Chapter 3


In the early days of economic theory, there was a great deal of discussion on "private property," and whether there was a right to own private property; in fact, you might say that the Lockean way of establishing the right was the foundation of all of modern economics. But you don't find much of this in economic textbooks any more, in spite of the fact that capitalist economics assumes that we do have the right to own private property and Communist economics assumes that we don't. I suppose that economists think that "that's philosophy" or "that's ethics," the first of which they want to equate with mysticism or fairy stories, and the second, as I said, with "subjectivity" and "normativeness."

But the first great economist, Adam Smith, was an ethician, in fact; and it was his Humean "moral-sentiments" ethics (developed from Locke's notion of basic rights) that was the underpinnings of his economic theory. So let us look a bit into the history of the notion of the right of ownership.

From the earliest of times, people have been ambivalent about ownership of things. Plato, in Republic, in fact declared that for his defense force and ruling class, there was to be no private ownership of things, including housing, food, (and, interestingly, families), because this fostered an attitude of "this belongs to me" and "I belong to this small group" which was opposed to the job of these people: that of seeing to the protection and well-being of the society as a whole.

Jesus, too, advised the young wealthy man to sell what he had and give the proceeds to the poor and then to follow after him; and in the early Christian community, Luke says in Acts that "they all owned everything jointly....[T]here was not one single pauper among them, since all of the ones who were owners of land or buildings sold them and brought the price they got for them and put it down in front of the Emissaries, where it was then given out depending on the needs of each."

This, however, was apparently voluntary, since when the crime of Ananias is described later, it consists of giving only part of what he owned, but claiming that it was all of it. Peter says that he was free to give it or to keep it; but trying to cheat the Holy Spirit was his sin--and he drops dead on hearing this. But voluntary or not, there was always a strong tendency toward a communistic society (in the sense, of course, of no private ownership) in Christianity, which persists to this day in the Religious orders of the Catholic Church.

During the Renaissance we find Thomas More blaming the plight of the farmers on the land owners, and proposing, in Utopia, another ideal society à la Plato, in which no one owned anything, making the people happy and cooperative. This was still thought possible, because it was still thought in his day that you were a person because of the group you belonged to rather than because of your individual existence; hence, sacrifice of your own interests to those of the group was easier to contemplate-- and besides, the group (the family or the church or society) was supposed to take care of you; so what did you need private property for?

But times had now changed, and once the individualism of the Renaissance and the breakup of the Christian church had been established in people's minds, it became less and less possible for a person to consider his identity as established by the group he belonged to; and this led, as I said in the preceding section, to Hobbes's attempt to establish rights on the basis of speculating what a "natural" existence "before" society would be like, and assuming that associations grew out of needs found in this condition.

Locke found fault with Hobbes's idea of a "state of nature" in which everyone was at war with everyone else because there was no natural assignment of objects to definite individuals to be used, and so everyone owned everything. This led, as I said, to absolute power of kings over their subjects, and justified tyranny.

Locke therefore assumed a state of nature in which everyone was independent of everyone else, owning himself and consequently his actions; and this, as I said, was the basis of modern rights theory. Since a person owned himself and his actions, it followed that he also owned whatever he transformed by his actions; and therefore, working on something allowed a person to establish a claim to it, and his work was the title of his right to own it. Thus, if I prune an apple tree, making it more productive, you can now be excluded from eating the fruit of that tree.

The germ of the labor theory of value is in this, because it follows from the fact that I own the tree and its fruit that I can now make you pay if you want to eat it; whereas before anyone worked on it, the fruit of the tree was a free lunch.

So both modern rights theory and modern economics stem from Locke. I tried to show in the preceding section how this wouldn't really work as a basis for rights, though there was a profound insight in it that was true: that we are self-determining. I will try to show later how the labor theory of value that grew out of it doesn't really work either. But at the moment what I am interested in is whether Locke's notion of the basis to the claim to the right to ownership of a given object can be sustained.

It might work as the initial assignment of things to people; but unfortunately, its logic works against itself once that has been done. If I have a right to own something because I have worked on it, as an extension of my right to myself (since I have, in transforming it, "put" something of myself into it), then it follows that anyone who works on something, transforming it according to his idea of what it should be (and thus imposing his own concept upon it, as when an artist makes a block of marble a statue, containing now the shape he conceived for it), owns what he works on.

