31 July 2011

Who gets the Flute?

Falkenblog | Eric Falkenstein | Amartya Sen's Justice

I was reading The Idea of Justice by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, now in paperback, and he starts out with the following example.

Take three kids and a flute. Anne says the flute should be given to her because she is the only one who knows how to play it. Bob says the flute should be handed to him as he is so poor he has no toys to play with. Carla says the flute is hers because she made it.

Sen argues that who gets the flute depends on your philosophy of justice. Bob, the poorest, will have the support of the economic egalitarian. The libertarian would opt for Carla. The utilitarian will argue for Anne because she will get the maximum pleasure, as she can actually play the instrument. Sen states there are no institutional arrangements that can help us resolve this dispute in a universally accepted just manner.


I thought his initial thought example rather curious. Instead of asking how to allocate the flute between the three children, why not ask first under which rules would the flute have come into existence? If Carla knew she would not get the flute, she would not have made it. Therefore, just add a time dimension to the puzzle, and there's no puzzle at all: only a libertarian form of justice is consistent with the flute existing.
Time dimension: that's clever.  And important.

These are the kinds of questions I want presidential candidates to be asked in debates. There's no room for the hand-waving of "Well, when I was in Canton I visited a piccolo factory and I met Derek, and Derek is a single father supporting a three kids and he's afraid the factory that he works in, and his father worked in, and his father worked in, is going to get shut down because of unfair competition from [blah blah blah] China! [blah blah] hard-working Americans [blah blah blah] middle class [blah blah] 21st century win the future jobs infrastructure hollowing out high tech green American dream feel your pain lockbox [blah blah blah blah blah] and that's why when I'm president everyone will get free music lessons in elementary school! And a pony!"

Okay. STFU. Who gets the flute, Anne, Bob or Carla? Show your work.


  1. The egalitarians would just argue that Carla would never have been able to make the flute in the first place without the infrastructure provided by society, so she is really just exploiting the poor by keeping it herself.

  2. " only a libertarian form of justice is consistent with the flute existing."

    Genius insight!

  3. The utilitarian will argue for Anne because she will get the maximum pleasure, as she can actually play the instrument

    You got yourself a kid that sat down and made a flute? That works?

    Carla was able to make a working flute because she knows how to play one.

    Sen is a dumb ass.

  4. Heck with the debates - I'll ask each of the announced GOP candidates that via email.

    All I expect to get back is a form letter - but you never know.

  5. Brian, nice initiative. I'll have to do that too when I get a moment. Who knows, we might get one interesting response. (Maybe someone on Gary Johnson's staff will have something to say beyond "we value your input"? I can hope anyway.)

    Re: the hypothetical egalitarians -- the whole point of the infrastructure is to enable production. Creating the conditions possible for production is useless if the production itself never occurs. Taxation to pay for public goods is one thing, but punitive taxation on production (hinted at in the "exploiting the poor" bit) misses this point. This is part of why I find that idea of the temporal dimension so important: we are looking for policies in which public goods exist in the future AND flutes still get made.

  6. Hold on, what gives you the right to take the flute Carla made and decide who gets to keep it in the first place?

    "Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a sh!t about the rules? Mark it zero!"

  7. Good point. Double bonus points for quoting Walter in raising it.