Debating the Morality of the Free Market

Last night, the Carolina Review hosted its first event in its history. The event was a debate on the statement: Government intervention in the Free Market is Moral. Arguing the affirmative was Ralph Byrns, a self-described “leftist libertarian” professor of economics at UNC Chapel Hill. Arguing the negative was John Lewish, a objectivist libertarian professor in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

Unlike last week’s debate on the ethics of health care reform, this debate actually focused on moral issues. The debate was sometimes heated and threatened to spin out of control at times, as Byrns and Lewis on occasion resorted to shouting obscenities at each other over the pleading voices of the moderators. Once order was restored, the debate centered around the issue of rights, whether they exist, where they come from and what they guarantee us.

Lewis argued that we do not have a right to anything, we only have the right to take certain actions. Lewis is an atheist and rejects any sort of divine origin of rights, rather, he argues that rights come from our nature. We are individuals, and we make decisions as individuals. From this, we derive our fundamental right to action. This right is often expressed as a right to own property.

In Lewis’ view, the role of government is to protect our rights by preventing us (through retaliatory force against criminals) from infringing on the rights of others. This creates what Lewis defines as the free market. The free market is not anarchy, after all, Lewis points out that there was no free market in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. The free market must be protected by government. However, government should limit itself to retaliatory use of force. Actions such as taxation, wealth redistribution and corporate bailouts are government interventions, and ultimately government initiations of force. As these violate our rights to property, Lewis views them as immoral.

Byrns counters these claims by claiming a different definition of freedom. Rather than the absence of coercion, Byrns views freedom as a condition with the most available possible choices. Limiting our rights can give us more choices. Byrns challenges the origin of rights. Also rejecting the divine as an explanation, he says that the government is what defines property rights for us. And if the government defines our rights, it can change them. Ultimately, our rights are defined by consensus.

Lewis countered Byrns’ view of freedom by pointing out that if we all stole from each other, we would have a more available possible choices than we do now. Byrns did not answer this directly, but later said that we should not be able to own certain types of property, such as slaves. He apparently believes that choices should be maximized within reason, but limited by other factors.

Byrns on the other hand attacked the realism of Lewis’ views on government. If government is supposed to exist to protect our rights and punish criminals but never initiate coercive intervention, how should such a government fund itself? Taxation, after all, is a coercive action backed up by force  (jail if you refuse to pay) and according to Lewis it is immoral.

Lewis countered by saying that his ideal government would be one tenth the size of today’s government, and that there would be plenty of ways to fund such a government non-coercively. However, he never specified what these methods were. Thinking on this, it’s hard to think of a way a government could be reliably funded that would not involve either a tax (coercive initiation of force) or state-run businesses (a government intrusion into the free market).

And that was the main problem with Lewis’ argument: It was consistent, but it fails when you try and apply it practically. Byrns on the other hand has only a vague definition of what rights are, and since he says they are defined by majority rule he should probably just scrap the term entirely. Byrns’ view that rights are decided by the majority without any sort of divine input is societal relativism at its most dangerous. With no divine moral mandate and majority rule deciding what is right and what is wrong, people can decide to take away anything if they can get enough people to agree with them. The door to dictatorship, communism, Nazism, and all sorts of despotic and tyrannical government is opened by this philosophy.

Although I disagree with the concept of natural or inherent property rights, I hold that there is a divinely granted moral law which governs what we should and should not do. Stealing is not wrong because it violates someone else’s rights, stealing is wrong because it is in violation of that which God hath commanded us. However, this is a topic for another post, but for now, I will give the edge in last night’s debate to Dr. Lewis, although it was a close one.

13 comments

  1. "Byrns’ view that rights are decided by the majority without any sort of divine input is societal relativism at its most dangerous. With no divine moral mandate and majority rule deciding what is right and what is wrong, people can decide to take away anything if they can get enough people to agree with them. The door to dictatorship, communism, Nazism, and all sorts of despotic and tyrannical government is opened by this philosophy."

