thoughts on Wilkinson’s views on income inequality

Will Wilkinson has done yeoman’s work in his recent posts regarding income inequality, and in articulating some of my own dissatisfaction with certain liberal narratives regarding income inequality. A key graf:

If we find that redistribution is required to arrive at a system that does the best it can for everyone, then justice will demand redistribution. But the point of redistribution isn’t to correct some flaw (e.g., too much inequality) in the pattern of incomes. The point is to make sure everyone has reason enough to affirm the system in which they will live their lives.

This, I think, is exactly it. The purpose of liberal social programs is above all to provide for a certain minimum threshold in several main areas of basic human security and comfort. Whether we have the responsibility to provide this kind of social safety net, to what degree, and the efficacy of individual programs within it are all questions worthy of debate, and we do endlessly. But they are actual questions about the actual content of government ventures, whereas the debate about income inequality is, as Wilkinson says, epiphenomenal, and thus tangential to the questions of social justice that compel us. I remain open to the possibility that there are problems with income inequality qua income inequality, and I’m happy to hear more arguments about it. I do think that one argument that is given short shrift is the idea that inequality in consumption can lead to social unrest, particularly in an era of conspicuous consumption. (This tends to be taken as a rather silly idea; I imagine French aristocrats in, oh, the mid-eighteenth century would have found the idea rather silly, but come to have reasons to change their mind.) Still, I generally have come to feel that arguing about inequality, rather than about how that inequality manifests itself in social injustice, is silly, and arguing by proxy.

In the defense of liberal pundits, they argue by proxy, to a degree, because they have to. They argue about the side issue of income inequality because they feel prevented by the narrow bounds of our political discourse, and how it defines seriousness, from arguing straightforwardly about redistributive practices to fund social programs. You can’t be too enthusiastic about redistribution if you want to remain employable and in good social standing. So they argue on the margins in order to address more radical notions of redistributive justice. (As I have no real professional ambitions and am a social disaster, I am immune to such concerns.)

Wilkinson writes responses to John Chait and Matt Yglesias and Conor Clarke, which deal with income inequality, the justifications for redistribution and the necessity (or lack thereof) of utilitarianism to that end.

Most importantly, utilitarianism is false. I don’t know about Conor, but I know Matt and I disagree about this. Like Rawls, I think the fact that utilitarianism is completely indifferent to the question of whether an individual’s income and wealth is or is not a result of exchange according to fair procedures is one of the main reasons it is false. How we came to have what we have matters. Utilitarianism says it doesn’t matter. So utilitarianism is false. As far as I’m concerned, the main reason you can’t just take my TV or take the money out of my wallet and give it to somebody who would get more out of it is that it’s my TV, it’s my money. It’s not yours to redistribute.

I find this a very concise and well-argued definition of property rights. Like Wilkinson, I am not a utilitarian. Further, like Wilkinson, I think that we do have certain expectations of property rights, and that violating those rights does represent to some degree an injustice. I want to argue that we can reject a utilitarian vision of redistribution, support Wilkinson’s belief in property rights (with limits), and still believe in an expanded amount of redistribution to ameliorate social injustice. I believe that the first priority of both liberalism and society is to help those at the bottom, and to establish “floors” of minimal standards for all citizens in certain key areas of human security and comfort– food, clothing, shelter, health care, education. I believe that such a prioritization can be supported not by a utilitarian viewpoint but by a contractual system similar to the one that Wilkinson believes binds his television to him.

American political history, and in particular America’s zeal for anti-Marxist propaganda, has obscured the very elementary logic that undergirds redistributive practice. To put it simply, the problem with America’s economy is not one of insufficient total resources to ensure that all Americans meet minimum standards in the basics of life. There is more than enough abundance to go around, in other words, to ensure that everyone has at least minimally adequate security in those basics. On top of that, I believe, there is still more than enough material and financial abundance to create various strata of levels of consumption and affluence. I don’t believe that this is a controversial proposition, although I’m happy to hear it if people disagree. I am, like Wilkinson, an internationalist, and the question of whether the entire world’s population could be adequately provided for by the collective resources of the world is, I think, a more complicated question, although I’m inclined to answer in the affirmative. For the moment, I have this thing called the state, and my particular state, I think, contains enough resources so that if those resources were distributed in a certain way, all of our citizens would be able to meet my minimal thresholds.

The problem with society is then the distribution of resources throughout the population. Some people do not have enough, but the system itself has more than enough. This remains a society of almost ludicrous abundance and affluence, even after the elimination of much of our imaginary cash. Your television, Web browser and favorite celebrity glossies can tell you that much. I am hardly the only person who has felt the cognitive whiplash of turning the channel from a news story about some desperately poor and deeply suffering people in this country to an episode of Cribs and watching some gentleman with poor taste show off his eight cars. There is nothing radical, immoral or undemocratic about believing that it would be better if that gentleman had 7 cars and that some number of people could have the $100K he paid for it to pay their rents and remain off the streets. It is in this sense that there is a little Marx in all of us.

This privileging of the value of minimal standards is not utilitarian. A utilitarian viewpoint would insist that redistributing wealth to those at the bottom would be moral only if the total amount of happiness/utility increased as a result of doing so. I can easily imagine a situation where this may not be the case. Indeed, utilitarianism insist that it is unjust to redistribute if doing so lowers collective utility, even if the people at the bottom are truly suffering. (This would be a situation where the suffering of the poorest was extreme, but where the people in the middle and upper classes outnumbered them by a high enough margin.) But if we believe that the first purpose of social spending is to alleviate the ailments of the people at the bottom, and not to raise overall utility, then redistributing wealth is justified regardless of overall utility.

