Morally Bogus Debates

Daniel Larison writes:

Wilkinson would prefer instead morally bogus debates about whether caring for the poor means abolishing borders and swamping our country with millions of immigrants.  For my part, I get really tired of Wilkinson’s lectures about things and people he identifies as ”nationalist,” when he has made it quite clear over the years that he makes no distinction between nationalism and patriotism, lauds others who fail to make this distinction and in any case doesn’t understand what patriotism is.

It's amusing how the defense of the human right to travel and associate freely is so often and so desperately cast as “abolishing borders.” But I don't think I've ever defended “abolishing” borders. When Kerry I move to Iowa next month, we will cross the borders of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and I have no problem whatsoever with any of them. Jurisdictions need to be bounded. I'm for borders. What I defend is making national borders more like state borders — making it easier to legally cross and to gain legal residency. I defend this on the grounds that the severity of the restrictions placed on freedom, the extent of the violation of rights to movement and association, and the amount of harm to human welfare, cannot be justified on moral grounds by any imagined compensating benefits. If Larison thinks such restrictions can be morally justified, then I am more than happy to have that debate, because I think I will win. Of course, if he thinks the need to justify coercion and harm is “morally bogus,” then we may share too little normative vocabulary to understand each other. But I think we do understand each other.

If Larison is right that I don't even understand what patriotism is, then I'm probably right that he doesn't even understand what morality or justice is, which would explain why he seems not even to grasp that he bears the burden of defending his moral chauvinism. But it might also be that we understand all these things fairly well and just disagree about them at a pretty fundamental level.

The Argument for Preemptive Redistribution

The author of the Economics of Contempt has published a thoughtful and stimulating post about some of my views about inequality. He concludes this:

Wilkinson seems to be of the opinion that unless U.S. income inequality is benign unless it was produced by some inefficient or unfair mechanism. He also seems to think that absent evidence of an inefficient or unfair causal mechanism, no policies should dare attempt to reduce U.S. income inequality. This is also wrong, for the very same reason: if income inequality is high enough to permit government capture by the wealthy at the expense of the rest of society, the high level of income inequality is inefficient, regardless of the mechanism that produced the income inequality.

I've thought a lot about this. My conclusion so far is that questions about the justice of the mechanisms that lead to observed economic patterns really does exhaust the field of questions about distributive justice. There is no independent worry about patterns themselves having bad effects, because the bad effects Economics of Contempt and many others have in mind just are mechanisms or exploitation enabled by government capture. The argument on offer here is an argument for preemptive redistribution. We have to redistribute so that injustice doesn't occur. But this kind of argument, like arguments for preemptive war, face a high bar. You need to be pretty convincing that in the absence of preemptive action, something bad will occur. I think egalitarians almost never get over that bar.

I emphatically agree that political predation is unjust. Indeed, it is a (perhaps the)  chief cause of inequality in many of the world's most economically unequal countries. But, obviously, it doesn't follow that because state capture and political predation generally cause high levels of income inequality that high levels of income inequality cause state capture and political predation. To make that inference requires a lot of supporting assumptions, most which strike me as false.

First of all, the level of income inequality in Denmark, which has the lowest Gini coefficient in the world, is high enough to permit government capture by the wealthy were the wealthy to effectively coordinate. The question is whether they want to. They don't. Suppose Denmark cut taxes at the top, to unleash a little more entrepreneurial energy, and cut the generosity of some welfare benefits, in order to, say, keep some people from fraudulently collecting disability checks or staying in college forever, or whatever problem they may be facing in the design of their scheme of social benefits. And suppose these changes increase income inequality directly and also indirectly by increasing growth, the benefits of which disproportionately effect incomes at the top. Is the hypothesis that Denmark's odds of government capture by the wealthy has just gone up?

