Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain example

Let’s say a bunch of poor kids all pay to see Wilt Chamberlain play basketball.  Wilt gets the money, the kids get to see the game.  At the end of the day Wilt is richer and the kids are poorer.  Since we wouldn’t object to any one of these transactions, why should we object to the resulting pattern?  Robert Nozick went further and argued that any "pattern-based" notion of justice would require continual and unjustified interference in personal liberties.  That was one of the most famous claims in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia; here is another summary of the argument

I’m all for the NBA but I’ve never been overwhelmed by this approach.  I agree that there is "nothing unjust" about the Chamberlain outcome but still perhaps we can do better in consequentialist terms.  Nozick’s argument defeats egalitarian leveling but does it really refute, say, mildly progressive taxation?  What if we could tax Wilt a bit and make life much better for the kids?  Without invoking public choice skepticism about government (which indeed is important), what’s so bad about that?  Is it morally wrong?  Wilt is still quite free and we get some social good in return.

I’m usually skeptical of moral arguments that don’t confront the question of "at what margin" straight up.  I will, however, buy this (abbreviated) argument:

1. A doctor is not required to devote his entire life, or even a part of it, to helping poor kids in Africa, even if he could create greater good by doing so.  Personal autonomy matters.

2. The right to keep the product of your labor — money! — is a big part of autonomy, even though it is not always recognized as such.

3. Barring end-of-the-civilized-world exigencies, no one should be forced to part with more than a certain percentage of his or her income, even when valuable public goods are at stake.  There is, after all, no end to good ideas for redistribution, not the least of which is the helicopter drop to Malawi.  We all draw the line somewhere, so it’s not enough to cite benevolence to defeat the claims of property rights and the demand for low taxes.

4. Adhering to such a percentage rule will have desirable consequentialist properties, given the public choice problems with government behavior.  Thus a kind of consilience supports this moral view.

That all said, I do not believe we have a very clear or very scientific answer as to what the right percentage is.  Furthermore "the proper percentage" is likely contingent upon historical circumstances.  I take that as representing a partial — but only partial — endorsement of Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument and of course I reject the deontological ("just don’t!") nature of Nozick’s approach altogether.

Warning to extreme libertarians: Don’t even try to argue that zero is the maximum permissible rate of taxation.  Would you abolish all taxation today, immediately, if it meant a rapid collapse into social chaos?

Warning to social democrats: You are used to citing beneficience arguments to argue for raising taxes.  But you reject beneficence arguments yourself, when you refuse to step into the shoes of Peter Singer and call for even more redistribution.  I want to make you feel guilty about this tension.  What you’d like to do is dismiss Singer with a separate argument and then turn your fire to the anti-tax types and feel that beneficence is always on your side.  It isn’t. 

Here is my earlier post on Nozick’s experience machine.  Here is Will Wilkinson with more on Rawls.  Going back to our earlier discussion, Ross Douthat has provided an excellent discussion of notable conservative books.  I am a big fan of Nozick’s book although a) I don’t consider it "conservative," and b) I like the obscure sections best, such as the discussion of anarchy and government in the first part.


Thank you for this interesting post.
To me, the confusion about Wilt arises from the attempt to model everything in terms of money.
Money is a relatively convenient metric for modeling behavior, but it clearly lacks the bandwidth to
capture society in all its hoary glory.
Oversimplification buys as much as obfuscation.

Interesting discussion. Living in a Nordic social democracy myself, Norway, I pay taxes that I guess would seem outrageous for most Americans. Since I favor the view of the welfare state as an efficient and non-bureaucratic insurance policy, I more than happily pay my taxes. I still get to keep more than half of my income, and don't have to shell out for health insurance, private retirement plans or saving for my children's education. I get sick? Public health, no questions asked. Temporarily unemployed? The State is my insurance. Education for my children? Excellent public schools.

Of course, some of this can be exploited, but I find universalism to be preferable to the enormous bureaucracy that follows private insurance. I don't mind paying for some freeriders. Most people enjoy working more than sitting around waiting for the next welfare check, and that's what keeps the system more than floating. The perfect percentage for me? No idea, but probably higher than most here.

Underlying all this is the curious matter of the remarkable materialism of the left, a matter noted in Bertrand de Jouvenal's odd book "The Ethics of Redistribution." Jouvenal says a lot of things that seem wrong to me, but he got this one right. People who are poor tend to have a lot of problems, but many of these are not much caused by poverty, yet the leftist response to just about anything is "let's take money away from those rich people and ...."