There’s some huge question begging going on here, of course, and much to unpack. Whether the state has an obligation to provide such minimums is certainly debatable, as is whether it has the right to appropriate money for that purpose. I am trying to point out, though, that a contractual vision of redistribution is possible, preferable to a utilitarian one and more in keeping with certain facets of what I take Wilkinson’s argument to be.

Consider, for example, two aspects of income inequality that Wilkinson argues about, diminishing scales of utility and the “leaky bucket” problem. John Chait writes

Wilkinson is saying the rich are getting little (in the case of luxury goods like refrigerators) or zero (in the case of real estate and higher tuition) actual benefit from their rising incomes. So why not take some of that income away and use it to buy extremely useful but currently unaffordable things for the non-rich, like, oh, basic medical care?

Here, again, the man with the 8 cars, and the family who will be on the street for lack of $600 for rent. I find there to be some simple, intuitive moral truth to the idea that the family should have the money for rent before the guy should have his 8th car, regardless of how he came to possess the money necessary to pay for it. Wilkinson replies with the argument that is at the center of libertarian economic argumentation and wonkish conservative argument.

It’s a strong argument. It turns on the fact that the next dollar can be devoted to economic production as well as consumption. When the return (in utility) to investment in production is greater than the return from anyone’s consumption, utilitarianism forbids using the next dollar for consumption.

This is the crux of things, and the beginning of my disagreement with Wilkinson. That taxation can sometimes slow the growth of economic production I don’t dispute. That job growth is an absolutely essential element of an abundant republic I don’t dispute either. What I dispute is the simplicity with which many economic conservatives have told this story, their certainty about the outcomes of limiting taxation and the degree to which their claims are unverifiable and unknowable. Yes, there are times when excessive taxation crowds out economic production and limits job growth, and we should make every effort to limit that taxation. But the idea that every dollar taxed represents some loss to the economy that would invariably and inevitably lead to more jobs and more American abundance is just not on. Simply because we know that sometimes government programs limit growth doesn’t mean that eliminating programs necessarily leads to growth. Every dollar we stop taxing does not, in fact, invariably end up in the pocket of some hard-working American. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it just goes back to the coffers of whichever corporation is making the most money in the first place. It’s similar to the old arguments about trickle-down economics. Yes, the money can trickle down. Often it doesn’t, and saying that it always does is empty orthodoxy.

And there’s no way to know. It’s an inherent fact about the invisible nature of movements of capital throughout the marketplace that we don’t know, actually, when money that is no longer taxed actually returns to the people through job growth or better compensation. Conservatives and libertarians use that lack of knowledge to assert that in fact there is a nearly complete transfer from taxation to workers, and sadly liberals have largely allowed them to do it. Perversely, this happens in a context where we know very well the number of people who are suffering for lack of social spending programs that can ameliorate poverty, joblessness and lack of health care. This happens in a context where it is at least debatable whether any particular restriction on government spending has provided the kind of benefit in economic growth that offsets the lack of the spending.

I have been deeply frustrated by Reihan Salam’s recent output, as he has grown increasingly aggrieved at the fact that people don’t roll over to the idea that limiting taxation to spur growth is almost always a productive bargain for society.  When he says, “policies that make job creation less likely are socially destructive,” he is not only privileging certain social goods over others, he’s making a great cognitive leap regarding when eliminating social policies actually spur job creation. When he argues for Texan conservatism over Californian progressivism, he is arguing in favor of gains that very well may exist, but may not, and in the context of poverty rates and rates of those without health insurance that we know are staggeringly high. There’s no need to wonder about the number of people so afflicted. This is an aspect of contemporary conservatism I can’t understand, privileging the hypothetical people who might be being denied jobs over the very real people who just are lacking in adequate social goods. But when you assume that there is a very clear and simple connection between limiting government and job creation, and further that you know it occurs and that it outweighs the good of social programs that could otherwise be conducted, well… you end up in a place where you are writing posts that essentially assert that all of the good things about Texas are a product of its conservatism, but none of the bad are.

Anyway. To return to comparative utility– even if Wilkinson is right to reject claims to diminishing utility of wealth, that doesn’t mean that we can’t privilege the dollar that goes to pay for medicine over the dollar that goes to a third flatscreen. We don’t have to, that is, if we imagine as I do that there is a social contract which obligates us as a society to pursue a minimal threshold of living standards. The question of diminishing utility asks us to measure the happiness of the person whose wealth has been appropriated and the wealth of the person or people to whom it is distributed, and the question of whether so doing is just depends entirely on the relative amounts of happiness. A vision of a social contract to provide minimum standards for all citizens, however, does not take either the good of the one being appropriated from or the one being distributed to as the only or even primary concern. We say instead that we as a society have decided that the best interest of all of us is served when we establish our minimal thresholds, and that the individual utility of a given redistributive transaction is ultimately less important than the broader perspective of fulfilling the meeting of our social contract.

Wilkinson also provides a really concise and smart gloss on the “leaky bucket” problem.

[I]n the real world redistribution is a “leaky bucket.” It costs money to collect a dollar. It costs money to transfer a dollar. And taxes and transfers certainly do affect incentives. The fraction of the dollar left for consumption at the end of the transfer varies a great deal from place to place and depends on a lot of things. But there are many real-world scenarios in which the fraction is so small that even a modest return from investment in production can rule out utility-maximizing redistribution.