Likewise, were we fiscally to lop off the heads of the tall poppies in the U.S., the Gini would drop, but it seems the effect of this on the odds of class-based government capture are basically nil. If all the now slightly less rich people wanted to band together and capture the government, they could still do it. The conspiracy would not be demoralized by a Gini of 30 instead of 40. What's the evidence that preemptive redistribution would preempt anything? Why not suppose instead that when taxes on the wealthy rise, the wealthy become more interested in controlling the government?

None of this not to say that various individuals and corporate interests do not try their damndest to use the government to enrich themselves; they most certainly do. But rent-seeking is a largely a zero-sum game that puts some rich people at odds with other rich people (and the rest of us). The billionaires investing in green technology companies while lobbying madly for regulations to mandate their products are trying to put other billionaires out of business. Etc. The rich do not uniformly see their interests in terms of being rich, and the political preferences of the superrich are far from homogenous. Anyway, even if the rich do not act as a class, it's true that rich individuals can do a lot more to rig government policy in their favor than can poor individuals. The straightforward implication is that the more power the government has to pick winners and losers, the more power rich people will have relative to poor people. The incentive to capture is a function of the value of the thing captured, not of the the means to do it.

EoC's suggestion that the Bush tax cuts are evidence of government capture strikes me as silly. The tax cuts are evidence of the fact that Republicans like tax cuts — evidence of the fact that most Republican voters think tax cuts are morally required and are good for the economy, and that Republican politicians think tax cuts are good politics.

Of course, if the Bush tax cuts increased final income inequality, which they probably did, and income inequality gives the wealthy a firmer grip on government, then you'd expect this sort of thing to be a one-way ratchet. But Barack Obama is probably going to get elected and raise taxes considerably anyway. If it is possible for Obama and a Democratic Congress to become elected under historically high levels of income inequality, and to raise taxes and increase transfers, is this evidence for or against the imminence of a plutocracy that calls for preemptive redistributive action?

After Heller

A great debate on the future of gun rights and gun control after the Washington D.C. v. Heller decision is shaping up over at Cato Unbound. Cato's Bob Levy, who was co-counsel for Heller, leads off with his take on the decision and its implications. And today Dennis Henigan of the Brady Center contributes a sharp reply, arguing that though the decision was terrible jurisprudence, it's actually good for gun control. He argues that by decisively forbidding outright bans, Heller has defused the argument that gun control regulation sets us on a slippery slope to total gun confiscation. And therein lies what Henigan calls the “Heller paradox”. By making Second Amendment rights clearer, the Court has made gun control easier. I actually find this argument pretty seductive. Am I wrong?

Dave Kopel pipes up on Friday, and on Monday we'll have Duke Law's Erwin Chemerinsky.

Oh, You Didn't Want to Decrease Inequality That Way?

Judging from the comments, Marketplace listeners do not seem all that receptive to the standard explanation of growing wage inequality, nor to the idea that limits on H1-B visas constitute a subsidy to domestic skilled workers that exacerbates the wage gap. Anyway, that's what I argued today. Here's my conclusion:

These days, almost everybody but their beneficiaries think agricultural subsidies are a lousy idea. They benefit a few already relatively wealthy American farmers and agribusiness firms to the detriment of poor farmers around the world. But H-1B visa restrictions are subsidies that benefit relatively rich domestic workers over their poorer foreign peers, and so it turns out many of us liberal-minded college grads are enjoying our own protectionist boost.

In this case, it seems the moral outrage is… well, we seem to be keeping it to ourselves.

And not only are we keeping the moral outrage to ourselves, it is apparently morally outrageous to address inequality by actually addressing the mechanisms that cause it — the relation between the supply and demand of skill — if that involves making some foreigners a lot wealthier.

By the way, I do not endorse the headline, “U.S. should import more skilled workers,” which of course I did not choose. If you dammed up a river, then found you had too little water downstream, and so released a bit of water from the dam, you could think of it as “importing more water.” Or you could think of it, more accurately, as removing the artificial barrier to supply.

