Philosophy, Politics, Society

Common political fallacies

In Cato Journal, Volume 28, No. 1 (Winter 2008), the independent scholar Anthony de Jasay reviews four common fallacies (as presented in the works of John Stuart Mill, Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, and Armen Alchian) that many social scientists and political journalists keep repeating without rigorous analysis.

The first fallacy is that production should be governed by the laws of economics, but that distribution needs to be decided by society. As de Jasay points out,

“Output is distributed while it is produced. Wage earners get some of it as wages in exchange for their efforts; owners of capital get some of it as interest and rent in exchange for past saving. Entrepreneurs get the residual as profit in exchange for organization and risk bearing. By the time the cake is “baked,” it is also sliced and those who played a part in baking it have all got their slices. No distributive decision is missing, left over for “society” to take.”

Although these slices can be distributed again by society, this will constitute a secondary redistribution, usually involving coercion.

The second fallacy is that the aim of public policy should not be equality of outcomes, but equality of opportunity. Such “equality at the starting gate” assumes that equality of opportunity and equality of outcome can be separated. But unless opportunities are equalized at the point where acquired advantages are at a minimum (at birth), maximizing equality of opportunity would require stripping away the advantages people have acquired before the starting gate, and continuous intervention in outcomes to equalize opportunities between generations.

The third fallacy is that in a just society individuals must have a right to the greatest possible liberty compatible with the same liberty for all. As de Jasay has pointed out in detail in his writings, the proviso “compatible with the same for others” is meaningless because it is without substance. In its current form it means that I am at liberty to do anything I want (including violence and theft), provided others have the same liberty as well. Clearly, this is not what advocates of this position intended. More troubling to de Jasay is the fact that liberty is presented as a “right”:

“What is deeply worrying about this thoughtless misuse of the word “right” is that it can be straightened out at a single stroke by simply assuming that every feasible act is prohibited unless we are somehow granted a “right” to perform it, in which case it becomes a liberty. It takes a right to lift it out of the universe of prohibitions.”

The fourth fallacy is that society has a right to modify, transfer and revoke property because property rights are granted and defended by “society.” As has been discussed in the first fallacy about production and distribution, redistributing property would be tantamount to ignoring the fact that all who have helped to produce property have already been remunerated in the process. As in the case of a “right to liberty”, the “right to” part is redundant:

“Like all liberties, the kind we call property exists and is exercised within the rules that prohibit certain wrongs (torts). Staying as it does inside the rules, it needs no separate right to exist and be exercised. Nor does it make sense to think of an obligation imposed on all not to do against property what the rules prohibit them from doing anyway.”

Anthony de Jasay: Parrot Talk: The Repetition of Common Fallacies (PDF)