rawls but using the input of bad people as the given. So is it just completely out of nowhere that Rawls comes up with this idea, we’re going to pretend that everyone is perfect and then now we’re all talking about it, just like we’re always talking about Rawls to this day, but now we have another reason to do it.
10:45 Chris Freiman: I certainly think that the fact that Rawls talked about it a lot is the reason why we’re still talking about it today. I’m not sure if I would say Rawls got it out of nowhere, but I think it is a very sharp departure from the way that political philosophy and political economy was done prior to Rawls in the history of political economy. Because you’re exactly right. You look at people like Smith, for example, and this is Smith’s idea of sort of the invisible hand, where you have people pursuing their own self-interest and then the question is how do we arrange institutions so that self-interest will lead to socially beneficial outcomes.
11:19 Chris Freiman: So yeah, I agree, I think Rawls is definitely… His methodology is at odds with the way that political theory and political philosophy has been done for a very long time. I should say, I certainly think that one of the jobs of political philosophy might be to provide us with a target that we’re trying to aim at, but I would advocate for a separation of something like the first principles of justice on the one hand, and that’s a philosophical question. So what do we want our institutions ultimately to do. Rawls would say we want our economic institutions to make the rich as poor as possible. Okay, that sounds pretty good to me. And then, you have questions of institutional design which are basically, okay, so how do we do that, what sort of institutions will actually maximize the income of the poor.
12:05 Chris Freiman: My view is the first set of questions, that’s philosophy. We can talk about that as philosophers. The second set of questions is not philosophical, it’s for social scientists, economists, etcetera. I’m perfectly happy saying we as philosophers need to have this debate about what the first principles of distributive justice are, but once we figure out what they are, if we figure out what they are, suppose it is the Rawlsian difference principle, we make the poor as rich as possible, then we hand the job over to economists and political scientists and say, okay, now, how do we get there? Now I’m out of my element, this is a job for empirical social science.
12:40 Trevor Burrus: That seems like philosophers. Your book has a good amount of… It touches on a lot of empirical social science questions. But in general, I don’t see a political philosopher is going to really get into growth rates, for example, or occupational licensing and all these kind of nitty-gritty. So that’s not political philosophy, but I can still theorize. But the whole world knowing nothing about it or at least knowing little to no economics, and create a perfect system of why this will work or won’t work.
13:10 Chris Freiman: That’s right. This is something too that I criticize Rawls for. In his later work he says we can imagine different types of ideal regimes. So you have… He calls it the “system of natural liberty,” which is essentially libertarianism. He has welfare state capitalism, liberal socialism, command and control socialism, property-owning democracy. And he says okay, I’m going to analyze these in ideal theory a priori. And he argues that he can actually rule out all forms of capitalism as inconsistent with his principles of justice from the armchair. So he says if we’re assuming that institutions work exactly as designed and people are fully compliant with justice, then capitalism is more or less off the table.
13:55 Chris Freiman: Part of his argument for that is, well, libertarianism, for example, at most advocates for a very low social minimum. And so that’s not going to be good enough by the lights of Rawlsian justice. Since we assume that institutions always produce the outcomes at which they aim and don’t produce the outcomes at which they don’t aim, capitalism doesn’t do the job. I argue that this is just not a fair way to evaluate institutional regimes. And so… Maybe he’s right, maybe as an empirical matter-of-fact capitalism won’t do the job. I disagree with him on that, but it’s just not a philosophical question.
14:30 Aaron Ross Powell: For listeners who aren’t that familiar with Rawls, then, this distinction that you made a moment ago, philosophers can look at this like end-state. We can look at these principles of justice like that’s the role of philosophers, but when they start getting into institutional design, that’s when they run into problems. What specifically kinds of institutional designs is Rawls aiming at? Because the thumbnail sketch of him is, we put the people behind the veil of ignorance, and they’ve got a handful of principles they’ve got to stick to, and they come up with these things, but it’s a decision-making procedure as opposed to an end-state like we need a Department of Agriculture. So what kind of work is he doing and when people… ‘Cause you’re not… This book is against Rawls, but it’s really against Rawlsianism, which is still fairly dominant in the academy. Are the followers of Rawls sticking to the discussions of principles and decision-making procedures or is there really kind of a Rawlsian set of very specific institutions that everyone endorses?