A bit of evidence (this is me, not Jouvenal): Why is it that religious belief should correlate as much as it does with sympathy for free markets, flat taxes, etc? My guess is that religious people, on the whole, are less materialistic than others and so don't get quite so exercised about differences in wealth.

I think that all but the most extreme libertarians would agree that a progressive tax is acceptable. Even the flat tax proposals which get brought up from time to time incorporate a progressive schema: They typically -skip- the lowest earners.

Which means that what Tyler is really asking is, "Where do we draw the line?" It's a difficult question. I imagine most readers at MR will prefer the line to be a bit lower, most readers at the NYT may prefer the line higher. How do even go about framing a discussion of where the high water mark of taxation should be?

As with David Zetland, I tend to be concerned with the spending side of things: Much government spending may attempt to help Wilts' customers, but how does it accomplish this? As always, the devil is in the details, and we have existing government programs for drugs prohibition, substance abuse in general, medical problems, employment problems... sheesh the list goes on and I could be typing them up for pages.

I think that Milton Friedman nailed it in his support of the negative income tax. You hand every American a check for $X and get rid of many of the social aid programs. Much less bureaucracy, much more effective distribution, and most importantly the most respect for human autonomy. So I say draw the line at or near where it is now, max it out around 30% or so, and incorporate a negative income tax to both keep things very progressive and to respect human autonomy.

The way I see it, the public good created from the tax must outweigh the deadweight loss of the tax. Remember, taxing Wilt is the same as taxing the poor kids. Either way, Wilt won't play as much...

"Any institution which is not libertarian in principle will start slipping down that slope"

Why? If the institution is aware that making taxes more progressive will cause harm, why would it do it? Finland is heavily socially democratic but it has made taxation less progressive over the last decade.

One problem here is that the Chamberlain example loads the dice by assuming that all inequality is the result of benign voluntary transactions, like the sale of tickets. (Though the argument would be slightly stronger if Wilt's fans were adults.)

That's true in some cases. If lots of people are willing to pay to see an athlete or entertainer, for example, then the analogy holds. But to assume that this is the general case is pretty naive.

So while I agree that,

"The right to keep the product of your labor -- money! -- is a big part of autonomy," I don't agree that all personal wealth is a product of one's own labor.

I don't even buy the first part of your argument... Why are the poor kids any poorer? Assuming they are rational actors in an efficient market: They paid to see Wilt because they were getting more value than the cost of the ticket. They are actually richer after they see Wilt play.

The argument for taxing Will is really that the market is not efficient enough to accurately price-in and collect fees for all the things we "should" be paying for. (Assuming we have a collective responsibility for helping our fellow humans and for paying the externality costs of our actions)

I think all these discussions ignore the really difficult issue: Who gets to be part of the polity or nation? Much of this is tied to the problem of aggregating different preferences both for taxation and spending and its unintended consequences. You can't get away from tribal problems.

Norwegians would be less happy to pay for the welfare state if Norway were 65% Muslims who believed in expanding sharia and spending to keep public facilities single sex, restraining out-marriage, and teaching Koranic law.

Also, large federal organizations have to deal with warfare, espionage, and terrorism. A world in which Russia turned expansionist and the US isolationist would rapidly upend the European social compact. Here too you need to postulate necessary public goods in a world of imperfect and muddling authorities. You can't magically say, No military for Vietnam or Iraq, but we'll be there if it's WWII!

And where there ethnic factions with different goals things really get problematic. Cf. urban USA or Quebec.

Very interesting post. It's sort of funny that you should be discussing this at the same time that Brad DeLong is arguing for an end to the "Age of Friedman".

It seems to me that your logic is correct. There is no absolute prohibition on progressive taxation. The question is what is the approximately correct solution. Lots of room for argument there.

Thanks for laying out the issues so cogently.

Nothing especially wrong with what you're saying, jj. That's why taxes are a question of what's practical, not a question over ideology. But be careful playing the tribal card. The experience from Norway, with our very few Muslim immigrants (even fewer in Finland), is that they quickly adapt to our social democrat mentality and are happy to pay taxes to support our secular, gay-friendly, pro-choice, affirmative action government. In fact, a large majority of Asian and African immigrants vote for left-of-(Norwegian)-center parties. Of course, these parties are also pro-immigration...

Nice post. I agree that consequentialism (with a rough metric of additive utility) should determine the optimal tax rate, just as consequentialism should be the basis of all public policy, and indeed all action.

