The Distributive Justice of the Market

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

Also published by United Press International (UPI)


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The public outcry against executive pay and compensation followed disclosures of insider trading, double dealing, and outright fraud. But even honest and productive entrepreneurs often earn more money in one year than Albert Einstein did in his entire life. This strikes many - especially academics - as unfair. Surely Einstein's contributions to human knowledge and welfare far exceed anything ever accomplished by sundry businessmen? Fortunately, this discrepancy is cause for constructive jealousy, emulation, and imitation. It can, however, lead to an orgy of destructive and self-ruinous envy.

Such envy is reinforced by declining social mobility in the United States. Recent (2006-7) studies by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) clearly demonstrate that the American Dream is a myth. In an editorial dated July 13, 2007, the New-York Times described the rapidly deteriorating situation thus:

"... (M)obility between generations — people doing better or worse than their parents — is weaker in America than in Denmark, Austria, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Spain and France. In America, there is more than a 40 percent chance that if a father is in the bottom fifth of the earnings’ distribution, his son will end up there, too. In Denmark, the equivalent odds are under 25 percent, and they are less than 30 percent in Britain.

America’s sluggish mobility is ultimately unsurprising. Wealthy parents not only pass on that wealth in inheritances, they can pay for better education, nutrition and health care for their children. The poor cannot afford this investment in their children’s development — and the government doesn’t provide nearly enough help. In a speech earlier this year, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, argued that while the inequality of rewards fuels the economy by making people exert themselves, opportunity should be “as widely distributed and as equal as possible.” The problem is that the have-nots don’t have many opportunities either."

Still, entrepreneurs recombine natural and human resources in novel ways. They do so to respond to forecasts of future needs, or to observations of failures and shortcomings of current products or services. Entrepreneurs are professional - though usually intuitive - futurologists. This is a valuable service and it is financed by systematic risk takers, such as venture capitalists. Surely they all deserve compensation for their efforts and the hazards they assume?

Exclusive ownership is the most ancient type of such remuneration. First movers, entrepreneurs, risk takers, owners of the wealth they generated, exploiters of resources - are allowed to exclude others from owning or exploiting the same things. Mineral concessions, patents, copyright, trademarks - are all forms of monopoly ownership. What moral right to exclude others is gained from being the first?

Nozick advanced Locke's Proviso. An exclusive ownership of property is just only if "enough and as good is left in common for others". If it does not worsen other people's lot, exclusivity is morally permissible. It can be argued, though, that all modes of exclusive ownership aggravate other people's situation. As far as everyone, bar the entrepreneur, are concerned, exclusivity also prevents a more advantageous distribution of income and wealth.

Exclusive ownership reflects real-life irreversibility. A first mover has the advantage of excess information and of irreversibly invested work, time, and effort. Economic enterprise is subject to information asymmetry: we know nothing about the future and everything about the past. This asymmetry is known as "investment risk". Society compensates the entrepreneur with one type of asymmetry - exclusive ownership - for assuming another, the investment risk.

One way of looking at it is that all others are worse off by the amount of profits and rents accruing to owner-entrepreneurs. Profits and rents reflect an intrinsic inefficiency. Another is to recall that ownership is the result of adding value to the world. It is only reasonable to expect it to yield to the entrepreneur at least this value added now and in the future.

In a "Theory of Justice" (published 1971, p. 302), John Rawls described an ideal society thus:

"(1) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. (2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity."

It all harks back to scarcity of resources - land, money, raw materials, manpower, creative brains. Those who can afford to do so, hoard resources to offset anxiety regarding future uncertainty. Others wallow in paucity. The distribution of means is thus skewed. "Distributive justice" deals with the just allocation of scarce resources.

Yet, even the basic terminology is somewhat fuzzy. What constitutes a resource? What is meant by allocation? Who should allocate resources: Adam Smith's "invisible hand", the government, the consumer, or business? Should it reflect differences in power, in intelligence, in knowledge, or in heredity? Should resource allocation be subject to a principle of entitlement? Is it reasonable to demand that it be just - or merely efficient? Are justice and efficiency antonyms?

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseaus’ work is an example of these irreconcilable tensions. On the one hand, he assures us that succumbing to an amorphous “general will” guarantees the simultaneous attainment of both the common good and the individual’s welfare and well-being (i.e., of that which is objectively best for him). Yet, just as we begin to equate the “general will” with the market, Rousseau launches into a tirade against the economic dependence fostered by the efficient division and allocation of labour in line with each agent’s comparative advantages. He regards trading, property, and money as the roots of all evil, injustice, and moral decay. Marx took Rousseau to its logical conclusion with his theory of alienation in industrial societies.

Philosophers in Nietzsche’s mould believed that the very concept of justice was unnatural. Man-made justice sustains the weak and the individual at the expense of the strong and the collective. Nature, by comparison, is squarely on the side of the fittest, the well-adapted and the group.