Grandly Nugatory? Hardly

In the TPM Cafe Book Club discussion of Grand New Party the Nation's Chris Hayes argues that Ross and Reihan are well-meaning guys, with well-meaning proposals for helping the working class, but their recommendations to Republicans are pointless since they forgot to notice that the guys in charge of the GOP are callous bastards who won't listen unless there's something in it for their corporate paymasters. Some oversight!

Frank's point in What's The Matter With Kansas is half about the false consciousness of white working class Republicans, and half about the nature and essence of the conservative coalition and the Republican party, which is to advance the interests of America's corporate class. That is, whatever Republican politicians say, whatever ideas are floated in the National Review or Weekly Standard, what's going on beneath the surface is a decades long project to gut, wreck or subvert the welfare state and redistribute income upwards.

Chris is an extremely smart guy, but I think this is just silly — sort of the left-wing equivalent of right-wing ravings about how liberals at bottom are moved by hate for the essential awesomeness of America and want to destroy it one abortion at time while taking away our guns so we can't do anything about it. Yes, many Republicans have views on social and economic policy that they would like to enact, and these view are often in opposition to Democratic views on social and economic policy. And these differences do have to do with fiscal policy and the proper scope and shape of the welfare state. And so the natural interpretation of that is… plutocrat conspiracy?

Ross and Reihan completely wasted their efforts because, as Chris continues, “[T]he Republican party is run by very, very wealthy people and interests that aren't particularly interested in the plight of the working class.”

Has Chris never heard George W. Bush deliver a Michael Gerson speech positively dripping with with urgent moral concern for the least among us? Why not think he believes it? Because he does believe it. He also has something to do with running the Republican party. I think he really believes that programs to promote traditional marriage are good for the poor and working classes, and so do lots of powerful Republican politicians. Unlike Ross & Reihan, I think this sort of thing is a pretty lame and won't work. But simply dismissing the other team's claims to moral conviction is way too convenient.

It turns out that the Democratic party is also run by very, very wealthy people and interests. It also strikes me as lazy to assume that because the GOP isn't beholden to various interest groups that claim to represent the working classes in the way the Democrats are, then the people with real power in the Republican party ipso facto have no sincere moral interest in the welfare of the working class. Yes, politics is a game of interests and coalitions. But coalitions often form around moral values. And people, even politicians, are moral beings and generally conceive of their interests in moralized terms. Some of this is and some of this isn't convenient self-deception. But Marx 101 class analysis just doesn't get you far. The world is too complicated for it. To put Andrew Gelman's findings crudely, rich people on the coasts are Democrats. Rich people in the South and in the heartland are Republicans. So is the idea that T. Boone Pickens is in it for himself but Steve Jobs really just wants to solve global warming? Or what?

I think Ross and Reihan's book has plenty of problems, but the problem is not that the bigwigs of the Republican party are too irredeemably corrupt to be worth talking to.

Anyway… I can hardly stand “what our team needs to do” sorts of books. Pretty much all democratic partisan politics is irredeemably nationalist, and I really get tired of largely morally bogus debates about whether caring for poor people means we need to bribe people to get married or to move more money from really rich Americans to relatively rich but not-so-rich-for-Americans Americans, or both. America is a big, exclusive, mostly involuntary club. If you want to fight over which club members ought to get what benefits and pay what dues, then fine. Do that. But none of this really has much to do with caring about “the working class,” most members of which speak strange tongues and are not considered clubbable. Speaking of Marxism 101.

Excuse me while I stab myself with a flag pin.

J.R. Lucas on Equality and the Multidimensionality of Status

How Have I Never Read this Paper? J.R. Lucas, “Against Equality, Again,” Philosophy 52, 1977, pp.255-280:

We can object to strictly hierarchical societies on the grounds that those on the bottom of the hierarchy—the serfs, the villeins, or the prison-camp slaves—are accorded no respect at all. But we should remedy this by having more than one hierarchy, and, in so far as any one ranking system is dominant and generally accepted as constituting the social order, demanding that those who are deferred to should make manifest their respect and consideration for those who render them services.

