Some Thoughts on Power

Bryan Caplan posted a very interesting parable, intended to illuminate how non-libertarian viewpoints on social justice can lead to situations similar to slavery. It’s powerful, but I’m not entirely convinced:

Suppose there are ten people on a desert island.  One, named Able Abel, is extremely able.  With a hard day’s work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island.  Eight islanders are marginally able.  With a hard day’s work, each can produce enough to feed one person.  The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable.  Harry can’t produce any food at all.


  1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to support Harry?

  2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

  3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to raise everyone’s standard of living above subsistence?

  4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone’s standard of living above subsistence?

Caplan goes on to say that 2 and 4 turn Abel into a slave and 1 and 3 are morally close to slavery, presumably because they rely on the threat of force if Abel doesn’t comply. At first glance it’s hard to argue with those conclusions and if you’re a capitalist, the inevitable message is that taxation and redistribution means slavery.

I agree that the islanders don’t have the right to force Abel to labour for them. Actually it’s hard to see how they could since all Abel has to do is to work less to undermine the islander’s enslavement of him. They will then need to invest in devising methods of coercion and monitoring to make him work harder, which means they have even less time to gather food themselves. What a ridiculous waste of resources, a real race to the bottom.

I don’t think it needs to be like that so instead I thought I’d try and give a mutualist, free market, non-capitalist view. I think the islanders can organise differently for mutual benefit.

Firstly, could Abel stand by as Harry starves to death?I think not and Abel would and up sharing food compassionately. Essentially this means Harry subsists on charity and is reliant on Abel’s empathy for survival. If Abel were entirely selfless then this situation could persist indefinitely but the more likely outcome is that Abel requires Harry to provide something in return and that inverts Caplan’s argument.

As is pointed out in some of the comments on that post, the danger is that it’s more likely that Harry would end up enslaved by Abel rather than the opposite. If Harry is to survive and Abel is the only person with the surplus food that could help, surely he is in thrall to Abel. Moreover, it’s likely that everyone on the island will afford special privileges to Abel. It only takes one tropical storm, or a bout of gastric flu, for Harry and the others to go short of food and turn to Abel, with his accumulated wealth, for support. Therefore it’s in their interests to keep him friendly and not to antagonise him. If he wants something, such as a larger share of the island, then it’s likely they’ll oblige out of fear of what he might do in their time of need.

So Caplan’s purported slave has become a tyrant and an inequality of power has emerged.  I was in a drunken argument with a friend last week who claimed that we should strive for equality of opportunity, whereas I argued for the stronger equality of power. This island scenario demonstrates my position pretty well, after all everyone on the island has the same opportunity to gather food, but Abel holds all the power.

However, if you look beyond the single-dimension of food there are many more ways for the islanders to work together in a non-coercive way. For example although Harry is terrible at food production perhaps he has a real talent for woodwork or weaving. Abel’s a great forager but perhaps he could be even more efficient with a basket to carry the food. Here’s a great opportunity for mutual free exchange between Harry and Abel: food in return for a supply of baskets and furniture.

Alternatively perhaps the islanders recognise that in times of disaster they’ll find it hard to survive without access to a surplus of food. Rather than submit to tyranny of Abel they could form a club where they each contribute a small amount of food each day by eating a little less well than they would like. When times get tough for one of them then there’s a stockpile of food that that person can use. Perhaps even Abel will join. Also, even though Harry can’t contribute food to the club, why shouldn’t he be allowed to join too? Caplan’s parable already assumes that the 8 marginally able islanders care enough about Harry’s welfare to consider forcing Abel to work for them all, so it’s not a stretch to assume that they’ll help him out if they could. This is even more likely when you extend the scenario beyond food and include woodworking and basketweaving.

Now perhaps Harry is entirely incapable of physical labour through disability or infirmity. I still maintain that Harry would have something to offer the group, even if it’s only acting as a lookout for a rescue ship. That’s a service that marginally increases everyone’s chances of survival. However if Harry is actually able to find food but chooses not to through laziness or contrariness then it’s up to the others to decide whether they want to voluntarily help him or not.

My thesis though is that by organising for mutual benefit the group of islanders have sidestepped Abel’s power. They don’t need him so he has no power over them and they have no compunction to extend special privileges to him.  There’s a greater equality of power through purely voluntary mutualism.


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