Sunday, August 5, 2007

Where did all the egalitarians go?

This post has been in the works (or at least in my head) for quite some time. I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at two fairly familiar political philosophy ideologies (egalitarianism and libertarianism) and for me to show you what I think of them and how I believe they stand in relation to the Christian faith. To be perfectly honest, I only just recently became aware of the former ideology this past year, so I can only skim the surface of this discussion and am not at all qualified to have much of an opinion. But that's never stopped me before, so here it goes.

I'll start with a basic overview of the egalitarian perspective as I understand it. According to the Standford Encyclopedia, egally's favor "equality of some sort: People should get the same, or be treated the same, or be treated as equals, in some respect. Egalitarian doctrines tend to express the idea that all human persons are equal in fundamental worth or moral status." As far as the general attitude, who wouldn't be an egalitarian? Most people (at least as far as they'll admit to others) believe that all people are just as important as any other person, and that no race/religion/sex/sexual orientation/etc makes you less valuable as a person. So far, so good. In fact, this attitude is proclaimed quite prominently by Christ and his followers. We are all, according to Jesus, beloved children of God. Each one of us is dearly cared for and loved just as much as every other person, and we should treat each other with that in mind. Love thy neighbor as thyself, because thy neighbor is just as important and worthy of respect and love as you are.

Of course, this is a lovely attitude to have, but a hard one to live. What does an egalitarian government look like? What sorts of policies would it have? The common conception is that everyone would have equal income/wealth. But that's not necessarily the case, because equality of income wouldn't be enough, nor would it accurately reflect an equal treatment of all persons within a society. Income and wealth (as Rawls would say, 'conceived broadly as they must be') aren't important in and of themselves; they are only important in so far as they can achieve some greater good (for what use is a bunch of paper bills that are intrinsically worthless?). Sen would go the 'capabilities approach', where what you're looking at are people's actual capabilities to achieve certain functionings. His approach is rather interesting, but of course I don't have much time to go into it here. The point is, equality is not limited to equality of resources, but can (or should) include people's opportunity to live flourishing lives. That's the sort of equality that I want to take a look at.

For me, everyone has some sort of initial right (as much as possible) to have an equal shot at living a flourishing life (which can, and will inevitably, vary from person to person). Being born to different parents or a different race/sex/etc shouldn't damage or better one's shot at flourishing. That of course, brings in all sort of problems when it comes to our market place, education system, family policy, etc. The currant range of incomes, for example, is completely ridiculous. People should earn more for more time spent working, and their job pay should reflect either the need for people to work in that field (ie backbreaking, drudgery jobs should be high in the pay range because they suck and those that have to do them should be compensated accordingly) or the importance of the field itself. That also means that education should be equalized so parents can't buy their children into better schools and therefore better paying jobs. That may also mean that parenting itself should be more closely monitored or better parenting education set up so parents can learn how to do a better job of it (those who know me well know that I'm often tempted to say parents should have to get a license to have kids-- which I'm only half kidding about). I think natural talent (intelligence, beauty, etc) should only be rewarded in so far as they help better the lives of everyone, because who can say they deserved to be born smart or attractive?

In non-ideal theory, it's all much harder than that. But you get my drift. It's the attitude that I care about for right now. The details can be decided by smarter people later on. Now, it seems as though Christians have a good reason to be egallys. After all, we all are equal in God's eyes, so why shouldn't we also treat each other equally? Why aren't more of us tempted to follow the egalitarian trend? I believe there may be several reasons that hold many of us back. And these reasons have a lot to do with (or in common with) the libertarian field of thought.