The argument can, in part, be transposed to a lower key. Two inequalities are better than one. It is better to have a society in which there are a number of different pecking orders, so that a person who comes low according to one order can nevertheless rate highly according to another. One advantage that English society used to have over American was that whereas in America wealth was the only criterion, in England social standing was largely independent of wealth, and could, therefore, act as a corrective. More generally, it is good that there should be an athletic hierarchy besides the academic one, so that boys who are not blessed with brains may nevertheless be, and feel themselves to be, the stars of the football field. A man may not be a great success economically but still can be a big noise in the Boy Scout Association or the pigeon fanciers' club. So long as we have plenty of different inequalities, nobody need be absolutely inferior. It is only if, in the name of equality, we set about eliminating them all, that we shall succeed in eliminating many of them and thereby make those that remain far more burdensome.

Egalitarians are angered when the argument from Universal Humanity is called in aid of inegalitarian conclusions, and produce vehement counter-arguments against it. They will not accept that the college servant is really better off than the prosperous proletarian, however much happier he may subjectively suppose himself to be, because the mere fact that the society recognises a difference in status between the college servant and, say, the fellows is itself an affront to human dignity. If we differentiate at all between one man and another on account of the social functions they fulfil, then we are no longer regarding them as men but merely as performers of certain roles. The bathroom attendant may think that he is valued for himself alone, but he is wrong; he is valued merely as a cleaner of baths and lavatories, merely as a pair of hands, merely as a useful automaton and not at all as a person, a child of God, a human being, an immortal soul, the bearer of an eternal destiny. This argument has powerful emotional appeal, but it is confused. It confuses the minimal and the maximal respect we may pay to a human being. Whatever a man does, whatever contribution he makes to our well-being, whatever his achievements, he is more than merely a doer, a contributor, an achiever, and I do not respect him properly, if I respect him merely as a doer, a contributor, or an achiever. If I am to respect him fully, I must respect him for himself, rather than merely as someone who satisfies certain specifications, just as a girl feels that she is not really loved unless she is loved for herself alone, and not her yellow hair. But only God can do that. In an imperfect world limited mortals have only limited respect for most other people. The respect which affords a basis for political argument is not a maximal respect we can aspire to but seldom achieve; rather, it is a minimal respect which we all ought to pay to everybody else. It does not exhaust the whole of political argument, but simply provides an incontrovertible starting point. I respect another man's humanity by observing a certain set of minimum conditions towards him—by not killing him, by not torturing him, by not leaving him to starve by not depriving him of civil rights—and it is important to see these conditions as minimum conditions which must be fulfilled rather than as maximum conditions to which we should aim but which we cannot be blamed if we fail to achieve. If we set our sights too high, we shall secure nothing.

Yup. The multiplication of inequalities through the multiplication of status dimensions is perhaps the chief way in which liberal market societies achieve rough equality of status. It's counterintuitive but true: more ways of being unequal in status increases the chance of enjoying high status and reduces the chance of being humiliated by inescapably low status. That many egalitarians are so eager to sniff at this is, to my mind, an indication that many of them aren't so much concerned with the inequalities that matter most to most people. The motivated thinking seems to go something like this: If the best means of bringing everyone up to a minimum of status or a minimum sense of self-respect needn't involve a lot economic leveling, then pride in being the president of the local PTA must be self-deluded crap. But where's the respect in that?

Of course, most egalitarians see the minimum equality of respect implied by an equality of rights as too little. I guess I do too. I demand a somewhat more substantive equality in the sense that each has the necessary means to exercise her rights in a worthwhile way. We don't respect others in this minimal sense if we don't care whether it seems pointless to them to dream up some relatively long-term plans, because they doubt whether they will be able to act effectively to enact them. But we don't give people that respect by politically “guaranteeing” them these means, either, because there is nothing in the nature or history of government to cause us to believe it is specially competent to make good on them. We give people their due portion of respect by attempting to maximize the probability that they will have these means. That's likely to require both private and public assistance, but there's no way to honestly guarantee that people need it will get it. We can say anything we want. What matters is what people get. The closest we can get to a guarantee is by cultivating a system of institutions that maximizes the production of wealth.

