Christian Relaunch

Political Consequentialism

Here are some aims that seem popular or plausible as grounds for overriding producer's right. To be worthy of consideration an aim needs to be clear, laudable and practical, and I will explain why I think each of these aims fails at least one of those tests.

General prosperity (Macroeconomic Managerialism)

Equal outcomes (Outcome Egalitarianism)

Equal opportunities (Opportunity Egalitarianism)

Poverty relief (Welfarism)

Social cohesion (Cohesionism)

And here are some related topics.

Appendix 1: Majoritarianism

Appendix 2: A typical defence of statism

General Prosperity

(Macroeconomic Managerialism, espoused by Saint-Simon, Keynes et al) "Increasing the prosperity of the country as a whole, or of the average man, justifies overriding producer's right."

This aim comes in two forms, quantitative and qualitative, depending on whether it is thought possible to measure outcomes or only to order them.

Possible outcomes are said to be ordered if they form a sequence such that for any pair it is possible to say which of them is better.

They are said to be measured if it is also possible to say how much better, for instance "this outcome is three times as good as that one".

Quantitative. The usual measures of national prosperity are Gross Product and Valued Added. These can immediately be dismissed as unworthy, for they measure trade not production, as if trade were the only way for a man to improve his position, and as if voluntary work were wasted.

Politicians sometimes speak of "UK plc", but this is misleading; a country is not a business, dedicated to producing items for sale.

A man who sows and reaps prospers by it whether he sells the produce or feeds his family with it.

Two women who raise each her own children do better than two who "boost the economy" by selling each other "child minding" services. (This is perhaps an unlikely case, but it illustrates the absurdity of the prevailing policy of valuing the raising of others' children above the raising of one's own. However, this policy has not arisen from sheer stupidity, it aims to undermine the distinctive role of men, as I explain in a more relevant place.)

Aware of the problems inherent in the established measures, but unwilling to face their implications, politicians are making feverish but futile efforts to develop a "happiness index". The more elaborate this becomes, as they try to include all "relevant factors", the more arbitrary it becomes.

Perhaps there is a way to measure production, by including the kinds of thing I mentioned above while refraining from the silliness of happiness indices? I think not. Without a market there is no price, and without a price there is no measurable value, just individuals' preferences. A group's prosperity can only be measured in terms of its trading position relative to another group, and this is not a measure of well-being in any plausible sense, and obviously cannot be applied to the global population. See, for instance, the early chapters of von Mises's Human Action.

A certain amount of trade is certainly good, but there is such a thing as excessive or misguided trade, as in the above examples, so I fear we cannot even say that the trade measure is one dimension of prosperity. And even if it were, that would not take us far because some of the other "dimensions" are not measurable so cannot be combined with this one in any quantitative way, and even if they were quantitative the need for interdimensional weighting would reintroduce the question of preferences at a new level so we would be back to square one.

All things considered, the project is hopeless.

I have refuted this form of this aim merely by analysing the question, with no need to investigate actual cases (just as there is no need to investigate when a man claims to have found a square circle). As it  happens I am also satisfied that overriding producer's right tends to depress trade rather than stimulating it, so that even if the declared aim were clear and laudable it would not be practical, but happily there is no need here to try to summarise the debate over this proposition.

Qualitative. When faced with a choice, I can decide which of the available outcomes I prefer, and act accordingly. I can decide that I prefer outcome A to outcome B, so we can say that I am more prosperous if A happens than if B happens. This judgment need not be selfish or subjective, but however altruistic and reasonable it may be (for instance if I donate to a charity that I believe is doing good, and persuade others to do likewise), we are talking about my preferences and (in the relevant, qualitative sense) my prosperity, not beneficiaries' or anyone else's.

If others share my preferences, I am glad, and we can collaborate, but to speak of a group's preferences is meaningless, unless every member agrees. And "the people" is just a big group.

