Sam Harris has responded to some criticisms—not mine, of course; I’m not an economist, and therefore not qualified. But here’s what he says in response to some of the criticisms he’s received for his “how much wealth is too much” piece.
First, on taxation, Harris—who in his first piece ridiculed the idea that taxation could be considered a form of theft, now says
I understand the ethical…concerns about taxation. I agree that everyone should be entitled to the fruits of his or her labors and that taxation, in the State of Nature, is a form of theft. But it appears to be a form of theft that we require, given how selfish and shortsighted most of us are.
How can one “require” a form of theft? And particularly, how can one’s shortsightedness and selfishness entitle one to commit theft?[*-see update below] In the story of the Little Red Hen, the other animals refused to help make the cake, and as a result, were not morally entitled to it; they acted selfishly and short-sightedly, and therefore were not entitled to commit the injustice of theft against the Little Red Hen, who acted virtuously and was therefore entitled to the fruits of her labors. But in Sam Harris’ version of the story, the very fact that they were selfish and short-sighted is all the more justification for taking away her wealth—committing what he now admits is theft—from the one who was wise, prudent, and hardworking. This is an amazing theory of justice.
The only thing Harris has to back this argument up is a straw man: “Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the well-being of others…. Why should anyone care about other people’s children?” But of course, one can certainly care about other people, and believe they have a stake in other people, and the children, without believing that selfish, short-sighted people are entitled to commit theft against those who are prudent and hardworking. I believe that I have a stake in other people. I contribute regularly to charities—everything from my local library to the National Center for Science Education. But I don’t see why my belief in this has anything to do with believing that I have any right to things that other people have earned, let alone that this right is buttressed by my acting selfishly or short-sightedly.
Harris goes on to say that the reason we have laws is “[t]o prevent adults from behaving like dangerous children.” I agree with that. But isn’t it dangerous children who act short-sightedly and then try to take away things from those who were wiser and more prudent? Isn’t it dangerous children who think their emotional demands justify them in using force against others? Isn’t it dangerous children who, when they aren’t able to persuade others to give them something, just take it by force instead? Is it not, in short, Sam Harris who is acting like a dangerous, self-righteous child? Shouldn't government prevent selfish, short-sighted people from enforcing their mere emotions by using force to seize the earnings of others? rather than enabling them to do so? As another great skeptic, Penn Jillette, recently said,
It's amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.
People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we're compassionate we'll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.
Note also the typical fallacy that leftists always fall into: thinking that somehow government is morally superior or wiser than people, even though the government is made up of people. If it is true that people are selfish and short-sighted and “cannot be motivated” to address or mitigate serious problems—how can people be trusted to run other people’s lives?
Sam Harris says “the moment certain strictures are relaxed, people reliably go berserk.” But government officials are more relaxed than any private individual or company. Government officials get paid whether they do a good job or not; they are immune from lawsuit; most of them are unelected, hired bureaucrats who cannot be fired. Isn’t it therefore logical to be more suspicious of government than of private individuals or businesses? John Milton famously said that “None can love freedom but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license, which never hath more scope than under Tyrants.” What he meant was that when certain strictures are relaxed—that is, when people are given the power of government, which they can use to “impose wisdom” on the rest of us “from the top”—that is when they become more dangerous than ever before. Harris accuses libertarians of having an unrealistic view of human nature, implying that we think people more virtuous than they are. That's completely false; libertarians think human failings and weaknesses are precisely why they can't be trusted to impose their wishes on others through government force. Again, if man cannot be trusted to govern himself, how can he be trusted to govern others? Or have we found an angel in the form of Sam Harris to govern him?
Where did Harris’ skepticism go?
No answer. Instead, Harris just throws on a handful of fallacious rhetoric:
Either they [i.e., libertarians] yearn for reasons to retreat within walled compounds wreathed in razor wire, or they have no awareness of the societal conditions that could warrant such fear and isolation…. Many of my critics pretend that they have been entirely self-made. They seem to feel responsible for their intellectual gifts, for their freedom from injury and disease, and for the fact that they were born at a specific moment in history. Many appear to have absolutely no awareness of how lucky one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, to not have cerebral palsy, or to not have been bankrupted in middle age by the mortal illness of a child.