But then that means that no one had better hire anyone to work on anything he owns, because the worker by working on it then owns it, because he has put something of himself into it. Thus, if the stone quarrier didn't sell Michelangelo the block of marble he had carved out of the mountain, but only lent it to him, then the David would be his, wouldn't it? Not by this theory. The untransformed block of marble was his; but when he lent it to Michelangelo to practice on, then as soon as Michelangelo set chisel to stone, the block would belong to Michelangelo. Or if Michelangelo had some assistant do the polishing, then the block would now belong to the assistant.

To bring this a little closer to home, if you own a car and can't fix it yourself, and this theory is true, then when it breaks down, sell it or throw it away, because if you take it to a mechanic to fix it for you, it becomes his by the fact that he worked on it.

Actually, it was this difficulty with the Lockean view that was in the background of Marx's rejection of private property altogether. The worker who couldn't own the fruits of his labor was being dehumanized, because someone else owned part of his reality (and so he was "alienated" from himself). But in that case, there was no solution to hiring anyone to work for you--except denying the right to any ownership of those things which you could let other people work on and still keep for yourself.

So the Lockean notion of private ownership is all right as long as everyone stays an absolute individual, and never has anyone help him work on his property. But as soon as he has a helper, he loses his property by the logic by which he gained it in the first place.

Well then, do people have a human right to own things, and if so how does a person establish a claim to something, given that nature has put no name-tag on anything?

We don't have to imagine an impossible "state of nature" in which everyone is an adult endowed with dispassionate reason and so able to weigh advantages and disadvantages objectively. I said in the preceding section that you can establish a human right if you can show either (a) that some damage is done to you if you can't do a certain act (in this case own something), or (b) that you can't fulfill some moral obligation you have unless you can do the act. What I will be giving is basically the way the Scholastics establish the right to ownership, which follows these two principles, and is, I think, right on the mark.

First, a definition:

Ownership of an object is placing the object in a situation in which a person (the owner) can do what he pleases with the object, and no one else can do anything to or with it except what the owner allows.

Ownership of itself allows absolutely unrestricted control over the object, even to destroying it. If a person may not morally do something to an object he owns, this prohibition is on other grounds than ownership. For example, I could torture my dog insofar as the ownership of my dog is concerned; but I may not do so because this violates my nature as sympathetic. Eventually, I suppose, I will have to kill my dog, when she grows old and is only in pain; and I have the right to do this, assuming that I have a right to own her. If ownership is a right, then clearly it is in some sense an alienable right. I can give up my ownership in things, either by selling them or even by just giving them away. And under certain circumstances, things I own can be taken away from me against my will. For instance, when I originally wrote this, a bank had a lien against the house I own. I own it; but if I were to have defaulted on my mortgage payments, the bank could have taken it away from me. Similarly, the government can take my house by the power of eminent domain, as we will see in a later section.

But is ownership a right?

First of all, we must have the right to own consumable items. If I can't own the apple I am about to eat, then I can't morally eat it; because when I eat it I destroy it, and therefore no one else can use it. Hence, if I couldn't own consumable items, I couldn't consume them. But obviously if I can't consume food, I will die. Hence, I must have the right to own at least some consumable items.

But since no one can say how many consumable items a given person needs for the preservation of his life and his health, no fixed limit can be put a priori on the amount of consumable items a person has the right to own; and so the right to own consumable items is restricted only by the right everyone else has to own what is needed to sustain life and health.

That is, my right to own this apple ceases if (a) I don't need it to stay alive and healthy, and (b) you will die without it. Otherwise, the basis of my right to own it in the first place is contradicted. I will discuss this more at length later.

Actually, nobody really doubts that we have this right to own consumables, because it is so obviously necessary to human existence.

But secondly, we must have the right to keep consumable items that we are not using at the moment. The reason for this is that we can foresee the future and realize that with winter coming, the apples won't be on the tree any more; and if we don't store food, we will starve. It would contradict our reality as able to predict the future if we didn't have the right to do this, because then we would know that (a) it was physically possible for us to take action not to starve, and (b) it was not morally possible for us to do so. And, of course, if we can't keep these things for our exclusive later use, then we can't guarantee that they'll be there when we need them.

Again, since all sorts of things can happen in the future, the amount that a person has a right to keep without using can't be restricted by anything other than the dehumanization of those whose life or health would be in jeopardy because of the unavailability of what is kept from them.