This is all true, and it is a problem, if we assume that the greatest problem is in how much water ends up wasted on the floor. What my vision of a contractual redistribution prefers is, rather than thinking of a leaky bucket, we think about moving water between cups. When we pour water from one cup to the next, in this metaphor, we inevitably spill some on the ground. The utilitarian vision of redistribution, which seeks to spread the water throughout the cups in whatever way produces the most happiness, has to be deeply concerned with the water splashed on the floor, because it represents a very real loss in potential happiness. But the contractual model imagines a line drawn near the bottom of each cup (and where the line exactly goes is the stuff of democracy), and each cup must, according to our social contract, be filled up to that line. Anything less we consider unacceptable. And we pour until that line is met in every cup, acknowledging that there will be some spilling. That doesn’t mean we don’t care; we do everything we can to minimize the spillage. And we take great care to take water from one full cup or the other in some sort of equitable way. But we fill every cup up to the blue line, because we won’t accept less. If you believe in the breadth and depth of American abundance the way that I do, you think that we can both fill the bottoms of everyone’s cup and still have a whole lot of very tall, very full cups.

All of this depends, of course, on the state taking people’s money away. I don’t take this lightly. I do think Wilkinson has a legitimate claim to his television, and that it is unfortunate if in the process of meeting our socially established minimums the state were to take away the money for his TV. I’m afraid that to this very legitimate complaint, I have only liberal boilerplate to offer. First, as much as Wilkinson may have a right to have as much money to own that TV– just as our celebrity friend might have the right to own 8 cars– I question whether that right trumps the right of a person to eat, to sleep indoors, or to receive treatment for illness or injury. On a first principles level, I do believe in positive rights. And if what we take from Wilkinson or the car enthusiast ultimately amounts to a not punishing amount of what they earn, and if they are both in a certain degree of relative comfort, then I think that version of redistribution is just, up until the point where we can provide for our safety net. The point isn’t at all to take away Wilkinson’s right to his television or someone’s right to 8 cars. If they can do so after taxation, more power to them. But if in the commission of meeting the social standards we want we tax Wilkinson to the point where he must buy a smaller TV or the celeb to the point where he forgoes his eighth car, so be it.

More importantly, Wilkinson has had the ability to earn the money for his TV because he lives in a free and stable society. The state and our society provide him with historically unprecedented levels of safety, security, and opportunity. Boot-strapping rhetoric consistently fails to appreciate the degree to which we have an economy and jobs and growth because we have a government that creates the security and infrastructural reality that makes them possible. Too many conservatives underestimate the degree to which their success is predicated on the continued work of the government they deride, although Wilkinson, I believe does not. Incidentally, Wilkinson can expect that his property rights to his television can be enforced because of a state with the ability to enforce them. His right to property most certainly is not given to him by the state. But his expectation of the enforcement of those rights is.

There’s much more that could be said. I want to be upfront about the fact that whether it is right to prefer a system of minimal guarantees of social security is of course debatable, and I am operating under many assumptions that may be attacked. But I wanted to point out that we can envision a redistributive system that doesn’t require a utilitarian perspective, and also to show that a liberal can support Will Wilkinson’s position towards income inequality more closely than Jon Chait’s. Income inequality does concern me, there’s no doubt. The fact that capitalism is often not a zero-sum game doesn’t mean that it never is, and to some degree the rich getting richer often does come at the expense of the poor getting poorer. But let’s confront that problem by insisting on solving the problem of the poor getting poorer, not by having philosophical conversations of dubious worth about the meta issue of inequality. I am far less interested in making people equal than I am in making them safe, happy and free.

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78 thoughts on “thoughts on Wilkinson’s views on income inequality

  1. Interesting post… but it seems to me that the “injustice” of inequality is relational in essence and is not based on any particular baseline.

    Cutting down the tall poppies also gets rid of the injustice.

    We’ve got a guy who plays basketball and makes a kabillion dollars a year, owns three houses, 12 cars, and has 10 kids. Let’s bust out some Job and break his knees, burn down his houses, crash his cars, and kill his children. (We’ll have Satan do all these things and get rid of any moral problems that way.)

    There is no more inequality… and the problem of “justice” and “injustice” goes away.

    But you aren’t one whit better. That kid in the inner city isn’t one whit better (well, if he enjoyed watching Job play basketball he may be psychically worse off). No one is any better off at all. And Job went from Up Here to Down Here. So, arguably, people are *WORSE* off.

    And yet the problem of justice isn’t there anymore.

    If justice exists in perception only but is not intrinsic to anything… well, it’s not justice anymore. It’s just applied envy.

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  2. Freddie, Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I suspect our views may be even closer together than you think. In discussing the marginal utility of consumption vs. production, I was taking on the utilitarian argument on its own terms. In prioratarian contractualist terms, the argument would be that even the worst off class would prefer investment in production rather than progressive redistribution if production leaves them better off over time.

    I think where moderate classical liberal and welfare liberals often part ways is over the importance of a government guarantee of the basic minimum. (Again I’ll recommend my guru David Schmidtz, this time his paper “Guarantees.”) I favor the system that in fact tends to do the best for the worst off. That may or may not involve redistribution. Many welfare liberals think this is too weak in the sense that the provision of the minimum can seem incidental to the purpose of the overall socio-economic scheme. In my experience, many welfare liberals seem to think that when redistribution is made a matter of public policy, it signals our collective commitment to ensuring that the minimum is met, and this kind of political expression of social cohesion or solidarity is so valuable that it makes redistribution preferable even when a non-redistributive means to achieving the minimum leaves everyone better off. I think a similar line of thinking stands behind opposition to social insurance schemes based on what I call “vertical” or intrapersonal redistribution — redistribution from an one stage of a person to a later stage through mandatory savings programs. I am convinced that a vertically redistributive Singapore-style health care system is the best thing going in prioritarian terms. But I think a lot of welfare liberals oppose it anyway because of the weight they put on the symbolic meaning of interpersonal (horizontal) redistribution.

