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.


Anonymous said...

On behalf of the Storey Institute and the blog post, let me assure you that one fundamental premise on which you are operating is wrong: we do not equate "redistribution" with socialism. Redistribution is a socialist scheme but is not socialism per se. It is a policy socialists advocate as a temporary way station toward socialism. So it is socialist without necessarily being socialism.

We do, however, see upward redistribution of wealth to be very damaging, and worse than downward redistribution. However, we would also argue that most downward redistribution is a cover for the upward redistribution. You mention Social Security as an example of upward redistribution. We would agree but note it is sold as being the opposite. Similarly, loans to college students are sold as helping poor students, but it subsidizes individuals who will have incomes higher than the average taxpayer.

Now, why is there envy involved in all of this? Envy is hatred of people having what you don't have. It is a desire that is willing to inflict self harm in order to punish those who are better off. We see that all around today and it is pushed by socialists (though not socialists alone).

Hating "rich Jews" was the envy behind Nazism. Hating land owners and the black middle class was the envy behind Mugabe's actions. Hating better off English and Jewish citizens was the inspiration behind apartheid by Afrikanerdom.

There is a knee jerk envy in America where socialists want to harm corporations not because they are crony capitalists, but because they are wealthy. We see it with the attacks on tech workers in San Francisco who are being protested against merely because they have well paying jobs.

These are schemes often sold as redistributionist, but they are not. Mugabe's "land reform" didn't redistribute land to the poor, but only to Mugabe cronies. The attacks on tech workers makes no one better off. I would argue that while redistribution is often used to disguise an envy inspired policy not all such polices lead to redistribution, nor are they meant to. They are often pushed just to harm those who are better off.

However, the short essay to which you are replying, was never meant to be a complete statement on such matters. It was meant to only serve as an introduction.

Moorfield Storey Institute

Gabriel Conroy said...

Thank you for taking the time to comment. (And let me add that I'm a fan of your blog, even though I don't count myself a libertarian. I especially like your antepenultimate post from a while back on group rights.)

I don't have any particular objection to the claims you make about upward redistribution sold as downward, or about envy, although I'm too ignorant of Mugabe or how apartheid developed in South Africa.

And you can see I hedged a little, by conflating your view of socialism with my view of downward redistributionism. I guess I wanted to have my cake and eat someone else's, too!

The main point where I see things differently is that I do support some sort of welfare floor, even knowing that in practice it might redistribute things in some ways upward rather than downward and even if some liberty is sacrificed. I see that as part of the price to pay to ensure my end.

But with limits. It's easy for me to talk about "in some ways" upwardly redistributing or restricting liberty, as long as it's not my wealth or liberty being restricted. How much is too much? I'm not sure I can answer that.

I guess as a practical matter, for example, I support food stamps, but would prefer that the recipients have as much freedom to buy what they want with them. I would support guaranteed minimum income, if I were convinced it would be done with as little intrusiveness (to the recipient) as possible and not just a token granted in exchange for eviscerating other supports. I do support the PPACA, with all its problems, because I think the end result will (hopefully) be better than the pre-PPACA system, although its critics might very well be proved right across the board on that policy.

Gabriel Conroy said...

Now that I've re-read your comment, I have an additional comment on this: "Redistribution is a socialist scheme but is not socialism per se. It is a policy socialists advocate as a temporary way station toward socialism. So it is socialist without necessarily being socialism."

First, by socialism, do you mean something like Soviet-style communism? If not that, then you appear to mean something like socialism as an ideal type that includes, for example, nationalization of most industries and the hyper-control of the economy that we associate with the more centralized administrations in the world.

That's okay as a definition. But I don't think, then, that American post-New Deal liberalism really fits. If we can posit a post-New Deal liberalism that is coherent, I doubt that we can say that "it" embraces socialism as you appear to be defining it. I think a huge chunk of post-New Deal American liberalism is of the social welfare floor model: ensure people don't fall below a certain standard, but otherwise try to allow something like a freer economy to work. Maybe the two are incompatible--I don't think so, but I do recognize that there's a tension there.

I might be parsing your definition of "socialism" too closely, but "socialism" is one of those words that means so many things to so many people. And in my opinion, it's clumsy even when well-defined, because no matter how well-defined, it evokes those different connotations. There's a lot of daylight between food stamp programs, the Labour governments such as we saw in the UK from ca. 1945 until Thatcher, and the Soviet Union.