The Stanford Encyclopedia tells us that "libertarianism holds that agents are, at least initially, full self-owners. Agents are (moral) full self-owners just in case they morally own themselves in just the same way that they can morally fully own inanimate objects." In other words, I am mine and my stuff is mine and I have the right do with me or my stuff what I so choose unless it interferes with you and your stuff. This thought is very tempting, because who doesn't have a complex about their stuff and control of it? You do your thing and I'll do mine and that'll be that. When I put it like that (admittedly biased -- explanatory anecdotes to follow), you may wonder what this has to do with Christianity. It doesn't seem very Christ-like, so why would a Christian be tempted to embrace it? Well, there's this whole doctrine of free will that comes into play. God put us here, many Christians believe, with free reign over the course of our lives. He thought it good (for whatever end He has in mind) to give us the latitude to do with our lives what we will, so why shouldn't we give each other that same latitude? Of course with that freedom comes the freedom to mess up other people's lives (whether directly or not), but that's the price we pay. If God can appeal to some higher good than comfort (at the cost of suffering for many), than why shouldn't we? (I'm stealing this question from a friend--thanks for asking it)

Well here's how I think that sort of thinking goes astray. God did give us freedom over our own lives, but He did so to give us the opportunity to choose the righteous life. That means, we have the opportunity (and He wants us to use it) to do good in this world. We are given our freedom not so that we will choose to cause suffering, but so that we will choose to love each other and bring comfort to each other. To take that a step further, if we have a government set up in such a way that we have enormous influence (at least, compared to our predecessors) over how it runs, then we should use our ability to choose to choose a system that will best reflect the attitude of Christ, one where all citizens are treated equal. Libertarians value freedom as a concept, but freedom to really live requires more than latitude to do what you can with what you've got, esp when what you've got with the status quo sucks. Real freedom requires the capability to reach goals, not just the legal right to do so. That requires a whole different playing field from the one we've got right now. You may ask: why can't helping others be on a voluntary basis, why should the government be able to coerce our help? Well, collective action is one thing. We can only do so much as individuals, and it's hard to organize on the same level that the government could. Besides, if the government did go the egally route, it would be because the people chose it. Jesus told us to help each other like we're all one big family, and leaving everyone alone to fend for themselves won't cut it.

There's another issue I have with the whole set-up of the libertarian philosophy and the Christian perspective. Self-ownership (and ownership in general) bothers me quite a bit. I don't deserve to be here. I don't deserve to live as long as I do. I don't deserve the abilities and circumstances I was born with and into. I don't own my body. All that I have is on loan, and it's all a gift. I'm supposed to do with what I have what I can until it's time to give it all back. I am a steward of my life and the "stuff" I have, and if I act like I own any of it then I won't be doing what I'm supposed to at all. Focusing on your rights and ownership and freedom to do what you want is all a very self-centered business. It's one we're quite prone to, and it's an attractive idea but it's not the right idea. We aren't our own, we are God's, and we are charged to take care of each other (even if we have to make sacrifices). Lay down our lives for each other-- that's the goal. It's tempting to say, like above, that if God lets us choose suffering then we should allow each other to choose suffering, but that's missing the whole point. My last post on Romans talked about that sort of attitude and how it doesn't make much sense. The gist was: all because our evildoing makes God look better (or makes people turn to him more), doesn't mean we should take that as license to do evil. We're still supposed to do the right thing, even if God can use our doing the wrong thing to further his plan. That might not make sense, and you might not see the connection with that and the libertarian attitude, so I'm sorry for not being able to better put into words my feelings on the matter.

That all being said, I'd like to leave here with some words of wisdom from my Pastor who gave a phenomenal (but challenging) message today. You can check it out here if you want (it's called "It's all mine"). The message was about Romans 12:3 which says, "Share with God's people who are in need." Sharing isn't a new concept, but it's so hard to do because we get so caught up in what's mine. So we looked at the parable in Matthew 25:14-on that talks about the master and the talents (probably 70lbs of silver, or the equivalent of an ordinary laborers wages for 20 yrs). The point is that the master gives his servants some of his money, and the servants are entrusted with it until he returns. The servants that take his money (notice, never their own money) and use it to make more for their master are considered faithful. The one who sits on the money and does nothing with what he's been entrusted with gets in trouble. We have to live like the first two servants, knowing that all that we've been given is never ours. We should use everything we have to give glory to our master, and when he returns he'll be pleased with us. It's never about what's mine, but what is his and how we use it for his purposes. Do I own myself? No. Do I have stewardship over myself and my "stuff" for the time being? Yes. So let me use what I've been given to follow Christ's command to love everyone in every way possible.