Thirdly, we must have the right to own non-consumable items (property) such as housing and land. Here's where things really begin to get controversial. But food, water, and clothing are not the only necessities of life; there is also shelter, which is not used up (consumed) as it is used. If we could not own some item that we could take shelter in, we might find it occupied when we needed to take shelter in it, and would die of exposure. Further, if we could not keep it and keep others from sheltering in it when we didn't happen to be inside it ourselves, then we might not be able to use it in the future when we needed it. Hence, we have the right to own such things. We also have the right to own land for farming, for instance, because we have the implied right to assure ourselves of a steady supply of food; and if others trample over the crops we grow because we can't keep them off our land, the crops won't produce.

Further, since people marry and have children, for which they have an obligation to provide food, clothing, and shelter, then they have the implied right to see to their future needs also; and this includes seeing to their needs even in the case of incapacity or death of the provider. Hence, the right to own non-consumable items includes the right to pass on the ownership to one's dependents, who then have the right to inheritance.

That is, I have an obligation to see to it that my children are not harmed. I can't count on the fact that I will be there to defend them against harm (or that I will be healthy enough to defend them) unless I can own something which they can use upon my incapacity or death. I can't just "trust that God" or Uncle Sam "will provide," if I have made the deliberate choice to bring them into the world. So, just as I have the right to own things based on my own future, I also have the right to pass on the ownership to my dependents upon my death.

Once again, how much I have the right to own or to pass on to others is in itself unrestricted, and only is limited by the potential dehumanization of those who are deprived of necessities because of what I keep for myself.


Conclusion 3: A person has the human right to own, not only consumable items, but stable property, which he has the right to pass on to his dependents.

The "dependents" here cannot necessarily be specified as members of the immediate family, since one can join into relationships (by adoption, for instance, or promising to take care of one's sister's son, or even because someone else lives with one and has become dependent. Hence, the right to pass on what is owned is not of itself restricted by nature. Thus, one can decide on which people will inherit his property, and in what amounts--as long, as I have been saying--as no one is harmed by this distribution.

Since the right to ownership is a human right, then based on what I said about alienable and inalienable rights in the preceding chapter, it follows that it is at least relatively inalienable. Clearly, it is not absolutely inalienable, because if I don't want to own anything and can join a group which will take care of my future needs, then I can fulfill the obligations which imply the right of ownership. Thus, there was nothing morally wrong with the early Christians' (or present-day members of Religious Orders') voluntarily giving upthe right to own anything at all, and even being assigned consumable items to use up. The point of the relative inalienability is that civil society can't take away this right, as Communism does. Communism, since it denies people the right to own what they have a human right to own, is a morally wrong system of government, even if it supplies all their needs. We will see why a welfare state is dehumanizing in the section on civil society.

But I said earlier that things like liens and eminent domain showed that the right was alienable, because what you own can be taken away from you against your will. You will note, if you go back and reread that passage, that I said it was "in some sense" alienable. The solution is that the general right to own things is relatively inalienable; but the right to own this or that specific thing is alienable. That is, no society can demand that I own nothing at all (or no stable property at all); but the City of Cincinnati could take my house away from me if it needed the land for a legitimate city project (it would have to pay me just compensation for my loss, of course).

But this brings up the question of how I get the right to own a given individual thing. Obviously, most of us get to own things by being given them or purchasing them from people who already own them; and there is no problem here. The problem comes in trying to figure out how the initial ownership of things gets assigned.

Of course, from the fact that we have a right to own things and the fact that things are not persons,(1)

it follows only that they can legitimately be owned by us, not that there is some naturally built-in distribution scheme that says which object belongs to whom. The point here is that there is no obstacle to ownership on the part of the things owned, except the conundrum of how the ownership is assigned.

Obviously, Locke's scheme won't work. Since ownership is supposed to give you control over what you own, basing ownership on working on the object would preclude the kind of control by which you had someone help you work your farm, for instance; because then you would lose ownership of the part he worked on.

But an interesting conclusion follows from this.

Conclusion 4: A person does not have an automatic right to the fruits of his labor. If he is working on something that someone else already owns, the results of his work are not owned by him.

