Thursday, August 16, 2007

More Egally Business

I was recently referred to this article by Arthur Brooks in the City Journal. In light of my obvious egalitarian convictions, the article voiced one of the most common objections I’ve encountered. Strickly speaking, the concern is that egalitarians are too focused on equality of income. This could very well be true, egallies of all varieties may be missing the point as much as everyone else. But, my sort of egalitarianism (and the sort that I’ve had the most exposure to) is not like this at all. Equality of income (or even, overall assets) is not only ridiculously hard to maintain without an absurd amount of interference into people’s lives, but it also doesn’t achieve the sort of equality that I think every person deserves (which I will explain below).

The article goes on to show how conservatives tend to be more optimistic about people’s opportunity to move upward economically and socially, whereas liberals tend to think people are stuck where they are. Well, there is truth on both ends. Of course there are many people who are gifted with the necessary market-skills that will allow for them to break free from their less advantaged roots, but not everyone has the right sort of talents to do so. If a person is born more charismatic, good looking, intelligent, etc –they can’t boast that they deserve to have been born so. They also can’t say that they themselves achieved any sort of feat by being lucky enough to live at a time when such traits are highly marketable. Not that hard work doesn’t come in at all, I believe it certainly does, but there are many people in the lower ranks of society who work very hard with the talents they have, but they don’t have what the market requires for them to rise. Is that their fault? No. The fact that there are many working poor is sad, but true. There are working poor. If you work 3 jobs but earn only a meager salary with no benefits, what else can be expected of you? The question isn’t whether there is the opportunity for some to rise, but whether all those who deserve to rise can do so. Why should the back breaking work of the custodian go unrewarded all because he wasn’t born 7’ tall with a great lay-up shot? It’s not about opportunity for the lucky few, but for those who really are contributing to society in a meaningful way (not that bball players don’t, but do they really contribute millions of dollars worth—seriously?).

This quote made me smile (being a former conservative, yet not a liberal –sort of disliking all sides –but with definite lefty tendencies):

“It is small wonder, then, that conservatives tend to be happier than liberals today. The 2004 GSS showed that 44 percent of people who identified themselves as “conservative” or extremely conservative” were “very happy” about their lives; only 25 percent of self-identified liberals or extreme liberals gave that response. Conservatives believe that they live in a more promising country than liberals do, and that makes them happier.”

Couldn’t this just mean that conservatives might be more ignorant of the situation of everyone else in society, and so they may be less worried about the overall situation? I certainly wouldn’t put it past them ;) . This, of course, followed the explanation of a study where liberals (rich ones) thought there was less mobility in the US than poor conservatives. Well, perhaps the happiness with what you’ve got isn’t so much a function of your political leanings, but more about other ideological sympathies. Growing up as a WASP, you are taught to be content with what you have, but to work very hard anyways. WASPs also tend to be conservative (and don’t usually run into much if any discrimination). If the right really has a monopoly over the religious sect, then I wouldn’t be surprised if they were a bit more optimistic about their situation in life. But, that’s just a hunch. Maybe they controlled for religion, who knows.

This quote (and objection) didn’t surprise me:

“And those left behind, it’s important to note, will almost certainly not become happier if we redistribute more income. Indeed, they will probably become less happy. Policies designed to lower economic inequality tend to change the incentives of both the haves and the have-nots in a way that particularly harms the have-nots. Reductions in the incentives to prosper mean fewer jobs created, less economic growth, less in tax revenues, and less charitable giving—all to the detriment of those left behind. And redistribution can, as the American
welfare system has shown, turn beneficiaries into demoralized long-term dependents. As Irving Kristol put it three years before the federal welfare reform of 1996, “The problem with our current welfare programs is not that they are costly—which they are—but that they have such perverse consequences for
people they are supposed to benefit."”

Of course if we try to mend our already shoddy system it won’t do much good. That’s because you can’t build a house on the sand. Maybe we just need to tear it down and start again, which means we may also mean that we need to be a bit more creative. Income equality won’t cut it (though making the inequality itself less stark certainly wouldn’t hurt). It’s about making equal opportunity for people to live a flourishing life. You needn’t make 100 grand a year to flourish. What do you need? Well that varies from person to person. But Nussbaum has some ideas (bodily freedom, health, development of the mind, meaningful relationships, etc). I think I would just need enough money to ensure decent living arrangements, food, clothes, etc and maybe a family and a job that challenges me and is interesting. I don't think equality of income is necessary to give everyone a shot at this, but I think everyone does deserve a shot at a worthwhile life (even if their talents aren’t very marketable). If you are willing to work and do your share, you should have this opportunity (though you could argue that work ethic itself isn’t something you deserve to have but that you have by chance –a combination of genes and how you were raised). Income isn’t the only thing we need, but maybe we need a more encompassing education (how to take care of yourself, emotional ed, resources for parents, etc) and better healthcare.

This is more in line with what I think about things (though I think Brooks is mistaken about how well conservative policies really promote the sort of opportunity I’m thinking of):

“A more accurate vision of America sees a land of both inequality and opportunity, in which hard work and perseverance are the keys to jumping from the ranks of the have-nots to those of the haves. If we can solve problems of
absolute deprivation, such as hunger and homelessness, then rewarding hard work will continue to serve as a positive stimulant to achievement. Redistribution and taxation, beyond what’s necessary to pay for key services, weaken America’s
willingness and ability to thrive. This vision promotes policies focused not on wiping out economic inequality, but rather on enhancing economic mobility. They include improving educational opportunities, aggressively addressing cultural
impediments to success, enhancing the fluidity of labor markets, searching for ways to include all citizens in America’s investing revolution, and protecting the climate of American entrepreneurship…Placidity about income inequality, and
opposition to income redistribution, are evidence of a light heart, not a hard one. If happiness is our goal, those who promote opportunity over economic equality have no apologies to make.”

Brooks is right, it’s not just about the money. It’s about so much more! So let’s get things going already…

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