Nozick's line of thought is conservative in so far as market-economics comes out of conservative thought and not vice-versa. Adam Smith and Edmund Burke were intellectual conservatives -- not libertarians. Before them, the late scholastics who had an even earlier understanding of free markets such as Juan de Mariana, Luis Saravia de la Calle were also "conservative." The enlightenment period is largely influenced by the "conservative" political and economic theorists of the medieval period.

The first observation is the one with greatest moral weight. Taking earned income from a person is the same as taking the hours of their life spent in labor when they could have been otherwise engaged. In my mind, this creates a good deal of drag against each hypothetical increase in taxation.

I think, as Mr. Yomtov suggests, I feel less drag in a taxation of unearned wealth, but we'd have to agree on some sticky terms.

In practice, one upper limit on the percentage would be the point at which it ceases to produce greater public goods (i.e. growth and innovation slow to damaging levels). This number is context dependent, in that a public good of, say, healthcare may only be available because you have a highly innovative neighbor generating beneficial externalities left and right.

As a result, it seems plausible that the point at which we become uncomfortable for taking too many hours of a man's life can sometimes be lower than the point of optimum utility and sometimes higher. Both are moving targets.

This just isn't a very interesting post at all. What's the point of analyzing a carefully constructed deontological argument from a consequentialist viewpoint in this way? The entire point of such an argument is to tease out the results of a set of premises and to convince you that those results follow, EVEN IF they intuitively seem wrong (probably because you are uncomfortable with the consequences of those results).

Color me unsurprised that if you don't like deontology, you'll find the results of one of their arcane thought experiments unconvincing, but don't think consequentialists don't have equally arcane and unconvincing constructions.


Ideally, the taxes collected on Mr Chamberlain will be put to use in such a way that increases domestic tranquility sufficiently enough to create a society in which Mr Chamberlain may actually have more personal liberty.

John Dewey,

Was there some reason you missed out the Quebecois? They actually speak an entirely different language to the rest and given the fact that a large number of them want to be a seperate country you would think they would be radically opposed to a social safety net.

I take your point but it might be interesting to see whether african-american culture would be in the state it is in, had they had a decent safety net and a less superficial equality of opportunity.

"I don't see any compelling data that social chaos would ensue from the abolition of compulsory taxation."

Because no-one has been unwise enough to try it.

Not much of an argument Finnsense - could have suggested that flight was not possible for similar reason at one point in the past - or further that a society with out human chattel were also an impossibility.

extreme libertarian,

Yes it was flippant but really, imagine a society with no social safety net for the unfortunate and where some people live in incredible luxury. If I was poor I know what I'd do. Europe doesn't have progressive taxation because the rich want it, but because the poor demand it. The US is unique among rich countries in managing to convince the poorest members of society that it is in their present or future interests to have a minimal safety net. With no safety net at all (or a discretionary one based on the good will of family and the community) see what happens.

Warning to extreme libertarians: Don't even try to argue that zero is the maximum permissible rate of taxation. Would you abolish all taxation today, immediately, if it meant a rapid collapse into social chaos?

I think this is rather loaded. You could also post a blog wondering what the socially optimal rate of rape was (in terms of rapes per 100,000 of the population). Then you could say, "Warning to extreme feminists: Don't even try to argue that zero is the maximum permissible rate of rape. Would you abolish all rape today, immediately, if it meant a rapid collapse into social chaos?"

Now how would the radical feminist answer that? "Yes! Er, no, uh, well I reject your premise!" Same thing here.

And yes, we've had taxation for a long time, just like we've had rape for a long time.

I imagine not a single person posting on this thread would even consider breaking into Wilt Chamberlain's house (or pickpocketing him) in order to donate money to Africans. Right? If you caught your kid doing that, you would correct him, saying, "Yes, I know you wanted to help people with the money, and that's very noble, but it wasn't your money. We live in a society with property rights, and you can't take what isn't yours. If people started doing that, then we'd immediately descend into social chaos."

By the way, my opinion on the justice of taxation (i.e. institutionalized theft) has nothing to do with my views on egalitarianism. Yes, I do think rich people have a moral duty to help the poor, and all of us are not doing a very good job on that front. (I imagine just about everyone posting on this thread is in the top 0.5% of the world's population in terms of standard of living; this has nothing to do with Wilt Chamberlain's money, it is all of our money.) But that still doesn't mean rich people should have their money taken against their will and given to charities, least of all by a bunch of politicians.

Tyler said Don't even try to argue that zero is the maximum permissible rate of taxation. Would you abolish all taxation today, immediately, if it meant a rapid collapse into social chaos?

Thanks for the straw man Tyler.