So where have all the egalitarians gone in our Churches? Why do we still care too much about our stuff and our lives and not other people? God is wondering the same thing...

(fyi, I don't think you have to be an egalitarian to be a Christ-follower, and you can still be a libertarian and be a Christ-follower, but I think it's important to remember the attitude we are supposed to take when we make these sorts of choices... and from my perspective the attitude of the egalitarian more closely aligns with Christ's message. But many other Christians may disagree, and my opinion is once again just that-- only my opinion and nothing more.)

**And as promised above, here are several anecdotes about my encounters with libertarians that have made me wary of them ever since. I thought it best to share my bias openly, because my opinion is obviously influenced by my real life experiences with libertarians and not just their ideology:

My first encounter with a real libby came in my discussion section for my contemporary moral issues class. The discussion was unproductive as it was because the section was loaded with business majors and no other philosophy students. While discussing surrogate motherhood (or some such topic), a fellow classmate volunteered that he disagreed with whatever stance we were talking about. When asked his reasons, he promptly replied that he was, in fact, a libertarian. When further asked how that affected his decision, he merely replied again that it was because he was a libertarian. End of story, no more discussion. You can imagine the thoughts that were reeling around my head after that display of willful ignorance.

My second encounter came when I met the heir to a rather large company. He was a very very wealthy white boy who stood to inherit more money than I'll probably earn in a lifetime. For him, being a libby was the "cool" and "trendy" way to be conservative economically without being thrown into the not-so-cool-for-20-somethings Republican camp. To be fair, he had every practical reason to be a libertarian, as that position would ensure that his large wealth and influence remained in tact. It's almost hard to blame him... other than the fact that if he weren't a white rich male he would hardly be so eager to preserve the status quo. So as you can imagine, I don't have much sympathy for the actual libertarians I've met (even if I have more for what their ideology actual says), because so far they've just been naive white boys with lots of money...


Wilson said...

A very good post.

It seems to me, though, that you have overlooked an important reason that many people embrace varieties of libertarianism: the necessity of limiting the government's power. I'm going to try to criticize your post from that perspective.

When the government embarks on a project to make society better, who knows what definition of "better" it will end up using? The Republicans, when they gain power, will use the precedent of government intervention to impose restraints on sexual activity (I'm embracing stereotypes here for the sake of argument); the Democrats will force everyone to fund abortions with their tax money. Some people will use government power to assure that everyone has equal access to education, but others will pursue full-blown communism.

Libertarianism, by contrast, tries to find the minimum of coercion necessary for society to function, and leaves the rest to private conscience. It embraces pluralism, in other words, in ways that no other political philosophy possibly can. Every other theory ends up cutting off debate at some point and resorting to the police to enforce its own opinions.

Here's an example of why someone might find your form of egalitarianism terribly objectionable:

That also means that education should be equalized so parents can't buy their children into better schools and therefore better paying jobs. That may also mean that parenting itself should be more closely monitored or better parenting education set up so parents can learn how to do a better job of it (those who know me well know that I'm often tempted to say parents should have to get a license to have kids-- which I'm only half kidding about).

So I can't pay for private education to guarantee that my child will learn from my perspective instead of imbibing whatever the politicians think should be taught? And if I live in a city where the educators are incompetent (believe me, I've been in one), I have to wait years for the politicians to fix things instead of scrimping and saving to put my children into a good school while I have the chance?

And if I have politically incorrect ideas, the government can tell me I'm an unfit parent? The state has the ultimate say in how every child is raised? Within a generation, there could be no freedom left at all.

I say all this without resorting to the idea of self-ownership in any way, unless perhaps freedom of conscience is a form of self-ownership.

Lindsey said...


