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Check out this paper:

My former classmate (now AU prof) Ezra Rosser's paper, "Obligations of Privilege," is now available on SSRN. Here's the abstract:

Little attention is paid to the nature of the high incomes of the rich nor to legal or norm-based obligations the rich owe society. This popular and scholarly inattention reflects the general acceptance of the idea that the rich have earned their high incomes and owe society little. By looking at income equations revealing society's role in high incomes and the obligations of the rich, the Article urges a strengthening of the obligations of the rich and rejects the argument that the legal community ought not consider the moral demands associated with high incomes.

As you can tell, Ezra's views are somewhat at variance with those of the Conspirators and our commenters. Ezra would appreciate it if those who are interested gave it a look and sent him comments. Download it while it's hot!

Roger Schlafly (www):
I got lost at the word "nor" in the first sentence. Did Rosser mean to say "and"?

It sounds like just a tedious and lawyerly argument for socialism.
10.7.2006 6:56pm
e:
He makes some decent points, but the timing is a bit unfortunate given Warren Buffett's pledge of his fortune.

At one point he compares welfare to accumulated post-tax fortunes as societal resources. Okay!

He finds no moral basis for inheritance. I think of my young nieces who will likely lose a parent to cancer in the next year and of the incentives to have children. Some people attempt immortality by having more children than they can afford to support. While any quest for immortality may be suspect, I'll always take the side of those who have fewer children and provide great opportunities. While it may be sad that poor children's parents have brought them into poverty, it would be sadder to encourage those children to have even more children to be supported outside of families by socializing the opportunities of childhood.
10.7.2006 7:22pm
Ilya Somin:
There are a large number of objections that could be made to this paper which, in my view, primarily restates traditional liberal and socialist arguments for redistributing "unearned" income. I would note a few of the most obvious and important:

1. The paper assumes that the only argument in favor of letting the rich keep their incomes is that they "earned" it. In reality, there are a wide range of other arguments in favor of keeping money in the private sector and out of the hands of government. To my mind, many of them are far more important than moral desert theories.

2. This is a standard criticism of the argument Rosser makes, but of course many nonmonetary benefits that people enjoy, such as good lucks, high intelligence, sexual prowess, charisma, etc., are also "unearned" in the sense that they are in large part the result of genetics and socialization rather than individual merit. Yet liberals such as Prof. Rosser (the late John Rawls being an important exception) do not propose redistributing these advantages and their resulting benefits as they do in the case of monetary income.

3. The argument that the rich have special duties to society because society is the cause of much of their high income implicitly assumes that anyone who confers a benefit on X therefore has a moral claim on X. I don't think that this is necessarily true. For example, parents provide the genetic endowment that is essential to the success of their children. It does not follow that parents' should therefore have a legal claim on their children's income, even though that income is at least partially the result of the genetic inheritance the kids got from their parents.
10.7.2006 7:29pm
abb3w:
Money is Power. With great power comes great responsibility.

I'd also suggest that the idea of "Repaying society for Personal Gain" should be expanded, to include more of the idea of repaying society for the opportunity of personal gain. One of the aspects of America that makes it so great is (as noted in the earned income section) the opportunity for the indivdual to rise from their own personal excellence of ability. This is a gift we have recieved from history, and thus incur a debt to our cultural posterity: to insure that such opportunity continues to exist, and must not be closed off by perpetual monopolies, cartels, and constructed barriers. This idea seems at best only partially addressed.

I'll also note that not all of your commenters are of conservative bent. Some of us are liberal to libertarians who enjoy being able to discuss the issues with those of more conservative bent who are still capable of stringing together a rational argument. Far too many on the right, especially in the "Christian Right", are not. (To be equal handed, the left and especially its "Liberal Hippie" types are similarly afflicted.)
10.7.2006 7:34pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Well, I took the challenge and wrote a reply. I couldn't help it, its def. the kind of argument that I can't hold my tongue about. It was a quick reply, so its not as tight as an argument as it could be. Also my word processor sucks so excuse the bad formatting. Also, I replied only to his first sentence because it pissed me off enough to prevent me from reading the rest of the paper :-/
10.7.2006 8:45pm
Ken Arromdee:
This is a gift we have recieved from history, and thus incur a debt to our cultural posterity:

I tend to distrust this sort of "debt" because no criteria are ever given for when the debt is paid off, and the fact that the "gift" is difficult to measure is used to justify treating it and the debt as infinite.

