Should We Expect the Rules of a Good Society to be Good for Everyone?

In my view, we should expect the rules of a good society to have the assent of nearly everyone but that does not mean that these rules are good for everyone. In particular, the law of liberty – preventing people from interfering with the protected domain of others – cannot be expected to be good for everyone even though it serves the good of all.

A good place for me to begin to explain the point I am trying to make is with Richard Kraut’s suggestion that under certain conditions norms, rules and laws do not serve the good of all (“What is Good and Why”, p31). The example he gives is of a situation in which our confidence that it is wrong to steal could possibly be diminished because “the property system may make it impossible for some to have the material resources they need to maintain their health …”. Kraut asks: “What objection can be make to taking what is not yours if you need it to sustain the health of your children, and the person from whom you take it has so much that it would do him no good?” The point he is making is that the rule against taking what is not yours “must be evaluated as a component of the social system in which it is embedded”.

I agree that the rule must be evaluated as a component of the social system, but I don’t think we need to be assured that the social system functions in a way that is good for all members before we can endorse laws prohibiting theft. Does Kraut’s example demonstrate that we could expect people to flourish to the same extent in a society with large wealth disparities in which there are no rules against theft as in a similar society where there are rules against theft? I don’t think so. If there were no rules against theft some resources currently devoted to mutually beneficial activities would be allocated to theft and to the protection of property against theft. Those who have a particular aptitude for stealing might benefit, but the costs to other people would clearly outweigh the benefits to thieves.

Some might argue, however, that our disapproval of theft should allow exceptions in circumstances where the thief has great needs and the victim is relatively unaffected. We might approve of such redistributions if we were to choose behind a veil of ignorance about our chances of being in a situation where we might be tempted to steal or of becoming a victim of theft. In the real world, however, how could a potential thief be sure that a potential victim would be relatively unaffected by the theft of any particular item? Even people who wear their wealth lightly can still own items that have great sentimental value.

Such considerations suggest to me that nearly everyone would agree that theft should be prohibited. I think it is likely that support for such a prohibition would be widespread even among population groups whose members have reason to be aggrieved about their treatment under the prevailing social system. In this sense disapproval of theft may be widely considered to be for the good of all, or at least widely considered to be likely to produce better outcomes than would an ambivalent attitude toward theft.

Does it change matters when the redistribution is undertaken by governments rather than by thieves? There are similarities between theft and rent seeking – the competing efforts of various individuals and interest groups to use the use the coercive powers of the state to have income redistributed to themselves at the expense of other groups in the society (for example through government budget allocations, provision of services, trade protection and other forms of industry assistance). The involvement of governments is an important difference, however, because the decision-making processes of governments may be widely viewed as having greater legitimacy than those of thieves. In addition, the information required to implement modest redistributions that might be given nearly universal assent behind a veil of ignorance – for example, provision of a welfare safety net – is available to governments responsible for implementing such redistributions.

The considerations involved seem to be similar when we come to paternalistic interventions to prevent adults from harming themselves. Norms, rules and laws protect individuals from all kinds of interference by other people, including well-meaning interference to prevent people from harming themselves. It is possible, however, to construct examples where our confidence that it is wrong to interfere is diminished. Richard Kraut gives us the example of a person who has fallen into an acute but curable despondency who proposes to kill himself even though he has many good years ahead of him (p 238). The argument that it is wrong to coerce a person for his own good because this is inconsistent with living in peace with him (see my last post) loses some force if the powers of judgement of the person concerned are obviously impaired.

However, the circumstances in we would condone people coercing others for their own good are extremely limited. We might have somewhat more confidence in intervention by government agencies than by individuals whom we have no reason to trust, but substantial moral hazards are involved whoever is permitted to intervene. Regulation might be more permissible than ad hoc interventions.

Behind a veil of ignorance just about everyone might support regulations that restrict freedom to a minor extent in order to protect vulnerable people whose judgement is obviously impaired. But in the real world it is difficult to frame such regulations to achieve the right balance. For example, the Australian Productivity Commission’s has recently published draft recommendations that the maximum bet limit on most gaming machines should be set at one dollar and the maximum amount of cash allowed to be inserted into a gaming machine at one time should be $20. While I claim no expertise in this area I think such limits could significantly inconvenience gamblers who want to minimize the time they spend playing mind-numbing machines, without doing much to protect problem gamblers. No matter how low the limits are set, they will not be low enough to prevent some vulnerable people from harming themselves.

This is true of all forms of regulation designed to protect vulnerable people from making bad choices. The rule that is good for all – the rule that nearly everyone would agree to behind a veil of ignorance about their own particular interests and vulnerabilities – will not be good for everyone. We should not expect the rules of a good society to be good for everyone.

2 comments to Should We Expect the Rules of a Good Society to be Good for Everyone?

  • Whether there is a veil of ignorance or not, theft is theft. If people really cares about the poor, they should clamor for a society in which the poor are most likely to be less poor, ie. more wealthy. That system is economic freedom. There are various studies that rank nations according to their level of economic freedom. While the criteria differ somewhat, the point is that there is a significan correlation between economic freedom and the various measures of welfare of f population.

    The poor in free countries are much better off than the poor in unfree countries. Economic freedom consists largely in being able to engage in vountary transactions and own property. Theft is the repudiation of property rights. That repudiation is the road to poverty when it occurs on a systematic, society-wide basis.

    Those people who are incapable of providing for htemselves are the appropriate targets of charity. They are not, in any way, appropriate targets government largesse stolen from others. Theft is theft. Charity is charity. Don’t confuse the two.

  • Hi Dan
    I agree with you about economic freedom.

    Does my post confuse theft and charity? I think you may have a point. I slide quickly from discussing rent-seeking (legalised theft) to discussing the kind of safety net that might have widespread support behind a veil of ignorance.

    It would be nice to think that one day we might not need a government provided social safety net. I argued that here:

    More recently I have been arguing for the view of security that Hayek put in Law, Legislation and Liberty. See:

    From a practical perspective I think the most important priority is to discourage dependence on government handouts (including by banks and car companies!)

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