Libertarianism and Utilitarianism

From: R
Sent: Sunday, October 22, 2017 5:54 AM
Subject: Utility Maximization in Extreme Hypothetical

Dr. Walter Block, I’m a stranger who’s seen some of your lectures online and was wondering if you would be kind enough and interested enough in giving me your thoughts on something. In my limited understanding of economics, I see it as the study of goods and services whose supply and demand fluctuate. What if we were dealing with an essential good/service whose supply was fixed in the long term? (So, the point being the metaphorical pie cannot get larger.) So imagine a world with 10,000 people living in it. One day everyone comes down with pain in both legs. There is no cure that a human can create. An alien gives 10,000 vials of medicine to someone, say John. One vial can only cure pain in one leg. Everyone wants to rid themselves of pain as their top priority. How would you want to see this medicine distributed? Would you be in favor of John selling this medicine, which would most likely lead to an uneven distribution where for every person who gets two vials, someone out there will get zero or would you be in favor of some entity seizing this medicine and distributing it 1 vial per person? Let’s also add that the pain one feels from this is multiplicative for each leg. In other words, if utility is better maximized from forced redistribution, would you be in favor of it? I never studied economics but I’m guessing your view would be that in the long term utility is never maximized from forced redistribution, but that’s why I’m framing this from the point of view of an extreme hypothetical. So, in an extreme hypothetical, such as the one I provided, where it’s undeniable that utility is maximized from forced redistribution would you favor it?

Dear R: An interesting question. I am both a libertarian, and a utilitarian (the latter in that I favor human happiness). I cannot answer your question, however, as a libertarian, since that philosophy asks but one question, when is violence justified, and gives but one answer, only when prior violence is initiated, and, then, only in self defense or retaliation, that is, punishment. In other words, not all questions can be answered from a libertarian point of view.

But I can answer it as a utilitarian. Given that “that the pain one feels … is multiplicative for each leg,” assuming all people are alike in feeling pain, and that there is no question of private property rights, then, yes, an equal distribution would minimize pain, and thus maximize happiness.


6:44 pm on November 2, 2017