Dworkin’s insurance markets Notes for September 22

Main points

We had a rich and wide-ranging discussion. I will just note a few of the points that were flying around.

Big ideas

Rawls and Dworkin both offer ways of understanding and justifying the liberal welfare state.

Rawls assimilates it to a contractual agreement. The welfare state is the price that people would demand for agreeing to the basic rules of the social order.** Look at Gibbard on hard libertarianism too.

Dworkin thinks that the relevant model is insurance. The welfare state is best understood, according to him, as involving social insurance.

Meredith and Ben articulated some discontent with both models when they worried about the able bodied who refuse to work. Both Rawls and Dworkin are insensitive to a variety of moral distinctions. The parties in the original position have to take into account the possibility that they represent able-bodied bums. They may well decide not to cut such people off. Dworkin’s insurance markets will employ the kinds of mechanisms that insurance policies use to overcome the problems of moral hazard.

Neither philosophy gets to the heart of the matter, as Ben and Meredith see it, of simply declaring that some people don’t deserve public aid. That may be a reason for dissatisfaction with both models.

Risky behavior

How does the fact that people are willing to engage in risky behavior bear on Dworkin’s assertion that there are kinds of insurance that everyone would want?

It’s hard to move from the fact that people like to hang glide, climb rocks, or drive on the freeway to the conclusion that Dworkin is deeply mistaken. From the fact that people take fairly specific risks in order to achieve fairly specific things, it doesn’t follow that they are tolerant of a great deal of risk in their lives. You can enjoy hang gliding and also have fire insurance for your house, for instance.

It is true that there will be some people who truly prefer to run the risk of being stuck without an income or health care in exchange for a greater chance at a higher income. Dworkin has to concede that coercing them to participate in his social insurance schemes is a second-best policy, justified only because there is no feasible way to exclude them. I’m not sure how significant a concession that is, however, given that the number of people who genuinely feel this way is not likely to be very large. (It’s much easier to declare you’re a libertarian when you already know that you’re wealthy and healthy.)

Does the public own individual talents?

Meredith said she didn’t have a problem with making at least some people the slaves of their talents. If you can be a doctor and save lives, shouldn’t you do that rather than following your heart into some useless field?

Dworkin doesn’t agree, but it’s an interesting question. We don’t get to choose many of our obligations to others: I can’t just decide that I don’t want to be bound by our rules against murder. Why is it obvious that I get to decide what I’m going to do with my talents?

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2010. It was posted September 27, 2010.
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