As they say on the first day of a hung parliament, "The people has spoken - I wonder what they said." Politicians who hold the balance of power sometimes declare that "the people has decided that it does not want any party to have absolute power"; some voters may have wanted that, but what is certain is that some voters wanted Party A to have absolute power and other voters wanted Party B to have it; to speak of what "the people" wants is mere hot air.

If enough men agree on an aim whose achievement involves seizing others' produce, they can do it, but then we are not talking about the generalised aim of increasing prosperity but about the other aims discussed on this page. You can still call it "prosperity" if you want, but then you are using this to mean "whatever is good", so the word is devalued by being too broad.

To monitor pupils by testing is useful; to measure teachers thus induces them to "teach to the test". This is an inevitable consequence of State schooling.

Equal Outcomes

(Outcome Egalitarianism) "The more equal we are the better as regards wealth, and this justifies overriding producer's right."

The motive for seeking to increase such "equality" (the correct word is concentration, and its opposite is dispersion) is envy, so I reject it.

Equality is not really a quantity; either two things are equal or they are not; they cannot be more equal. When folk demand "more equality" they mean (to use the statistical term) more concentration, that is, less dispersion.

The relevant "outcome" is probably income. These are not opposites. Sorry if that is confusing, but "equality of outcome" is the established phrase.

To further confuse the matter, it is sometimes called "concentration" when many assets end up in few hands. Statistically that would be a dispersion not a concentration.

A little statistical theory is now needed. Favourite measures of dispersion include variance and standard deviation, but there are plenty of alternatives. All agree that it can be reduced either by lowering the top point only, or by raising the base (the bottom point) only. Beyond that, whether a given change concentrates or disperses depends on what measure is being used. (If you doubt this, consider how to assess the combination of a small rise of the base with a big fall in the next two points which leaves them above the new base.)

As I hope is now clear, concentrating may lower the base, and the only measure sure to avoid this is one that practically identifies concentration with the base, which defeats the purpose of aiming at concentration.

In its New Labour heyday the British Labour Party regarded concentration as worthless in itself, and Peter Mandelson, one of its architects, said he was "intensely relaxed about people being filthy rich". Now every successful politician advocates it. This is to think it worth impoverishing the rich even at the cost of also further impoverishing the already poor, presumably to give the latter the schadenfreude of knowing that others also suffer. It used to be said that a poor American, seeing a rich man in his mansion, says "one day I'll have a mansion", while a poor Brit seeing a rich man in his mansion says "one day I'll get him out of that mansion".

There is prevailing ambiguity about whether the aim is to concentrate, or to raise the base. Yet we are well past the stage where the two were compatible, if indeed there ever was such a stage; it is clear now that all efforts to concentrate have the collateral effect of lowering the base. The advocates of seizure usually evade this dilemma. Occasionally they admit that yes they do want to impoverish the rich even if it further impoverishes the poor, in the interests, they say, of "fairness". But the accurate word is envy; once in a blue moon they admit this.

"Envy is a perfectly reasonable human response."

Anne McElvoy, Daily Politics (BBC), 15-Feb-2013, 39 minutes in.

A thief is not envious. His method may be unjust, but his desire is to help himself (pun there, if you like), not to harm others. Envy harms the envier as well as the envied, but I will not pursue this here. If you really think it right to drag the rich down to your own level regardless of how they became rich, there is probably nothing useful I can say to you.

Equal Opportunities

(Opportunity Egalitarianism) "The more equal we are the better as regards opportunities to develop and use our talents, and this justifies overriding producer's right."

As with the previous objection, "equality" here means concentration, and similar considerations apply.

In one sense concentration of opportunity is more modest than that of outcome, but its principle is the same envy, and I reject it for the same reasons.

The advocates of this often talk as if they really wanted equality, to remove dispersion altogether. However, this would involve preventing good parents giving their children advantages over those of bad parents even by such basic means as talking to them, and the only way to do this is to raise all children in state nurseries, thus destroying the family. Happily, few really advocate this, so I suppose they do not quite mean what they say.