And it happens that this kind of system is one of mind-boggling task specialization and spatial distribution–a system that gives almost everyone a way to make things better for others, a system that implicates almost everyone in the process of wealth-creation that is as close as we come to a guarantee. In a market system, when we do our jobs, we help to provide for others–we help make available to others the means for building a life–in the way that respect requires, and this in turn gives us reason to respect people who do their jobs. Respecting someone as “a doer, a contributor, or an achiever” is no small thing.

In addition to supplying meaningful work that allows each of us to contribute in some real way to the welfare of others, successful market cultures create a climate for proliferating communities of affinity, much like the Great Barrier Reef creates a climate for a teeming proliferation of exotic sea life. On the job and in our “scenes” is where most of us get our quota of status. Our jobs and our standing in our multiple elective communities provide us grounds to respect ourselves and grounds for others to respect us. When we pretend not to see a beggar making an appeal, we do not treat her as an equal in even this small way, perhaps because we suspect she has done too little to merit even a quantum of respect. It is not really so hard to look someone squarely in the eyes, in the way a person acknowledges another's personhood, but it is easier when we are all part of a joint enterprise of cooperation, improving life infinitesimally but actually for one another. And it is easier to confidently to hold another's gaze, to feel an equal, when you are in your own small community, in your own small way, somebody. Because it doesn't seem small to you.

But that's all sort of beside the point. Because our government's actual respect for its subject's “merely formal” political rights is so sorry that it seems that Lucas' “minimal respect” is fairly demanding after all, and there's really nothing morally unambitious in aiming at this kind of liberal equality.

New on Free Will: Bruce Caldwell on Hayek

This week, I talk with Bruce Caldwell, author of Hayek's Challenge, a wonderfully lucid, comprehensive, and penetrating account of the development of Hayek's economic and methodological ideas. Hayek is one of my enthusiasms, so I had a great time talking to Bruce, who knows as much about Hayek as anyone.

Also, maybe some of my Austrian-leaning readers can help out the BHTV commenters in their discussion of economic planning.

Bundles of Oy

Newsweek has an excellent feature by Lorraine Ali on kids and happiness.

The most recent comprehensive study on the emotional state of those with kids shows us that the term “bundle of joy” may not be the most accurate way to describe our offspring. “Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers,” says Florida State University's Robin Simon, a sociology professor who's conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. “In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It's such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not.”

This is in fact the best piece of seen on this issue so far, touching on our culture's intense romantization of parenthood. This is an excellent and accurate observation:

“If you admit that kids and parenthood aren't making you happy, it's basically blasphemy,” says Jen Singer, a stay-at-home mother of two from New Jersey who runs the popular parenting blog “From baby-lotion commercials that make motherhood look happy and well rested, to commercials for Disney World where you're supposed to feel like a kid because you're there with your kids, we've made parenthood out to be one blissful moment after another, and it's disappointing when you find out it's not.”

Ali finishes on a hopeful note.

For the childless, all this research must certainly feel redeeming. As for those of us with kids, well, the news isn't all bad. Parents still report feeling a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives than those who've never had kids. And there are other rewarding aspects of parenting that are impossible to quantify. For example, I never thought it possible to love someone as deeply as I love my son.

I think here we have the key to the intense resistance to the empirical results. There is no reason whatsoever to doubt the reports of parents like Ali who find that they love their children more than they thought possible. It's really remarkable how often first time parents, especially men, seem almost startled by the profound depth of their love for and attachment to their child. I've heard any number of new parents say that they had heard others talk about this amazing bond, but never really expected to feel it themselves. The almost embarrassed earnestness of this admission is truly moving. And, if they won't stop talking about it, also pretty annoying. (We are all surprised by the all-consuming intensity of our first teenage crush. But the point is, we all are.)  Anyway, the profundity of the experience of loving a child I think blinds many people to the very real costs of raising them. To accept that we have been made less happy in a real sense by our children threatens our sense of the profundity and the value of that bond. So people get upset when they hear this. But that's not counter-evidence. Not all values move in one direction and it is a mark of maturity to be able to admit that some of the things we value most comes at a sometimes steep cost. We yearn to love our choices, and our lives, with whole hearts. But to do so is to lie to ourselves about ourselves, to close our eyes and cover our ears like children to the profundity of what we have given up. We cannot have everything. It does not diminish the life one has to face the truth about it. It enlarges it to see it for what it is, to know what it has cost, and to love it anyway.

