Distributive Justice in a Pure Service Economy—–1. The Pure Service EconomyImagine a society in which _goods_ are superabundant, but in which_services_ remain scarce. That is, property narrowly conceivedis virtually there for the taking, but the _labor services_ of otherpeople most decidedly are not. Now such a situation would hardly be autopia: for some of the things most essential to life — surgery forexample — would still be scarce. It follows that the only thing that would costsomething would be labor itself; and of course itcould only be purchased with a corollary offer of labor. To keep theexample simple, let us add the stipulation that there is no money, noreven labor notes; rather, when someone gives a service to one person, hesimply records the deal in a book. If someone reneges on an agreement,no punishment is inflicted, but word gets around and the reneger findsthat no one wishes to trade with him or her any further. 2. Testing Theories of Distributive JusticeNow this hypothetical society offers an interesting test for somecompeting theories of distributive justice. For if you examine thehypothetical carefully, you will see that there is no possibility ofre-distribution in such a system save by direct imposition of forcedlabor. Since most theories of distributive justice requiresuch redistribution, this hypothetical service economy presentsthe advocates of such theories with two stark alternatives. Their first alternative is to abandon their redistributionisttheory of justice; their second is to openly embrace forced laboras a means of achieving a just society. Indeed, the latteralternative would commit them to the view that not only is forcedlabor permissible, but it is indeed mandated by justice. To make this clearer, consider the case of a trained surgeonin such an economy. He spent many years in study to acquire hisskills; but of course his raw talent and intelligence playeda big part too. Now this surgeon finds that his labor is extremelyvaluable; he has the power to save lives. People will pay anenormous amount for the value of his services. Of course, theyare paying him back in other services: 1000 hours of maid servicein exchange for 1 hour of surgery; 200 haircuts for a removedappendix; 20 college educations for a triple bypass. It is not difficult to see that this surgeon is going to beextremely rich because of his special talent. The disparityin income between himself and other people will be very great. Indeed, some people may be too poor to afford his services atall. And the question will naturally arise: Does justice permit,or even require, that the surgeon be forced to provide freeservices for others, or give some of his payment back to the community?Either choice commits us to forced labor: either the doctormust be forced to toil, or else his patients must be forced togive some free labor services up as a “tax” every time theypay him. But suppose that we recoil from this notion of forced labor. Where are we then? Quite simply, we are left with a libertarian,free-market economy, in which people own their own bodies andcan acquire the services of others solely by contractual agreement. Charity can of course exist; the surgeon might help the poorout of sympathy for their plight. But nothing in the systemassures that the poor will be provided for; that becomes amatter of generosity rather than of right. 3. Redistributionist Charges of Injustice in the Pure Service EconomyWe can easily imagine the criticisms that might be made aboutthe justice of accepting the libertarian theory of distributivejustice in our hypothetical society. First, the poor andunlucky have no guarantees in such a society. The better-offmembers may choose to help them; or they may not. The careof the poor becomes a matter of purely private concern, andthe choice to give becomes fully voluntary (and hence uncertain). Secondly, such a society would permit unlimited inequality. The surgeon might need to work only one day per year, enjoyingluxury and comfort every other day. Thirdly, success in sucha society would be strongly influenced by “luck” or unearnedgood fortune. The surgeon might have to work hard to learn histrade, but surely hard work isn’t the whole story. He alsoprobably had greater innate intelligence; perhaps a betterfamily environment than others. Indeed, the well-off memberof this society might be a talentless heavy-metal musician,whose singing can command large exchanges of labor servicesfrom others. The musician’s good fortune in this case may beexclusively a matter of luck, without a day’s sweat and toilto train for his career. To these three criticisms we might add others. If the surgeonis the only person of his trade, then he may exercise “monopolypower.” Or returning to the case of the talentless musician,we will notice that production of services in this society isfully determined by willingness to pay, with no reference to thetrue value of the goods produced. The interesting thing here is, of course, that these are _precisely_