Of course, libertarians do not yearn to retreat within walled compounds wreathed in razor wire. On the contrary, we yearn for a society that respects individual rights and that does not commit theft against us in order to subsidize those who Harris himself admits act wrongly. We yearn for a political system that respects us as ends in themselves—as having the right to pursue happiness—and not as a means to the ends of others. Many of us work hard to make the world a better place for ourselves and for others.
Nor do libertarians think people are “entirely self-made,” whatever that might mean. On the contrary, we believe in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, rather than the use of coercion and force to commit what Harris, again, has already conceded is a form of theft. We believe a person is entitled to own himself or herself. We believe a person has the right to his own ideas and to his own earnings and to his freedom of expression and to buy what he wants, without someone else “impos[ing] wisdom…from the top.”
Harris, by contrast, believes that because people are “lucky” enough to be born with certain endowments, they must be reduced by force to being the means to other people’s happiness—literally forced, since he believes the state should “supersede” our “immediate, selfish interests” to accomplish a “fairness” that he does not define, but admits is based purely on emotion and intuition. I did not earn a lot of the things I have like my kidneys, for example, and in Sam Harris' view, that means I have no moral justification to them, and indeed that it is right to have them (or maybe just one) taken from me by force because Sam Harris feels a negative emotion that someone else suffers from kidney disease.
“There is a stunning lack of insight into the unfolding of human events that passes for moral and economic wisdom in some circles,” writes Harris. What exactly does this mean? Harris has not explained why the fact that a person is born with certain endowments imposes on him or her the obligation to serve others’ desires. This sentence is just hand-waving. If we lack “insight,” Dr. Harris, please give it to us! Yet he himself admits that he believes in an ethics based on “moral intuitions” and “emotions” which he acknowledges he cannot defend rationally.
He believes that the fact that some people act foolishly means they are justified in taking wealth earned by others from them by force. He believes that morally superior people—presumably those whose intuitions and emotions enable them to see that other people will be better off if they are forced to sacrifice—should “steer us collectively toward the best civilization possible and…impose wisdom or compassion from the top.” He uses straw man caricatures of his opponents’ views—e.g., “razor wire,” “obsession,” “sacrilege,” and so forth—rather than address them seriously as a scholar. He indulges in ad hominem attacks on Ayn Rand, accusing her of “terrible writing” and so forth. He claims to be familiar with Rand’s works, but shows no awareness of Rand’s discussion of the Rawlsian position regarding “unearned” possessions. And he does all of this while claiming to speak from the perspective of reason and logic, and accusing his opponents of irrationality!
But let’s put all this aside and ask one simple, straightforward question: what part of Sam Harris’ attack on individual autonomy would not be shared by the very jihadists he has so effectively, indeed, eloquently attacked in his better works? Consider the following speech by a certain famous imam:
I understand the ethical and economic concerns about censorship, the Morals Police, the burka, or the subjugation of women in our country. I agree that everyone should be entitled to freedom of religious belief, and that these forms of compulsion, in the State of Nature, are a form of tyranny. But it appears to be a form of tyranny that we require, given how selfish and shortsighted most of us are.
Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the spiritual welfare of others. How could they possibly benefit from other people being inducted into the one true faith, or being taught to memorize the Koran, or being protected by the burka from the lust of men? How could they be harmed if the next generation is hurled into sin, corruption, drugs, idleness, and despair? Why should anyone care about other people’s children? It amazes me that such questions require answers.
My opponents are irrational when they argue that the state should be separate from religion. Either they yearn for reasons to retreat within walled compounds wreathed in razor wire, or they have no awareness of the societal conditions that could warrant such fear and isolation. And they consider any effort the State could take to prevent the most extreme spiritual and ethical collapse to be indistinguishable from theocracy!
Why do we have laws in the first place? To prevent adults from behaving like dangerous children. All laws are coercive and take the following form: do this, and don’t do that, or else. Or else what? Or else men with guns will arrive at your door and take you away to prison. Yes, it would be wonderful if we did not need to be corralled and threatened in this way. And many uses of State power are both silly and harmful. But the moment certain strictures are relaxed, people reliably go berserk. And we seem unable to motivate ourselves to make the kinds of investments we should make to create a future worth living in. Even the best of us tend to ignore some of the more obvious threats to our long term security, such as the collapse of organized religion and the chaos that would inevitably ensue.