It is not either/or, not to mention that politically we can't get there from here. One can argue that the state has royally screwed things up for the average person, or even for a sizeable minority of people. Therefore an intermediate policy of a minarchist state, or a Milton Friedman style compromise minarchist state (e.g. taxation funded universal vouchers for 100% privatized K-12 schools, thus ending the urban nightmare that the Democrats have foisted upon blacks and Hispanics in the US) would seem to be a needed moral (not to mention political) first step before we attempted the only morally acceptable second step of no coercive taxation.

After a generation of compromise minarchy that repaired most of the damage caused by the state it is not unreasonable to say that we would not plunge into social chaos upon the end of coercive taxation.

I realize many people can't imagine a country without coerced taxation, I couldn't get there myself until rather recently. The mental barrier I think most people have is that they envision far too big of a state, and thus it is simply silly to think that charitable contributions to the state could come close to being enough. So the solution to that end is to reduce government spending low enough that it doesn't appear insane to even try. We had that low spending level in the 19th century, so it is indeed achievable.

Upon achieving a low government spending level, the question is would people voluntraily give up their money for the greater good? The answer is obvious, Americans already voluntarily give up boatloads of money for the greater good each year, it is called charity. The US is already radically more charitable than high tax "rich" countries, likely because people feel less need to give money to the needy when they think that is the state's job, especially when they have far less money to actually give away due to high taxation.

Add in the selfish motive of contributing to national defense (genuine defense, not defense of socialist freeriding Europe or defense of the rest of the world) and it becomes even easier to imagine voluntary taxation at levels high enough to be workable.

Add in an increased localization of government spending (e.g. towns pay for their own roads, not state goverments let alone the federal government) and the contributions are even easier to imagine.

So Tyler, once you get past your artificial either/or strawman, it is indeed possible to achieve the morally correct level of 0% coercive taxation without social chaos. We just can't get there from here thanks to the damage caused by the Democrats and their conspirators in the Republican party such as borrow-and-spend-and-spend-Bush. We need an intermediate period of time for it to be politically possible.

Warning to extreme libertarians: Don't even try to argue that zero is the maximum permissible rate of taxation. Would you abolish all taxation today, immediately, if it meant a rapid collapse into social chaos?
I think this is rather loaded. You could also post a blog wondering what the socially optimal rate of rape was (in terms of rapes per 100,000 of the population). Then you could say, "Warning to extreme feminists: Don't even try to argue that zero is the maximum permissible rate of rape. Would you abolish all rape today, immediately, if it meant a rapid collapse into social chaos?"

Well, I'm happy to let Cowen argue with the libertarian extremists. But the problem with Nozick, is that he really is very extreme. And his arguments are not utilitarian based. So I don't really see how you can agree with Nozick, even a little, and not be an extreme libertarian. On the other hand, if you are a utilitarian libertarian, you are not much of a 'libertarian' anymore. You give up the right to call taxation institutionalized theft, and I think it's easy to show that once you admit a flat tax, it is very difficult to philosophically justify avoiding progressive taxation under all circumstances. Apparently Cowen is embracing this view, which does not surprise me given what I have read of his previously. At this level, we simply disagree on what level of taxation is reasonable or appropriate, and how efficiently the government can accomplish some tasks in comparison to the private market. I think the only fundamental disagreement that may continue to exist is that libertarians insist that governments 'not interfere in markets'. I can appreciate where they're coming from, but to me, the existence of the government is a pretty big factor in any market so to speak of 'not intefering' does not always make sense, in my opinion.

Bernard Y writes-

'"The right to keep the product of your labor -- money! -- is a big part of autonomy," I don't agree that all personal wealth is a product of one's own labor.' Assuming that you don't agree with what Tyler actually said - product of your labor, not wealth, I suggest an experiment. Quit your job and let us know if the product of your labor is >0.

3. Barring end-of-the-civilized-world exigencies, no one should be forced to part with more than a certain percentage of his or her income, even when valuable public goods are at stake. There is, after all, no end to good ideas for redistribution, not the least of which is the helicopter drop to Malawi. We all draw the line somewhere, so it's not enough to cite benevolence to defeat the claims of property rights and the demand for low taxes.

I meant to ask here, are you talking about the highest marginal tax bracket? That's a little different than percentage of total income.

That said, I do have a problem with taxation aimed specifically at wealth redistribution.

What if you can show that a more equal wealth distribution is itself a public good?

The maximum desirable rate of taxation is anything less than 50 percent, since anything more than that represents majority ownership over an individual's labor, and therefore constitutes slavery.