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    • When “leaves everyone better off” means that some are better off to the tune of multiples of the yearly income that is produced for those who merely receive the minimum we set to declare the system a success, the motivation for a more interventionist redistributive model may become clearer. This clearly leaves those with that attitude open to the charge of wanting to soak the rich, or even of limiting the economic potential of fellow citizens. Some of them might in turn respond, “Feature not bug.”

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  3. This is one hell of a post, Freddie that’s stimulated a lot of thoughts in my mind (I can think of at least four follow-up posts that I’d like to do). A few thoughts:

    1. Your central argument for a contract-based justification for redistribution sounds basically correct to me. I actually think it could be an even stronger argument than you realize and is similar to the argument that won me over to the view that redistribution is morally justifiable and even morally required for the purpose of creating a minimal standard of living. The basic structure of this stronger version of the argument would be that the existence of the State is what allows the wealthy to become wealthy, and that this is to at least some degree at the expense of the poor. I would argue that the ideal (but obviously unachievable) aim of redistribution ought to be to estimate the amount of redistribution that the existence of the state creates from the poor to the rich. The rich get to keep the productivity gains they achieve with that money but need to, in essence, repay the money that they have received from the poor via the existence of the state. The “interest” on this loan is the recognition that minimal standards of living will increase over time. If I have the time, I’d like to explore this concept of redistribution as repayment of a loan in more depth, but I think this gives the basic gist of things.

    2. The emphasis of liberals on inequality as a justification for redistribution in and of itself has long puzzled me. If it’s a moral justification, then it validates every libertarian and conservative argument that modern liberal redistribution is nothing short of class warfare and/or ultimately aimed at a return to socialism. If it’s a utilitarian justification, then it lacks any compelling moral dimension and is also as equally unprovable as libertarian and conservative arguments that a given redistribution will be economically harmful.

    3. Although I think you’re right that libertarians and conservatives are often far too certain about their own utilitarian arguments against redistribution, the fact that liberal utilitarian arguments are equally unprovable leaves them at a distinct disadvantage on most questions. This is because Americans are for the most part conservative, at least in the sense that they are disinclined to support change so long as they are generally satisfied with their own personal position. As between two equally unprovable utilitarian claims, Americans will thus tend to side with the claim that argues that change will cause more harm than good. To be sure, there are times when you can get Americans to support a given change on utilitarian grounds – but those tend to be limited to situations where the average person will experience the effects of that change directly (e.g., tax cuts, federal prescription drug benefits). Libertarians and conservatives run into the same type of problem when they try to do things like make changes to Social Security – in that case, the utilitarian argument will almost always be a loser for libertarians and conservatives and a winner for liberals.

    4. The only explanation I can think of for why we’ve seen the proliferation of inequality-based arguments for redistribution in recent years is that liberals have misunderstood the nature of conservative and libertarian arguments against redistribution in the past, in essence believing their own caricature that those arguments were really just transparent justifications for helping the rich at the expense of the poor.

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    • This is a great post Mark. I especially like #1. I’d even buy into the idea that we owe a certain minimum standard to the poor as part of societies reward to them for not rising up en masse and burning the whole thing down. My primary concern would be that the minimal standard provided should be sufficient to preserve life and health but should not in much of any way provide happiness.

      To put it to the American creed I’d think that the proper roles of Liberals should be providing the bare essentials necessary for life (but not comfort!!!) and of course the libertarians (and conservatives if they’d ever pull their heads from there.. never mind..) would be in charge of zealously defending our liberty (but compromised liberty of course since the Liberals would need resources to sustain bare bones life) and the individual should be exclusively responsible for their pursuit and attainment (but especially responsible for their failure to attain!) happiness. Life Liberty and the pursuit of happiness; what could be more American?

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    • Great comment, Mark. On your point number two, what I find frustrating is that my experience has shown that liberals fall into both camps.

      The movement successfully and uncritically marries the two justifications in a way that can be politically productive, if not an imperfect advocacy of each side’s fundamental goals. (of course there are issues where the same thing happens with conservatives)

      With liberal redistributionism, I think the danger is that at some time focusing on inequality as intrinsically bad will supplant a productive focus on attacking problems that arise when inequality leaves people below a socially acceptable level.

      Though, presently, I think this already defines liberal populists who seem far more excited about the possibility of soaking the rich than actually fixing problems.

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      • Shouldn’t a persuasive political ideology have both a moral and a practical component? It’s harmful to any notion of ideologically-driven change (a legitimate position if it is what you intend) to insist that the instrumental and non-instrumental cases as I like to call them for a political project be seen as mutually contaminating and thereby canceling.

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  4. You’ve written a noble and very earnest post. It’s very distinctly Freddie. Very laudable and high minded but I can’t hook my own mental train to it very well. I’ve never been able to buy into the concept of positive rights and unless you can not only accept and endorse positive rights but also do so with vehement enthusiasm the whole edifice doesn’t carry the same appeal.