Marx would deny this, of course. But if you look at what is behind Marx's economic analysis, you find that what distinguishes human beings from other sorts of animals is, in his view, the transformation of inanimate objects into something useful for humans, or what he means by "labor." Thus, the essence of humanity for him is labor, in the sense of actually doing something to material objects.(2)

Clearly, on this view, if someone else owns the fruits of my labor, then he owns what is essential to me as human; my humanity as such is, as it were, in the objects that someone else owns. Obviously, with this view of humanity, it would be immoral for anyone to own the fruits of another's labor, and so a person would have an inalienable right to the fruits of his own labor. The fact, of course, that Marx deduced Communism from this makes an interesting dialectical paradox; it is because no one is to own the fruits of my labor that all ownership is taken away from me. His Hegelian "synthesis" of this is that if everyone (the society as such) owns the fruits of my labor, then no one (i.e. no individual) does. Thus, society can give to each "according to his needs" and not according to what he has done; because by the dialectic, the Lockean foundation of independent individualism has generated absolute totalitarianism.

My reaction to this is that if I have a right, I have a right; and so if I have a right to the fruits of my labor because it's the essence of my humanity, the state is dehumanizing me by taking these fruits away--because even if the state includes (as Marx wants) all human beings, it is only all the human beings that happen to exist at the moment; and this will change in five minutes as people are born and die; and so it is not really "humanity as such" concretized, but a finite collection of human beings--and the only grounds on which it is, for Marx, not immoral to have someone else own what I do is if I am working for humanity as such (because then my humanity is alienated into "humanity," or is not alienated). Baloney. In fact, only a few people will use what I have produced; and so I am in practice working for them, not everyone.

But on any other notion of humanity, then if someone asks you to help him fix his car, you don't automatically own the car just because you worked on it. You have a right to compensation for your service, as we will see; but this is not the same as the right to own what you work on, which is what owning "the fruits of your labor" means.

But this still doesn't solve the problem of how we assign initial ownership. Actually, the solution is simplicity itself, and has been practiced ever since there have been people:

Conclusion 5: A person acquires ownership of what has not been previously owned simply by asserting a formal claim to it.

A "formal" claim is a statement that is recognizable by others as asserting the right to own the object in question; it doesn't necessarily imply any elaborate procedure, though in complex societies government can establish what sorts of statements constitute formal claims and what ones don't.

But what happens in claiming ownership is basically this: A person comes upon something that apparently no one owns. He makes enquiries to assure than no one has a prior claim on it, and them announces that from this time on, the object is his. That's it.

I myself did this some dozen years ago, when a stray dog came up on our back porch pleading for food. I asked around to see if anyone owned it, and when no one came forward, I claimed it and tied it up, and it became mine; and it is at the moment I was originally writing this lying down contentedly in my back yard, with a license tag on its collar establishing that the City of Cincinnati officially recognizes the dog as mine.

No big rigmarole is necessary, because there's nothing in the objects of the world that would prevent their being owned by any person; and hence I don't have to do anything to tear them loose from "nature" and make them belong to me. The only problem I have is seeing to it that no other person uses them as if they weren't mine--and all I need do to establish this is announce in a fashion others can understand that this object is henceforward mine, and you all keep hands off. No more than this is necessary, because others now understand the object to be out of bounds for them, based on the general right each person has to own things; and no more than this is possible, really, because any further action, such as working on the object, makes the right of ownership contradict itself in some important aspects of itself.

But in this case, what is to prevent a person from saying, "I hereby lay claim to everything that has not been previously claimed by anyone else"? Wouldn't that make him the owner of everything in the world except what was previously owned?

No, because we are talking, not about the right to ownership in general, but to the assignment of specific objects to specific persons. Hence, the first restriction on claiming to own something is that you must be able to specify just what it is that you are laying claim to. If you are claiming some land, for instance, you must know where the limits are of the land you are claiming, so that others will know what parts of the world they must keep from entering. You don't have to know every detail about what you are claiming; but you have to know enough about it to know what it is you are claiming, or you aren't really laying claim to a specific object, but to an abstraction.

The second restriction is that what you lay claim to must be ownable; that is, it must be such that you can, at least in principle, use it exclusively, keeping others from using it.(3) If you're going to claim a right to something, then it must be in principle possible to defend the right; and so it must in principle be possible for you to keep others from using the object. For instance, you can't lay claim to a certain amount of air, such as the air in a sphere of radius fifteen feet from your mouth (unless the sphere has physical existence enclosing this space), and then try to sue people who are breathing "your" air.(4)

Thirdly, the claim is invalid if ownership of what is claimed would dehumanize someone else. I gave the meaning of "dehumanize" when dealing with essential acts and necessities in Chapter 3 of Section 7 of the fourth part 4.7.3, where I said that it was forcing a person into doing less than could be expected from his genetic potential: doing damage to him, in other words.