If private citizens cannot be motivated to serve each other and obey the mandates of God—as it seems we cannot—the State must do it.
Lurking at the bottom of this secular morass one finds flagrantly irrational ideas about the human condition. Many of my critics pretend that they have been entirely self-made. There is a stunning lack of insight into the unfolding of human events that passes for moral and economic wisdom in some circles. And it is pernicious. Followers of Sam Harris, in particular, believe that only a blind reliance on freedom of religion and freedom of speech can steer us collectively toward the best civilization possible and that any attempt to impose wisdom or the one true faith from the top—no matter who is at the top and no matter what the need—is necessarily corrupting of the whole enterprise. This conviction is, at the very least, unproven. And there are many reasons to believe that it is dangerously wrong.
Given the current condition of the human mind, we seem to need a State to set and enforce certain priorities.
Why does Sam Harris believe that we can be trusted with our freedom of religion but not the freedom of property?[**-see update 2] Why does he believe in imposing his own wisdom from the top when it comes to our earnings, but not when it comes to our beliefs? Why does he believe that it is right to use the state to make us submit to his notion of “fairness”—an undefined concept that he admits is based purely on unanalyzed emotions—but not right to use the state to make us submit to religious beliefs that are also based purely on unanalyzed emotions? Why does he believe in the free market of ideas—but not in the free market of earnings?
*-Update: I should clarify one point that my hasty writing obscured. I asked above why Harris thinks that people who are selfish and short-sighted have the right to take our earnings from us. This is a slightly misleading paraphrase of his position. His argument is that the people who possess wealth are too selfish and short-sighted to voluntarily give away their earnings to people who feel negative emotions at not having that property (or to do other things with their money that Harris’ moral intuitions tell him they ought to do). He just assumes, however, that other people are not, and the point I’m trying to emphasize is that these people are the same: they are all human beings, and if Harris’s claim is that people are selfish, short-sighted, and subject to various other moral failings so that they cannot be trusted with wealth, then he cannot presume, as he does, that the government will be anything other than selfish, shortsighted, and subject to various other moral failings. He cannot argue that government can be trusted with power to “impose” its “wisdom” “from the top” by force, at least unless he can show that the government is made up of people who are not selfish and short-sighted.
As to the basis on which Harris would justify what he concedes is a form of theft, he does clearly state in several places that he thinks people are entitled to commit theft in order to enforce a concept of “fairness” that is based entirely on “negative emotions.” And, of course, my primary objection still remains—which is, I don’t see why it’s wrong to be what Harris calls “selfish” and “short-sighted”: that is, I don’t see what’s wrong with living for the sake of my own flourishing. He certainly has given us no reasoned justification of why my moral worth is a function of service to others. When that question comes up he just waves emotions and intiutions and irrational phrases like “It amazes me that such questions require answers.” But they do require answers. It seems pretty obvious to me that the moral purpose of my life is my own flourishing, and while that may include my helping others or being friendly or loving toward others, I still need an explanation of why I should be made into a means to their ends—by force, no less!—or why my wealth is only justified by “creating value for others.” I need something more than Harris’ “intuitions” and “social feeling of love.” He has not substantiated (or even clearly articulated) his view that I have to give away my earnings to people who didn’t earn them. That premise is still the most fundamental objection to his argument.So my apologies for the imprecision of my earlier wording, but I think my argument is unaffected by it.
**-Update 2: Perhaps this is an unwarranted assumption. I’ve gone back and double-checked, and I find no evidence in The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape, or Letter to A Christian Nation, or on Harris’ website, that he actually believes in the separation of church and state. While he argues that certain government actions have violated that separation, I see no reason to think Harris actually believes in religious liberty. Perhaps I’m wrong on this. Does he? And if so, why? And what makes religious freedom—which certainly has effects on society, most likely reducing the amount of charity for the poor, for example—okay, but economic freedom not okay? Would Sam Harris support a law prohibiting religion?