Capitalism and Metaphysics

Sometimes people justify inequity through an appeal to metaphysics. By “metaphysics” I don’t mean anything terribly fancy or well-thought out — any appeal to the basic nature of reality is metaphysical. So for example people might say “Why is it ok that successful hedgefund manager H has five houses while social worker S was just evicted along with her three children” by saying “H has a right to the money he made.” That is a metaphysical appeal — it assumes that human beings have rights to the money they make; that this a fact about human beings and the universe or reality.

Compare the following. Supposing we are members of a simple society of hunters and fishers. We make the rule “whoever catches an animal must share it with the rest of us, but whoever catches a fish can keep it for himself.” This rule works pretty well — people are incentivized to catch fish for their own household in their own free time but also to participate in the communal hunts for caribou and occasionally polar bear.

Now suppose one day a hunter named Richie brings down a whale. We are all a pre-scientific bunch of hunter gatherers so our word for fish includes whales. This whale though is a hundred times bigger than the largest animal. Richie keeps the whale. It’s so much that he is able to trade chunks of whale meat for nets and harpoons. Before long Richie has much, much more than anybody else and this leads to a feedback loop where his having more leads to him having even more. Our society becomes riven by hatred and despair. Why even work, the children wonder. We will never be as rich as Richie.

Now supposing somebody made the following argument against Richie: “Richie does not deserve all the power he has because WHALES ARE NOT FISH. He should have divided it up with everyone because whales are animals and you divide animals.”

This argument I think is okay, but it is unlikely to get Richie to surrender his wealth. Because Richie, or a philosopher whom he can hire wit his whale meat could say “How do you know whales are not fish? Sure they are warm blooded and halibut are cold-blooded, but so what? I say that the criterion of fishness is an ecological one — any animal adapted to swimming in the ocean — is a fish. I grant you that if you judge by DNA a whale is closer to a bear than it is to a salmon, but I do not grant you that that is the only way to judge. I judge instead by closeness of ecological niche. A whale is a fish. I am entitled to my riches. Thanks for playing.”

A better argument is “We only came up with the rules for dividing animals and keeping fish for ourselves because it made our lives better. There is no metaphysical basis for it other than — people should do well rather than poorly. Your choice to keep the whale for yourself was a bad one and led to bad consequences. THEREFORE whales will not be judged as fish.”

A similar argument I think could be advanced to those who say Hedgefund Managers have a right to limitless wealth while others live in fear of making the next rent payment. We only said people have a right to their wealth because it made the world a better place. If it leads to suffering we need to re-evaluate it.


2 thoughts on “Capitalism and Metaphysics

  1. To me what you have is long ago warlords in England would use violent men to claim lands as theirs. The principle was might made right and land ownership and warlords get called kings. The king does whatever he likes. Over time this attitude somewhat gets muted because of people with some violent men at their command get annoyed at various king whims and kings don’t like being assassinated. Eventually it leads to stuff like parliament. But also to expansionism and taking over new lands.

    The thing is, you still have the principle of people just claiming lands as theirs and enforcing it with violence if that is ignored.

    But that’s land and this is wealth, you say! Different subject! Well no, land backs wealth. I mean, particularly in the case of someone being able to evict someone else if they don’t pay rent.

    To me we have an incredibly medieval notion of owning land that also precludes the social worker from simply going to a plot and building a house there and being left alone. The hedge fund manager isn’t locked in here with us, we’re locked in here with him. There is no where else to go. No way of saying no. There is no consensuality on the matter, because you can’t say no (unless you have a lot of money). It’s…the sort of thing you’d expect from the dark ages. We have mobile phones but we’re still in the dark ages, like some sort of monty python sketch.

    Now I grant having a system of parceling out land is better than tribes of humans fighting each other over land. But really land ownership is make believe and always will be make believe.

    But in the end I think the problem isn’t so much in some kind of wealth distribution but instead the rot comes right from the core. You can try and make the outer rules nicer, but when the core is rotten then it’s generally not going to help. The core still works from the warlord principle of claiming lands as being owned, with violence as the argument as to why. Try and distribute the wealth more and the core intent of the system is that in the end the rich own the land and you rent or GTFO. IMO that’ll nullify the effort to redistribute the wealth – rents going up, for example.

    Personally I think the whole thing, when draped in some fantasy tropes, makes for some fantastic grim dark stories.

  2. soupmeyer says:

    I think in a metaphysical worldview that sort of wealth regardless of whale or monetary form is never earned and always stolen. People who do the work are naturally predisposed to sharing rather than hoarding and lording resources.

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