15:35 Chris Freiman: I don’t have so much of a problem with the original position as a decision procedure for figuring out what justice requires, as you say. That actually strikes me as pretty good. I don’t know if I would sign on to it completely, but the idea that, look, we ask ourselves what kind of principles we would want to be governed by if we didn’t know who we are. It seems like this is a pretty good way of getting that impartial result. So that, I’m okay with. Like I said, I’m not sure if I would wholly endorse it, but I don’t have much of a problem. My problem comes in with… This, I think, shows up more and more in the later work of Rawls, where he says, okay, we have these two principles of justice and we can form the details in a particular way. So we want to make sure that people’s basic liberties are protected, by which he basically means the standard sort of civil liberties, and then we have these economic principles about fair opportunity and, again, maximizing the income of the poor. He comes off that a little bit, maybe it’s sufficient income, but we’ll put that to the side. He says, here are the institutions, at least in ideal conditions that are needed to realize these. Well, to ensure that everybody has equal access to the political process, we need to have campaign finance regulations.
16:42 Trevor Burrus: That’s very specific.
16:43 Chris Freiman: Yes, I know. Exactly, that’s right. And maybe there’s just one or two footnotes about the particulars. So we need campaign finance, we need pretty robust amounts of redistribution and regulation of the economy to ensure equality of opportunity. Like I said, maybe he’s right about that, but that’s not really a philosophical question. And so, if Rawls or Rawlsians just stuck at the level of first principle where they said we’re just trying to figure out what just principles of distribution would look like, and then we hand it off to the empirical social scientists to tell us how to get there, I’d be totally happy with that. It’s when Rawls starts saying we’ve got to have campaign finance regulation, we’ve got to have robust regulation and redistribution of income, that I say he’s kind of stepping out of his element. And the campaign finance case, I think, is actually a good illustration of the problem, which is if people are perfectly just, why are they attempting to buy up unfair shares of political power in the first place?
17:44 Chris Freiman: It seems to me, in a truly ideal world, nobody would be trying to buy more political power than they’re entitled do. So what Rawls does again as he sneaks in a bit of non-ideal theory to generate this problem why we would need campaign finance regulation. But then when he’s considering campaign finance regulation as a solution, he just assumes that it works and doesn’t really take into consideration that it could make the problem even worse.
18:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Does this critique of basically ideal theory doing institutional design apply to the… It seems to be less thriving now, but once thriving genre of anarcho-capitalist literature, where we start with principles of justice, which are very, very strong personal property rights, and then we write chapters and chapters upon how protecting agencies might evolve and might work and how we might build roads and so on. Would you say that’s also wrong-headed?
18:44 Chris Freiman: That’s an interesting question. It might be wrong-headed, but for… Maybe for a different reason. So my major problem with Rawlsian ideal theory is the shuffling back and forth between ideal and non-ideal to suit these purposes. So we’re gonna be non-ideal… Like I said, when it comes to charitable donations, because if people gave enough to charity voluntarily, you wouldn’t need the welfare state. So we just have to have insufficient charity and the private sector to generate a need for the state, and then once we got the state up and running, we’re just gonna assume that it works perfectly. So that to me is my main concern. I do think there’s a problematic strain of ideal theory among some libertarians where they start stipulating about how things are gonna work in this really far off society where we have competing protection agencies etcetera, etcetera. My worry is there might be more, I don’t know, [19:38] ____ or something like that, where it’s just really, really hard to know how that would turn out. So I think maybe we need more epistemic humility about those sorts of questions. I’m not sure it involves the kind of shuffling that Rawls is guilty of, but it might be a problem for a different sort of reason.
19:56 Trevor Burrus: This is… ‘cause I do campaign finance work here at Cato and so I’ve thought a lot about these issues. And when you mentioned the campaign finance in Rawlsian institutional design, would they design the camping finance rules after, they would do it after the principles have been discovered, it’d be at some point of later. Because one of the things what we, and this goes to your point of your book that we always bring up here at Cato our campaign finance is that you can’t expect elected representatives to fairly make the rules by which elected representatives get elected. You’re almost in original position where it’s like, ‘Before we even have an election let’s agree on fair rules and then we’ll all… What party we’re gonna be in or who’s gonna get money and then we’ll have that election to do it.”
