Thursday, April 12, 2007

The road to hell...

... is paved with good intentions; few people see themselves as monsters. According to their own distinctive moralities, Stalin, Hitler and Mao all worked toward theoretical good, certainly at first. Pol Pot might have killed a quarter of the population of his country, but he meant well:

The democracy which will replace the monarchy is a matchless institution, pure as a diamond.

Hitler had different priorities, but one of the ways the other three meant well was that they thought equality of outcome was so important it should underpin state policy.

This is a form of utopianism. Those on the left tend to feel that, despite past problems, utopian outcomes are still worth pursuing, sometimes avidly. The right tends to disagree, and favours pragmatism - in part because of past problems. As Milton Friedman put it:
One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programmes by their intentions rather than their results.
In many ways, the main difference between a social democrat and a Maoist is enthusiasm. The social democrat wishes to see a "fairer" society - that is a society in which there is less inequality of outcome - but doesn't want to kill anyone to achieve it. The Maoist feels, perhaps, that this particular omelette justifies a few broken eggs.

There is, incidentally, a parallel in religion, and the British theologian Ronald Knox chose as the title of his book about religious extremism (my description, not his) the single word Enthusiasm.

P. J. O'Rourke touched on this in the political context during an online reader-participation interview at the Washington Post:
Oxford, Ohio: On your NPR interview last week, you pronounced the recent UN conference on race relations a dismal failure and a generally ridiculous enterprise. Do you ever feel badly about ridiculing people and efforts that are done with sincerity, even if unsuccessfully?

P.J. O'Rourke: I try to ONLY ridicule people who's (sic) efforts are sincere. Very little trouble has been caused in the world by insincere efforts. An occasional seduction maybe. There were very few insincere Stalinists of Nazis.

There are two different ways to view the welfare state. The first is the left view - that it seeks social justice, or fairness: the removal of inequality of outcome. Therefore, taxation is "redistribution", and ideas like relative poverty are useful. The second view, which I don't see stated explicitly very often, is that we're all prepared to chip in to prevent people starving, growing up illiterate or dying of treatable illness just because they or their parents are down on their luck.

This second approach, safety net welfare, is not egalitarian; it is humanitarian. That's why it is sometimes argued on the right that there should be a greater role for private charity, and it's why the right often advocates mixed (public and private) provisioning of health care, education and so on. These arguments do not stem, as many on the left seem to believe, from callousness, indifference or cruelty but rather from a different view of fairness.

When arguing for egalitarian, as opposed to humanitarian, solutions, people on the left sometimes forget, or fail to realise, that first they have to make out a case for egalitarianism itself. An interesting phenomenon, one I'll refer to later, is that people forget this even when they are trying to make that very case. So deep is their assumption that egalitarianism is right, they will untimately justify the principle on the grounds that it is a fundamental law of some kind. But it is not obvious to everyone that it is, or why it should be perceived to be at all desirable.

After all, if Simone goes into the forest to gather firewood, works very hard and collects enough for a week, Joe follows her and is more half-hearted but gathers enough for the night, Fred just can't be bothered and sits in the pub, and Angela is disabled and can't go at all, it is not at all clear why the "fair" outcome would be reached by taking wood from Simone and giving it to the others.

Perhaps all four would agree that, not least as a provision for their own possible need (as a result of injury, illness or age), all four are willing to chip in a few logs to a communal logpile so that Angela can have a fire that evening. But why should Fred get anything? And why should Joe get more than he gathered?

Someone on the right might feel that, while they are willing to chip in, a better solution would be for Angela to spend the time the others are in the woods weaving, and then they'd cheerfully swap logs for fabric. This would actually be a better solution for Angela too, because she would then have the same degree of autonomy as the others, and be able to decide whether to swap the carpet she just made for a couple of chickens instead, depending on how she saw her own needs and wants.

The communal logpile would still exist, but neither Joe nor Fred would be entitled to anything from it, and Angela only if she really can't do any alternative productive work. This is not the only possible view of fairness, but it is an entirely valid one. Egalitarianism, on the other hand, is less obviously valid as a principle of fairness. On what authority could anyone step in and confiscate Simone's firewood? How can it be in any sense fair to give the fruit of someone's voluntary and discretionary hard work to a person who just couldn't be bothered to work at all?

Justifications for egalitarianism tend to wind up saying it if fair because it is just (a tautology), and make statements along the lines that natural justice requires that no person ought to have more than any other, without any reference to how this situation might arise (by different amounts of labour, for example).

To bring social problems into the mix, under an egalitarian system, Fred would have no incentive to spend any time outside the pub. Under the right wing system, after a few cold nights, he'd probably start gathering at least a few twigs. This would be better for Fred, because a life spent in the pub is not one to reflect on with contentment in old age, and better for his neighbours who otherwise would have to endure his constant drunken aggression - and pay for the privilege with their own hard-gathered firewood.

Egalitarianism, on the other hand, would help the deserving Angela, but would entrench Fred in his own form of (behavioural) poverty. To make matters worse, Joe might drift onto the bar stool next to Fred. After all, he'll still have a fire either way. Equality of outcome, or egalitarianism, creates problems - often the very problems it is designed, in the minds of its advocates, to solve.

