Saturday, May 24, 2003

Equality and Greed-Part I-Better Defining the Debate-Orrin Judd blogmate Paul Jaminet takes a whack at this Daniel Davies post. There's a lot there than neither Davies or Jaminet quite gets. Let's start with Davies piece
Think about it this way. In my post below, I suggested that the difference between the progressivity of the tax systems students suggested for income versus for their own grades "might serve as a useful index of the hypocrisy of leftist students". When I use the word "hypocrisy" here, what do we actually mean? Well, the combination of the following two qualities: 1. A moral belief that (some loosely defined concept of) equality is (an actual or instrumental) good. 2. A personal desire to accumulate more, even at the expense of others.
Here, you have an exagerated form of communism in #1 and an exagerated form of capitalism in #2. I don't think pure equality is achievable on this earth; if you think so, give Harrison Bergeron a read. The tension of modern political economy is ballancing the desires of equality and helping the needy with the realization that people are greedy. Davies will try to tackle that one, but not overly satisfactorly.
The first is simply a baseline definition of what it means to have left wing politics. The second ... well put it this way, Buddhist monks spend twenty years living ascetically and meditating for hours at a time before they presume to believe that they have conquered all selfish desires. If you're talking about "leftist hypocrisy", you're just talking about "leftists who have not been able to transcend history, biology and socialisation in order to develop an unparticularised love for all sentient things". In other words, you're just talking about "leftists who happen to be humans".
I think Mr. Davies just discovered our sinful, selfish nature without calling it such. We're greedy, selfish folks who prefer more than less. People work harder when they get payed more; that makes paying everyone the same problematic, for laziness will kick in.
Contrast with rightwing politics. As I've posted earlier, the single most sensible thing said in political philosophy in the twentieth century was JK Galbraith's aphorism that the quest of conservative thought throughout the ages has been "the search for a higher moral justification for selfishness". Some rightwingers are not hypocrites because they admit that their basic moral principle is "what I have, I keep". Some rightwingers are hypocrites because they pretend that "what I have, I keep" is always and everywhere the best way to express a general unparticularised love for all sentient things. Then there are the tricky cases where the rightwingers happen to be on the right side because we haven't yet discovered a better form of social organisation than private property for solving several important classes of optimisation problem. But at base, the test of someone's politics is simple; if their political aim is to advance all of humanity, they're on our side, while if they have an overriding constraint that the current owners of property must always be satisfied first, they're playing for the opposition. Hypocrisy doesn't really enter into the equation with rightwing politics; you don't (or shouldn't) get any extra points for being sincere about being selfish.
This is the paragraph that set Mr. Jaminet off; the part in italics is what Jaminet elipses around to create a better straw man. However, there's enough here to get most conservatives, or especially libertarians, into clobberin' mode. When you start favorably quoting Galbraith, you've got a conservative's dukes up. There are some libertarians who honestly think that free markets and minimalist government are the best way to run society, that even the poor's needs would be better met by a faster-growing economy and private-sector charity. Thus, Davies is slandering some good (but a bit Pollyannish) folks unfairly, even if most low-tax people are doing it out a combination of greed and wanting to expand the commonweal. In the italisized sentence, Davies seems to note, but discount, the possibility that property is helpful. There are two ways to avoid the Tragedy of the Commons; one is to have government regulate communal property and the other is to give the property to individuals to manage. You'll get more innovation out of private property than out of government management, and I see little hope of finding a government-based solution that will expand the commonweal for most property issues. Here is where I think Davies is setting up a straw man of his own, in this sentence.
But at base, the test of someone's politics is simple; if their political aim is to advance all of humanity, they're on our side, while if they have an overriding constraint that the current owners of property must always be satisfied first, they're playing for the opposition.
Most conservatives would not be in that second camp, for few would move to a system where there were no taxes or fees whatsoever. Walter Williams might be in that second camp, but not too many others. If we take Davies' rightist literally, we would have no taxes, for owners are never satified fully and would likely find other uses for their money than taxes. This "free-market utopia" would have all government functions done via donations, which I don't see happening. The question becomes not whether to have taxes or not, but what type, form and level should they take. Most conservatives are seeking to maximize the commonweal, even if they might not phrase it that way. There might be pockets of humanity that aren't going to advance, but we want to set up a system that looks after the needy while keeping a thriving economy going. That will give greater consideration of the desires of the wealthier people than a socialist would like, but the socialist would harm the economy by taking away a good chunk of the motovation of people to improve their own lives and by doing so harm everyone by creating a stagnant economy.

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