Sunday, November 9, 2008

Obtaining Wealth

This post is about general categories describing how wealth is obtained, and by "wealth" i mean things of value, good or services, in any quantity, not necessarily about huge amounts.

There are always many ways of categorizing concepts, and although some are clearly better than others, there isn't necessarily one "true" or "best" way. One common scheme assigns all specific methods to two general categories: "voluntary" (creating goods or obtaining them via some mutually agreement with their rightful owners) or "involuntary" (forcibly taking them from others, or forcing others to labor for one). This scheme seems to naturally to a moral classification (voluntary = good, involuntary = bad), although there is some question as to whether it is morally acceptable to forcibly take goods form those who have themselves obtained said goods by force, and how or if a rightful claim to goods forcefully taken could ever be established, particularly if the last rightful owner is dead.

I think it is often more useful to think in terms of three categories. What I will call "making" (which largely corresponds to the "voluntary" case above), "taking" (involuntary) and "finding". I won't try to define these here, but trust that if my readers (if there are any) have questions as to what I mean by them they will ask in the comments section. There are two related reasons why I make a distinction between finding and making. First, finding often seems largely a matter of luck rather than effort. Second, finding and claiming something deprives others of the opportunity of finding and claiming it themselves in a way that making really doesn't. For both these reasons there is less of a moral sense by third parties that the finder is entitled to the goods that he finds than that the maker is entitled to the goods he makes. This is particularly true of highly valuable random finds.

Making seems to increase the total amount of wealth in existence in a way that finding doesn't. This isn't a true as it may initially seem because value is not in things in and of themselves but rather the use of them. The discoverer of an uninhabited island certainly increases the wealth in existence by any value he obtains from the use of it until it is discovered by someone else. But given that someone else will eventually find it independently (or would have had not the first discoverer made it known), the claim that the initial discoverer and his heirs are enttled to its full value forever seems somewhat arbitrary.

Of course, not all activities fall neatly into just one of these categories. For example, it is quite common for providers of goods and services to deal voluntarily with their customers, but they obtain a higher price than they otherwise might because they or others acting on their behalf have used force to restrict the number of providers. One could might that in this case the free market price is earned and the price premium is essentially stolen. Of course, in the constrained market one does not know what the free market price would be.

Wealth obtained through pure trading or "speculation" seems to be largely found rather than made. Although to an extent speculators and traders help to decrease fluctuations in prices and to move commodities from where they are less to more useful, to a large extent those faster to realize that the price of something will increase are merely depriving those not so quick of their potential profits.

I must emphasize that I am not advising any particular moral conclusions be drawn from this, specifically I am not arguing that found wealth, or any part of it, may legitimately be seized. I do think it is useful to understand why even a libertarianish person might not accept the validity of a claim to found wealth.

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