    Also shorn from your argument, it feels at least to me, is a certain amount of the idea of people behaving like, well, people instead of reliably turning gears. You gloss over this by depriving Wilkinson only of the right to his TV and the sports figure only of his eighth car, who could object to depriving them of such luxury when it could feed others. But the country, the world is filled with hapless mouths (why are they hapless? You neither describe nor seem to care). Why not also Wilkinson’s table and the seventh, sixth and fifth car? At some point some of the haves have been confiscated from to the point where they’re now reaching the bottom of your proverbial cup. What motivation do they have to work and produce only so they may live at the level of those who do neither? So they stop. But they must be fed so away goes Wilkinson’s computer and phone along with the fourth, third and second car. Wilkinson is now writing his thoughts on rocks and lobbing them out into the park and it occurs to him that he’s putting a lot of effort in but is living at a level equal to any of the rest at the bottom of society. Perhaps he is civic minded enough to go on but many are not and away goes the first car and on and on. We have observed in societies a powerful disinclination in people to labor if the fruits of said labor are going to others, whether they are the needy or just people who say they’re needy.

    You also seem to very readily dismiss the concern for the “leaky bucket” issue. I’d particularly like to touch this one because I believe the metaphor is imperfect in that the leaked water merely spills onto the floor, a loss but in no way negative beyond its’ waste. I’d like to suggest, instead, that we describe it as a living sponge issue. The costs of transferring the water from cup to cup could be better described as being captured inside the sponge (the bureaucracy) that is used to soak from the full cups and then dribble to the empty ones. In the leaky bucket scenario the leaked water lies inert upon the floor but in the growing sponge metaphor it does not. No, it lies captured within the sponge and the sponge grows from it, requiring that it absorb more water from the have cups to sustain itself while still providing the same or less water to the empty cups it was ostensibly created to cater to. Soon it would be growing little tendrils of its’ own into more and more cups, its’ purpose in danger of abandoning entirely the interest in filling the empty cups in favor of sustaining its’ own bulk. Again the phenomenon of governmental beurocratic bloat is one we have observed in the real world at nauseating length. (I have myself had a stint in the employ of government and can attest to the complacent entitled attitude that underlies its staid halls.)

    I shudder now, because reading back over my objections I can hear the desolate howling of the libertarian wilderness. I genuinely do believe in safety nets and that there are things that government can and should do. I just am jaded about the nature of my fellow humans and the tendency for my deep left liberal brethren (like you) to simultaneously view the most productive of our society as endless fonts of resources or to view our most downtrodden as innocent and hapless wards of our largess.

    I applaud your goals; I just lack your optimism for positive rights and your faith (naïveté?) in human nature.

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    • Wow you got a lot of words out of the slippery slope fallacy and the accusation that anybody who is poor is a lazy good for nothing. Impressive. Oh you do have a nifty strawman there to.

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      • What can I say? I’m verbose. That’s a pretty harsh summary, would you mind identifying which argument is the straw man, and which the slope? I think I can guess which one gets the lazy good for nothing one though I think that’s unfair.

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        • In my experience, I find that if people say “straw man” without pointing out a nuance between the original argument and the restated argument, or when they say “slippery slope” without pointing out how X would not, in fact, lead to Y (and none of this “not necessarily” stuff, I’d prefer “P did it, Q did it, and R did X and Y didn’t happen”), they’re repeating phrases that they’ve seen used to great effect in other arguments.

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    • “This, I think, is exactly it. The purpose of liberal social programs is above all to provide for a certain minimum threshold in several main areas of basic human security and comfort.”

      This is what I’m asking — what does this “basic human security and comfort” entail in real goods and services? I’m interested in the details of how it would work in an ideal form. I know we now have welfare programs, but I’m assuming Freddie is talking about something above and beyond our present welfare efforts.

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      • “basic human security and comfort” in 1800 is significantly different from 1880 which is significantly different from 1960 which is significantly different from 2000 which, interestingly enough, is different from 2009.

        I suspect that any answer you’d give on what human rights demand a poor family be given could be used, in 50 years, as a punchline.

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        • Yes of course, but what is the point. Of course standards and expectations change, but we still act in the present. And we judge how well we are doing now by our standards in the present. Infant mortality is certainly better then 200 years ago. That is a useful bit of info but it isn’t really pertinent to discussing how poor our infant mortality rate is now compared to other countries ( or between income levels) in the present.

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            • I have no idea what a just infant mortality rate is. I can compare our infant mortality rate to other countries to see if it meets what I consider my expectations for the USA and for a rich western country. We have the 33rd lowest infant mortality rate according the UN and 46th lowest rate according to the CIA world factbook. To me that is a disgrace.

              Add to that the fact that infant mortality rate varies massively by race and class. The infant mortality rate for blacks would be in the 90-100th place compared to other countries. Again that is a disgrace.

              It is certainly wonderful that infant mortality rates have dropped over the last century but that is not the metric that matters to me when looking at what we can or should do about infant mortality now.

              So there is no just infant mortality rate. But there can be far better performance compared to what we know is possible and we can try to eliminate race and class based differences in infant mortality since that seems unjust, at least to me.

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                • Where we stand in relation to others can give us an idea of what is possible and what is reasonable. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason why the infant mortality rate of blacks is on a third world level.

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  5. No, this is what I was looking for — “I believe that the first priority of both liberalism and society is to help those at the bottom, and to establish “floors” of minimal standards for all citizens in certain key areas of human security and comfort– food, clothing, shelter, health care, education. ”

    What is that floor, and who would receive this minimum? Would people at a certain age begin receiving this assistance, or anyone below a certain income level? If families receive assistance, do the children begin receiving assistance when they reach the age of 18?

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  6. I think that a great deal of rot gets talked about utiltiarianism, & I fear you’ve listened to far too much of it.

    Neither you, nor Wilkinson, seem to have read Principles of Morality & Legislation, or if you have then you must have neglected the numerous occasions were Bentham quite explicitly states that security must be prioritised over equality, staging a fairly straightforward defence of property.