Yet, justice is not concerned with survival. It is about equal access to opportunities. Equal access does not guarantee equal outcomes, invariably determined by idiosyncrasies and differences between people. Access leveraged by the application of natural or acquired capacities - translates into accrued wealth. Disparities in these capacities lead to discrepancies in accrued wealth.

The doctrine of equal access is founded on the equivalence of Men. That all men are created equal and deserve the same respect and, therefore, equal treatment is not self evident. European aristocracy well into this century would have probably found this notion abhorrent. Jose Ortega Y Gasset, writing in the 1930's, preached that access to educational and economic opportunities should be premised on one's lineage, up bringing, wealth, and social responsibilities.

A succession of societies and cultures discriminated against the ignorant, criminals, atheists, females, homosexuals, members of ethnic, religious, or racial groups, the old, the immigrant, and the poor. Communism - ostensibly a strict egalitarian idea - foundered because it failed to reconcile strict equality with economic and psychological realities within an impatient timetable.

Philosophers tried to specify a "bundle" or "package" of goods, services, and intangibles (like information, or skills, or knowledge). Justice - though not necessarily happiness - is when everyone possesses an identical bundle. Happiness - though not necessarily justice - is when each one of us possesses a "bundle" which reflects his or her preferences, priorities, and predilections. None of us will be too happy with a standardized bundle, selected by a committee of philosophers - or bureaucrats, as was the case under communism.

The market allows for the exchange of goods and services between holders of identical bundles. If I seek books, but detest oranges - I can swap them with someone in return for his books. That way both of us are rendered better off than under the strict egalitarian version.

Still, there is no guarantee that I will find my exact match - a person who is interested in swapping his books for my oranges. Illiquid, small, or imperfect markets thus inhibit the scope of these exchanges. Additionally, exchange participants have to agree on an index: how many books for how many oranges? This is the price of oranges in terms of books.

Money - the obvious "index" - does not solve this problem, merely simplifies it and facilitates exchanges. It does not eliminate the necessity to negotiate an "exchange rate". It does not prevent market failures. In other words: money is not an index. It is merely a medium of exchange and a store of value. The index - as expressed in terms of money - is the underlying agreement regarding the values of resources in terms of other resources (i.e., their relative values).

The market - and the price mechanism - increase happiness and welfare by allowing people to alter the composition of their bundles. The invisible hand is just and benevolent. But money is imperfect. The aforementioned Rawles demonstrated (1971), that we need to combine money with other measures in order to place a value on intangibles.

The prevailing market theories postulate that everyone has the same resources at some initial point (the "starting gate"). It is up to them to deploy these endowments and, thus, to ravage or increase their wealth. While the initial distribution is equal - the end distribution depends on how wisely - or imprudently - the initial distribution was used.

Egalitarian thinkers proposed to equate everyone's income in each time frame (e.g., annually). But identical incomes do not automatically yield the same accrued wealth. The latter depends on how the income is used - saved, invested, or squandered. Relative disparities of wealth are bound to emerge, regardless of the nature of income distribution.

Some say that excess wealth should be confiscated and redistributed. Progressive taxation and the welfare state aim to secure this outcome. Redistributive mechanisms reset the "wealth clock" periodically (at the end of every month, or fiscal year). In many countries, the law dictates which portion of one's income must be saved and, by implication, how much can be consumed. This conflicts with basic rights like the freedom to make economic choices.

The legalized expropriation of income (i.e., taxes) is morally dubious. Anti-tax movements have sprung all over the world and their philosophy permeates the ideology of political parties in many countries, not least the USA. Taxes are punitive: they penalize enterprise, success, entrepreneurship, foresight, and risk assumption. Welfare, on the other hand, rewards dependence and parasitism.

According to Rawles' Difference Principle, all tenets of justice are either redistributive or retributive. This ignores non-economic activities and human inherent variance. Moreover, conflict and inequality are the engines of growth and innovation - which mostly benefit the least advantaged in the long run. Experience shows that unmitigated equality results in atrophy, corruption and stagnation. Thermodynamics teaches us that life and motion are engendered by an irregular distribution of energy. Entropy - an even distribution of energy - equals death and stasis.

What about the disadvantaged and challenged - the mentally retarded, the mentally insane, the paralyzed, the chronically ill? For that matter, what about the less talented, less skilled, less daring? Dworkin (1981) proposed a compensation scheme. He suggested a model of fair distribution in which every person is given the same purchasing power and uses it to bid, in a fair auction, for resources that best fit that person's life plan, goals and preferences.

Having thus acquired these resources, we are then permitted to use them as we see fit. Obviously, we end up with disparate economic results. But we cannot complain - we were given the same purchasing power and the freedom to bid for a bundle of our choice.

