Does Obama believe in determinism, left-libertarianism or justice as fair reciprocity?

Dylan Matthews has made an interesting attempt to reverse-engineer part of Barack Obama’s political philosophy, based on some remarks he made in Roanoke, Virginia a couple of weeks ago:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me —because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

This point was immediately leapt upon and misquoted in a Romney attack ad, suggesting that the Republicans at least want to present this as a key point of philosophical difference between the two presidential candidates.

Matthews sees the debate as tracking the old philosophical dispute about the existence free will and moral desert. On one hand, you have Obama sympathisers, who are sceptical about free will, and so whether people can ever be held ultimately responsible for their own success. This means that the rich cannot use the argument that they deserve their wealth to defend it against redistribution. On the other hand, those on Romney’s side of the debate are relatively credulous of the existence of free will, and so more likely to believe that the successful deserve credit for their success and deserve to keep their wealth.

Now this is certainly a plausible reading of the dispute, and I think Matthews is right to connect Obama’s comments to luck egalitarianism, but I think this is only one of a number of ways to frame the argument. Even if it is a debate essentially about desert, the two sides might not map neatly onto the opposing sides of the free will debate. For example, someone who believes in free will might be in full agreement with the claim that the rich do not deserve full credit for their own success. All that the rejection of  hard determinism entails is that it is possible that some people are sometimes morally responsible. But of course, this does not entail that people are always morally responsible. Thus it is likely that many Obama sympathisers believe it is possible (though perhaps unlikely) for rich people to deserve their wealth, but that as a contingent fact, in the present society, most or all do not.

In any case, it is far from clear that Obama’s point is about moral desert at all. Notice that in the quote above he makes only factual claims – there are no explicitly moral arguments at all.* I think this means, whether by accident or design, that Obama’s argument has ecumenical appeal across different moral perspectives. As I see it, Obama’s argument goes something like this:

Empirical Premise: The rich are not solely responsible for the own success, they were dependent on others in society.

Normative Premise:?

Conclusion: Some of the wealth of rich ought to be shared with the rest of society.

Obama’s argument can be filled out with the normative premise of luck egalitarianism: that inequalities can only be justified if they result from responsible choices. This seems to be Matthews’ assumption, which explains his focus on free will – without free will, there can be no responsible choice, and so no legitimate inequality. But there are other normative premises which can serve the argument just as well. I think the two most interesting, and the ones that are most likely to capture Obama’s point, are justice as fair reciprocity and left-libertarianism.

The basic normative premise of the position I call justice as fair reciprocity is that we have special duties to other members of our society because they are necessary contributors to what John Rawls calls “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage” without which we could not prosper. Elements of this position are sketched out in the work of Rawls and Brian Barry;. However, perhaps the clearest contemporary proponent is Andrea Sangiovanni, who argues that “those who have submitted themselves to a system of laws and social rules in ways necessary to sustain our life as citizens, producers and biological beings are owed a fair return”. Notice that questions of free will, luck and desert are not immediately relevant on this account. What matters is that success was dependent on the efforts and actions of other people, and so these others are owed a share of the rewards. Whether Obama is pumping the intuition about luck or the intuition about dependence on others is unclear – I can see the argument for both.

Another thing that Obama seems to be doing in the speech is subverting orthodox libertarian notions of property. In this he echoes left-libertarian political philosophers. As Matthews notes, Robert Nozick saw questions of free will and desert as irrelevant to distributive justice – he was against redistribution as he believed it to infringe individual rights. On the Nozickian view, the rich (like the basketball player Wilt Chamberlain in his famous example) get rich as the result of “capitalist acts between consenting adults”. That is, the free exchange of property. Left-libertarians accept the principle that there should be no restrictions on how people use their property. However, they argue for a more complicated view of who initialy owns what. On the left libertarian view, everybody has an equal claim to the natural resources of the Earth, and so anybody that has got rich by exploiting more than their fair share of these resources owes rent to the rest of humanity. Thus they combine the libertarian respect for property rights with relatively egalitarian proposals.

Obama follows the left libertarians in pointing out how supposedly self-made men like Robert Nozick’s idealised basketball player utilise the property of other people, and society in general to achieve their successes. The implication is that they owe rent in the form of redistributive taxation. Thus left libertarianism, too, can provide the normative promise Obama needs to complete his argument. In the context of current American politics, given that his argument is clearly aimed against libertarian defenders of the status quo, the left libertarian interpretation seems like a plausible reading of Obama, too.

Barack Obama’s Roanoke speech is so interesting from a philosophical point of view because of the variety of perspectives he could be appealing to. In its ambiguity it underlines the fact that effective political interventions often lack the rigour and precision of good philosophy.

*Whether normative propositions can be derived only from empirical facts remains a controversial question in moral and political philosophy, but I can’t see how Obama’s argument here can work without a normative premise.

One comment

  1. Every politician has a promising career. Unfortunately, most of them do not keep those promises.

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