If supporters of the idea of a "debt" can come up with a way of figuring when the debt is paid off--and, on the average, about half the people by this criterion should have already paid it off--then I may be more willing to listen to the idea.
10.8.2006 2:41am
Lev:

Little attention is paid to the nature of the high incomes of the rich nor to legal or norm-based obligations the rich owe society.


?

Nevermind the nor (oh, right, the blue book doesn't address grammar),

legal

obligations the rich owe society?

I skimmed through about as much as I could take.


It sounds like just a tedious ... argument ...


You are being way too kind.
10.8.2006 3:48am
Michael:
Errata:

Page 19:
Additionally, since "[t]he status quo is partly the result of past discrimination,"71 allowing inheritance of the fruits of such discrimination perpetuates this discrimination -- whether it is land taken from Indians or property initially gained through the labor of slaves -- into the next generation.
This text is repeated almost ver batim in footnote 72.

Page 27: Should quotes-within-quotes be singles(') instead of doubles(")?

Page 30:
While conservatives tend to demonize and vilify the poor,130 liberals welfare discourse "seeks to avoid blaming … poor people themselves,"
Liberal's should be posessive.

Page 44:
however, morality may demand even more from the rich (and from a society that believes wealth reflects good character195).
Not sure if the parenthetical makes sense grammatically.

Page 54:
and who live "a comfortable bourgeois life … either think[ing] Left and liv[ing] Right, or he think[ing] Right and liv[ing] Right."
Typo in bold.

Pages 57-58:
we care about more than the robber's focus on finding the money,278 we also care about whether high incomes should be considering entirely the result of individual effort.
Typo in bold.
10.8.2006 6:35am
Sk (mail):
"Some of us are liberal to libertarians who enjoy being able to discuss the issues with those of more conservative bent who are still capable of stringing together a rational argument. Far too many on the right, especially in the "Christian Right", are not."

Wow-
I"m just dying to talk to you for a while...

Sk
10.8.2006 9:06am
Bottomfish (mail):
From p.43: One may object that no one can know for sure whether a more equal America would have a higher rate of growth; this objection would have to be granted."

Of course no one can know for sure. Based on observation of the travails of France and Germany and other European welfare states, it seems reasonable to suppose that a more equal America as the author sees it would have a lower rate of growth.
10.8.2006 9:22am
abb3w:
Ken:
I tend to distrust this sort of "debt" because no criteria are ever given for when the debt is paid off, and the fact that the "gift" is difficult to measure is used to justify treating it and the debt as infinite. If supporters of the idea of a "debt" can come up with a way of figuring when the debt is paid off--and, on the average, about half the people by this criterion should have already paid it off--then I may be more willing to listen to the idea.
I'll agree that treating the debt as infinite is an error, and a common one on the left. However, I'd also disagree with treating it as one that may be paid off all at once, rather than in regular installments. You continue to draw benefit from this national trust for as long as you live, and thus continue to incur the obligation. Like travelling on the roads, or like the protection of the military, you owe to the continued upkeep.

I don't pretend I can say how to measure that burden, nor how repayment of the debt should be fairly allocated; Solomon I ain't. I certainly think there can be a wide range of reasonable views on that. However, I don't think that the difficulties of determination of the exact amounts ought to mean that the debt should be outright ignored.

Sk:
Wow- I'm just dying to talk to you for a while...
I won't argue if you point to this as proof I'm an asshole. I never claimed you would enjoy discussing the issues with me; I just claimed that I would enjoy the discussion. =)
10.8.2006 11:13am
Silicon Valley Jim:
abb3w:

I'm not at all sure that Sk meant that you were a fool, or even that (s)he disagrees with you. Of course, I'm also not sure that you took it that way.

I'd probably enjoy talking with you, too, and I'm quite politically conservative, and not a particularly libertarian conservative at that. I, too, enjoy discussions with those who disagree with me but can remain civil and rational about it, and I agree with you that the problem isn't limited to any part of the political spectrum. I no longer visit several conservative sites because of the barbaric behavior of some of those who post comments, and I exclude one of the contributors to the Volokh Conspiracy from my view because his manners leave a good deal to be desired.
10.8.2006 11:54am
JB:
The idea that the elite classes have a duty to the rest is an old one. That duty used to be to govern justly and devote themselves to the good of society as a whole, thus everything from hereditary nobility to the Victorian English boarding high schools.

Phrased this way, the idea is less problematic--those with power in a society have an extra responsibility to see that it runs smoothly and justly. It just so happens that in our society power equates very nicely with money, at least for individuals.
10.8.2006 1:20pm
Ken Arromdee:
You continue to draw benefit from this national trust for as long as you live, and thus continue to incur the obligation.

