Love is strange
I should now like to examine the relation between the reducibility thesis and the invisible hand thesis more closely. Not all libertarians seek to derive the latter from the former, 1 but each is foundational to libertarianism in the sense that each is supposed to support important claims. Without the former, it would be impossible for the libertarian to argue that there can be nothing morally objectionable about the outcome of a repetition of morally innocent bilateral exchanges across time. Libertarianism would then be forced to abandon the moral high ground it claims in the stance it takes against intervention with the market. Without the latter, it would clearly forsake a different argument against such intervention. A libertarianism forced to abandon one or the other would be seriously weakened. This is very unfortunate for libertarianism, because the two theses stand in logical contradiction to each other. Let us begin by exploring this.
I shall take the reducibility thesis first. As the reader will recall, this is an ethical claim according to which the whole can only be evaluated in terms of criteria relevant to the evaluation of its individual components. What I have to say here is relevant to all versions of reducibility of which I am aware. I shall use Joseph and Sumption’s formulation as an example, if only for its blunt clarity (there is also something touching about the breathless innocence and enthusiasm with which they endorse it). To recap, this is how they formulate the thesis.
Since inequality arises from the operation of innumerable preferences, it cannot be evil unless those preferences are themselves evil.
So, why should we believe this? It is noticeable that Joseph and Sumption’s conclusion is announced more or less ex cathedra. Equality contains no close analysis of ethical concepts, for example, and its writers do not appear to have done any serious empirical work on the psychology of preference - so I think that we can only take them to be appealing to some supposedly self-evident principle here. I should like to give this principle a grand title. ‘The Principle of the Conservation of Evil across Chain Connections’ would be appropriate, but that is a mouthful so I’ll stick to ‘principle A’. I take this principle to be the following.