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Monday, April 28, 2014

Not all redistributionist schemes are reducible to envy

The Moorfield Storey blog has a brief rundown on "liberalism, as originally and properly understood."  That post gives a brief summary of what, I imagine, most present day libertarians and people who identify as "classical liberals" or "nineteenth-century liberals" believe.  And it's not too bad a view.

My main problem with it, though, is its parting discussion on inequality and "socialism" or modern-day, American liberalism.  Under pure (or as pure as possible) classical liberalism, there will be much wealth creation, and
[w]hen this happens there w ill be economic inequality. But so what? Why should everyone be equally poor? The poor will have their living standards vastly improved, and the wealthy will be even wealthier. If prosperity is our goal then why worry about an inequality of results?

And this is the crucial difference between liberalism and socialism (or what goes by the name “liberalism” in America today). Liberalism, based on an ethics of achievement, advocates equal freedom, which leads to unequal results. Socialism, based on the ethics of envy, demands equal results, which requires limiting freedom. Thus with liberalism we have freedom, prosperity, and unequal wealth. With socialism we have equality, poverty, and no freedom. As much as we might want there to be a third alternative, it doesn’t exist.
For starters, I do believe that economic inequality is not necessarily a bad thing.  I think its goodness or badness has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.  And I'm not going to presumptively say it's always bad.  I also don't have much of a problem with the notion that "socialism" requires some limiting of freedom and that limiting freedom is a bad thing, although I'm not so sure that limiting freedom is always the worse option and I do believe if it is an evil, it can sometimes be a necessary one.

I object, however, to the implication that redistributionism is necessarily the same thing as the search for "equal results" or is reducible to "the ethics of envy."  Now, the Moorfield Storey Blog's authors do not say "redistributionism," and not all redistributionism is socialism, but I think their framing of the issue suggests that all redistributionism is indeed reducible to the "ethics of envy."

I should define what I mean by "redistributionism."  The term can have two senses.  The first is "downard" redistribution.  That refers to schemes that try to transfer wealth from those who have more to those who have less.  The second is "upward."  That refers to the opposite, or the transfer of wealth from those who have less to those who have more.

In practice, resistributionist schemes aren't so neatly divided.  Social Security, for example, operates  as a regressive tax on workers in order to supplement the incomes of older people who in the aggregate have more.  And as far as I know, what one receives from Social Security is partly a function of how much one has worked, but is not a function of means.  In other words, it's not that the poorer seniors receive more and the richer ones receive less.  That is a redistribution in the second sense.  But one of the functions of Social Security--and the goal of the Francis Townsend supporters it was meant to satisfy--was to create something like a floor-level income for the oldest persons, a minimum below which they were not supposed to fall.  Establishing such a floor can in practice act as something that seems like a downward redistribution when, for example, an older person who has worked all his or her life but earned too little to save for retirement receives a basic income.  Even in those cases, there are complicating factors.  The older person has already lived to x age, while any given younger worker who contributes may not live so long.

By the standards of Moorfield Storey's authors, the downward redistributionism is necessarily an effort to satisfy "envy," to satisfy some people's sense that "those others have more than I, therefore I want some of that or I deserve some of that."*  It's the "therefore" in the preceding quotation that implies envy.  Wanting something because others have it is pretty much a good working definition of envy.  And that is probably one motivation for schemes deemed "socialistic" or "New Deal and beyond American liberal" if we assume New Deal liberalism and its successors to be primarily downward redistributionist.

I have my doubts, both about how the New Deal worked in practice and what most policymakers' intentions were, but downward redistribution was indeed in the air and was probably part of the mix.  The Townsendites I mentioned above based some of their appeal on the narrative that some in America really did have more than enough and should share it.  And Francis Townsend's counterparts on the "thunder from the left" that challenged FDR ca. 1935--I'm thinking primarily of Father Coughlin and Huey Long--based their appeals on a presumed surfeit of wealth commanded by a small number of people.  And that type of discussion did not end with the depression.

Note the post 2008-recession complaints about some of the 1% who "hoard" wealth instead of interjecting it into the economy.  It's hard not to see a tinge of envy in most of those complaints.

But it's not only envy.  It's something else, perhaps not instead of, but in addition to, envy.  It's a desire to have a measure of security or to ensure that people's basic needs are being met.  It's not so much, or at least not always, that people are saying "they have more and I want it," but "life is hard and it would be easier if certain basics were guaranteed or less costly."  What counts as the "basics" changes.  Two hundred years ago, running water in the US might not have been seen as a basic.  Now it is.  30 years ago, cell phones were not a necessity.  Now they are, if not a necessity, less of a luxury.  (When my wife and I order food delivered, and our doorbell doesn't work, we tend to take it for granted that the delivery person will have a cell phone to call us to come down and get the food.).