Poverty Relief

(Welfarism, New Labour) "Relieving poverty justifies overriding producer's right."

I mention New Labour because their distinguishing mark, by contrast with the earlier and later Labour Party, was the abandonment of any kind of egalitarianism in favour of this one overriding aim. I knew that New Labour was dead when I heard Peter Mandelson himself mention "equality" as an aim.

I approve this aim, but in fact such efforts are counterproductive, always tending further to impoverish the poor.

"The poor laws of England tend to depress the general condition of the poor. ... Dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful. ... Every attempt to weaken this stimulus ... will always defeat its own purpose."

Thomas Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

This is a practical claim, so if you are convinced of the contrary I cannot conclusively refute you. All I can say is that study has satisfied me that statism has delayed progress and hence has hampered both rich and poor.

Anyone wishing to pursue this matter could start with the Spencer book in my list. (Or with Malthus' book that provided the pithy quotation above, though Spencer gives a fuller and more recent account of this topic.)

Statists have always claimed the credit for improvements that actually were brought about by whatever residue of producer's right they permitted and hindered by their (at best) misguided efforts. It is often implied that without the Factories Acts we would obviously still be working 12 hours a day for tuppence a week and doffing our caps to our masters. This is risible.

When people talk about poverty it very often turns out on closer inspection that they are really talking about dispersion. That is, their real aim is not this one but one of those discussed above. Or at least, when challenged they retreat into talking about dispersion, they show that this is real and can be reduced, and trick the gullible into thinking they have shown how to reduce poverty.

As regards poverty relief within the global West, there is no such poverty, notwithstanding the invocation of "food banks" in the UK. (Have you ever wondered why you never see food bank clients? It is because most of them are obese.) If semikataskeuans were really prepared to limit their seizures to this aim I might be tempted to make the compromise, safe in the knowledge that no seizures would occur. But in fact they are more ambitious.

Even if poverty could be reduced in this way, I might not feel that my kataskeuan intuition was much shaken. I see generosity as a standard for each man to apply when deciding how to use his property, not a license to violate that property, so the seizures would need to be modest enough to retain a general culture of individual responsibility, and the consequent inroads on poverty would need to be substantial, before I would feel the need to reconsider. However, as I have explained, I think this question does not arise.

Another problem with Welfarism is that it inevitably creates dependency. Ask yourself whether paying folk to act in a certain way will tend to increase or reduce the number of selves acting in that way. Now apply your conclusion to idleness. And this is what we have seen throughout the global West in recent decades: as Welfarism becomes more prodigal, the number of "state" dependents rises.

The dependency figure comprises not only the admittedly working-age able-bodied unemployed but also those classed as invalids and, most numerous of all, those regarded as too old to earn a living, whose number as a proportion of the population has risen despite rises in pension age as life expectancy has galloped ahead while the pension age has crept along only slowly and will continue to fall further behind even in the unlikely event that the boldest increases in pension age that any politician dares propose go ahead.

Rawls. An extreme form of this aim is that helping the very poorest should always take priority over all else. This idea has been influential for a long time but I think John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice (1971), has given it a clearer statement and defence. He asks what definition of justice we would choose to live under from behind a "veil of ignorance", that is, with no indication of what our own economic status in the affected society would be. He claims that every reasoning man, fearing the worst, would, from mere self-preservation, define justice as "whatever most benefits the poorest". (Rawls claimed to offer an updated Social Contract theory, i.e. a democratistic theory, as an alternative to the prevailing consequentialism, but his central idea, that justice is whatever benefits the poorest, seems pretty consequentialist to me.) This choice of paramount outcome strikes me as bizarre. Firstly it assumes that reasoning entails extreme risk-aversion. Secondly, it implies that the slightest benefit to the poorest man (perhaps already far from poor, just not quite as rich as his neighbours) is worth the sacrifice of any benefit to the rest of the population, not to mention of all high culture; art treasures must be burned to provide winter fuel for the poor! "Too silly", you may say, "surely neither Rawls nor anyone else would go to such extremes"; but the fact that what as far as I know is the most impressive attempt in recent decades to provide a theoretical basis for statism leads logically to such absurdities illustrates the problematic nature of statism.


