Ask Prof Wolff: Individuals and Society

A Patron of Economic Update asks: "In a world where workers own the product of their own labor, and all institutions are democratic, is there still a need for taxes and welfare? If so: Why are they justified? What should their extent be? How should they be enforced?

Here are 3 scenarios that keep me up at night:

There is a beloved musician to whom millions of people decide to give money or material goods as voluntary gifts, making the musician extremely wealthy. This musician happens to perform only on nature reserves - not publicly maintained concert halls - and uses only their voice and a guitar they built themselves. Is this just? If not, how should society respond?

A carpenter and a lumberjack have been assigned a plot of land to live on, and over the years they build an enormous multi-story mansion with their own hands. This mansion happens to be in a time and place where living space is scarce and sorely needed. Should their home be confiscated and redistributed?

Finally, suppose there is someone who is indisputably able to work, physically and mentally, but refuses to lift a finger even to feed or dress themselves. They demand the welfare which the government has previously decided they are legally due. They happily admit that their motivation is selfish, even malevolent. How should society respond?

P.S. Despite my careful framing, I acknowledge that the musician, carpenter, and lumberjack are not wholly independent from society the way a hunter-gatherer might choose to be. At the very least, they benefit from food and metal tools created by others. Please consider the question as if this has all been accounted for - they have already exchanged their labor for food, tools, etc. before striking out on their own in the Randian fashion I described."

This is Professor Richard Wolff's video response.

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