I'm glad you bring up the points you did! They're one's I should have included, but didn't think to. Of course, as you can probably tell, I'm a bit of a paternalist (okay, maybe more than a bit). I think it's okay to make judgment calls, even between values. In fact, I think the government ought to in many cases. I think pluralism won't come out too scathed if we set out to give everyone a shot at living a flourishing life. The question is (and it's a hard one that better people than me still can't adequately answer) what must we provide in order for that to happen. I'm tempted to think: healthcare, education, maybe some sort daycare or better parent leave policies, and probably a spruced up market place. I think it's better for the government to say, "hey, this is wrong, people should have a better opportunity at living a decent life even at the cost of some people's liberty to do what they want with what they have-- esp when having what they have may not be just." Yes, if the govn't is going to make judgment calls about what's good for everyone to have, then it ought to be monitored pretty closely to make sure the right policies are being enacted. But, giving people free reign is itself invoking one principle of justice over many others that may be more important. So libertarianism doesn't really protect pluralism, because acting on it's principles means that it is simultaneously denying certain other principles of justice.

The education quote stems from my last philo class, and I should have been more clear (my apologies!). I worry not about private schooling per se, but rather elite private schools (you know, the straight shot to Harvard types). It's the sort of over investment that leaves many other (equally capable) kids in the lurch. And for the parenting thing --I think parenting should be a privilege and not a right (scandalous, I know). But, my idea of the adequate parent isn't all that different from the common sense sort. I believe a parent that is providing for the physical/emotional/social needs of the child while at the same time helping them develop (and eventually) exercise their autonomy is okay. If you can't/won't do that (aka, want to brainwash your children into becoming white supremacists) then that's a problem. But again, there's a fine line between sharing who you are with your child (faith, for example), and making it difficult for them to choose another lifestyle (later abandoning faith, perhaps).

But you're right, my overzealousness was not accompanied by the disclaimer that I think this is a very very tricky business and needs to be done carefully and needs to be monitored carefully. But, I think it's better than the alternative (why have government at all, if not to help each other out in some way?). And of course, the self-ownership stuff is where most of my qualms lie.

Wilson said...

I'm afraid you haven't reassured me about your philosophy of family law.

I believe a parent that is providing for the physical/emotional/social needs of the child while at the same time helping them develop (and eventually) exercise their autonomy is okay. If you can't/won't do that (aka, want to brainwash your children into becoming white supremacists) then that's a problem.

But how do we say where "brainwashing" ends and teaching morality, religion, and culture begin? If the state can revoke the parental rights of actual white supremacists, how about those who have religious objections to miscegenation? And how about those who have religious objections to gay marriage?

Lindsey said...

It's hard, I admit, to draw that line... but it is possible. I talk a bit about it here (but not well). For example, if you were raised by white supremacists but were not kept insulated from other lifestyles (and not forced to practice the lifestyle of the parent if you opted out), then it would be alright. If a parent forced a child into a cult (for an outlandish example), or refused to allow a child to be introduced to other "conceptions of a good life" (other faiths, other value-systems) then you do the child a great deal of harm. If as a Christian, for example, you keep your child completely in the dark of what the world believes, then you do them a great disservice. For what is faith, or any lifestyle, that is chosen merely out of lack of other options? It's when parents completely isolate their children from dissenting viewpoints that the child suffers a blow to autonomy and their future ability to live a flourishing life. That's why I'm a big advocate for Christian parents keeping their kids in public schools (though at the same time, I think schools should actively introduce students to all sorts of religious views instead of shunning them all which is, in essence, promoting the secular world view). For those who did choose homeschooling or private ed, perhaps they should be prevailed upon to include an introduction (at least) of other lifestyles. I attended a Christian camp back in middle school that did just that, and I think it did a world of good for my perspective. Introducing kids to the possibility of alternative lifestyles (values/morals) doesn't negate the importance of your own, and it can even (I think) make your own moral convictions stronger in the process. Part of developing autonomy is learning about the options you have, and how to weigh them out (which is also why I think high schools should have an introduction to philosophy --or at least cont moral issues-- course). But I do agree that this would most likely be a logistical nightmare, and I haven't any solution for that part. If I'm still not convincing, its probably because I haven't got it all worked out myself. But that, at least, is no surprise.