The Right Coast

February 17, 2004
Where would you rather be born?
By Tom Smith

Brian Leiter has responded to my earlier posts that it was far from clear one would be better off being born into a Western European social democracy than into the good ol' USA. While it would be fun for this to deteriorate into a regular mud wrestling contest, I suspect that the issues involved are more subtle and interesting than that. I promise my readers more scurrilous attacks on the left in future postings, just not this one.

First, I would be very surprised if both the median and mean income of Americans in real terms (say, 2004 Euros, just to be multilateral about it) were not higher than all but a very few countries. I think Switzerland is higher and perhaps some small oil producing states. If this is the case, then a risk-neutral person, having just been yanked out of the well of souls, would tell the angel of destiny (or whatever s/he is called) to please, pull his name-to-be out of the urn marked USA, rather than say France or Germany. As our annoying law casebooks say, do you see why? The expected annual income in real terms would have to be higher for someone to be born randomly into the country with the higher mean income.

But, second, it is fair to object that risk neutrality does not really reflect our true psychological attitudes towards risk, nor perhaps our intuitions about justice. Rawls certainly did not think so. I would be willing to bet that France and Germany have a somewhat lower mean income, but also a lower variance among incomes. Their income bell curves, like their figures, tend to be smaller in the waist. While the latter is unambiguously a good thing, the former should be more controversial. If you were risk averse enough, you would by definition choose to be in the country in which you expected to be less rich, but at least could worry less about being poor. Perhaps it follows from this that justice (or something like it) requires universal social insurance. I doubt it, but this is a big issue, and not one I want to get into now. Personally, I would choose to be a tenured professor at a French university, have my kids' university, health care, retirement, vacations and God knows what else paid for by the state, with access to great book stores, museums, coffee, wine, food and the Alps, and with the streets crowded with beautiful women who like to dress well. Having been born French, I am assuming, bien sur, that all the annoying characteristics of the French would not bother me. Every devil loves the marsh where he was born! However, I think it would be hard to construct a theory of justice out of these preferences, indeed, vices.

Finally, you have to do something with the important fact that less socialist countries such as our own are much more dynamic in the sense that who is poor tends to be constantly changing. People are constantly moving up out of (and down into) poverty. It is really unjust when the great grandson of an industrial titan ends up poor because he is a disgusting slacker? Conversely, if you knew, for example, that you had an IQ of 140, you would be crazy to choose any but the USA urn. Presumably some credit must be given to modes of political economy that allow people to realize their talents more fully. Here I think the winner pretty clearly has to be more economically (and socially) open societies such as that in the US. Except conservative academics, of course. We're discriminated against.