Investing in the Poor

The Unincorporated Man is a science fiction novel in which shares of each person's income stream can be bought and sold.  (Initial ownership rights are person 75%, parents 20%, government 5%–there are
no other taxes–and people typically sell shares to finance education and other training.)

The hero, Justin Cord a recently unfrozen business person from our time, opposes incorporation but has no good arguments against the system; instead he rants on about "liberty" and how bad the idea of owning and being owned makes him feel.  The villain, in contrast, offers reasoned arguments in favor of the system.  In this scene he asks Cord to remember the starving poor of Cord's time and how incorporation would have been a vast improvement:

"What if," answered Hektor, without missing a beat, "instead of giving two, three, four dollars a month for a charity's sake, you gave ten dollars a month for a 5 percent share of that kid's future earnings?  And you, of course, get nothing if the kid dies.  Now you have a real interest in making sure that kid got that pair of shoes you sent.  Now it's in your interest to find out if he's going to school and learning to read and write.  Now maybe you'll send him that box of old clothes you were thinking of throwing away.  Under your system you write a check and forget about the kid, who'll probably starve anyway.  Under our system, you're locked into him.

…the real benefit comes about when those 'evil, selfish, horrible corporations' get involved.  How long will it take for a business to realize that there's a huge profit to be made in those hundreds of millions of starving children?…Imagine a world where a bank gives a loan to a corporation to build a school, hospital or dormitory.  Not because its the right thing to do; who cares!  They'd do it because it's the profitable thing to do.  And because of that, my system, not in spite of greed and corruption and incorporation, but because of it, will work better than yours in any time period with any technology you choose."

So who do you stand with, JC or Hektor?

Hat tip to Robin Hanson for lending me the book and from whom I cribbed the description of ownership rights.  Hanson offers other thoughts on the novel.  And here are earlier comments from Reihan Salam.


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