Let us examine this a bit. It implies that a person loses his right to own whatever part of what he has claimed that dehumanizes someone else. I kept mentioning this when I was talking about the basis of the right to ownership in general. If you could own something in such a way that your appropriating to yourself this object dehumanized someone else, then your act of "owning" it would undercut the basis of your own right to own it (which is that if you couldn't own things, you would be dehumanized).

But the whole thing is quite complicated, so let us approach it gingerly, by way of a thought-experiment. Suppose you and someone else are stranded on a small island. You, being astute, say as you set foot on shore, "I claim this island and what is on it as mine."

But your claim deprives the other person of the opportunity to get food, shelter, and clothing, unless he serves you to get it; but this makes him your slave, since he has to serve you to survive; and hence, your claim to everything on the island dehumanizes the other person. He therefore has a claim against you for the necessities of life; and so you don't have the right to all the property on the island just because you thought of claiming it first.

So you have to divide the resources on the island. Do you have to divide them equally? No. You did think of making the claim first, and your having more than he has does not dehumanize him, because, as we saw in the preceding section, no one has a right to be treated as an equal to another person. So all you have a moral obligation to give up enough of what you originally claimed so that he can live a minimally human life. As a practical matter, you also have to come to an agreement with him as to how much and exactly what he gets, so that he will recognize your claim and you won't be at war with each other. In principle, of course, you don't have to do this, since he has an obligation to recognize your claim, as long as he is not positively dehumanized by it. Let us say, however, that you agree to divide the island as two thirds yours and one third his, because you convince him that your getting the idea first gives you a right to a bigger chunk of it than he should have.

But the next day, another person is shipwrecked on the same island. Now what happens? Obviously, he can't live unless he is able to use some of the island's resources; and so if both of you hang on to all you owned, he will die. Therefore, each of you loses the right to that amount of your property without which the third party will be dehumanized. And since the total property is divided two thirds/one third, then you lose the right to two thirds of the total necessary to prevent his dehumanization, and the other owner loses the right to one third of that total.

Hence, if you give him half of what is needed to sustain his life, you are in effect killing him; because if the other person gives all of his share, the newcomer will still die. But more importantly, based on the reason why we can own property in the first place, the amount you have kept back is not really yours, because it contradicts that basis.

Conclusion 6: The right of ownership is not absolute.

But suppose you give your share, and the other person doesn't. Can you just let the newcomer die? Not if giving him enough to sustain him won't dehumanize you. But the reason now why you have to help him out is not based on rights, but upon the relation of interdependence we have with other people. Since in fact we have to cooperate to survive, as I said (and am going to discuss in the section on society), then you can't claim now that you have nothing to do with him just because you have given up what he had a strict right to have from you. You now must help him either see to it that the other owner gives up what he has lost the right to, or give some of what the newcomer has no strict right to have from you, because otherwise you are in effect killing him by watching him die when you could prevent it without damage to yourself.

Notice that your obligation stops (a) at the point at which giving something to the newcomer dehumanizes you, and (b) at the point at which the newcomer is no longer dehumanized: that he has the necessities for survival. Your not giving him any more, even if you have great wealth and he is living at a very low level of humanity, does not do him any damage, as long as he is living a minimally human existence. We have no right to be treated equally with others. This is important enough to make a formal conclusion out of it.

Conclusion 7: Great disparities in possessions are not morally wrong, as long as the one with less is not actually being forced into an inhuman existence.

Thus, there is nothing wrong in our society with J. Paul Getty having billions of dollars, while Johnny Ghetto has to make do with K-Mart jogging shoes instead of the latest Nikes that you can pump up to fit your feet and a low-priced boom box instead of a stereo that can blast the sides out of his house. Johnny with his boom box is doing more than just barely surviving; and so we can say that, however (relatively speaking) low his level of living is, it is a human existence, even with some freedom to maneuver (he could have bought a better pair of jogging shoes for the price of the stereo, for instance).

Thus, those people who are trying to redistribute the wealth in society are basing what they are doing on a false premise: that the distribution of this world's resources ought to be equal. But there is no basis for this except the equally false idea that we are all "really" equal.

