"Crusoe Ethics": Property Rights vs. Wealth Distribution
To illustrate the basic principles of their discipline, economists sometimes conduct intuitive thought-experiments, designed to pare issues down to their essentials. These thought-experients often take place on an idealized desert island, where a small number of stranded individuals engage in simplified forms of production, consumption, and exchange. Hence, the name applied to this form of imaginative illustration: Crusoe economics. As a contemporary example, extended to book length, I warmly recommend Peter Schiff's "How an economy grows and why it crashes". Gently humorous, as well as painlessly instructive, it contains such characters as Ben Barnacle, who in a dastardly scheme contrives to circulate more and more fish as a medium of exchange, with predictable results.
Now, I have recently been reflecting upon the ethics of property rights and wealth redistribution. It struck me that one might equally conduct thought-experiments under the heading of Crusoe ethics. Such thought-experiments would illustrate the basic principles of right and wrong applying in these elementary island communities, as their members strive to turn the hostile natural world to their advantage.
Accordingly, here is a simple scenario. And to make things interesting, it doesn't just illustrate an ethical principle: instead, it arouses conflicting moral intuitions. One intuition is more typical of the left-wing thought, the other mere typical of right-wing thought. I'd be interested to hear your feedback.
In this scenario, the desert island dwellers currently survive only by eating fish. Alas, these fish, being hard to catch, are in short supply. Then one day, an entrepreneur, who adores fish, saves up his meager rations, and still goes hungry for days, in order to fashion a technical innovation: a net. This net enables him to catch more fish more efficiently in future. As a result, he can now dine heartily.
In addition, he loves fish so much that he is unwilling share any of them with his fellow island dwellers, who are currently starving. These other islanders offer him what they can in exchange. But as I said, he loves his fish. So he refuses all their offers, and keeps all he catches for himself.
The other islanders are understandably aggrieved. They claim that it is intolerably unfair that he should have many more fish than they do. They also argue that the fish will benefit them more than they will benefit him. After all, whereas they need to fish simply to survive, he only wants them to pleasure his palate. Accordingly, he should share at last some of his fish with them.
In response, while munching on a mullet, he argues that they have no right to the fish. By dint of his own industry and intelligence, he has designed and created the net. He now uses that same net to catch all the fish. No one else was involved, or is involved. So the fish he catches are indisputably his: only his labour is here getting mixed with the natural world, no one else's. Hence, no one else but him is entitled to the fish. This means that, no matter how much other people want the fish, or need the fish, they cannot have the fish, unless he voluntarily decides to share them, which, sadly for them, he will not currently do. Nonetheless, no one has the right to take any fish from him by force: that would be a violation of his inalienable right to the specific fruit of his prsonal labour. Even God has decreed as much, some say.
You--on behalf of your starving self, family, or clan--now have the possibility of stealing fish from his bountiful private stash. Is it right or wrong to steal his fish? And if it is right to steal them, what is wrong in principle with a welfare state supported via taxation? Where and now do you draw the line for when it is right to steal what is indisputably the property of others for the greater benefit of the many?