    Chris,

    Perhaps people with a "social-construction" view of morality could justify despotic and tyrannical governments thereby, but much more often than not they have consistently upheld the freedom of the individual. Some of the greatest liberal thinkers, both classical and developmental, including Milton, Kant, Paine and Mill, have rejected the fixed conception of political morality, particularly in the issues of property and contract law. The alternative that you present here, the justification of political morality by divine law, is theocratic in nature. Isn't theocracy the greatest despotism of them all?

    1. People who view morality as a social construct may well be in favor of freedom of the individual. The problem arises in the fact that a social-construct system is liable to change, and can change in ways that are tyrannical or despotic. After all, if the majority decides what is right and what is wrong and they decide it is right to rise up and kill all the ethnic minorities in their community, what is there to say that's wrong? And yet, most of us would view the idea of killing ethnic minorities en masse as fundamentally morally repulsive.

      1. Every system is liable to change, even one based on a religious text, because textual systems always face the problem of interpretation. There is no unified, static Christian morality today for that very reason. The whole history of religion is a history of the crisis of interpretation. Christian morality has changed often; generally people have been killed in the attempts to stifle such changes, not because the changes themselves lead to such killing. Until God comes down to us and legislates in all matters civil and ecclesiastical, then everything is up to us. Whether its through interpretation of religious texts written by men, or the artificial construction of new systems and ethical standards, we might as well accept that morality is socially constructed.

        "After all, if the majority decides what is right and what is wrong and they decide it is right to rise up and kill all the ethnic minorities in their community, what is there to say that's wrong?"

        I would say that this is a tragic scenario much more common in religious communities than within one population that accepts socially constructed morality, wouldn't you? What examples do we have of the latter?

        Finally, you didn't address the issue of theocracy. Isn't the justification of government by appeal to divine law theocratic in nature? And if so, isn't theocracy itself a pervasively despotic system?

      2. "I would say that this is a tragic scenario much more common in religious communities than within one population that accepts socially constructed morality, wouldn't you?"

        And that's just the problem. With no universally true morality (and therefore no true morality, and no objective right and wrong), it's completely OK for people to do whatever they want towards each other within a society.

        I'm not saying that moral codes can't evolve on their own inside human societies. I'm saying that in a world with only socially constructed morality, there is no reason why any society's moral code is better or worse than another's. Therefore, you have no grounds to make the moral judgment of "tragic" on a society which makes such a choice.

      3. But don't you think, as a student of the historical context of Nazism, that it's a bit ridiculous to judge every majority-minority ethnic relation in the light of something that happened around 64 years ago in Germany, and that virtually everyone condemns anyway? I'm only asking because I just get sick of hearing people accuse their enemies of Nazism all the time. I think it's juvenile.

      4. This is all well and good, but I fail to see how this has anything to do with the point I was trying to make, which was that unlimited majority rule is dangerous when it is coupled with a lack of absolute morals.

      5. Quick question, Chris.

        How much safer is unlimited majority rule with absolute morals? I mean, major decisions are still being made based on how the majority of people feel about the issue.

        The terms "absolute" and "majority rule" simply cannot coexist. Either there is an absolute authority, or that authority is based on the collective individual's judgment.

      6. I wish I had been apprised of the CR review of the debate between Dr. John Lewis and me. I think that the CR reviewer (you?) and I might have engaged in a much more interesting exchange than that between Dr. Lewis and me. A few points: (ONE) Dr. Lewis did not defend what was supposed to be his position on the issue: Government intervention in the Free Market is Moral. Instread of defending the notion that governmnet intervention is IMMORAL [My emphasis], he merely argued for reductions in the size of government, a position with which I actually agree, although he vehemently rejected my suggestion that military expenditures should have been #1 on the chopping block. So, he qualifies as a big-military small-government Austrian libertarian? Interesting position, but not what I expected. I would think that, e.g., Israeli bombing markets in Palestine would have been a remarkably immoral government intervention. Oh well.