Now all of this might be clear when we are talking about three people stranded on an island, but in the world most of us live in, how is it applied? That is, when the number of owners is very large, and for practical purposes everything is already owned, and when there are a certain number of people who have no chance to live a human life because they can't get hold of the necessities of life, then it's not immediately obvious (a) how much in toto is needed by the needy, (b) how much each needy person needs in order to raise him up to a human existence, (c) how much superfluity a given owner has in relation to someone else, (d) how much hardship (if any) it would cause the owners to supply their share of what they own to the needy, and finally (e), which needy person has a claim upon how much of which affluent person's superfluity.

We have to suppose in this discussion that the needy people in question can't (by working, say) provide for their own needs. That's the ordinary way it's done, and if, as St. Paul says, "a person is not willing to work, he is not to be fed." In that case, the person could support himself, and he chooses not to; and so now his neediness is his own responsibility, not anyone else's. Here, the supposition is that the person is physically capable of working, and work sufficient to supply the minimum of human existence is available. The people I will be talking about are those who are incapable of supplying by their own efforts what they need to avoid being dehumanized.

Supposing, then, there to be a class of needy people according to this definition, the needy really have a claim against all of the affluent collectively, rather than against definite individuals (except in special cases, like the claims of children against parents); because it is the fact that everything is already claimed that is depriving them of the ability to live a minimally human existence. That is, it isn't the fact that George Blair owns a house in Cincinnati that is depriving Ahmed Ali in Afghanistan of the ability to eke out even a bare living; it is the fact that George Blair is just one of the multitude who have by their ownership made it impossible.(5) So he has no particular claim against me. But by the same token, all the needy have a claim to part of my superfluity; because what is true of Ahmed is true of each other person; it is the fact that I and the others like me own everything that each of them can't live a human life.

But this puts us into the dilemma that I don't have any obligation to give anything of what I own to any definite person, because no one has a claim on me as an individual; and I can't give it to all of the needy, or I would go broke and become needy myself, and each of them would get a millionth of a cent, which would be of no practical use to them. That is, to the extent Ahmed has a claim against me, it is only to about a millionth of a cent, which I couldn't give him, and he couldn't use if I did.

Notice, by the way, that my obligation to the needy is not discharged if I "give my excess to charity." Suppose I find a number of poor people, and divide up among them half of what I own. But is half of what I own the amount of my property that is not rightfully mine on the grounds that it is dehumanizing the needy? Or is it only a fiftieth (supposing everyone else gave his share), or as much as two thirds, or what? In the second place, what about all the people I didn't give anything to? Didn't they have just as much a claim against my superfluity as these ten paupers I happened to pick out? Thirdly, the people I did pick out have no claim against me personally for what I gave them; and so even if they had a right not to be in effect forced into an inhuman existence, my raising them out of it was an act of generosity to them, since they didn't have the right against me.

Thus, the ones who receive the alms are put in the invidious position of having to be grateful to me for (a) doing what I had an obligation to do anyway--but not to them--and (b) receiving what they had a right to receive--but not from me. And this is supposed to be the "most human" way of relieving the poverty of the poor?

Conclusion 8: When the number of owners and of those dehumanized by lack of possessions becomes very large, it is impossible in practice for individual owners to discharge their obligation toward the needy.

That is, it becomes impossible for them to know what their obligation is (how much they don't rightfully own) and how to distribute their superfluity to the needy without forcing some of the needy to remain hungry and the others to have to kowtow in gratitude for receiving what they have a right to receive.

But then what is to be done? We can't let the needy just starve.

The answer is that civil society, whose function, as we will see, is to see to it that none of its members are treated unjustly, and can demand cooperation to this end because of the relation of interdependence, must take upon itself this task. It must (a) find out who are the needy and how much each needs to live a minimally human existence, (b) find out who are the affluent and how much each has above the level of neediness, and (c) levy an assessment on each of the affluent and distribute the total acquired to the needy according to their needs, using the Principle of Least Social Harm, that the sacrifice of those who are making the contribution is to be in real terms as small as possible, consistent with getting the job done.

No easy task, this; and in many respects it will fail. But since it is the only way the problem can be solved so that injustice is not automatically done, it is what must be done, and done as carefully as humanly possible.(6) When the needy receive what prevents them from being dehumanized from society, they don't have to be grateful to government, because this is what government's job is; and so it isn't "charity." When the affluent give up what government demands of them, they have no right to complain, because that's what being in civil society entails. We will discuss this a bit more at length in the section on society. But even with what I just said, we can draw the following conclusion:

Conclusion 9: On the assumption that government is trying to see to it that the needy are not dehumanized, then when an affluent person has paid his taxes, he has discharged his moral obligation to the needy.

