Distributive Justice In A Pure Service Economy


1. The Pure Service Economy
 Imagine a society in which _goods_ are superabundant, but
in which _services_ remain scarce. That is, property
narrowly conceived is virtually there for the taking, but
the _labor services_ of other people most decidedly are
not. Now such a situation would hardly be a utopia: for
some of the things most essential to life -- surgery for
example -- would still be scarce.
It follows that the only thing that would cost something
would be labor itself; and of course it could only be
purchased with a corollary offer of labor. To keep the
example simple, let us add the stipulation that there is no
money, nor even labor notes; rather, when someone gives a
service to one person, he simply records the deal in a
book. If someone reneges on an agreement, no punishment is
inflicted, but word gets around and the reneger finds that
no one wishes to trade with him or her any further. 
2. Testing Theories of Distributive Justice
Now this hypothetical society offers an interesting test
for some competing theories of distributive justice. For if
you examine the hypothetical carefully, you will see that
there is no possibility of re-distribution in such a system
save by direct imposition of forced labor. Since most
theories of distributive justice require such
redistribution, this hypothetical service economy presents
the advocates of such theories with two stark alternatives.
Their first alternative is to abandon their
redistributionist theory of justice; their second is to
openly embrace forced labor as a means of achieving a just
society. Indeed, the latter alternative would commit them
to the view that not only is forced labor permissible, but
it is indeed mandated by justice. To make this clearer,
consider the case of a trained surgeon in such an economy.
He spent many years in study to acquire his skills; but of
course his raw talent and intelligence played a big part
too. Now this surgeon finds that his labor is extremely
valuable; he has the power to save lives. People will pay
an enormous amount for the value of his services. Of
course, they are paying him back in other services: 1000
hours of maid service in exchange for 1 hour of surgery;
200 haircuts for a removed appendix; 20 college educations
for a triple bypass. It is not difficult to see that this
surgeon is going to be extremely rich because of his
special talent. The disparity in income between himself and
other people will be very great. Indeed, some people may be
too poor to afford his services at all. And the question
will naturally arise: Does justice permit, or even require,
that the surgeon be forced to provide free services for
others, or give some of his payment back to the community?
Either choice commits us to forced labor: either the doctor
must be forced to toil, or else his patients must be forced
to give some free labor services up as a "tax" every time
they pay him. But suppose that we recoil from this notion
of forced labor. Where are we then? Quite simply, we are
left with a libertarian, free-market economy, in which
people own their own bodies and can acquire the services of
others solely by contractual agreement. Charity can of
course exist; the surgeon might help the poor out of
sympathy for their plight. But nothing in the system
assures that the poor will be provided for; that becomes a
matter of generosity rather than of right. 3.
Redistributionist Charges of Injustice in the Pure Service
Economy We can easily imagine the criticisms that might be
made about the justice of accepting the libertarian theory
of distributive justice in our hypothetical society. First,
the poor and unlucky have no guarantees in such a society.
The better-off members may choose to help them; or they may
not. The care of the poor becomes a matter of purely
private concern, and the choice to give becomes fully
voluntary (and hence uncertain). Secondly, such a society
would permit unlimited inequality. The surgeon might need
to work only one day per year, enjoying luxury and comfort
every other day. Thirdly, success in such a society would
be strongly influenced by "luck" or unearned good fortune.
