Friday Philosophy

Robeyns Peter to Pay Paul

Limitarianism: The Case against Extreme Wealth<br>by Ingrid Robeyns<br>Astra House, 2022; 301 pp.

Some people have vastly more income and wealth than others, and this situation greatly disturbs Ingrid Robeyns, who teaches ethics at Utrecht University. She does not want to replace the market economy with central planning, but no one should be allowed to become a billionaire. Some of her comments on central planning sound like they might have emanated from Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek:

Thinking that an entire economy can be planned from above, including who needs which consumer goods, who will do what kind of work, where to buy groceries and at what prices, and so on, seems an incredible act of hubris. And it is not difficult to see that, on a national scale, such a massive planning exercise could only be done in a non-democratic system, since many people would prefer to be entrepreneurial.

Limitarianism allows scope for the market, but it restricts the maximum amount of wealth anyone is allowed to have. Robeyns distinguishes between an ethical limit, “the maximum level of money one can own on moral grounds,” and a political limit,

the ultimate limit on a person’s wealth that the state should use as a goal when setting up its social and fiscal systems. Wealth above this level is, I hold, immoral. Via policies and institutional design, governments should try to make sure that no one accumulates more money than this.

One is naturally curious how much money her proposed limit allows, and she is not slow to tell us:

In this deeply unjust world, I am advocating a political limit of roughly ten million per person (and because I say “roughly,” it doesn’t matter whether this is in euros, dollars, or pounds; we should focus on the general principle and remember that we are discussing the order of magnitude, not the precise figure).

In what follows, I propose to examine some of her philosophical arguments for limitarianism, thus defined. Not all of her arguments for limitarianism are strictly philosophical in that they rely on controversial factual judgments about how the economy works (e.g., whether most gains from economic growth go to the super-rich), and she also has many nonphilosophical arguments in support of various restrictions on the free market besides the limitation of income and wealth. Suffice it to say that in these arguments, she relies heavily on Thomas Piketty and Robert Reich.

Her philosophical arguments for limitarianism suffer from a disabling defect: even if they were sound, which they are not, they would not give us adequate reason to impose a political limit of about ten million [of some currency or other] per person.

One of these arguments is that being able to attain vast income or wealth is not something one can achieve by oneself; it depends on the activities of others, both now and in the past. She offers this thought experiment to convince us of her point:

Suppose a ship with a hundred passengers on board gets wrecked halfway between two islands. In one scenario, the shipwrecked passengers manage to reach a desert island that has no infrastructure and no previous civilization. In another, they reach an island that has all the infrastructure, technology, and other trappings of a prosperous twenty-first-century country—only, magically, all the people on that second island have just left it a day or two before. . . . How much material prosperity would this same group of shipwrecked people be able to create in their life times on the first compared with the second island? That just shows how much of our prosperity is dependent on what previous generations have developed for us. We cannot create prosperity without standing on the shoulders of our forebears, meaning that, however entrepreneurial we are, our own contribution to our success is limited.

Robeyns is right that an entrepreneur on the second island would do better than one on the first, but how is this supposed to support the cap on wealth that she favors? Her limitarian position is a complete non sequitur from her thought experiment. It doesn’t rise to the level of a fallacy in reasoning. It’s as if one were to “argue” that since being a basketball player is dependent on one’s teammates and one can’t play basketball alone, there should be a maximum number of points a player is allowed to score in a game.

Robeyns recognizes that there is a plausible objection to limitarianism:

In any given debate on tax, you’ll hear the following argument. The money that people earn on the market rightfully belongs to them, and as such the government has no business taking it away. . . .

If this claim were true, then it would significantly weaken the case for limitarianism. If we could truly say that we deserved our wealth, then yes, although we should still try to manage the negative consequences of wealth concentration, there wouldn’t be an intrinsic moral reason to put a limit on how much a person can have.

She responds to the claim by mentioning a famous argument by the philosophers Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy:

The fundamental philosophical point is that secure ownership of property cannot exist without taxation. There is no property (as we know it) without the state, and there is no state without tax. . . . People who object to taxation, or denounce it as “theft,” fail to understand that without tax—that is, without a social contract that binds people together—there would be no income or assets, no secure transactions and no smooth markets in the first place. There would be just chaos and danger.

The point made by Nagel and Murphy is much more limited in scope than Robeyns realizes. Their argument is that since property requires at least a minimal state and the state is entitled to collect taxes to pay its expenses, one can’t claim that one is entitled to all one’s pretax wealth and income. It’s perfectly consistent with this argument to hold that one is entitled to all one’s income and wealth, with that exception. (I am indebted to Nagel for his helpful discussion of this point.) The claim that there are no natural rights to property that limit the extent to which one’s income and wealth can be taxed away requires independent support. Further, even if all property rights were conventional, this would not show that there ought to be a political limit on wealth and income. Once more, Robeyns has failed to supply an argument in support of limitarianism.

Why, though, ought we to accept the initial premise that a minimal state having the power to tax is a necessary condition for the existence of property rights? Why could these rights not be supported by a libertarian law code enforced by private protection agencies that lacked the power to tax? She does not consider the arguments of libertarian anarchists like Murray Rothbard but says only that “the idea that we do not need a government is plainly absurd.”

Robeyns’s commitment to limitarianism is so strong that she is outraged that wealthy libertarians promoted

ideas, research, and higher education . . . and financed universities and think tanks and supported lobbyists who advocated for a range of policies that would make the rich richer. . . . The entire planet is having to deal with the deeply harmful effects of climate denialism by the Republican Party, which has wasted many crucial years failing to do anything to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions.

It is hardly necessary to add that even if one agrees with her, which I do not, about the supposed menace of “climate change,” preventive measure to cope with this lend no support to limitarianism. I instead mention this issue because she cites with evident approval “the political philosopher Catriona McKinnon [who] argues that those behind climate denialism, and those not acting on climate change, should be taken to the international criminal courts.” I fear that in a world run by Robeyns and her allies, those of us who reject limitarianism would find ourselves locked away, for are we not spreading dangerous doctrine?

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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