Sinceritus: People are basically good. Most of the world’s problems could be solved if only we all learned to act a little less selfishly. It just comes down to education and changing the environment, so we can help make people better.
Sinceritus: Well, I certainly think you’re selfish and hard-hearted, not even wanting to change the world for the better, let alone making any attempt to actually do something.
Economicus: You’re entitled to your opinion Sinceritus, but I don’t feel under any obligation to go about trying to solve everyone’s problems, like you do. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have no objection to you doing so, although I do think your good intentions are no substitute for a practical understanding of how the world really works.
Sinceritus: But I do understand how the world really works and that’s why we all need to work together. Rousseau said “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”. We all need to work together to get rid of those chains!
Sinceritus:You can’t really believe that Economicus. No real progress will ever take place unless we can get rid of the entrenched power structures that are currently resisting progressive change.
Economicus: How do you know that? Maybe the unintended consequences of your actions will make things worse off than now. Human reason is very limited. The best we can do is to try and arrange our institutions so as to minimize the harm that we can do to each other. If we are going to make changes we need to think about the trade-offs involved. Trade-offs are OK but big ‘solutions’ are just likely to cause more harm than good.
Economicus: I also want to see justice in the world but I see it very differently from you. To start with, the property you want to redistribute already belongs to someone. In addition, everyone has a very different view of what a just redistributive outcome should look like. Consequently the concept of a just outcome is a meaningless one. It only makes sense to talk about a just process.
Economicus: Look, let’s assume for the moment that nobody was entitled to their wealth and everyone was just given an equal amount of money conjured out of nowhere. Everyone would choose to spend it differently. Some would spend it on eating out, others on books and movies. Almost immediately, some individuals (authors and movie stars) would have more money than others. If you believe it’s right to let people do what they want with their own money, then you have to accept the unequal outcome that’s achieved. If not, you’re going to have to keep interfering in people’s lives to redistribute their income and that involves people losing their freedom. That’s why the Founding Fathers wrote that we have the right to the ‘pursuit’ of happiness, not a right to happiness itself. They were concerned to achieve a just process not a just outcome.
Sinceritus: But that’s the point. I don’t accept that the process can be just, it’s only the outcome that can be just. In your ‘just’ society people could be poor and hungry and there could be huge inequalities of wealth. That could never be just.
Economicus: I’m afraid that as long as we have differing views of human nature we will always disagree about such matters. Can we at least agree to be friends.
Sinceritus: That’s not as easy as it sounds. I can’t help but suspect that you have some hidden agenda for believing the way you do. If you were a good person you would not believe those things.
Economicus: Well, that’s about where we started our discussion, Sinceritus. Goodbye, I’m off to the Forum to watch the debates. Care to join me?