    As for property “rights”, well those Bentham also deals with pretty well. Put simply the error you are making is in imagining that any form of natural right is anything save a fiction. It may be a fiction which you are particularly fond of (Wilkinson wants to keep his money in his wallet and his television in his lounge & well…he would) but that is all that it is.

    Weren’t you an existentialist? Do I really have to tell you this?

    This privileging of the value of minimal standards is not utilitarian. A utilitarian viewpoint would insist that redistributing wealth to those at the bottom would be moral only if the total amount of happiness/utility increased as a result of doing so. I can easily imagine a situation where this may not be the case.

    Very well, that’s an interesting fictional world you’ve dreamt up for us. I’m sure that there could be an interesting series of novels in it. But in this one (which is the one we must address) that is not the case. Ethics/legislation only matter because human actions have outcomes upon this world.

    Here, utilitarianism works perfectly fine. We don’t need your contractual fiction to justify redistribution in pursuit of equality. In fact the last thing political theory needs is yet another “contract” that nobody gets to sign.

    Indeed, utilitarianism insist that it is unjust to redistribute if doing so lowers collective utility, even if the people at the bottom are truly suffering. (This would be a situation where the suffering of the poorest was extreme, but where the people in the middle and upper classes outnumbered them by a high enough margin.)

    I think we can be agreed that this hypothetical is not relevant to discussions with reality. You yourself point out in this article & have often pointed out that there is a huge amount of wealth in society which could be mobilised to combat the suffering of the poor. You yourself use the example of the many cars. How much suffering is brought to someone stripped of a seventh car compared to a family living with degenerative diseases & without healthcare?

    We can tell that fairly well by how many families with the money for one but not the other opt for the former, can we not?

    But if we believe that the first purpose of social spending is to alleviate the ailments of the people at the bottom, and not to raise overall utility, then redistributing wealth is justified regardless of overall utility.

    I think you are abandoning a principle which (despite Bentham’s personal views, shaped as they were by an absence of the latter quantification of poverty that was to be made by the Rowntree report & works like it, as well as an understandable ignorance of contemporary social democratic Scandinavia & its successes in sustaining a secure & equal society) could still be of immense use to you. & even if you don’t agree, it is perfectly possible to reach Will Wilkinson’s views via a utilitarian framework. Bentham basically managed it.

    I have an idea of why you are doing so now, & I thank you for that, although why the left as a whole does so remains beyond me, but it’s for some pretty poor reasons. Your tacit acceptance of Wilkinson’s analysis suggests that you are both ignorant of large portions of Bentham’s writings on the topic, although I may be mistaken here. All in all this reminds me a tad of your writings on the neo-liberals screwing over liberalism with their self-loathing.

    You’d be far better just to tell Will to stop resting upon the nonsense of natural rights, & it’s a real shame to see you not doing so.

    Especially when your argument regarding WW’s security reads like a less archaic passage of Bentham, you end your article with: “I am far less interested in making people equal than I am in making them safe, happy and free. As if people could be steadily happy without being safe & free!

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    • I am an existentialist. Existentialism is not utilitarian. Utilitarianism makes man an object in the world; it reduces the consequences of his actions to their ability to generate utility or not, and thus makes them independent of his choice. Perhaps the most important existential insight is to beware of any moral framework which seeks to remove from man the urgency of choosing. Moral codes that remove the subjective instance of the choice lead to bad faith, because they tell the man using them that he is not responsible for his own conduct. He believes in error that his code is choosing for him.

      I find a lot to like about utilitarianism. But a philosophy that is (to my understanding) so apathetic to ideas of rights, personal affinities and prior commitments isn’t one that I can endorse.

      As for some of your other comments, I have to think about it. Certainly, while outside the philosophical confines of my academic discipline, I’m not a particularly seasoned philosophical writer, particularly when I am applying it to political ideas. I should have made the caveat that this is all just an accounting of my reactions.

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      • Freddie, you write that “Utilitarianism makes man an object in the world; it reduces the consequences of his actions to their ability to generate utility or not”, which I suppose is fair enough. Certainly for utilitarianism’s purposes, while moralising or legislating that is what you should focus upon. However I fail to see how this renders someone “independent of his choice.” As for your claim that: He believes in error that his code is choosing for him, I think the error there is that there is a clear difference between a code & a principle.

        Additionally, I struggle with the notion that it is: “apathetic to ideas of rights, personal affinities and prior commitments isn’t one that I can endorse.” What I found most striking about reading Bentham recently was how unjudgemental his approach towards human interests is. For one thing he’s about as far from the New Atheists as it is possible to get, arguing that belief in God brings happiness to people’s lives (despite being incapable of sampling that particular pleasure personally). What he argues against is using “rights, personal affinities and prior commitments” as a basis of moralising or legislating. He quite rightly terms the usage of them as “The Arbitrary Principle”.

        This is a mistaken basis since it shifts from person to person: to try & impose your whims upon everyone (be it from a hectoring pulpit or with the mechanism of the state at your back) is an attempt to craft a tyranny. & nothing makes people less happy than a tyranny.

        But is this to say that there are no rights, or personal ties/backgrounds? Of course not! Nothing frustrates a person more than being denied something which they deem their right (Bentham argues solely against the perception of this as natural & the foolish imagining that government is meant to exist to protect them, an entirely ahistorical folly). I can think of few pleasures I extract from existence which do not stem from “personal affinities” & if prior commitments were abandoned completely all of a sudden society would surely come undone.

        In short, all of the things you cited are central to the provision of pleasure. It would be hard to imagine happiness existing without any of them. To argue that utiltiarianism fails to pay heed to them is to try & turn the principle of utility upon itself (something that Bentham notes happens a great deal).

