Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Is Economic Prosperty Morally Irrelevant?

Via Tyler, I found Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber saying this:
One of the texts that it is on my to-think-about-soon list is John Stuart Mill’s “On the Stationary State” from his Principles of Political Economy. I won’t comment further on that here, precisely because I need to think it through further. But Mill’s idea (endorsed by Rawls btw) that the goal of our policy ought not to be one of continual struggle for growth or for relative advantage once the threshold has been reached where we could all hope to enjoy a satisfactory level of well being seems to be right. [emphasis added]
My first reaction was… whaaat? He can’t really mean that, can he? But given his caveat about not having thought this all through, I figured I’d give it a pass. That is, until I read this from Tyler’s comments section:
But [the] real problem with East Germany was not its comparative level of economic development or the level of health care its citizens could receive (rather good, actually). It was the fact that it was a police state where people were denied the basic liberties.

Given them those [sic] liberties and I think you've achieved most of what's morally important. If they then choose a policy of more leisure and lower growth or the opposite ... that's up to them. I don't think it matters, morally speaking, that they are poorer than Americans are.
Ye gods. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone seriously defending East Germany. And somehow I thought – naively I suppose – that we had heard the last of the old “communism was okay except for, you know, the killing and torturing and imprisoning people” trope.

Something is just bizarre about the idea that economic well-being is only morally relevant unless we’re talking about really severe economic deprivation – especially when the economic deprivation people suffered under communism apparently doesn’t count as severe in Chris Bertram’s book. I’m trying to imagine what the argument in favor of that position would be.

I can understand placing low value on greater economic prosperity relative to other values; what I can’t understand is giving it no weight whatsoever. So maybe I’m misinterpreting Bertram. I thought so at first, when I read the bolded passage above; maybe he meant to diminish the policy importance of “struggling for economic growth and relative advantage,” with the emphasis on the latter. That would make sense in light of the recent blogospheric debate about status competition. But when Bertram defends East Germany (or at least “East Germany minus the civil liberties violations”), it’s hard for me to come up with any other interpretation. He really does seem to be saying that, past a certain point, economic well-being just doesn’t matter.

Another possible interpretation: It’s not that economic prosperity doesn’t matter, but that it doesn’t matter morally. This is plain weird to me, as a consequentialist; in thinking about what is moral, I think it’s pretty obvious we should consider all the consequences, including economic prosperity. But to some, moral relevance implies moral obligation; many liberals take that position with respect to the well-being of the poor. So perhaps Bertram resists admitting the moral relevance of economic prosperity because, in his moral universe, doing so would make adopting pro-growth economic policy a moral imperative.

Again, although I don’t agree, I can at least comprehend giving economic prosperity relatively low weight, perhaps on grounds of diminishing marginal utility of wealth. But Bertram’s wording doesn’t seem to include any such caveats. If economic well-being under communist rule was sufficient to meet his criterion for a “satisfactory level of well-being,” consider me aghast.

(Also read Tyler’s separate post reacting to the same comments.)


Julian said...

This doesn't seem nearly as shocking to me, maybe because I'm not a utilitarian. If "political justice" isn't really an independent topic from morality per se, then saying further wealth shouldn't be part of the goal seems weird. But if it is a separate topic, dealing with questions about "what we owe to each other" (and are either entitled or obligated to do through state power), then plenty of things which are "goods" in some sense will just not be in that category. Distributive principles aside, this is all already implicit in Rawls' specification of "primary goods."

Note that this makes theories of *that* sort more libertarian. You might, for instance, imagine a quite reasonable version where it's only wealth and income *up to some threshhold of comfort* that counts as a primary good to be distributed in accordance with the difference principle. Whatever people want to pursue past that point is their business.

Glen Whitman said...

Julian -- good point. But I don't think it necessarily makes Rawls-ish theories more libertarian. On the one hand, as you say, it limits our moral obligations to provide for others. Once they've reached the specified minimum, they have no further positive claim on us. On the other hand, it removes any moral limitation on interventions so long as they don't push anyone below the minimum. Thus, the government is free to (say) put substantial limits on maximum income just to make other people less envious, as long as doing so doesn't make anyone fall below the morally relevant income threshold.

More broadly: if you say that only things in class "A" are morally relevant, then everything in class "not-A" is morally irrelevant -- which seems to imply an anything-goes position with respect to anything in "not-A," at least morally speaking.

East of Oregon said...

great blog!