20:38 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s like setting up civilian review boards for police officers. You don’t want the cops coming up with the rules the cops follow. We get that and I would wager that most of your colleagues and philosophy departments, would get that, but it seems different with the state.
20:52 Trevor Burrus: Well that gets to the point of… Well that gets to the point of this behavioral symmetry it’s important we bring out those words where if I just sort of said, “Well look, if I assume that elected representatives are not perfect and just like an or whatever I assume about group A, I should assume about Group B, unless I have some compelling reason to believe that state actors are temperamentally or categorically different, in terms of their goals, aims, interests and ideals then they would be in the market. But if you say people are greedy therefore we need to state, your first question is, “Well then they’re greedy in the state.”
21:28 Chris Freiman: Right exactly and so if memory serves, I think, the first use of the term behavioral symmetry was from a book by James P. Cannon and Geoff Brennan, and right, so basically the idea is, unless you have some really good reason to think that people are fundamentally different in one institutional context than another, you should assume that they’re subject to the same sort of motivations and limitation. So right, so if you think people are selfish or short-sided or corruptible or whatever, in their non-political lives, then the default presumption has to be that they’re the same way in their political lives. And now certainly I think there are cases where the assumption of behavioral symmetry is gotta be false. So for example, when I’m interacting with my family, it’s just very different from the way I interact with, I don’t know, somebody that…
22:15 Trevor Burrus: Colleagues.
22:15 Chris Freiman: Yeah, colleagues, or a store where I’m shopping at or something like that. But in a case of political life versus non-political life, I talk a little bit about this towards the end of the book. There’s not really compelling empirical reason to think that people are motivated by different considerations, there’s one exception to that, which I can say a little bit about. But the idea is with campaign finance, it could turn out to in fact benefit people who are already privileged, and powerful. So if there are hefty fines for failing to properly comply with the campaign finance regulation…
22:49 Trevor Burrus: And there are.
22:49 Chris Freiman: Yeah, right, it’s like who’s that gonna help, that’s gonna help the big guy, it’s not gonna help the little guy. And again, it’s an empirical question as to what the total effect is? But we can’t just say from a philosopher’s arm chair that campaign finance reform is necessary for justice. It might be, but that’s not for philosophers to say.
23:08 Aaron Ross Powell: Does democracy solve this problem somewhat, that yes, like on average, humans are fallible, we’ve got these problems, we can’t assume away poor motivations, greed all those things just across the board, but it is also the case that some of us are more publicly minded than others, some of us are more moral than others, all of us are morally imperfect beings, but we are even in our imperfection or say, capable of pointing at people who are moral… Like, this is someone who is better than me and I can aim at and so doesn’t a election and it sounds silly sitting in 2019 America right now but just bear with me doesn’t an election enable us to say, “Okay it’s not like we’re just picking random people, we’re picking people who we chose to take on these roles and so, presumably, we can pick those kinds of people who we think are better than the median?
24:03 Chris Freiman: Right. So I think my major worry about that line of argument is just the problem that the public choice theorists have been talking about for a long time. With rational ignorance, and rational irrationality to use Bryan Caplan’s term. So for example… So this actually goes to the point about where I do think there is a difference between market behavior and political behavior. I think the prevailing view, which strikes me as completely correct, about political behavior is that it’s largely expressive. So, when people, let’s just take the case of voting, when people are voting, they’re engaging in identity expressive behavior. So, you vote for a particular candidate, because I’m on team Republican, and that’s what team Republicans do. I vote for this candidate ‘cause I’m on team Democrat. This is what Democrats do etcetera, etcetera. And so I think there is a dimension of public-spiritedness in that, because I do think that even political partisans, but maybe on some level think that they’re doing what’s best for the public good, the problem is because their vote is so insignificant since it’s not going to make a difference to the outcome of the election, there’s no incentive, one to acquire information that might correct any false beliefs they have. There’s all this evidence that most voters have no idea what they’re voting for, what policy is like, and there’s no incentive for them to acquire that information.
25:24 Chris Freiman: What I think is maybe even more troubling than that, is just there’s no incentive to try to counteract our own partisan biases, so you can present people with as much information as you want, but we engage in this identity protective reasoning where we just really don’t wanna hear stuff that tells us that we’re wrong and we can process it in a way that enables us to affirm our partisan identity. So I think, even if there is this element of public-spiritedness when people cast a vote, it’s not actually going to track the public interest, whatever that may be, because we’re not really trying to get at the public interest. What we’re trying to do is express our identity as Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, socialists what have you.