Finnsense, why does a safety net have to be government supplied? Other institutions (familial, religious, civic, etc...) seem much better suited to the task and don't require compulsory taxation to function. It seems to me as we transfer more responsibility for maintaining a safety net from low level decentralized organizations to high level centralized organizations th effectiveness of such programs will tend to deteriorate. In addition, it seems to encourage individuals to ignore pressing needs around them as they have fewer means to help (due to taxation) and lower motivation (it's the government's responsibility to help those in need, not mine!).

"What if you can show that a more equal wealth distribution is itself a public good?"

A very good question, thanks for responding. My gut reaction is to say that I would still be against it, because it would be worse for the individuals from whom the wealth is being taken. This probably raises more questions than it answers, and I admit to having not thought this through completely.

The conclusion that I come to morally is that I cannot condone a bad thing done for the right reasons, or at least that I won't if I don't have to. If I could provide a good life for my family and give a substantial amount of money to charity every year, and all I had to do was sell cocaine to finance terrorism, I would still say it is wrong and that I shouldn't do it. I realize that this is an extreme example, but I don't think it's a straw man.

I've recently heard that only 50% of households pay income tax. I'm very curious if there is any truth to it. If this is the case, then our tax system is clearly far too progressive.

I personally believe that if you aren't paying taxes, you shouldn't get to have input on how tax money is spent. I'm very annoyed that my fellow Californians have passed propositions to implement new spending programs paid for by a minority of taxpayers. Most recently there was the proposition for a new the mental health program paid by those who earn over a million annually. Earlier, it was new programs for kids under 5 paid by smokers. If all voters want a new program and are willing to chip in for it, I might disagree, but at least it has some legitimacy. I find it really offensive to have voters say "I want this program, but I want that person over there to pay for it." That feels like theft to me, no matter how wonderful the cause.

"Arguing that you should rightfully keep all of that which belongs to you is sensible – not extreme."


"Suggesting however that your neighbor or fellow citizens are entitled to take some arbitrary percentage of your property by force however is quite strange."

Imagining that force or violence are necessarily involved when your neighbors ask you to help by returning a portion of the income/property you earn and maintain in the context of your community's support is. . . unwell.

Jack Lecou,

Taxation obviously does involve force. That's just an accurate description of what happens. To say someone is unwell or insane for believing that is silly.

The argument is how much should authorities forcibly remove from the better off to redistribute to the less well-off. And how much should be taken to pay for public goods.

You can plausibly argue the extreme libertarian argument as being naive, or misguided, or even immoral. But taxation is not a voluntary activity, it's backed up by the threat of the state's monopoly of force.

A vast majority of people think this is a good thing, although there are arguments about how much to confiscate.

Implying insanity is rarely wise in public policy debates.


Implying insanity was intemperate, and I apologize. But I find the view that taxation = force to be quite strange. I know I'm not the first, but I get fed up sometimes.

I can go to a cafe, and order a cup of coffee, but when they ask for $2.00 back, is there force involved? After all, they might call the police if I refused to pay. But the $2.00 is in my possession, what right have they to take it by force?

If you do not wish to pay your share of society's burdens, don't impose yours on us. Admittedly determining that share is an inexact science, but paying it does not involve some fundamental sacrifice of any moral principal. It is an exercise of the perfectly agreeable principle that what's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours.


Hmmm. I think you are being willfully obtuse. Comparing a voluntary transaction (Starbucks) to taxation makes no sense. If you can't see the difference then you need to revisit Public Policy 101.

There are moral goods that are in tension here. There are ideals of fairness, equality, efficiency, and autonomy that are in conflict. You can't simply wish that away.

It's obvious this topic angers you, but you just can't define away facts that annoy you.

You can't simply argue that whatever the tax rate currently is, is simply the fair price of the social contract you involuntarily signed on to at birth.

Taxation is different from voluntary market transactions. 99% of people believe that force-backed redistribution is a good thing. I'm one of them. I want moderately less confiscation than we currently have because I believe the efficiency gains will improve overall social welfare.

I also believe radically less taxation would be unwise because it would harm social cohesion. I believe redistribution has helped ameliorate racial grievances that would otherwise turn violent. It's extortionary, but that's life. I believe in paying the extortionist if there's no plausible way around the problem. Adapt and move on.

Fundamental moral principles conflict -- they alway have and always will. It's an imperfect world.

"Tell me what I have to do, I was never given that option."

There isn't one, practically speaking. That's sort of why you're obligated to pay them instead. (Sort of like how you can't opt out of eating, troublesome though it may be.)