(Cohesionism) "Improving social cohesion justifies overriding producer's right. No man is an island. Regardless of specific benefits, it is good that we feel members of an organised society. The best way to achieve this is to make everyone dependent on the state. Even if there were no poverty it would still be good to seize assets and use them to provide services that everyone would need to use together, instead of allowing each man to provide for his own family."

This aim differs from all the previous ones in not aiming, directly at least, at economic benefits.

The Public reappears here in a different guise. There is no such thing. Certainly weal requires men to unite, interact and collaborate in pursuing the various aspects of our overriding cultural task, but the fiction of a supraindividual entity does nothing to foster this.

The real motives of cohesionists include the following. (1) They want to control others. (2) They want to cloak envy. A good example of this is when they argue for universal ("middle class") benefits on grounds of social cohesion, that if everyone gives something and gets something they feel that it is all fair. This is obviously a trick to deceive net contributors, a sleight of hand. If a rustler seizes ten sheep and gives one back, I am not going to say "he took some and gave some, that sounds fair".

Appendix 1: Majoritarianism

"Research in social psychology is still only beginning to unravel the obscure processes by which faith in 'democracy' became for the better part of a century the ruling cant of practically all America and the greater part of Europe."

H. G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come 2:1, 1933. (Wells attributes the words to a historian in the year 2080, still puzzled about how such a daft idea became so popular.)

The majority usually favours lower taxes and better services. Insofar as it is real, it is not notably wise, and I fear that the idea of "the wisdom of crowds" is misleading.

The above-mentioned counterproductive effects of encroachments on producer's right are not reliably mitigated by majority rule.

The extension of the franchise in Britain in 1833 did mitigate those effects because it restrained the old elite from wasting the public's assets in self-aggrandising wars and suchlike vanities; "no taxation without representation", the slogan of the American colonists, expressed this motive. In effect, the wider franchise was an expression of producer's right. Later, further extension had the reverse effect, enabling the many to plunder the few.

Recent economic history seems to favour China's elitism over India's majoritarianism, unless non-economic considerations are relevant, and it is hard to ascertain what these would be. Too soon to say, though.

I think majoritarianism's advocates are usually arguing for democratism, though if pressed they reject the logical consequences of that view. Elitism is anathema to them, but their reasoning is confused. All this confirms me in my kataskeuanism.

Francis Fukuyama (The End of History, 1992) argues that there is a universal tendency (he calls it thumia) for people to demand a share in the state, and that majoritarianism is therefore necessary to avoid the ill effects of their discontent. This is a conditional statism, for it depends on assumptions about how people will act, not about how they should act, and I will consider it in the proper place.

Appendix 2: A Typical Defence of Statism

"We have an imperfect system of government that imposes laws, taxation and various services intended for the public good. Though imperfect it is probably better than many of the alternatives. Such as the anarchy that we could find ourselves in were individuals free to pick and choose which laws to obey."

This is probably a fair summary of what many relatively articulate people think. It suggests that upholding producer's right would not "work". It claims that statism is "probably better" but offers no argument or basis for that claim, even though the question it purported to answer asked not only whether statism but why statism. As usual, there is confusion about what the state is for. The planned economy is certainly not efficient, as economists have shown. Few now uphold the open assertion of economic planning, as in the old Soviet bloc or the semi-planned economies of postwar Britain, but many still uphold a confused version of it. "The public good" means little more than "whatever I regard as good". This "explanation" explains nothing, and has no value in assessing the merits of statism.

Incidentally, associating kataskeuanism with "anarchy" is misleading. Kataskeuanism is indeed a type of anarchism, but is very different from the more familiar type, under which nobody owns anything and everything is "up for grabs", which is what usually springs to mind when "anarchy" is mentioned.

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