26:04 Trevor Burrus: One part I really liked about the book was… So could you kind of, you zero out, if Rawls is gonna play perfect government versus imperfect market actors, let’s try and play the game with imperfect and see where we get. And one of the things you point out is that one of Rawls’s big concerns, and not just Rawls, just modern liberalism, is inegalitarianism based on either luck, which could be inheritance, for example, or you happen to have the publishing rights to Elvis Presley’s songs because you’re his great-great-granddaughter or something, or your just natural inequalities for being a better speaker, for being more savvy, more better athlete, those things that are not your fault. But if we’re gonna play non-ideal versus non-ideal, then we have to ask the question of, how would the… If you’re… How would the people who have those kind of lucky endowments game the system? They would be really good at politics.
27:03 Chris Freiman: Right.
27:04 Trevor Burrus: Because they have these endowments. So you create a political system to redistribute their endowments or the effects of their endowments, but the people who are gonna be really good at the political system are actually the people who are supposed to be in charge of the redistributing.
27:17 Chris Freiman: That’s right.
27:17 Trevor Burrus: So you have a problem there.
27:18 Chris Freiman: That’s right. And to me, I think this is a really big gap in liberal egalitarian political philosophy, where you say, look, we have these people they have all the luck in the world. They’re fortunate, they have wealthy parents, they know how to work the system, they went to private schools, they went to Harvard, they went to Yale, and they’re basically running the show. And how do we keep these people in check? Well, we empower the state to keep them in check. And you say, okay, well, who is actually going to gain control of the state that you empowered to check the rich and powerful? It’s probably the rich and powerful. And that’s not…
27:49 Aaron Ross Powell: Not if we have campaign finance reform.
27:52 Chris Freiman: Yeah, they’ll keep their hands off the campaign finance laws.
27:54 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, out of a sense of duty.
27:56 Chris Freiman: That’s right. Yeah, and… You look at some of the statistics on this, about the backgrounds of people who gain political power, and yeah, they come from wealthy households, they went to private schools, they went to Harvard and Yale. I think… So the statistic, off the top of my head, but something like since 1972, only like one or two major party candidates for the presidential election did not go to Harvard or Yale. And again, that’s what you would expect. You have lots of power, and the people who are really good at gaming the system get the power that you give to the system.
28:31 Trevor Burrus: But it’s not… I think it’s not just gaming the system. If you are… A better rhetoric…
28:38 Chris Freiman: Right.
28:39 Trevor Burrus: More agreeable, right? Quicker, funnier, right, the kind of stuff that makes someone a good candidate or better able to be a businessman or a thing, it’s just that, is that gaming the system?
28:48 Chris Freiman: Right.
28:49 Trevor Burrus: That’s just being yourself and then getting people to appreciate you and getting power because of it.
28:54 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s also probably likely to increase your chances of getting into Harvard and Yale.
28:57 Trevor Burrus: And that too, yes.
28:58 Chris Freiman: No, I think that’s exactly right. Right, so the qualities that might make you a successful lawyer or very successful in business, you’re very energetic, you’re extroverted, you’re very smart, etcetera. Right. If you wanna turn those tools to political ends, you probably could do that pretty easily.
29:14 Trevor Burrus: The one thing I was wondering, though… I can’t tell if you’re just… Most of you are just arguing here a book about, let’s… Not a positive argument for capitalism being incorrect, but an argument about inconsistency especially in Rawls.
29:26 Chris Freiman: Right.
29:27 Trevor Burrus: But if we see the system has been gamed, possibly, in the way we’ve discussed, by the rich, why is the tax code so out of whack? Well, we have one percent, the top one percent, pays 37% of the federal income tax, or the top 10% pay about 50% of it, and basically bottom 50 pay nothing.
29:48 Chris Freiman: Yeah.
29:49 Trevor Burrus: If they gamed it that much, then you would expect otherwise, or it could be the case that they’re actually voting in a very public… Even the rich are voting in a very publicly-minded non-selfish way that they think they should be taxed more too, so their behavior’s not exactly as sort of venal as you imply.