If you're truly determined, there may be ways. I think the Somalia suggestion is valid enough, if somewhat rude. But I understand that while it probably represents the condition into which anarchy collapses, you probably wouldn't exactly be free from the imposition of force. I think you might possibly be able to find a patch of productive land somewhere in the world where the local government would leave you alone. They probably wouldn't even charge tariffs for trading across your border.

As an aside, I've sometimes wondered if simply abolishing property tax would solve this objection. Though, I suppose even living as a hermit, you're using police protection.

Most Europeans I have met or read have absolutely no clue re: economics/taxation in the U.S.
They listen to Krugman, Chomsky, et al, and think that's all there is to it.

Those seeking here to justify some level of taxation are beating around the bush. The conclusion you folks want to establish is about coercion and about the people in governments: that a certain level of coercion by people in governments, and not by people outside of governments, is acceptable. Clearly, to reach a conclusion about coercion and about people in governments and about people outside of governments you must be working from some premises about coercion and about people in governments and about people outside of governments. All the talk about unearned wealth, the value of fairness, community, and so on just won't get you there. Logic just doesn't work like that. No reasonable argument can reach a conclusion outside the scope of its assumptions, even if you wish it did.

So please clarify: What premises about coercion and about the people in governments and about people outside of governments are you working from?

"Would you abolish all taxation today, immediately, if it meant a rapid collapse into social chaos?" Yes. I believe in "thou shalt not steal"! (I also believe in I am my brother's keeper, but I have no Godly authority to steal from one brother to help another).

"Finnsense: What you have described here is extortion."

This evades the issue and reveals that you believe a market distribution of income to be just and fair. The issue is what is distributive justice (I don't believe there is an answer to this question). You're assuming an answer to that.


"Finnsense, why does a safety net have to be government supplied?"

It doesn't, but to date the only societies that have managed to safeguard equality of opportunity, have been societies in which government does supply it. If it's discretionary people end up in deep poverty as do their children etc. I would be in favour of a trial of allowing people to opt in to a system of social insurance with other people whose values they share but who must represent the income demographic of the country as a whole. It would in interesting to see if it worked.

They don't have a lot of taxation in third world / developing countries. The very rich in these countries have really got it good; no-one thieving their money through taxation. Utopia! Why don't all those people complaining about taxation as theft take their cash and ship off to Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Darfur or somewhere similar. Of course there is the problem that those low/no-tax coutries often have poor infrastuctures, and social order can be a bit light on - but you can keep to the safe areas, build fortresses to keep the barbarians out - small price surely to keep the taxman's hands out of your pockets.

"Equality of opportunity in the U.S. exceeds that of nearly every other nation. "

It is widely understood that the best sign of equality of opportunity is social mobility. No, the US does not have great social mobility.

"Your insinuation that our universities do not provide opportunities for students from low income families is just wrong."

It's fine if you're outstanding and some schools have better aid than others. If you're merely good you have have less chance than someone whose parents will pay the fees. Your chances of doing well also improve with good schools and private tuition, which are available if you can pay to live in good areas or pay for independent schools.

I repeat, if you doubt what I say, just come to one of my classes and check it out.

"Have you graduated from one of our Ivy League universities?"

I have plenty of experience of American and British elite education. I also coach Finnish IB students to get into elite US and UK universities and when those that get in come back, they reaffirm what I myself have experienced. The fact you even question what I say shows your ignorance of systems other than your own.

finnsense: "It is widely understood that the best sign of equality of opportunity is social mobility. "

That is not widely understood by conservative economists in the U.S. I see no reason to equate results with opportunity. This English (?) idiom is appropriate:

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink."

finnsense: "It's fine if you're outstanding and some schools have better aid than others."

Assistance for higher education - technical and vocational schools as well as universities - is available to every low income person in the U.S. The taxes I pay have paid for such assistance for over 30 years.

finnsense: "The fact you even question what I say shows your ignorance of systems other than your own."

What an arrogant remark! I did not question your system or any other European system. I generally do not criticize the governments and public institutions of other nations - except where they impact my nation's well-being. I do not question your nation's education system or that of any other European country. But I will continue to defend the charge that the U.S. higher education system does not provide sufficient opportunities for minorities - which is what you suggested.

"If you think that Harvard and Yale are the only way to succeed in the US then yes it might be tough to suceed if you are only merely good."

That wasn't the point.

John Dewey,

Look, you might think that the correlation between parental wealth and attendance at elite universities is not the result of inequality of opportunity but the empirical evidence simply does not bear this out. In Finland people from a very wide range of backgrounds end up at Helsinki University (the country's best university). Are you suggesting that there is some reverse discrimination going on? Or that people from poorer backgrounds in Finland are somehow smarter than people from poorer backgrounds in the US?