No, not really. The debt is owed by people to other people. The total amount owed to a person and the total amount owed by a person must, summed over everyone in society, add to zero. It follows that everyone is, on the average, even. There can be some people who owe, but then there must be some people who are owed to.

The flaw in your reasoning is that while I continue to draw benefit as long as I live, and incur a debt to society, everyone else in society continues to draw too, and incurs a debt too. Their debt is also to society--which means a portion of it is to me. On the average, my increasing debt to society will be exactly balanced out by the millions of tiny proportionate debts that everyone else owes to me. My debt won't go up.

Of course, if I'm not an average person, I might draw more than I am owed and incur a debt, but that must be accompanied by other people being owed more than they draw (and thus incurring a credit). It's mathematically impossible for *everyone* to owe a debt to society.
10.8.2006 2:36pm
Ezra Rosser (mail) (www):
Hello,

This is a thank you to those you have taken time to comment.

I had no clue that so many people would download the paper and comment. Some readers have already done this, but I'm particularly interested in your ideas regarding those areas where you believe the claims in the paper need more support. Especially if you disagree with the paper's central thesis I would love to know where you felt my argument most broke down.

Thank you, Ezra
10.8.2006 3:06pm
VictoriaB (mail) (www):
2. This is a standard criticism of the argument Rosser makes, but of course many nonmonetary benefits that people enjoy, such as good lucks, high intelligence, sexual prowess, charisma, etc., are also "unearned" in the sense that they are in large part the result of genetics and socialization rather than individual merit. Yet liberals such as Prof. Rosser (the late John Rawls being an important exception) do not propose redistributing these advantages and their resulting benefits as they do in the case of monetary income.

This, of course, is the main existential point of the debate, and one which I have always mentioned, when this topic comes up in conversation (usually at the insistence of my more progressive friends).

Why is one made to feel more guilty about inheriting money, and property, than of being beautiful or fast?

Would it even occur to people to have told, say Jesse Owen or Heidi Klum, to feel embarrassed about their birth attributes -- which, furthermore, carry great responsibility, so much so that they must share it with others?

The point was made about redistribution of wealth, in terms of charity.

In point of fact, whatever else you may say about Judeo-Christian and indeed, Muslim religion, it has always been an important feature of those monotheistic religions, to PERSONALLY give to charity, as a point of faith.

Socially, it was always the sine qua non of being aristocratic, that you spent your life in the service of your fiefs, villagers, community and later, nation.

This point cannot be stressed enough, because without the unpaid good works of otherwise unengaged noble ladies, many societies to the modern age, would have struggled noticeably in terms of hospital care, education and sustenance to the poor and elderly.

The redoubtable Nancy Mitford once observed that each volunteer in Britain (not always aristocratic, but as a group, almost volunteeristic to a person, as a matter-of-course), saved the State almost 25,000 pounds p/a, in unremunerated good works.

In America, the volunteerism that exists is almost incredible, even for a Brit like me.

I once saw a site which listed the charitable or community services of each professional athlete, in a given sport. I believe it was Yahoo's sport profiles.

Even me-me schmucks like Terrell Owens, had a profile full of charities which he personally started or supported.

Others expect these people, and here is the Boston Globe asking, just how charitable are Bostonian athletes?

Again, this is not only the United States, but I think you would struggle to find such a preternaturally charitable country, as in this country.

Finally, wealth (even modest wealth, not the riches of a Wayne Buffet or Andrew Carnegie) and charity sometimes do not go glove-in-hand.

In fact, France is one example.

I don't need to tell anyone just have overreaching the French State is, and how they find private charities to be almost a threat to them as the ultimate font of social responsibility.

This is also true of many cradle-to-grave social welfare States, where the charitable impulse has been tempered, since they feel they contribute quite enough as it is, in taxes.

How do you teach, or how do you emphasise personal responsibility, in the moral context cited by the paper, to people raised to believe the State is in charge of all?

If socialism were about spreading the wealth, they really should have made a stud farm of the Soviet athletes, artists, and intelligentsia, who received endless preferential treatment, not given the vast majority of their subjects.

The Nazis certainly tried to, in terms of race...

Cheers,
Victoria
10.8.2006 9:40pm
Bart (mail):
Yet another long winded argument for government theft of wealth from one person to give it to another.

You "earn" and "deserve" the amount of money which others voluntarily pay for the goods and services which you provide in a free market under the rule of law.

If the rule of law applies to all equally, government by definition does not favor those who use their initiative to take advantage of that freedom to create more wealth than others. The same applies to public education or any other public benefit which is available to all.