30:06 Chris Freiman: That’s interesting. And so this goes to the possible difference between motivations in politics and non-political domains. So this is something that Loren Lomasky and Geoff Brennan first talked about a long time ago. They talked about expressive voting. And the idea is… So we mentioned this earlier, that when you go to the voting booth, you’re not really motivated by material considerations exactly, because that would just be irrational. So maybe one of the candidates will ultimately lower your taxes or something like that. So maybe if that Kennedy got elected, you would be $1000 richer, for example. But the odds of your vote actually leading to the election of that candidate are nothing, they’re basically zero, and so it doesn’t make any sense to be worrying about your personal material gains from the election of a candidate. What it might make sense to care about is the sort of moral expression, the expression of identity that you can make in the voting booth, like you’re waving the flag, you’ve got your “don’t tread on me” license plate kind of thing. Which always struck me as weird, you’re paying the government to protest the government. That’s not… But yeah. And so it… The material effect of your vote is basically zero, but the expressive effect is non-zero.
31:19 Chris Freiman: And so, by contrast, in the market, it might be that there are forms of behavior that have higher expressive value, but they’re materially costlier. So I think the example I give in the book is… You’re seen walking around with a Whole Foods bag. That has expressive value in some social circles, but it’s more expensive to shop at Whole Foods than Wal-Mart, for example, so you’ll probably see less indulgence in expressive behavior in non-political contexts, whereas in political contexts, that’s basically the only value you can get, so you’ll probably see lots of expressive behavior. And so it could be the case, right, that what you see are rich people performing these identity-expressive actions to signal their concern for the poor, social welfare, etcetera, etcetera, which might mitigate some of the concerns about self-interest. So yeah, not to get too into the details, but I think… I mean, there are always questions about loopholes and how the laws play out in practice, but I’m certainly open to the claim that people are not wholly altruistic or wholly self-interested in the market or in politics. I actually think it’s probably the case that we’re a mix of both.
32:31 Trevor Burrus: You just want them to play fair when they’re analyzing both sides?
32:34 Chris Freiman: That’s right. So the question is, if you think people are somewhat altruistic and somewhat self-interested which seems right to me, hold that behavioral assumption constant across institutional context and then see which kind of institution produces the best sort of outcome.
32:50 Chris Freiman: I think it’s actually the case though that markets will do a better job of channeling altruistic behavior than politics for the same sort of reason of rational ignorance. So if you’re an altruistically minded citizen suppose it turns out that the government spends its re-distributive dollars very inefficiently which in fact it does, you can’t do anything with that information, you can cast a vote for change, but again, that vote won’t actually change anything, so you have no incentive to do your research. On the other hand, if you are spending your own money and you learn that a charity that you are giving money to is acting really inefficiently you have decisive control over that money, you can withdraw it from that charity and give it to a charity that’s more efficient, so you have more incentive to do your research. So my view and I don’t really go into this in the book is that even if we have this more optimistic picture of human behavior where people are charitable it’s still probably going to be the case that markets do a better job, funneling that to socially desirable ends.
33:46 Aaron Ross Powell: It seems too though, that the example that Trevor brought up, and then your discussion of expressive voting and that expressive voting can be… We can take these high-minded principles and act on them in this expressive way can be looked at as further evidence for your concerns about the state because what you’re basically saying is here is an example, people doing good stuff in an expressive way when they are voting where it’s basically costless to them. And so the argument then is people will behave more morally more on principle especially in ways that would undercut their own interests, if that undercutting is as minimal as possible or the likelihood of it happening, which is the case with voting is much, much smaller. And so, if that’s true, then what we would expect is the closer someone gets to being in the State because again, the State isn’t just institutions acting, it’s individual people in those institutions as the decisions that they are making, which when you are controlling an administrative agency, that is overseeing an industry or you are making decisions about who to hire or you’re overseeing a Police Department and it’s who to fire these have become much more costly. We are more likely to see people drift back into the self-interested example.
35:05 Chris Freiman: Especially because if you don’t act self-interestedly your competitor will so we talk about this a little bit in the book but you could imagine this is sort of a broadly high akin, point about why the worst get on top, you say “look, suppose there are angels out there who will always play fair, who will never take private donations they only care about the public welfare etcetera, etcetera,” if we live in a society where most of the voters are rationally uninformed, that person, their angelic nature will not be fully appreciated by the electorate. And somebody who’s willing to not play fair will beat them.