When the UK introduced tuition fees (for which everyone is entitled to a government loan) there was a noticeable drop in the number of applicants from poorer backgrounds. Why? Because they didn't want to get into debt. Students from wealthier backgrounds don't need the loans or know their parents will pay them off.

I suspect you might argue that the poor can go to university if they want and it's trivially true. Were they not human beings behaving in predictably human ways, they could go to university. This in the same way that a kid growing up in the projects to criminal parents and surrounded by criminals, could become a doctor. It happens, but not very often. The barriers psychological, cultural and educational are far higher to getting into med chool for the kid from the projects. That's not equality of opportunity.

finnsense: "The barriers psychological, cultural and educational are far higher to getting into med chool for the kid from the projects."

I agree that environment and culture greatly influence - but do not determine - economic success. But genetics may play a role as well.

finnsense: "Or that people from poorer backgrounds in Finland are somehow smarter than people from poorer backgrounds in the US?"

I don't know anything about the poor in Finland. But I do know that just about every ethnic group that arrived in the U.S. in the past 150 years was poor. And every one of those groups - Irish, Jews, Chinese, Italians, Poles, Cajuns, and many more - was able to escape the grip of poverty without huge transfer payments. Vietnamese refugees are doing so today.

So how are U.S. African-Americans different? Until the 1960's they were not. They were building a middle class that would have taken advantage of the same environment of opportunity that the Irish, Jews, Chinese, etc. had used.

And then two things changed.

1. birth control - allowed middle class black families to stop reproducing themselves, so that the portion of blacks born into poverty increased with each generation rather than decline as it had done for other ethnic groups;

2. culture of dependency - transfer payments, subsidized housing, food stamps, and so on reduced the incentive for impoverished families to become more productive, to acquire more skills.

Where you and I likely disagree is on how much economic transfers can benefit impoverished groups. It just hasn't worked in the U.S. In fact, such welfare seems to have been counter-productive.

@ John,

That story could also be told, that up until 1890, there was not: poor was poor, and in terms of human capital, it mattered little whether your parents had been southern slaves or eastern European peasants. But then, in the period 1890-1920, anti-black pogroms in many American towns and cities destroyed what many families had built in the generation since emancipation, and encouraged many other families to sell what they had on disadvantageous terms, in order to move into urban centers where at the very least they had safety in numbers.

Finnsense I think you are correct in some of your points, but I think you viewing the US system from afar and think it is different than it actually is.

Both of my parents are public school teachers and I went to public school and public college and grad school so I know from what my experience was/is at least in North Carolina.

My highschool was 25% black 10% hispanic 5% asian. It covered all income groups one of my classmated dad was an industrist and drove a Ferrari and one the guys I played football with was kicked out of his home by his mother because her boyfriend moved in and had to live at a hotel at his own expense (he is actually doing ok now, he is a truck driver). We had kids from my graduating class go to MIT we had others go to prison.

Some of this was by design. Kids were bused in (not very far) to ensure diversity. Now where I live in addition to magnet schools which put the most resources and best teachers in the worst neighborhoods my city draws school boarders to insure income diversity. A very small percentage of people went to

Higher education for me was not free but very cheap 3k per semester (books, room, board, tuition and some spening money) this was in the 90's. All this is free for my cousin who is poor. I also went to grad school with a teaching assistanceship my wife with a research assistanceship. So grad school was quasi free.

So in North Carolina the system is not that different than in Finland. Yet if you look at the differences between the two in education and income inequality there is a huge difference.

I cannot speak to Finland but the main thing holding back my classmates was none of the things you mention, but a combination of a very inadequate family situation, a lack of dicipline and the ability to act right, a lack of desire to do anything with your life, very little value placed on an education, a bad work ethic and in some cases mental problems and low intelligence.

The comparision of Finland to the United States is just silly. Finland is smaller than North Carolina in population and has no where near the diversity in races and social groups that the US or even North Carolina has.

So maybe if we adopted the Finnish model we could imporve our income inequality. But I think we would do as well by just addopting Finns.

eccdogg: "So maybe if we adopted the Finnish model we could imporve our income inequality."

Well, that assumes that reducing the variance in incomes is somehow an improvement. I see no reason to believe that it would be. That's especially true if to do so meant large transfers from our most productive households to our least productive households.

It's important to note - which our European "advisors" may not realize - that there is almost no poverty in the U.S. Almost everyone of every ethnic group has food on the table, has electricity and heat, has some form of transportation. Almost every home has a television and a telephone. Everyone except those living in the very remote towns has access to some form of health care. We attempt to educate every child, though some refuse to take advantage of that opportunity.

