Saturday, June 09, 2007

Eat the Rich

I don't pretend that the observation I'm about to make is particularly original, nor do I have a great deal of wonky social science data to back me up (there are others here more qualified than I to speak of that). But within the last few years I've noticed a significant divide in how certain people approach the problem of poverty and the oft-heard and decried increasing gap between rich and poor.

I suppose it was the Sojourners forum on June 4th that really got me thinking about this, though it's something I've also noticed in my corner of the academy (political theory, law, politics etc.). The observation is as follows.

On the one hand you have people concerned with poverty as such, that is, making sure that as many people as possible have enough to eat, clean water to drink, and a roof over their head. For these people inequality is a problem to the extent that some people are so poor that they do not enjoy a basic standard of living (for how this might apply to the American situation and the "poverty line", see here). These people may disagree as to the best means with which to address the truly disadvantaged, but they agree that the real problem is something tangible as are the solutions (more calories, rooftops, innoculations, etc.).

On the other hand are folks who think inequality as such is unjust and something to be remedied. To be sure, these people are also concerned about the sort of poverty mentioned in the previous paragraph, but these folks would not be satisfied with raising everyone to a basic level of economic prosperity. Even if everyone had enough to eat and a roof over their heads, and we can throw in even health care and cable television, these folks would still think that there is a serious injustice in any inequality, as if the creation and maintenance of wealth is a zero-sum game.

In the many graduate seminars I've sat in, the truly disreputable thing to do was not to hold a religious or pro-life position (though those were not necessarily welcomed), but to question this second premise about inequality and the sacrosanct role of government to redistribute wealth.

This brings to mind a few things. First, the first concern about inequality is one that can realistically be addressed and real gains can be made whereas the second approach to inequality will never succeed. This is because the second sort of concern, let's call it the concern of the levellers, finds an enduring harm in a psychological principle that feeds off the thought, "They have more than I do."

Second, this psychology is precisely the one JJ Rousseau diagnosed brilliantly (I'm afraid his solutions were not so brilliant) as being infected with amour-propre, the condition in which when I think of others I think only of myself, and when I consider my own value I frame it entirely with regard to others. Or as Pierre Manent has put it, "Man lives for the gaze of others, whom he hates."

Third, the solution to amour-propre as put forth by the levellers is, well, to level, as opposed to encouraging people not to define success entirely in terms of material prosperity ("entirely" is a key word there, as the truly poor would have to be saints to flourish in abject poverty).

Finally, this distinction helps us, or at least has helped me, understand some of the politics of poverty and the proposals put forth to approach it. People in both groups can agree on policies, both governmental and market-based, to help the truly poor. What people in the first group don't often realize is that some (most?) policies are tailor-made not merely to lift up folks at the very bottom but bring down a lot of folks at the top.

And while I'm not the most economics-savvy person on the planet, this seems to lead not only to bringing folks down at the top, but keeping a lot of folks dependent and strapped at the bottom.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Scum of the Scum of the Earth

I noted awhile back in a post that Colin Powell and Richard Armitage, then respectively Secretary and Deputy Secretary of State, had allowed Scooter Libby to twist in the wind even as they knew perfectly well that it was Armitage who had leaked the (trivial) details of Valerie Plame's CIA career. And they did so as part of an everyday manifestation of Beltway insider hardball over the Bush Iraq policy.

It turns out, as detailed in Paul Wolfowitz' letter to Judge Walton urging sentencing leniency for Libby, that Libby, while an attorney in private practice, had "helped a public official defend himself successfully against libelous accusations, something that is extremely difficult to do for anyone in public office. The official in question was Richard Armitage..."

So: Is there anyone out there prepared to defend the proposition that Armitage is not the scum of the scum of the earth? In the words of Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller's Day Off: "Anyone? Anyone?"

Through the Night with the Light from Above?

According to DRUDGE, O'Reilly got more viewers than the Republican debate, and a Fred Thompson interview an hour later on Hannity & Colmes got nearly as many.

And when RudyG was asked about the criticism of his pro-choice position from Catholic bishops, a lighting bolt momentarily cut off his response.

I dunno what, but something's going on...


Monday, June 04, 2007

Just Among Friends

The recent to-do around here about definitions got me thinking about "social justice." If Wade Connerly were to use the term, I'd know he was advocating a color-blind society. When a lefty uses it, I check my wallet.

The great humanist Hugo Chavez is currently distributing some social justice in Venezuela, initiating yet another round of Latin American land reform. He's also building socially just housing:

Bella Vista is one of 12 “communal towns” that Mr. Chávez plans to build this year. It has neat rows of identical three-bedroom homes for 83 families, a reading room, a radio station, a building with free high-speed Internet service, a school and a plaza with a bust of Simón Bolívar, Venezuela’s national hero.

With financing from state banks, the cooperative plants crops like manioc, corn and beans, which officials in Caracas say are better suited to soils here than sugar cane. By burning the cane during land seizures, the squatters prepare the land for other crops and give owners less incentive to fight for control. The state and federal government holds Bella Vista as an example of the ideological fervor Mr. Chávez is trying to instill in the countryside.

Lisbeth Colmenares, 22, was radiant as she showed a visitor her new home here, where she and her family live rent-free.

“Before Chávez, the government would have been happy to let us starve,” said Ms. Colmenares, holding her 6-month-old daughter, Luzelis. “We’ll never let what we have now be taken from us.”

Until those without such pretty houses come knocking at your door demanding their social justice. So it goes, Señora Colmenares, round and round. Why should you have two shoes when I have none?