35:38 Trevor Burrus: I’m sure that’s how Hillary Clinton feels by the way. Her angelic nature is not properly appreciated by the electorate.
35:44 Chris Freiman: That’s right, yeah. So you lose to the person who’s willing to play dirty.
35:47 Trevor Burrus: Yeah exactly.
35:47 Chris Freiman: And so it could be that… So, Hume has this great line where he says something, “even though it is not really true, we should think as though everybody isn’t naive in politics”, and I think that’s right. So you might have genuinely good people in politics, but they have to at least play the game, as if they are not great or else, they won’t win the election for example. And I think you see this with things like short-sighted social spending, you could have a super prudent, and patient politician who says “look this is gonna be really painful but we’ve gotta tighten the belt for the next eight years and then when I leave office, you’ll be in a much better position”.
36:26 Chris Freiman: That person will lose to the person who says “no there’s no problem here’s all this great stuff I can do in the short term I can cut taxes, and raise spending and there’ll be lots of benefits for you” That person will probably win over the prudent candidate, and so either the prudent candidates will start to act imprudently or the imprudent candidates, we will just sort of by evolutionary mechanism select out the prudent ones.
36:50 Trevor Burrus: If so, talking about non-ideal versus not ideal, I was very glad to see your chapter on growth, ‘cause it’s one of these things that I wrote about in my Rawls class in undergrad, that you… So Rawls allows inequalities that are to the benefit of the least well-off people. But the question is when does it have to be to the benefit?
37:12 Chris Freiman: Right.
37:13 Trevor Burrus: And if we are actually talking about economic growth so now we’re doing a real world comparison about the kind of redistribution that a real government does, not…
37:20 Chris Freiman: Exactly.
37:21 Trevor Burrus: Not a Rawls imperfect person government, but a real government does and the failures that it can corporate that. Because these are people after all, then how does that compare to good growth ‘cause what if your inequality becomes a capital investment good that helps start a business, which benefits the least representative people in 30 years, and in the real world, that’s a better bet than betting on non-ideal government.
37:44 Chris Freiman: Right. Completely agree, so again, this is sort of a Smithian point where I think, look, if you have people who are somewhat altruistic, but probably largely self-interested what kind of institutional context does a better job of improving the condition of the poor? He said relying on… Let’s just say Donald Trump relying on Donald Trump to help the poor. That’s one option. Or you say “Look, I’m not under the illusion, that people who are running Fortune 500 companies care about me but Amazon has made me much wealthier.” Again, maybe not because they care about me, but because they want my business, the way that they get my business is by making a ton of stuff available to me at affordable prices and delivering it right to my door, driving down the costs of goods and that’s actually a great mechanism for poverty alleviation. So one thing that I’m always fascinated by and going to this just a little bit in the book is data about the time price of goods. So you say, “Okay, you have an American, and I don’t know, 1985 or something like that, working at the median American wage, how many hours do they have to work to buy a loaf of bread or a car or a t-shirt or something like that?”
38:54 Chris Freiman: And then, you take that same person in 2019 working in the median American wage, how much time do they have to work to buy those goods? And it’s plummeting. And that’s really a great way to alleviate poverty is you say a person’s labor hour just buys more stuff today than it did yesterday. It’s not because, again, the people making bread care about the bread buyers, they want the bread buyer’s money. But the way that they get that money is, again, as Smith would say, is by offering them something that they want out of their own self-interest. So that would be lower bread prices.
39:22 Trevor Burrus: Well, you quote, Steven Levitt saying, “How rich you are depends on two things: How much money you have, and how much the stuff you want to buy costs.” And re-distributive justice seems to focus on how much money you have, but growth seems to focus more on how much the stuff you want to buy costs, and that seems to work better overall in a world of imperfect human beings on both sides of ledger.
39:44 Chris Freiman: I think that’s right. And I think also if you look at even in recent history, countries that have gotten richer, it’s largely through market reforms, it’s through economic growth, and I think the reason why the three of us sitting here would be considered rich in world historical terms is because we can get a, I don’t know, a cup of coffee in eight minutes or… I don’t know. That’s probably a while, I guess it depends on where you buy it from. You get cheap coffee in two minutes of labor time basically. And yeah, so it’s not so much redistribution, it’s the quantity and quality of goods getting a lot better and the real price of goods plummeting, and that’s really what growth addresses and Rawls doesn’t really talk about that very much.