The affluent person can, of course, give more than just what the government assesses; the point is that he can take the government's assessment as the amount of his property that he has no right to because it is depriving others of a human existence; and anything over and above this is generosity on his part.

There are, however, people who will "fall through the cracks" and for one reason or another not get the benefits from society's distribution to the needy. If an affluent person happens to know of such people, then he will have to do something to help them out to the extent that not doing so would be the equivalent of keeping them in a dehumanized condition. How much he has to do is, of course, up to each person's conscience.

So, paradoxically, given the fact that not everyone will in practice be relieved of his dehumanization by what government does, the affluent person "has to" do somewhat more than he "has to" do. He doesn't "have to" give this extra, on the grounds that he can say he has already given his share; but he is like the man on the desert island who has given his share and found that the other person didn't contribute his; there is this other obligation now based on our interdependence that doesn't allow him to just stand there and let the indigent die. But, having given more than he is assessed by taxation, he need not answer every appeal to him (indeed, based on the letters I receive, if he did, he'd cease to be affluent in short order); he can say, "I've given more than my share; let the other affluent people do the rest."

It is not immoral, therefore, to enjoy your wealth while there are in fact other people that are starving, unless they are starving precisely because you are forcing them into it, any more than a doctor has an obligation to minister to all of the sick people in his area, as long as there are other doctors around. Each person has a right to a decent life, and you don't have to knock yourself out as if you were actually responsible for others' misery just because you are happy; you are responsible for some of it; but you have discharged that responsibility, and so you need not feel guilty for the rest.

We cannot eliminate evil in the world, remember; because evil as such does not exist; it is just that some people are more limited than others, and therefore some will be more limited than the lowest limit at which the norm is set. The point is that we must not connive in the dehumanization of other people; but a person who has paid his taxes (which after all in the United States of my day means that I work from January to May for the government and only from May to December for myself) can say that he is not conniving in anyone's dehumanization. And this is all that morality requires.

At the time I write this, there is no international society which can evaluate the poverty of those in poor countries and the relative inability of the countries themselves to take care of it, and can therefore assess how much the affluent countries need to contribute to the poor ones and distribute the collection to the poor countries in such a way that the poor in them actually get it (and it doesn't go for extra military equipment or elaborate government buildings).

In this case, the poor in the poor countries are still right in a sense when they say that they are being "exploited" by the rich ones. The fact that the rich countries have more wealth than they can use and the fact that countries nowadays are in fact interdependent means that some of the wealth of the rich countries is forcing the poor into indigence.

It's not as simple as this, however. We are inclined to see wealth and poverty as a zero-sum game, where there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world (i.e., of valuable objects), and it is unevenly distributed. But in point of fact, a given object is valuable based on whether it leads to a person's goals or not; and bauxite, for instance, is useless to just about everyone but an aluminum manufacturer; but aluminum is valuable to many people. Similarly, owning a pile of sand is not owning much; but owning a pile of silicon computer chips is owning a fortune. So it isn't the raw materials that are wealth; it is much more the finished products: the transformed raw materials.

Wealth, therefore, gets created, and the amount of wealth in the world grows as more people transform more things into objects people want to use to pursue their goals. Poor nations like Korea suddenly become affluent, not by massive doses of aid from wealthy nations, but by producing things that other people want to buy. A certain amount of gift-giving is needed to enable the people to do this; but it is the people of the nation themselves who basically create the wealth of the nation.

This is analogous to the people who refuse to work. A nation that rests on "we are poor and therefore we deserve to be given some of the excess of the rich countries," and which does for practical purposes nothing to provide for other countries things that they want and will pay for, is a nation that does not deserve foreign aid from the rich countries. This is a hard saying, because many of the citizens would work if they could get it; it is the nation's structure that is hindering them--as in North Korea, for instance.

In any case, it can be that the poorer nations do need financial help from the wealthier ones; but as things now stand, a given poor nation has no right against a given rich nation for a given amount of wealth; and so when the rich nation gives money to the poor one, this is generosity on its part, which then puts the poor nation in the same position as the poor individual receiving "private charity" from the rich person: he is expected to be grateful for something he has a right to receive, but which he has no right to receive from the one who gave it to him.