Dworkin assumes that prior to the hypothetical auction, people are unaware of their own natural endowments but are willing and able to insure against being naturally disadvantaged. Their payments create an insurance pool to compensate the less fortunate for their misfortune.

This, of course, is highly unrealistic. We are usually very much aware of natural endowments and liabilities - both ours and others'. Therefore, the demand for such insurance is not universal, nor uniform. Some of us badly need and want it - others not at all. It is morally acceptable to let willing buyers and sellers to trade in such coverage (e.g., by offering charity or alms) - but may be immoral to make it compulsory.

Most of the modern welfare programs are involuntary Dworkin schemes. Worse yet, they often measure differences in natural endowments arbitrarily, compensate for lack of acquired skills, and discriminate between types of endowments in accordance with cultural biases and fads.

Libertarians limit themselves to ensuring a level playing field of just exchanges, where just actions always result in just outcomes. Justice is not dependent on a particular distribution pattern, whether as a starting point, or as an outcome. Robert Nozick "Entitlement Theory" proposed in 1974 is based on this approach.

That the market is wiser than any of its participants is a pillar of the philosophy of capitalism. In its pure form, the theory claims that markets yield patterns of merited distribution - i.e., reward and punish justly. Capitalism generate just deserts. Market failures - for instance, in the provision of public goods - should be tackled by governments. But a just distribution of income and wealth does not constitute a market failure and, therefore, should not be tampered with.

A Critique of Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-first Century”

In his programmatic and data-laden tome, “Capital in the Twenty-first Century” (2014), Thomas Piketty makes several assertions, two of which merit a closer look: (1) That r (the return on capital) is, in the long-run always greater than g (the growth of the real economy), thus enriching the rich; and (2) that inherited wealth tends to create a “patrimonial” form of capitalism, akin to the aristocracy in the French and British ancient regimes.

Putting aside the somewhat artificial and dubious distinction between the “real” and the financial economy, r and g are apples and oranges and cannot be compared. Economic growth (g) is not the return on the real economy in the same way that r is the return on capital and its assets. R is intended to compensate for a panoply of risks and is comparable to the wave function in Quantum Mechanics: it incorporates all the publicly and privately available information about future uncertainties and provides a distribution function of all plausible scenarios. Put simply: subject to political and market vicissitudes, capital can vanish overnight. Not so the real economy: it is always there, regardless of upheavals, political meddling (usually in the form of taxation), inflation (a kind of tax, really), and disruptive technologies.

Capital (wealth) can be construed as a call option on the real economy and, especially, on real estate and emerging technologies. R amounts, therefore, to the premium on this option. Income inequality is growing because of the decline in the role and importance of labor, which is being gradually supplanted by capital assets, such as robots and computers as well as being offshored, outsourced, and downsized. Again, put simply; capital can buy a lot more labor nowadays, hence the apparent lopsidedness of the distribution of wealth.

Luckily for the 99%, the bulk of the nation’s wealth is inactive: dormant in deposits and other long-term assets or languishing in hordes of cash in the form of non-distributed profits. Such capital exercises political clout and muscle but is irrelevant in terms of wage compression.

Inherited wealth is no different to any other form of capital. It is merely an extension of the investment horizon, a kind of immortality. If Warren Buffet lives to be 300 or hands what’s left of his wealth to future generations of Buffets is immaterial in terms of economic impact. There is no evidence that inherited wealth is less productive than riches obtained via entrepreneurship. Such claims have more to do with seething envy than with scholarly erudition. Inherited wealth concentrated in the hands of the few may be compared to an oligopoly, not necessarily a bad thing.

There is no basis to prefer one type of economic activity over another on strictly scientific grounds: investment is as important as entrepreneurship and finance is as crucial as manufacturing. Wealth – inherited or not – is always invested: either in the financial sector or in the real one. To rank economic activities as more or less preferable is ideology, not science: a judgment that is driven by values and predilections, not by hard data.

Similarly, to talk about a monolithic, immutable oligarchy is laughable. As any casual perusal of Forbes’ list of richest people would show, the mobility inside this group is remarkable and its composition is in constant flux. Most of its new members are there by virtue of wages and bonuses.

These nouveau riches and arrivistes raise the thorny issue of agent-principal conflicts: how the executive class institutionalized the robbery of their firms and shareholders and rendered this plunder a fine art. This travesty may be one of the main engines of skyrocketing income inequality together with the venality of politicians in an increasingly plutocratic world. It is a political failure and has to be resolved politically.

No amount of taxation, progressive or flat and no quantity of transfers from the state to the poor will solve the issue of income inequality. The state should encourage wealthy people to invest and create jobs. It should penalize them if they do not (by taxing their wealth repeatedly.) It should help the poor. There is very little else it can do.


Also Read:

The Principal-Agent Conundrum

The Green-Eyed Capitalist

The Misconception of Scarcity


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