the same criticisms normally made of the standard libertarian,free-market society in which both goods and services are scarce. In other words, there is no relationship between the need forredistribution and the existence of private property narrowlydefined. Whatever complaints may be launched againstlibertarianism in the real world may also be made against theapplication of libertarianism to the pure service economy asoutlined herein. And yet it is _very_ difficult to abandon the intuition thatthe surgeon cannot morally be forced to give free services tothe needy, or even to reduce his prices to the slightest degree. What we are faced with is the need to openly deny that thesurgeon owns his own body, and may do with it as he sees fit;and that his services must be obtained exclusively by voluntarymeans. In short, if the surgeon says No, then to force himto work is slavery, no matter what the need of the poor, thedegree of inequality, or the role of pure luck in the surgeon’ssuccess. Of course, this may simply lead one to affirm thejustice of slavery, but that is hardly a plausible escape route. 4. Extending the ModelNow suppose that instead of writing down labor debts in a book,people started circulating negotiable labor notes. (As wasapparently done in Josiah Warren’s 19th-century utopian village). Would the redistributionist have a firmer case here? It ishard to see why he would. For these notes are merely a moreconvenient way of designating the same agreements as before;for naturally in the initial setup, the surgeon could agree toperform surgery on Fred on the condition that Fred gives 100hours of wood-working lessons to Ann (and Ann agrees to give2 years of flute tutoring to the surgeon). So why should themore fluid designation of the underlying fundamentalsmatter? True, it may now be more _convenient_ for a governmentto demand 10% of all notes exchanged; but what we are interestedin here is not convenience but justice. The fact remains thatthe 10% tax is blatantly a demand for forced labor; for eachtime one person sells labor to another, he is also compelled togive up an additional 10% of that labor against his will. But let us then go further. Suppose that the abundance of naturedried up, and goods, from land to minerals to wildlife, becameas scarce as they are in the real world. Naturally, peoplewould want to claim products as their own; they would want tohomestead unowned products and claim exclusive ownership of them. What objection could be made to this new regime; and would itcreate a wedge for redistributionist theories of justice tocome into their own?Again, it is hard to see how it would. The right to claimunowned products by “mixing one’s labor with them” is notdeducible from the claim of self-ownership, but the ideas arenevertheless closely connected. And so are the objectionsthat might be levelled against one or the other. One might claim, for example, that because the homesteader doesnot “really create” the cultivated land, he is not entitled toit. But of course the homesteader did not create himself either;does it then follow that he is not entitled to own himself?Or one might claim that the labor merely _adds values_, and sothe homesteader is merely entitled to own the value that he adds;and the remainder may be legitimately taxed away for social aims. But as our example with the surgeon makes clear, the same couldbe said about my own labor services. Namely, while I do contributeto my own value by training and experience and education, asignificant fraction of the market value of my services isdetermined by my innate intelligence, dexterity, and so on. Does my education entitle me merely to that part of my earningsadded by the education? May I be forced to labor a percentageof the time equal to the percentage of my labor value determinedby my raw talent? One of the many absurdities entailed therebyis that the totally unskilled laborer is entitled to _nothing_. Again, then, we see that generalizing the argument againstindividual homesteading leads us to the untenable affirmationof the propriety of forced labor. 5. Conclusion: Libertarianism and Its AlternativesNo moral argument, indeed no argument at all, can compel agreement. It always remains open to a person to deny the premise OR embracethe conclusion. The one thing he cannot do is accept the premiseand deny the conclusion. The most desirable feature of an argument,then, is that the initial premise have greater initial probabilitythan the conclusion does. Now I claim that the argument arising from this thought experimentdoes indeed meet this criterion. The truth of libertarianism asa theory of distributive justice does indeed strike most peopleas wildly unlikely; for it is a theory bereft of concern forequality, poverty, luck, and so on. (Or to be more precise:it is a theory that says that these concerns are not a matter ofjustice and right; it leaves open the possibility that they areof moral interest, but on a lower level). And yet, if anythingis known about morality, it is known that it is just plainwrong to force someone to labor against his will, to enslavehim or her. Wrong whatever else must happen in consequence. This intuition is perhaps the fundamental intuition behindlibertarian moral theory; and it is the intuition that theproponents of redistributionist theories must reject if theyare to avoid the libertarian position.