Monday, July 29, 2019

Rothbard on Our "Debt to Society"

Robert Nozick
An interesting comment from David Gordon:
In an earlier post, I noted Robert Nozick’s criticism of the view that the state may tax us because we are in part 'social products'. Much of Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia reflects Rothbard’s influence, and this topic is no exception.
 As so often, Rothbard was there first, and Nozick did no more than restate his insights in more complicated fashion. In Power and  Market,  a work Nozick studied closely, Rothbard says: “It is precisely the process of the market by which the array of free individuals (constituting ‘society’) portions out income in accordance with productivity. It is double-counting to postulate a real entity ‘society’ outside the array of individuals, and possessing or not possessing ‘its' own deserved share. If by  “organized society’ he [ the economist Henry M. Oliver] means the State, then the State’s ‘contributions’ were compulsory and hence hardly ‘deserved’ any pay.”
Here is the earlier post, Gordon references:

Nozick on Our Debt to Society
by David Gordon

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick argues that If people benefit you by their activities, you have no obligation to pay them for what you have gained. Nozick provides a well-known example to illustrate this point: “Suppose some of the people in your neighborhood (there are 364 other adults) have found a public address system and decide to institute a system of public entertainment. They post a list of names, one for each day, yours among them. On his assigned day. . .a person is to run the public address system, play records over it, give news bulletins, tell amusing stories he has heard, and so on. After 138 days on which each person has done his part, your day arrives. Are you obligated to take your turn? You have benefited from it, occasionally opening your window to listen, enjoying some music or chuckling at someone’s funny story. The other people have put themselves out. But must you answer the call when it is your turn to do so? As it stands surely not.”

Why not? In brief, you may not think that the benefits are worth the costs to you, and even if they are, you may prefer to spend your time and money on something else.  Further, “You may not decide to give me something, for example a book, and then grab money from me to pay for it, even if I have nothing better to spend the money on.”  You must secure my consent in advance and cannot present me with a fait accompli and demand that I pay my fair share.

So much is well known, but Nozick extends the point in a way that has not gotten the attention it deserves: “Nor can a group of persons do this. If you may not charge and collect for benefits you bestow without prior agreement, you certainly may not do so for benefits which yet others provided them, So the fact that we partially are ‘social products’ in that we benefit from current patterns and forms created by the multitudinous actions of a long string of long-forgotten people, forms which include institutions, ways of doing things, and language. . .does not create in us a general floating debt which the current society can collect and use as it will.”

In this seldom-cited passage, Nozick has demolished a principal justification for the contemporary welfare state.


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