40:22 Aaron Ross Powell: On the broader level, how much of a problem though is this for the whole of the Rawls… Like the Rawlsian project that we have to jettison it. Because if we have… If this whole thing starts with, there’s a set of principles that we’re trying to advance, and here’s the decision-making mechanism for coming up with institutions that we think will advance them, and then, these institutions, once they’re set up, are tasked with advancing them, did a Rawlsian… So a lot of them would probably disagree with the empirical stuff that you’ve been offering, but a Rawlsian would perfectly, easily say, “Well, okay then. So what you’ve just shown me is that capitalism, in these ways, helps, and so now the institutions just redirect a bit in that way, well, also in those areas where we still have concerns like social safety nets and whatever, providing that kind of stuff, and we’re good like nothing… You haven’t really knocked down my ideal theorizing, all that you’ve done is said, “When it comes time for me to take my ideals and start applying them, I’ve been doing it slightly wrong.”
41:26 Chris Freiman: Right. So if that was the response that I got, I’d be happy. I’d be popping the champagne and get [41:30] ____. Right. So I haven’t done anything to argue against the Rawlsian at the level of first principle. So nothing I say in the book speaks against the idea that we should use the original position to arrive at first principle of justice. It doesn’t say anything about whether or not the principles that Rawls himself arrived at are true or false. So the original position could be a great way of arriving the principles of justice. Rawls’ principles could be totally correct. His first principle might be totally right. And if they say, “Look, I’m still a Rawlsian at first principle, but the concerns that you’ve raised have moved me towards classical liberalism at the level of institutional design, I would be very happy with that, because that’s really my aim. I mean, I have other problems with Rawls at the level of first principle that I don’t get into here. But really in the book what I would like to say is, “Look, if you’re a Rawlsian, at the absolute minimum, don’t rule out classical liberalism or libertarianism as an institutional means to your ends.”
42:27 Aaron Ross Powell: But that then seems to be slightly different from a broadside against ideal theory. So that’s just saying your ideal theory, you stick with ideal theory, but, I mean, we all have to just like when we do moral theory, we talk about sets of moral principles, or we talk about archetypal rules, or we talk about perfect virtues. But at some point, we have to actually act in the world, and if that doesn’t then just say, “Well, then we should stop talking about moral saints, or what perfect virtue is.” But you seem to be more critical of ideal theory just in general.
43:00 Chris Freiman: So I would distinguish between ideal theory at the level of institutional theorizing an ideal theory at the level of that’ll philosophies and whatever we might call it.
43:09 Trevor Burrus: Principle establishing or something.
43:11 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, right.
43:11 Chris Freiman: And John Tomasi in Free Market Fairness talks a bit about this distinction as well. But so I would say, look, so there are a couple of things that we might mean by ideal theory. One is the basic stuff about the original position and the first principles of justice. That might be what we’re thinking about in terms of ideal theory. I’ll set that to the side. Another thing we could mean by ideal theory is this idea of, “What would institutions look like in a fully just society.” I think to some extent, that’s still an interesting enterprise, so maybe what we’re doing is theorizing about what the ideal anarchist order would be. I don’t know, it’s kinda cool. I don’t know how much cash value that has, but it’s like a cool… I don’t know. As a philosopher, I’m not anyone to cast dispersions on people who are theorizing about stuff that’s not directly applicable to the real world.
44:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Be it Bitcoin value, in an anarchy society.
44:02 Chris Freiman: That’s right. And so that’s fine. So really, my main target what I’m worried about ideal theory is the inconsistency in applying it when we’re thinking about institutions. So you could go full-on ideal theory, talk about the… Whether you’re the anarcho-capitalist, whether you’re the GA Cohen Marxist on a camping trip or you’re sharing carrot peelers and singing Kumbaya or whatever, that’s fine. The worry is that when you’re doing this ideal theory, but selectively allowing non-ideal stuff in to justify a move away from anarchy towards the state, and I think… I mean, I think that’s realistic. I think, surely we live in a world that’s not perfectly just, and so surely we have to allow non-ideal considerations in. But what we can’t do is only let them in when we’re talking about the market and civil society. If you let them in, you gotta let them in everywhere.
45:08 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, rate and review us on Apple Podcast, or on your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and [45:17] ____. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.