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Monday, May 20, 2024

Letter to the Editor: Response to “Capitalism and the poor”

In Tristan de Liege’s April 11 Op-ed, “Capitalism and the poor,” an attempt is made to justify laissez-faire capitalism. The justification rests on two faulty premises: that capitalism is justified by the alleged benefits it brings, and that in a capitalist society wealth is distributed on the basis of voluntary choice.

Firstly, economic and political systems cannot be justified solely on the basis of the benefits they bring. Even if we were to accept, as de Liege asserts, that capitalism will improve the standard of living for the majority of individuals, this is no justification. Slavery certainly “improved” the standard of living for slaves and their masters. It is common knowledge that immediately after slavery was abolished in the South, many former slaves found themselves worse off than they did when they were still slaves. Does this justify slavery? Certainly not.

Secondly, wealth has historically not been distributed on the basis of voluntary choice in capitalist systems for multiple reasons. First, capitalist systems ignore past involuntary wealth transfers. Even Robert Nozick and other radical libertarians agree that history has been so full of unjust involuntary transactions such as colonialism, slavery and wars of aggression that in the short term a radical redistribution of wealth would be justified. Second, the fact that one needs wages for human survival means that contracts cannot be considered voluntary. If one is completely dependent on wages for his or her own survival, as many in society are, employment contracts can reasonably be seen as a form of compulsion.

Evan Sandlin
Political science graduate student


  1. Tristan,

    What I mean regarding the slavery example was that slavery “improved” the lives of slaves, as they were economically better off slavery than they were immediately after emancipation. This was due to the fact that they had no other means of survival other than working on the same or similar plantations they had worked on under slavery. They had no negotiating power and had a very limited ability to relocate. The former masters now had no incentive to feed or clothe them. The result was a virtual re-enslavement of black Americans, this time it was wage-slavery rather than chattel slavery, without any of the minimal necessities that had come with chattel slavery. This can be read about in virtually any American history textbook. What I was saying was that even though black Americans had been better offer under slavery than they were immediately after it, I don’t think that justifies slavery. As we have created a false counterfactual (I’ll return to that later).

    As far as a justification for capitalism based on human nature, this seems, at least to me and quite a few others, to be a terrible justification. Even if we ignore the “is-ought fallacy,” defining human nature and discovering what it is are seriously problems. You can find a multitude of biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and philosophers that have extremely different ideas of what human nature is. I don’t think we can ever find an answer, and even if we do, I think it means very little. This is due to the fallacy mentioned earlier.

    To your second point, I have a fundamental disagreement with your claim that you, “don’t think responsibility for past injustices is inherited by groups or races.” Past injustices have very clearly had distributional consequences. Even if you don’t think responsibility for past injustices is inherited by groups you can at least believe that the distributional consequences are. And in these cases the perpetrator has usually been the state, so the state can rectify these injustices. But if you aren’t willing to rectify past injustices, and your claim for the morality of capitalism rests on the idea of voluntary transaction, I think your case crumbles.

    Lastly, the employee is under compulsion because they have so little bargaining power compared to the owners of the means of production. Often they cannot “go elsewhere” due to a lack of means. They might not have a gun to their head, but their choices are often to work for little benefit and just bare survival or to starve. Regarding the claim that, “the employer provides the worker with an opportunity to meet her needs for survival that she might not otherwise have.” This is what I referred to earlier as a false counterfactual. You have given me only two options: Either the employer gives the employee a meager means of survival, or she starves. Since the employer gives her this, she benefits. A few things, (1) The employer does not give the employee anything. The employee sells herself for a price lower than what she is worth. This is how the employer makes a profit. (2) I see no reason why only these two options are available. We can create multiple counterfactuals in which the employer gives the employee a just wage, which society decides upon. We could have the employer be partnered with the employee in joint ownership. There is no reason why we should act like an employer set wage is the only counterfactual.

  2. Evan,

    I think your response suffers from a few problems. First, I don’t think capitalism is solely or fundamentally justified by “the benefits it brings” (or at least this is highly misleading; it depends on what one means). Instead, I think it is ultimately justified by facts about human nature, i.e. the kinds of beings that we are and our requirements for pursuing values and goals in a social context (especially freedom from government coercion). However, I think your analogy is strange, since I find it very implausible that slavery makes anyone better off, even in the short term (what is your base line or standard in that case?). I think that requires more explanation.

    Your second criticism is about the historically unjust distribution of wealth. I don’t understand why this is inconsistent with anything I said, and I don’t think it’s the case that capitalism “ignores” past involuntary wealth transfers. At least, not in an important sense: in the system I am arguing for, such issues would probably settled by identifying victims and those who caused damages such as in tort law (to the extent I understand it) in an objective way. I don’t think responsibility for past injustices is inherited by groups or races or that we have to try to determine what might have happened if injustices hadn’t happened (this couldn’t be an objective way to solve the problem, I think). The point is, if “redistribution” or compensation of some kind is required for the implementation of rights and doesn’t involve the initiation of force, I am in favor of it, and I don’t think capitalism must be inherently opposed to such solutions. Of course, it’s not objective to have massive wealth redistribution for the sake of a vague class of recipients at the expense of a vague class of wrongdoers (but I don’t think that’s the main argument for wealth redistribution these days anyway).

    Finally, your view of compulsion seems be different than the usual conception. It’s not usually taken to be the case that employment contracts are coercive even if wages are necessary for the survival of the worker (by the way, since the employer needs workers, does that mean the worker is also coercing the employer?). At least, I take it that there is a fundamental difference between a case like that and a case where I pull out a gun and demand that you give me all your money. In employment cases, the employer and the employee are effectively negotiating wages and a contract arises out of that, but even if the employee will die if she doesn’t find a suitable job, she is free to go elsewhere and try to trade with others. The employer takes nothing away from her by offering her a job (no matter the wage). In fact, the employer provides the worker with an opportunity to meet her needs for survival that she might not otherwise have. What is it about this analysis that you disagree with?

    Tristan de Liege


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