Now, envy is implicated even here.  The rising definition of "basics" is presumed upon a certain general wealth.  If nobody had running water, we probably could not demand it as a basic need.  Also, if we return to my one sentence, that "life is hard and it would be easier if certain basics were guaranteed or less costly," the last four words should read "less costly for me."  We probably can't do away with scarcity by fiat, so someone is presumed to be capable of paying for it all.  And it's quite easy to posit a certain elite group that has--or hoards--the wealth.  It's hard not to see envy at work there.

But it's not wholly envy.  It's something different, at the same time something more and something less.  To bait it as the "ethics of envy" is to elide some very important issues.

*I should also point out that whoever authors the Moorfield Storey blog is pretty consistent and would probably oppose upward redistributionism, too.  I wouldn't in fact be surprised if they believe that upward redistribution is the worse evil or if they believe that downward redistribution trends toward upward.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The harried ones, those Nobel seekers of truth

A specter is haunting America, the specter of anti-science.  In the recurrent ritual of disclosing what fools people can be, a recent article in The Atlantic discusses one of those periodic polls that discloses some purportedly disturbing example about Americans' scientific ignorance.  In this case, the poll in question reveals that
[a] majority of Americans don't believe in even the most fundamental discovery of 20th century physics, which 99.9 percent of members of the National Academies of Sciences do: that our universe began with an enormous explosion, the Big Bang.
The article goes on to discuss the possible reasons for these results and suggests that such attitudes don't present much that is new, and because it's not necessarily new, we shouldn't worry as much.  After all, science has been going along despite such appalling ignorance and/or anti-science.  In fact, the "good news" is that Americans compare favorably to respondents in other countries, which means that the situation in the U.S. is "[n]ot so bad, though probably not too heartening to our Nobel Prize winners."

This article is better than most.  It tries to historicize this ignorance, which I appreciate.   And it interrogates the way the questions were asked:
It is worth noting, however, that the way the question was framed gathers at least two possible different groups into the "not confident" bin: A) people who hold a different belief about the beginning of the universe and B) people who just don't know, and might have been scared off from saying they were "confident" in an answer.
To be fair, going further may have been beyond the scope of the article's point, and perhaps there was a word-limit the author had to observe, but I still wish the article had gone further.  Another reason--perhaps it's a subset of reason A)--someone might say they are "not confident" that the universe began with the big bang might be a different conception of what we mean by "universe" or even what we mean by "the big bang."

Is the universe all that is in existence?  What does it mean to exist?  Was the pinpoint of energy/matter/whatever from which the Big Bang came enclosed in anything?  Can we speak of a "universe," the sum of all things, as being enclosed in something without suggesting that the something doing the enclosing is also part of the sum of all things and also the--or "a"--universe?  What about cycles?  Maybe the "universe" expands and contracts, and what we call the Big Bang was what happened right after the last contraction, and soon the universe will roll again into a tiny ball and then expand outward into the overwhelming question of our last end and first beginning.

Maybe there is an answer to those questions that doesn't disturb the universe as "99.9 percent of members of the National Academies of Sciences" know it.  I have my doubts that science, as science, is capable of answering some of those questions.  I suspect there's not a scientific way to define the universe that is falsifiable.  One might conjure a definition, and then use that definition as a metric to prove or disprove the universe's origins or oscillations.  But I have a hard time believing the actual definition can be scientifically known.

Yeah, but....are all these respondents thinking along those lines, are they really positing a philosophical challenge to what they might see as pat answers to our existence?  Maybe not.  Or at least I'll stipulate that most are not doing so explicitly.  Maybe the non-confidence really does relate to "faith-based" and religious-based conflicts to which the article alludes (and thankfully doesn't dwell on) in passing.

But to paraphrase (and perhaps benignly misinterpret) William James, can't the cash-value of religious beliefs about the nature of the universe act as a shorthand for these questions, for the mystery of what are the contours of our being and of the world in general?  To ask the question is to make the argument, and yes, I believe religiosity can and often does do this.  How often?  I don't know, but I suspect that it's more frequent than a poll can capture.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

(Pseudo)Name Change!

As of today, I'm changing my online persona from "Pierre Corneille" to "Gabriel Conroy."  No particular reason.  Just that I think it's time for a change.