Via WWNorton Sociology on Twitter, this item where Erik Olin Wright responds to a student arguing that taxation for public goods such as health care or education is stealing from the rich and a deprivation of their natural right to dispose of their income as they see fit. EOW destroys that argument in two steps:
1. the libertarian argument is that appropriation of income does not harm the poor (the student actually makes that argument). Not so says EOW.
“This condition never exists because the claims to property rights in nature – to the land and raw materials extracted from the land – have always and everywhere been originally established through violence and coercion. If a property right is initially established by force, then subsequent transfers of those rights are also illegitimate. This is not a minor wrinkle; it is fundamental to the nature of property rights.”
2. There is nothing “natural” about property rights.
“Production and wealth are the result of social interaction and interdependency, not isolated individual endeavors. A given person can become rich only because that person lives in a social world in which everyone benefits from the fruits of labor of people in the past and interactions in the present.”
File that alongside “there is no such thing as free market” and “it’s not your money.
EOW actually makes an argument close to that Neil Fligstein’s Architecture of Markets and the idea of conception of control, that is, that economic matters are embedded into a texture of social relations and rules that shape them. There is no such thing as a free homo economicus, working towards his self-interest and therefore deserving of keeping whatever he makes. There are categories of people who accumulated wealth over generations, initially through violent expropriation (think colonization and slavery) and then continued to have the rules set to protect such appropriation.
But such naturalization of what are social construct and ideological justifications is a neat trick to shut down discussion and treat every alternative as “unnatural” and therefore illegitimate and out of bounds for “serious” consideration, and not subject to democratic governance.”
“But individual self-governance or individual freedom is not the only value that is in play in economic production, and it does not have the character of some supreme value that “naturally” overrides all others. Other values that are relevant include social justice – being sure that the value of equal opportunity is not destroyed by the way we organize the rules of the game. Another value is human flourishing in its many forms. And of course, there is the value of robustly sustaining the process of social cooperation itself in order to maintain the level of social production and (perhaps) expand it. Many other values can also be specified as things which bear on the question, “what are the best rules of the game for organizing social production and distribution.” Once you see things this way it is not a violation of the freedom of the rich to tax them to provide health care for everyone or food for poor children or public schools. Rather, it is balancing the value of individual freedom with the value of social justice and human flourishing.“