But it has a complicated relationship with equality of opportunity, and the "isms" of racism, sexism and homophobia. Equality of opportunity - the woods are over there, help yourself - produces different outcomes for different people. The "isms" are barriers to equality of opportunity: the woods are over there, but black people can only gather twigs, and women aren't allowed to gather at all. But they also create differences of outcomes. Black people only have twigs, and women are all in Angela's position, whatever their energy or abilities.

This means that the "isms" have often been embraced by the left as proofs that equality of outcome is ideal: if a wrong leads to inequality, then the inequality is wrong. This is flawed logic (of a fairly elementary kind: all apples are fruit, all fruits are apples). Remove the "isms" and you still have differences of outcome even when there is perfect equality of opportunity. But this flawed logic drives much of the sense of moral righteousness that characterises the left, which is doubly odd when you reflect that extremist egalitarianism was responsible for such great horrors during the twentieth century.

There is a further argument in favour of egalitarianism: that, to use an analogy of Polly Toynbee, society is a like a caravan making its way through the desert, and it doesn't do for those at the back to get too far behind because then they start feeling unhappy, and less well-disposed to the rest of the caravan ahead. I won't spend any time with this, because there's no evidence whatsoever that it is true - or even meaningful. It is an attempt to justify an opinion already held. There are plenty of examples of societies - not least that of pre-welfare state Britain - that are perfectly functional, have less crime or violence than our own, but that have significant inequality. Moreover, the desert caravan analogy suggests a unity of purpose that has never existed in any society, though it has been aspired to by totalitarian philosophies.

And this is the final problem with egalitarianism. It is totalitarian and, therefore, it is tyrannical. Totalitarianism holds that the state has the power to regulate human affairs, rather than make sure the drains work. It is noticable, in fact, that under most totalitarian systems in the past the drains didn't work. Egalitarians, and totalitarians, hold that it is reasonable for an agent of the state to step between Simone, Joe, Angela and Fred, take their wood at gunpoint, share it out as seems best to the agent, and imprison or shoot anyone who disagrees.

It is almost funny that this notion is held by its adherents to be a moral good.

I am a humanitarian, but not an egalitarian. I think equality of outcome is undesirable because it requires the eradication of equality of opportunity (which I do value, so I detest racism, homophobia and sexism), or a state-controlled redistribution of the necessarily different outcomes this brings. And I'm uneasy when I see that, although well-intentioned "enthusiasts" killed something like 148 million people last century not including wartime casualties, egalitarianism is still advocated today.

When I see the idea of egalitarianism extended beyond the economic, I feel even more concerned. Take the example of marriage. Surveys tend to show that married people are happier than singletons. This is not entirely for economic reasons; stable relationships consist of more things than the financial. To inflict a financial penalty on married couples because they are happier than singles, or to provide a financial compensation to the single, would be both unjust, and an enormous non sequitur.

It would be underpinned by the assumption that there is no private property, merely that which the state has not yet taken in its efforts to eradicate all natural human phenomena. And there is, contained within it, the idea that our emotional lives are somehow the business of the state. Now extend this principle: the state interfering not just in economic affairs but also in our emotional lives. Why limit it to marriage? It is, by design, a formula for the complete intrusion of the state into every aspect of human life.

So when I see someone advocating the idea of welfare egalitarianism, I feel it is wrong in principle, disastrous in practice, and sinister in its implications for the unrestricted scope of statism.

Chris Dillow made an argument for taxing happiness here and I posted about it here. There was also a reponse by another blogger here. Dillow has responded here.

I won't go through his arguments line by line. I think he fails to distinguish between egalitarianism and humanitarianism (indeed seems unaware that humanitarianism is the motive for much of what he sees as egalitarian), and fails to distinguish between freely chosen individual actions and the jurisdiction of the state. But if he didn't do the latter, he'd be unlikely to have made the argument in the first place. He does say:
I suspect it's no less unattractive, in principle, than equality of resources or opportunity.
And I suggest that it is much less attractive than these things, and morally unfounded to boot. He provides links to justifications of the egalitarian principle, but both are merely tautological in the manner described above, leaning ultimately on a pseudonym for egalitarianism, like "natural justice", that becomes its own justification. For those with a taste for such things, a link is also provided to a whole index of papers that show, more than anything else, how agile the human brain can be when it comes to justifying conclusions it has already reached, for no very good reason.

He ends by commenting:
... the biggest problem with welfare egalitarianism is the same as bedevils any substantive equality - the question of whether state-imposed patterned distributions are attractive at all.
Just so. And they are not attractive.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr's death was announced today. I suspect he'd have been unsympathetic to the idea of welfare egalitarianism. You can read his (very) short story Harrison Bergeron here. It begins:
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.


dearieme said...

You've persuaded me; I am a humanitarian supporter of some sort of welfare state. But do I have the right to use the coercive power of government to insist that people who are not humanitarian are taxed to support that welfare state?

Peter Risdon said...

To distort the Pareto principle, I suspect 20% of people agree with 80% of any given government's manifesto, but 80% agree with 20% of it.

The coercive power of governments should only be used to do the 20% of bright ideas that have significant consensus.

In other words, governments need to do much less, and then they'd do it more legitimately. This applies to welfare provision.