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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.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's Creeping Rawlsianism---John Rawls, that is.

It holds that a system is only moral if the worst off are as well off as they would be under any other system.

Sounds good on first blush.

But since Rawlsianism doesn't get hung up on quaint concepts like "virtue" or "natural law," it holds that what is good is what we all (mostly) agree is good.

Now, it appears that the lion's share of poverty in American society stems from certain behavior patterns. Pathologies, if you will.

But if we consider as good in their own right and for their own sake fornication and the resulting procreation, along with self-medication to get you through the rest of the night as good, then American society falls far short of Rawls' quite reasonable prescription for "social justice."

How unfair. Unjust. Abusive, even. Tyrannical.

Heinous. Toejam. America sucks.