The U.S. is truly a land of opportunity - which is why so many from all over the world try so hard to get here.

Nozick's argument is a classic case of the composition fallacy. He makes the assumption that a just outcome follows from voluntary transfers. As already pointed out, he also makes the critical assumption that adding a quarter to a separate box to pay off Wilt Chamberlain is more or less representative of transfers in a modern society.

nyongesa - good post.

culture > genetics

If you took any ethnic group in America and applied the same attitudes toward studying and the same rate of babies born to uneducated/unwed mothers, you would get more poverty. It's a completely predictable result.

By the way, it's always useful to throw out a few more pieces of data, since we are so obsessed with white and black in America. What about Asians and whites in America, or minorities in other countries who outperform the majority? Different cultural values = different results = equality of anything is impossible without tremendous coercion.


"[Helsinki University] is more similar to top 20 US Public Universities"

It's worse pedagogically in my opinion (research is okay) BUT the best Finns go there. That's why it's a relevant marker.

"Comparing individual Scandinavian countries to the US is not very helpful."

I wasn't doing that exactly. What I was trying to tease out are the conditions for true equality of opportunity to exist - as opposed to formal equality of opportunity. If (a) gets a better education than (b) or has easier access to education via both formal and informal incentives, the playing field is not level.

First, Finnsense let me say that I have enjoyed this conversation. I have been thinking about the difference between Finnish and American schools since I read and article on Finland and its schools in the Wall St Journal about a week and a half ago. Maybe we have hijacked the thread, but it has been a good conversation.

We are often told how well other countries do and that we should adopt this or that model (for instance the article I read). And I wonder if we are not missing the big picture that some sub groups white and black in the US have problems that are not comperable to those same economic sub groups in other countries. In other words culture matters and a model that works in Finland may not work in the US. For instance as I mentioned North Carolina does many similar things to Finland and yet its performance is far worse especially at the low end.

What is teen pregnancy like in Finland, I think I read that it was 2 out of ever 100 teens with half being aborted. For a black teenager in the US it is 15 out of 100 (don't know the abortion stats but I believer they are much lower). How many poor Finns have children very early? How many poor Fins are raised by grandmothers and aunts. What percentage have two parents? how many parents have seriouls substance abuse problems?

For the black players that I played football with and drove home after practice it was rare for them to have their father in the home. They did not refer to where the "lived" but instead where they "stayed" this was not just a difference in linquistics but reflected how often they might be moved to another home.

How is dicipline in a Finnish school. How often to low incomes Finns argue with their teachers? How often do the fight each other. How often do they raise their voice at teachers and other students?

These type things describe the state of what I would call the type of student who does not graduate highschool in the US.

I imagine(maybe incorrectly) that Finnish schools are more similar to the one my wife went to in rural Michigan. Very little diversity (you were white and either catholic or Lutheran) small school that everyone in town went to rich to poor. Dicipline was strong but not needed that much because their was a standard enforced by parents and the community about how to act. Even students that dropped out were not disruptive they just didn't show up.

IMO we as a society in the US have chosen to focus on money and method in education, instead of focusing on the much larger root cause of problems which is a disentagration of family and culture within some sub groups (again white and black because many of these same issue decribe problems with what some might call poor white trash or rednecks who I also went to school with).

None of these problems are mainly about money or redistribution. I am not sure what has caused the problems. Could be residual from racist past, could be entitlements which have eroded work ethic and responsibility, could be a decline of moral pressure to conform to a norm by society as a whole. I don't know what the reason is, but I am pretty certain that it has very little to do with economic resources.

But maybe I am wrong maybe the poor Finns have all these issues as well and the Finnish system is able to overcome them. If so I would be interested to hear about it. My guess is that Finland has a model that works quite well in Finland given its culture but would not change much or be even detrimental in the United State.

Greg: "Insisting on a US or European quality of life while objecting to the existence of taxes and the government is wanting to have your cake and eat it too. They're inseparable. Enforcement of property rights, police, defense, public education, and so on all depend on taxation."

I agree those public requirements you listed must be funded. But federal and local governments were meeting those requirements 80 years ago when taxes were a fraction of what we now pay.

What in God's name is a "U.S. or European quality of life"? Does it include: welfare, food stamps, and earned income tax credits; agriculture subsidies; National Endowment for the Perverse Arts and public television; light rail boondoggles and bicycle paths; 75 federal programs funding international education and cultural exchanges?

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