        As for some of your other comments, I have to think about it. Certainly, while outside the philosophical confines of my academic discipline, I’m not a particularly seasoned philosophical writer, particularly when I am applying it to political ideas. I should have made the caveat that this is all just an accounting of my reactions.

        Appreciated. The problem is that Vulgar Utilitarianism is an even more distorted fiend than Vulgar Marxism. I really enjoyed your piece, which is about all a utilitarian can ask of you. ;)

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  7. Furthermore: “I find there to be some simple, intuitive moral truth to the idea that the family should have the money for rent before the guy should have his 8th car, regardless of how he came to possess the money necessary to pay for it.”

    It is a simple moral truth. One named the Principle of Utility.

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  8. …if we assume that the greatest problem is in how much water ends up wasted on the floor

    One person’s wasted water is another person’s job.

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  9. One straw man here is the suggestion (vaguely alluded to) that anyone anywhere is advancing the idea that any income inequality is a social problem that would justify redress. There are no proposals for radical egalitarian redistribution anywhere in our political discourse, even at the farthest reaches of the Left. Everyone accepts that some will make more than others. It is a question of how extreme the inequalities are, producing what social imbalances, and what if any minimum standard of living we might wish to prevent our fellow families from falling below. This is far different from suggesting that inequality simpliciter might ever be considered a justification for redistribution in America. Hasn’t and won’t.

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  10. “and what if any minimum standard of living we might wish to prevent our fellow families from falling below. ”

    Okay, so no one is talking about radical egalitarian redistribution. Does anyone have a practical plan? What would it look like in real life? What are you talking about?

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      • Let’s look at Merle Haggard: ” In 1960, when I came out of prison as an ex-convict, I had more freedom under parolee supervision than there’s available… in America right now. ”

        Could we begin with something like: “Those laws that we didn’t have X years ago? Let’s get rid of those.”

        I mean, if I said “let’s get rid of PATRIOT” and we got rid of it, would that be “a plan” or would you see it as the absence of a plan and just yet another attempt of libertarians to make us more vulnerable to foreign terrorists who want to kill our children?

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  11. “I’ve ask the same questions repeatedly regarding conservatism and libertarianism.

    Are we in the Vector Zone once again?”

    Here, we’re discussing redistribution in the form of minimum standards — what are the minimum standards, and how are they applied? It’s easy to talk about what should be — some people don’t have much or anything at all, and some people have a lot, so take the excess from the those who have and give it those who don’t have — but we’re already doing that to a certain degree — what else needs to be done, and how will it be done? If the proponents can’t answer this simple question, then it’s all hot air and empty theorizing. I suppose we could debate about different theories, but unless we know what is being proposed by a theory, and how it can be implemented in reality, then it’s meaningless. I suspect that once the proponents begin explaining how this should be put into practice, they will realize the flaws in the theory, especially if they micro-model and follow all cause-effect links.

    I think, despite all the hyperbole about evil capitalists not giving a shit about the poor, that society as whole agrees that society is better served with a safety net — so the battle is over with contrasting theories between Hobbes and Marx — it’s not that there are a lot of people clamoring for a dog-eat-dog capitalism that eats the poor — most people are fine with safety net, so what else needs to be done?

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      • “What a “safety net” encompasses is *not* a settled political question. My net would be of a finer mesh that yours – I guess.”

        So, Bob, what do you think a national safety net should look like? If you could design minimum standards, a floor that no one is allowed to go below, what would it look like?

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        • I have no specific program in mind. My original comment to you this morning was to indicate the difficulty of describing how a political philosophy might be implemented. Nothing more. When I have asked the question I have not received satisfactory answers. What would a smaller, more limited, government look like?

          Obviously safety nets evolve, and the tendency, vector, has been to create a net with a finer mesh, for example, government financed job retraining, or support for the arts. Both of those examples are fairly recent developments. (Support for the arts a New Deal program ranks as fairly new for me.) Land grant colleges have a longer historical record. Pure Food and Drug Act, GI Bill, mandated childhood vaccinations, child labor laws all expansions of a safety net. I doubt the trend I see will change, that is, no fundamental rollback. I don’t see the NIH being abolished, likewise the Dept. of Education, or SS, or Medicare/Medicaid. Indeed the safety net now catches the “too big to fail.”

          I do not applaud every government action, neither do I see government as objectively evil.

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          • Well, you can’t accuse me of not proposing what a libertarian society would look like — on my blog, and here, I have stated over and over what i think will work. But I’m an idiot libertarian and my ideas are bullshit, so that’s why I was trying to get someone, anyone, from the liberal side to be explicit about what they envision as necessary regarding welfare and redistribution — instead I get more generalizations and run-around. They do sound awfully smart, though, when they are theorizing. I’m fucking impressed. I read Wilkerson like I do my favorite poets :)

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    • Mike, you end your comment above with, “…most people are fine with safety net, so what else needs to be done?” I assumed you place yourself in that category. Rereading the comment I’m now not sure. So, are you “fine with [a] safety net?”

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      • Yes, I’m fine with [a] safety net — as [a] matter of fact I’ve thought of many brilliant ways the private sector can create safety net offerings. What I’m not fine with is government confiscating people’s money and forcing them to provide the safety net that government thinks is appropriate. I’ve written extensively about the associations created in the U.S. before the New Deal, and how if we had allowed the private sector to continue with this genius we had for tackling problems without government coercion, we’d be in [a] better place. The grave instances of slavery and women’s rights are parts of [a] different subject — those were flaws in the Constitution not adhering fully to the Declaration of Independence, and they needed to be corrected through amendments — I’m talking about our problems with unemployment, poverty, technological changes in the workforce, education and such.

