apparently. Thanks to my friend Paul for passing along that link.

I think a rather enormous swath of libertarian arguments deserve the following response: you think aggregate economic output is important, but you care much less about the distribution of society’s wealth than I do. You seem to be concerned about spending money on, say, health care, and you make a lot of noise about how society can’t afford this or that. But when you drill down from the abstract principle to the detail, it all falls apart: society *can* afford to give free vaccinations to poor American children, or anti-malarial netting to African villages, or free lunches to every American schoolchild. Everyone knows we can afford this, because we afford spectacular amounts of waste on lots of things that do nothing to improve the lot of humankind.

Do I want to play the self-interest game here? No, I don’t, but I will for a moment. I could make a plausible argument, occupying just as many pages as Epstein’s [book: Mortal Peril], arguing that if we help out the poor in this country, we’ll make life better off for even the wealthy folks. Poor people spend a larger fraction of their income than the wealthy do. Give a poor person an extra dollar, and more of that dollar will go back into the economy than if a wealthy person gets that dollar. Help poor countries build sustainable infrastructure, and maybe they’ll be able to start buying cars — our cars! — rather than subsistence goods. I could bring in bits of the theory behind microfinance: the increased productivity from loaning someone a sewing machine, when all she’s previously had is a needle and thread, is much greater than the increase when you step up from a fleet of sewing machines to an industrial sewing operation. So investment in the poor may, in principle anyway, be better for investors than investment in wealthier folks. (One would have to take lots of detours along the way to explain why Citibank isn’t in a rush to fund sewing operations in remote Indian villages. I hinted in that direction in my review of that microfinance book.)

You know the counterarguments here just as well as I do: money to poor people will just go to drink and drugs; money to poor countries will just go to feather the nests of corrupt warlords. I could fill up my notional book responding to these arguments. I could fill it up with other arguments besides; I might, for instance, take up the thread that Jacob Hacker started in [book: The Great Risk Shift]: in the decades after World War II, corporations and the government bore more risk on our behalf, and the result was the greatest economic expansion the world has ever seen; in the last three decades, Americans have had to handle more of that risk on their own, which makes them frightened, which makes them hoard money and avoid things that capitalist economies are supposed to treasure, like starting new businesses. I might pull in some of Paul Krugman’s movement-defining [book: Conscience of a Liberal], and place the blame for this risk shift on the decline of unions. Then I might bow in the direction of Tom Geoghegan’s [book: Which Side Are You On?], exploring the causes and consequences of this union decline (hint: the decline was not accidental, and it’s not irreversible, though things certainly don’t look good for unions).

The general arc of this notional book might be that people like Epstein focus far too much on what individual economic actors do, too little on the economic institutions that make their actions possible, and too little on how interdependent our economic lives are. I might bring in one of my favorite books of recent years, Tom Slee‘s (ironically titled, if it’s not clear) [book: No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart], which argues these points more clearly than anything else I’ve read. You can’t afford health insurance? Neither can a lot of your countrymen; insurance suffers from a well-known death spiral that makes this entirely predictable. It’s not safe for your kids to walk to school? It may well be because other parents decided it wasn’t safe for *their* kids to walk to school, so they drove their kids to school instead — thereby leaving unprotected the kids who still chose to walk.

In the face of this economic picture that suggests the need for coordinated action, all Epstein and his libertarian ilk can give us is the purported Ultimate Justice of the contract that makes us all equal before the law. “The law, in its majestic equality,” wrote Anatole France, “forbids the rich as well as the the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

This notional book of mine, based on certain core beliefs I hold about our responsibility to the least fortunate, would have just as much inherent plausibility as Richard Epstein’s. I’m not convinced that either his book or mine would sway anyone. I suspect that you either come at the world thinking that people get what they deserve (hence that their suffering is their own fault), and that no one else can give you bootstraps to pull up; or that there’s a great measure of chance in everything we do, and that it’s the job of a just society to insulate people from risks beyond their control. I fall squarely into the latter camp. When phrased that way, I think most Americans would come along with me. Maybe this book should be something more than notional.