        (TWO) In the immediately preceding post [1:32am November 6, 2009],you seem to appeal to the idea that morality (and, presumably, any right to property) is determined by God, a position with which neither Dr Lewis (an avowed atheist) nor I (an agnostic) agree. You rail against the notion that social consensus specifies PROPERTY rights [my emphasis] on the grounds that “… [the majority might] “rise up and kill all the ethnic minorities in their community.” (A non sequitur?] But then you appeal to a widespread moral condemnation of such a possibility by asserting that morality underpinned by “… most of us would view the idea of killing ethnic minorities en masse as fundamentally morally repulsive.”

        I am confused. You appeal to the authority of a deity trumping any social consensus about morality or rights, but then you appeal to the idea that “most of us” will react in accord with a divine imperative. Seems a paradox. Who would you have interpret God’s preferences/ Billy Graham? Pat Robertson? Mike Pence? The Pope? (If the pope, which one? Not Pius XII, I hope.)

        But enough. As I indicated, I wish I had known about this review of the debate between Lewis and me. I hope it’s not too distant in the past for you to consider my response.

  2. You guys are debating a topic that has virtually been settled in Catholic circles. You see, in Catholicism, there is a central authority (the Holy See, dogmatic Church documents that can’t be changed, legal formulas that
    virtually can’t be misinterpreted, etc.). That central authority is believed to be infallible (in certain circumstances) in matters of faith and morals. Thus, there is no doubt (nor will there ever be) that abortion is wrong, that sex between members of the same sex is always and intrinsically wrong, that women cannot become priests, etc. There is no serious debate on these topics, nor will there ever be.

    And sure, one could argue that a debate is always possible—after all, look at all the “progress” we’ve made. But that’s where the Holy Spirit comes into play. Catholics believe that Papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals (in the appropriate circumstances) is made possible by the influence of the Holy Spirit. Essentially, when the Pope speaks ex cathedra, he is not actually speaking—God is speaking through him. Basically, by listening to the Pope when he speaks ex cathedra, we are listening to God Himself.

    Maybe this sounds crazy to you non-Catholics, but it’s really not much different from the Protestant belief that God directly inspired the various
    authors of the Bible and therefore everything in the Bible is truth spoken from the mouth of God.

    Obviously, Protestantism cannot even hold a candle to Catholicism in this regard. Protestants are always splitting hairs over the smallest matters, which have long been settled in Catholic circles. But that’s not the only problem with Protestantism. Each individual Protestant thinks of himself as the highest authority in matters of faith and morals. That’s why there is so little unity among Protestants as compared to Catholics. A Catholic, if he’s going to be a Catholic, is ultimately going to have to accept what the Church teaches. If he doesn’t accept it, he either has to keep his mouth shut about it or he has to leave. The Church isn’t going to change, only certain renegades are going to decide that they don’t like what the Church
    taught, teaches, and will always teach.

  3. Although NJR has already made clear “how (what I said) has anything to do with the point (you were) trying to make,” I’ll add one quick comment. What I said basically solves the argument between you and Jonathan. You both are wrong in two different ways. Jonathan is wrong because he makes the erroneous assumption that “God (does not come) down to us and (legislate) in all matters civil and ecclesiastical,” whereas you erroneously assume that there can be moral absolutes without a central, special, and specific highest authority that ultimately can’t be questioned by just any individual (this assumption of yours is implicit in your not being a Catholic).

  4. “This is all well and good, but I fail to see how this has anything to do with the point I was trying to make, which was that unlimited majority rule is dangerous when it is coupled with a lack of absolute morals.”

    I now see that this comment was posted in response to Tracy, and not to me. Sorry, this computer doesn’t allow me to make these distinctions very easily.

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