        See, I have no problem answering questions. It’s easy — try it.

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    • The questions raised here as far as I could tell were about what the right way philosophically to justify setting a parameter on distribution such that no one falls below a certain floor might be — do we feel the need to do that, why, and roughly what methods might we use to implement it? If you’re admitting of said need, and are satisfied with the reasons for it discussed so far, then I think that exhausts the scope of this particular discussion.

      On the quantitative nature of the minimum that might be set, well, for that it’s once more unto the (political) breach, my friend!

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  12. Something that I should have made is explicit– one of the reasons for optimism in human society, I think, is that human suffering is largely material, whereas human flourishing is largely immaterial. (Neither is entirely that way, of course.) To me, that suggests that we can, with trial and error and often very contentious political maneuverings, find a way to allocate material resources to prevent human suffering while leaving enough space to permit, even encourage, human flourishing.

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    • Freddie (and, for that matter, Will, if you’re still around):

      I’m curious about whether you have any thoughts on my point 1 in my comment above about envisioning redistribution as repayment on a loan such that a contractual view of social welfare may actually require interpersonal redistribution specifically.

      I ask more because I’m interested in whether it would close the gap between liberal (well, at least of the Freddie variety) and classical liberal views on the moral justifications for redistribution. If it’s just a philosophically weak argument, I’d like to hear that as well since my philosophical chops are not the strongest.

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          • As far as I know, the precise formulation is my own, but it draws heavily on some of Kevin Carson’s work (I’m not at all sure if Kevin himself would agree with it, though).

            That said, I entirely expect to find out that someone far more accomplished than I came up with a similar or identical formulation long ago. Something I’ve learned over the last two years is that no matter how original an idea you think you have, there’s always someone more famous than you who’s thought of it before. A lot of times, it’s even an idea that has been around in some form or another for literally milennia.

            I’m trying to figure out a way of expanding upon it, but there’s several different directions I could take it.

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            • Certainly the idea that the haves owe part of their ability to have to society at large for maintaining conditions in which it is possible to have and retain wealth and property is not a new one. But I don’t know that I have heard the formulation of redistribution/social safety nets as repayment of that debt before. It’s an interesting one.

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          • And yeah, I recognize the radicalism in this concept. The weird thing about it, though, is that its practical effects on existing welfare policies would be quite incremental: since the amount of transfer from poor to rich, plus interest, is inherently impossible to calculate, it has to be left up to democratic norms. That said, I think it would have to argue for more direct redistribution rather than redistribution for specific purposes since such redistributions come with strings attached and I don’t see a moral justification for attaching strings to how a person may spend money that they were owed in the first place. But, that may be my libertarian biases infecting things a little too much – I can see how one could argue that democratic norms are also appropriate measures for figuring out the exact structure of how those repayments are to be made since the original “loan” amount is unquantifiable to begin with.

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            • I was actually thinking more of the potential revolution in thought that the idea might bring if widely accepted than of concrete policy changes, which I agree would be at the margins at least initially, since we do already have social safety nets, etc. of various kinds and sizes. But if the capital-holding class were truly to come to recognize that they owe a debt to society in benefitting from conditions that allow them to hold capital, and especially to the struggling classes by virtue of the fact that society grinds along on their not-well-compensated continued willingness to work for essentially as little as employers can figure out how to pay them, that could have a serious impact on prevalent social thought in the public at large.

              I mean, imagine if CNBC devoted a half-hour every morning right around the morning bell to something called “What We Owe to the Workers,” or if the Wall Street Journal ran weekly editorials or op-eds laying down in black-and-white just exactly how dependent on social stability corporate profits are, and that among the necessary policies we need to enact to preserve that is to ensure that low- and middle-income workers and their families are insured against catastrophic injury and illness, and have access to affordable routine medical care. It would be a very different world.

              (Incidentally, I agree that there is a condescension in redistribution done via specially-purposed transfers. That’s part of the reason I don’t much like vouchers as a general approach to safety nets, though they definitely have benefits of efficiency and accountability to the purpose for which the funds are appropriated. But I think you’re right to think that in a social debt conception, the condescension might be a more important consideration.)

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    • I worry that a lack of flourishing is seen as co-extensive with suffering and when you compound that with whether (actually, how) flourishing is relational, you’re stuck discussing whether (thing that didn’t even exist X years ago) isn’t something that a good and decent society shouldn’t make sure that every single one of The Children has.

      And the things that made us flourish X years ago are now seen as sub-standard and not as good as the stuff available now.

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        • Let’s name names. Bevacizumab (Avastin), sorafenib (Nexavar) and temsirolimus (Torisel).

          If you had no idea that these drugs existed, would you be happier with your bad parts?

          Let’s say that you found out that these three drugs existed… how are you feeling about your parts now?

          Does the knowledge that these drugs exist and can help extend your life despite your bad parts change your opinions on anything?

          It seems to me that, once upon a time, you had no hope. You were going to die. Stiff upper lip and all that.

          Then you find out that there *IS* a treatment out there that might help… how much does that change things?

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          • Additionally, if you are entitled to Torisel, what makes you entitled to it?

            According to a weird attitude towards property rights, it seems to me that you are entitled to Torisel if you buy Torisel.

            It seems to me that there are other philosophies out there that say people who need Torisel are entitled to Torisel due to their need of it and money has nothing to do with anything… indeed, the fact that the rich can purchase Torisel while little (insert child in need’s name here) parent’s cannot afford Torisel indicates injustice.

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