As for wealth gained through inheritance, the question is no whether the recipient "deserves" the wealth given to him or her. The recipient "deserves" that wealth as much as any other. Rather, the deciding factor is whether the person who earned the wealth or the government which has not should decide to whom the wealth should be bestowed.
10.8.2006 10:39pm
MnZ (mail):
3. The argument that the rich have special duties to society because society is the cause of much of their high income implicitly assumes that anyone who confers a benefit on X therefore has a moral claim on X. I don't think that this is necessarily true. For example, parents provide the genetic endowment that is essential to the success of their children. It does not follow that parents' should therefore have a legal claim on their children's income, even though that income is at least partially the result of the genetic inheritance the kids got from their parents.


I agree. However, you can make the point even stronger. Economic studies of the benefits of production and new technologies indicate that the lion's share of the benefits accrue to consumers. For example, $10,000 might seem like a bit much for a 1 hour outpatient procedure. However, very few Americans wouldn't pay substantially more for another 5-10 years of life.

Therefore, redistribution based on moral claim (whatever that means) might make the wealthy even wealthier.
10.9.2006 11:03am
JunkYardLawDog (mail):
From the comments here, it seems there is a postulation that the opportunity to earn a high income is conferred by society and therefore the high income earners owe a debt to society.

I believe the above is quite inaccurate because it omits half of the relevant facts. The half it omits is that the opportunity to earn a high income is conferred upon EVERYONE in the USA, and with but a few exceptions, those who fail to achieve a high income fail because of the life choices and decisions they make in their own lives and for which they bear sole responsibility. Therefore, the class warfare tactics of attempting to rationalize the stealing of property and wealth from those who worked for it and giving it to those who CHOSE NOT TO WORK FOR IT, is shown to be merely a system for punishing success and rewarding slothfulness and/or poor stupid life choices. If you want less success, punish it through socialist re-distribution. If you want more slothfulness and/or poor stupid life choices reward it through socialist re-distribution.

Further, no apologies need be made for inherited wealth. The reason entrepreneurs start businesses, take risks, risk their income, property, and family wealth to create jobs for others and property and income for themselves is to build wealth to protect and pass on to their children. People often don't bust their arses for themselves and their own families, but people who do bust their arses do it for themselves and their families. Therefore, attempts at preventing those who have been successful at accumulating wealth/property and passing it on to their children and grand-children are really just seeking to punish success and achievement in the first place. Its just another form of direct taxation re-distribution of property from those who worked for it (with the idea of passing it on to their family) to those who did not work for anything or otherwise made poor life choices.

Its easy to talk about Bill Gates and his vast fortune, but that is really a red herring. Yes Bill Gates should be able to pass on every single Billion upon Billion of dollars to his children, or wife, or charities or any heir of his choice free from government death tax confiscation. However, even mover important than Bill Gates are the millions of entrepreneurs who have been less successful than Bill Gates but want to pass on to their children the 10's of millions they have accumulated through a lifetime of 80 hour work weeks in building their family business or family farms. These individuals all end up being treated the same as Bill Gates when it comes to the property stealing tendencies of socialist thought.

The benefits society provides to "enable" someone to be successful are available to all and provided to all, therefore no single individual has responsibility for repaying to society a benefit that was NOT specially conferred just on them but was available to all who cared to put forth the effort to avail themselves of such opportunities.

Says the "Dog"
10.9.2006 2:31pm
happylee:
I'd like to see a paper on how much the poor owe the rest of "society." (I'd also like to see someone write a paper on the meaning of "society.") For example, anyone who receives Section 8 housing credits is arguably morally obligated to "give back" to the "community" in which he resides by either offering a service (free shoe shines or grass mowing) or offering a good (take a couple of grams out of the baggie and give it to a neighbor).
10.9.2006 8:52pm
JunkYardLawDog (mail):
Happylee,

You NAILED it.

Says the "Dog"
10.10.2006 12:59am
JunkYardLawDog (mail):
Happylee,

Instead of mowing just anybody's lawn they should have to go mow somebody's lawn of some upper middle class guy who pays the taxes that supplied the benefits specially conferred by society upon the poor guy.

Says the "Dog"
10.10.2006 1:01am
CriticalEye:
I think all of the commenters here are missing an incredibly obvious point - Sasha and Dale both are using the same color for their names. I have seen absolutely no comment on this issue; until you resolve this egregious discrepancy, I don't see how you can expect the intellectual quality of the blog to improve, or even to hold its ground.

[sniff + head toss]
Good day to you.
10.10.2006 11:13am