As I write, there is no solution for this. I would guess that the proper solution would be for an international society of nations with power of assessment and distribution would have to be formed to accomplish it. But it would have to be run by people greater than Solon, because it is exceedingly difficult to say in practice even whether the poor nations need aid, and what aid they do need.(7) As we will see later, it does not follow that a person who can get a living for himself by working and refuses to work has a right to be kept from starving by handouts from anyone. In this connection St. Paul's superficially cruel statement to the Thessalonians is perfectly accurate: "We told you that if a person did not want to work, he was not to be fed." Similarly, if a nation insists on squandering its resources, it doesn't have to be given extra money to throw away just because there are poor people in it. That's a hard saying, but it's true nonetheless.

One remark about redistribution of the wealth before I approach the subject of transactions. I mentioned before that redistribution was based on the false assumption that because we are equal, we should have equal shares of the pie. That's one thing wrong with the redistributive theory of taxation. The second thing wrong with it is that, as we will see, government exists to protect the rights of the citizens; but if you give more to the poor than they need to avoid dehumanization, you are giving them more than they have a right to have--and in order to do this, you are taking more from the wealthy than they have to contribute in order for the rights of the poor not to be violated; so that in practice they are being forced to contribute more than they have to, which violates their rights. Yes, the wealthy have rights too.

The third thing wrong with it is it won't work. Wealth is power, and the wealthy, being powerful, have ways of seeing to it that what you do to take money away from them is not going to work. At the moment, the Congress is debating raising the tax rate of the very wealthy.(8) What will that do? Since the wealthy get their income by investing money, it will induce them to invest it in "tax shelters," such as, for instance, tax free government bonds; so that the government winds up paying them money (the interest on its debt) instead of taking money from them.

The fourth thing wrong with resdistributionist tax policies is that, to the extent that siphoning off the money from the rich is successful, the rich are not now investing that money in productive enterprise (which creates new wealth), but simply handing it over to the poor (or, as in our country, to the bureaucrats who are allegedly taking care of the poor); and the country becomes poorer, not wealthier. In the limit, as has been demonstrated in Communist countries, abject poverty gets evenly distributed to everyone but those in government.

So taxing to redistribute the wealth is theoretically unsound and practically unworkable. But it sounds nice, and that's why it's got such a good press.



1. If it should turn out that dolphins can actually speak or understand language and not simply react in complex ways to it, then it also follows that they are persons, and therefore no one can own them or keep them penned up and so on.

2. In this connection, I am amused by all the Marxists there are in universities, both students and professors, who are drones in Marx's view, living off the labor of others and doing nothing productive themselves, all the while they denounce the capitalists as unproductive drones.

3. What I mean here is that you may not be able in practice to keep others from using it, because you're not strong enough and there's no police force to help you. But if you could, it would not be immoral to fight others who tried to use it against your will.

4. The right of people (generally as organized) to own the "air space" above their land does exist, however, because (a) it can be defined by the imaginary cylinder extending upward from the boundaries of the land below (and these boundaries can be seen, at least in principle, by people above them), and (b) it can be defended by anti-aircraft weapons and so on. Interestingly, the space, which in itself is nothing, can be owned; but the air in it can't be, because the imaginary boundaries do not actually enclose and so define the particular patch of air that is claimed.

5. Supposing this to be the case, and that it isn't the policy of the Afghan governments, for instance, that is responsible.

6. In this "care," government must be wary that giving to the needy does not create an incentive not to work on the part of those who are merely almost needy, thus creating a class of "needy" people who really aren't needy, which is unjust to the affluent as well as being dehumanizing to these "needy" people, who don't develop themselves, but rely only on handouts for a meager existence.

7. Not to mention that the people in it would have to be saints, handling all this money and resisting the temptation to siphon it off for themselves. As I write this now (2004), there is a scandal in the United Nations, which was getting kickbacks from Saddam Hussein for allowing him to divert funds from the "oil for peace" program to his own purposes. There is also the human failing of letting one's political prejudices tempt one to punish the rich for being too rich while others are barely making it. There is nothing wrong in itself with disparity of wealth, as long as the poor are not positively dehumanized. As you can see, an international organization with this job would not in practice work, and would probably wind up with the last state worse than the first.

8. At what moment is it not debating this?