The World Is Not a Zoo

This essay by Kenan Malik is so damn right it almost hurts. Choice bits:

Modern multiculturalism seeks self-consciously to yoke people to their identity for their own good, the good of that culture and the good of society. A clear example is the attempt by the Quebecois authorities to protect French culture. The Quebec government has passed laws which forbid French speakers and immigrants to send their children to English-language schools; compel businesses with more than fifty employees to be run in French; and ban English commercial signs. So, if your ancestors were French you, too, must by government fiat speak French whatever your personal wishes may be. Charles Taylor regards this as acceptable because the flourishing and survival of French culture is a good. ‘It is not just a matter of having the French language available for those who might choose it’, he argues. Quebec is ‘making sure that there is a community of people here in the future that will want to avail itself of the opportunity to use the French language.’ Its policies ‘actively seek to create members of the community… assuring that future generations continue to identify as French-speakers.’

An identity has become a bit like a private club. Once you join up, you have to abide by the rules. But unlike the Groucho or the Garrick it’s a private club you must join. Being black or gay, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests, requires one to follow certain ‘life-scripts’ because ‘Demanding respect for people as blacks and gays can go along with notably rigid strictures as to how one is to be an African American or a person with same-sex desires.’ There will be ‘proper modes of being black and gay: there will be demands that are made; expectations to be met; battle lines to be drawn.’ It is at this point, Appiah suggests, that ‘someone who takes autonomy seriously may worry whether we have replaced one kind of tyranny with another.’ An identity is supposed to be an expression of an individual’s authentic self. But it can too often seem like the denial of individual agency in the name of cultural authenticity.


A century ago intellectuals worried about the degeneration of the race. Today we fear cultural decay. Is the notion of cultural decay any more coherent than that of racial degeneration? Cultures certainly change and develop. But what does it mean for a culture to decay? Or for an identity to be lost? Will Kymlicka draws a distinction between the ‘existence of a culture’ and ‘its “character” at any given moment’… So, in making the distinction between character and existence, Kymlicka seems to be suggesting that Jewish, Navajo or French culture is not defined by what Jewish, Navajo or French people are actually doing. For if Jewish culture is simply that which Jewish people do or French culture is simply that which French people do, then cultures could never decay or perish – they would always exist in the activities of people.


The logic of the preservationist argument is that every culture has a pristine form, its original state. It decays when it is not longer in that form. Like racial scientists with their idea of racial type, some modern multiculturalists appear to hold a belief in cultural type.

So the multicultural left and the racist right converge. If you get your head straight, you see what matters are certain values and institutions, and those are not trapped in particular essentialized cultures like flies in amber. If these values and institutions are really worthwhile, if they create conditions that are really appealing to human beings in a deep, more-than-accidental way, then it is possible to defend and preserve them as the cultures in which they originated inevitably recombine with others and evolve.

Non-Discretionary Spending

Tell me again why Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are labeled as “non-discretionary” spending. As I understand it, Congress could shut them all down tomorrow if they wanted to. Or they could cut benefits massively. Or change eligibility requirements any way they like. Which makes it discretionary, doesn't it? Isn't it basically just a lie to make it out like the government might or might not spend money on highways, but just has to fork over checks for knee replacements? This has always confused me. Is there some principled basis for the discretionary/non-discretionary distinction that I'm obtusely missing?

Post inspired by this Perot Chart: