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Who Is Morally Obliged to Pay to Level the Playing Field?

A sure sign that someone is making an argument for a policy that will unjustly pick the pockets of consumers in order to artificially and unjustly inflate the revenues of some producers is that person’s use of the term “level playing field.”  This phrase is almost always a smiley-face mask for a plea for special privileges for certain producers.  (I say “almost always,” although I honestly cannot recall a single instance of the phrase “level playing field” being used in any way other than the way I describe here.  I could easily and truthfully drop the “almost.”)

There are many good arguments against this prevalent protectionist excuse.  (I made some of them in this October 2011 article in Economic Affairs.)  Here, though, I ask some questions while granting, arguendo, the dubious assumption that company B in country X deserves protection against the subsidized competition of companies A and C in country Y: Who, exactly, is morally obliged to supply or to pay for this protection?  Why are consumers or taxpayers in country A obliged to pay to protect company B from the “unfair” competition inflicted on company B by government Y‘s subsidies or other privileges dispensed to companies A and C?

Put differently, even if we unanimously agree that B is unjustly harmed by the actions of Y, it does not at all follow that the parties responsible for paying to protect B from Y‘s predations, or to compensate B for losses suffered as a result of Y‘s predations, are B’s fellow citizens.

For example, let’s grant – again, arguendo – that Boeing is unjustly harmed by special privileges dispensed by foreign governments to Boeing’s foreign competitors.  What theory of morality dictates that an ethical responsibility for rescuing Boeing from this injustice resides with American consumers and taxpayers?  I can think of no such theory.

Let’s say that we are Smith’s neighbors.  If Jones steals Smith’s car, we would all agree that Smith has been unjustly harmed.  But presumably we would all also agree that Smith would inflict unjust harm on us if Smith then hired an armed gang to force us, his neighbors, to recompense him for his loss.  Smith’s protestations that he is forcing us, because we are his neighbors, to give him some of our money only because another wrongdoer – someone from another neighborhood – robbed him of some of his wealth would hardly begin to rise to an ethically acceptable reason for Smith’s aggression against us.  We wouldn’t tolerate such aggression by Smith, and any sympathies we might have had for Smith’s misfortune would immediately turn into justified antipathy toward Smith for his presuming that we, innocent people who happen to be his neighbors, have an obligation – one enforceable by threats of coercion – to protect him from the ill consequences of someone else’s wrongdoing.


Again, I do not believe that European-government subsidies to Airbus violate any moral rights of Boeing’s shareholders, workers, or suppliers.  (Such subsidies do violate the moral rights of European citizens, but that’s a different story.)  But even if I were to change my mind and come to regard subsidies to Airbus as a violation of Boeing’s moral rights, it would not at all follow that forcing American citizens to compensate Boeing for its misfortune would itself be moral.  Quite the contrary


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