The surgeon might have to work hard to learn his trade, but
surely hard work isn't the whole story. He also probably
had greater innate intelligence; perhaps a better family
environment than others. Indeed, the well-off member of
this society might be a talentless heavy-metal musician,
whose singing can command large exchanges of labor services
from others. The musician's good fortune in this case may
be exclusively a matter of luck, without a day's sweat and
toil to train for his career. To these three criticisms we
might add others. If the surgeon is the only person of his
trade, then he may exercise "monopoly power." Or returning
to the case of the talentless musician, we will notice that
production of services in this society is fully determined
by willingness to pay, with no reference to the true value
of the goods produced. The interesting thing here is, of
course, that these are _precisely_ the same criticisms
normally made of the standard libertarian, free-market
society in which both goods and services are scarce. In
other words, there is no relationship between the need for
redistribution and the existence of private property
narrowly defined. Whatever complaints may be launched
against libertarianism in the real world may also be made
against the application of libertarianism to the pure
service economy as outlined herein. And yet it is _very_
difficult to abandon the intuition that the surgeon cannot
morally be forced to give free services to the needy, or
even to reduce his prices to the slightest degree. What we
are faced with is the need to openly deny that the surgeon
owns his own body, and may do with it as he sees fit; and
that his services must be obtained exclusively by voluntary
means. In short, if the surgeon says No, then to force him
to work is slavery, no matter what the need of the poor,
the degree of inequality, or the role of pure luck in the
surgeon's success. Of course, this may simply lead one to
affirm the justice of slavery, but that is hardly a
plausible escape route. 4. Extending the Model Now suppose
that instead of writing down labor debts in a book, people
started circulating negotiable labor notes. (As was
apparently done in Josiah Warren's 19th-century utopian
village). Would the redistributionist have a firmer case
here? It is hard to see why he would. For these notes are
merely a more convenient way of designating the same
agreements as before; for naturally in the initial setup,
the surgeon could agree to perform surgery on Fred on the
condition that Fred gives 100 hours of wood-working lessons
to Ann (and Ann agrees to give 2 years of flute tutoring to
the surgeon). So why should the more fluid designation of
the underlying fundamentals matter? True, it may now be
more _convenient_ for a government to demand 10% of all
notes exchanged; but what we are interested in here is not
convenience but justice. The fact remains that the 10% tax
is blatantly a demand for forced labor; for each time one
person sells labor to another, he is also compelled to give
up an additional 10% of that labor against his will. But
let us then go further. Suppose that the abundance of
nature dried up, and goods, from land to minerals to
wildlife, became as scarce as they are in the real world.
Naturally, people would want to claim products as their
own; they would want to homestead unowned products and
claim exclusive ownership of them. What objection could be
made to this new regime; and would it create a wedge for
redistributionist theories of justice to come into their
own? Again, it is hard to see how it would. The right to
claim unowned products by "mixing one's labor with them" is
not deducible from the claim of self-ownership, but the
ideas are nevertheless closely connected. And so are the
objections that might be levelled against one or the other.
One might claim, for example, that because the homesteader
does not "really create" the cultivated land, he is not
entitled to it. But of course the homesteader did not
create himself either; does it then follow that he is not
entitled to own himself? Or one might claim that the labor
merely _adds values_, and so the homesteader is merely
entitled to own the value that he adds; and the remainder
may be legitimately taxed away for social aims. But as our
example with the surgeon makes clear, the same could be
said about my own labor services. Namely, while I do
contribute to my own value by training and experience and
education, a significant fraction of the market value of my
services is determined by my innate intelligence,
dexterity, and so on. Does my education entitle me merely
to that part of my earnings added by the education? May I
be forced to labor a percentage of the time equal to the
percentage of my labor value determined by my raw talent?
One of the many absurdities entailed thereby is that the
totally unskilled laborer is entitled to _nothing_. Again,
then, we see that generalizing the argument against
individual homesteading leads us to the untenable
affirmation of the propriety of forced labor. 5.
Conclusion: Libertarianism and Its Alternatives No moral
argument, indeed no argument at all, can compel agreement.
It always remains open to a person to deny the premise OR
embrace the conclusion. The one thing he cannot do is
accept the premise and deny the conclusion. The most
desirable feature of an argument, then, is that the initial
premise have greater initial probability than the
conclusion does. Now I claim that the argument arising from
this thought experiment does indeed meet this criterion.
The truth of libertarianism as a theory of distributive
justice does indeed strike most people as wildly unlikely;
for it is a theory bereft of concern for equality, poverty,
luck, and so on. (Or to be more precise: it is a theory
that says that these concerns are not a matter of justice
and right; it leaves open the possibility that they are of
moral interest, but on a lower level). And yet, if anything
is known about morality, it is known that it is just plain
wrong to force someone to labor against his will, to
enslave him or her. Wrong whatever else must happen in
consequence. This intuition is perhaps the fundamental
intuition behind libertarian moral theory; and it is the
intuition that the proponents of redistributionist theories
must reject if they are to avoid the libertarian position. 

Quotes: Search by Author