Sunday, October 25, 2015

Success, inequality, and socialism

Iron Knee's "clincher" continues to bug me. In The Problem with Socialism, the author closes with the line, "What we need is capitalism where everyone has equal opportunity to create and succeed at their own business. Not a system like socialism where everyone is guaranteed success."

And, to a certain extent, Iron Knee is correct. Socialism does not guarantee everyone two Ferraris, but as a political theory, all form of socialism purport to use state power to guarantee that no one starves or freezes, that everyone has adequate medical care and education: essentially, all people in a society are guaranteed a basic civilized existence. Socialism entails that these goals are primary, achieved by whatever means are most effective given particular circumstances, and that any other goals other than national survival must give way to these goals. Socialism views a basic civilized existence as a starting point, not as something that one must strive for, and can possibly fail to obtain.* All forms of socialism from welfare state capitalism to communism share this goal; the disagreements are of scope and means. If you agree that every person gets a basic civilized existed just by virtue of being a person, you are a socialist.

*Few socialists, I think, would forbid a person from voluntarily renouncing what most people consider a basic civilized existence.

If you disagree, then you think that people should somehow merit a basic civilized existence. If so, then it follows (unless you are simply disagreeing with terminology), then some people do not merit a civilized existence: that it's acceptable that some people starve, or freeze, or die or suffer from treatable medical conditions, or do not receive an adequate education. That's the only alternative to socialism, broadly defined.

If a society does use state power to guarantee everyone a basic civilized existence, then people who presently consume too little will consume more. Because the rich presently consume about all they want to consume, this guarantee will necessarily reduce inequality. To a certain extent, the objection to present inequality is moral: it is immoral to live in extreme luxury when others are starving. As I've written earlier, the case for inequality is also moral: it is immoral for any person to get more or less than what they deserve, and if a person deserves poverty, it is immoral to alleviate it.

More precisely — and possibly a bit more charitably — "inequalitarians" view property as a fundamental moral principle: it is just as immoral for a person to be coercively deprived of his or her property as it is for a person to be coercively deprived of a kidney, regardless of the social consequences. There are thousands of people who will suffer, and hundreds who will die outright, precisely because we do not permit the forcible expropriation of people's kidneys for transplant. Similarly, it is no more objectionable that people suffer and die because we do not permit the forcible expropriation of people's property.

Iron Knee's primary thrust is that socialists are too concerned with inequality. Presumably, Iron Knee thinks socialists object to inequality per se, and that it is a deep philosophical error to try to guarantee a more equal distribution of wealth or income.

Again, to a certain extent, Iron Knee is correct. I am a communist precisely because I think inequality is absolutely morally wrong. I would like to see a society where anyone and everyone can literally do whatever they choose, and can have whatever they want.* Such a society would be perfectly equal. Achieving this moral result, however, is not a matter of absurd Harrison Bergeron** handicapping. The point is not to take away from those who have more in the name of "equality"; the point is to give to those who have less. The only way to achieve this result is to develop the productive forces of humanity to the point where anyone and everyone can do what they choose and have what they want. In this sense, "inequality" is a technical problem, in the sense that equalizing physical health, although a moral good, is a technical problem: we correct inequality of health by making sick people healthier, not healthy people sicker.

*Except, of course, owning slaves.
**"Harrison Bergeron" is a terrific story, and Vonnegut is a terrific writer, but the story is not a good criticism of socialism. I doubt Vonnegut intended it as such.

There is another moral issue regarding inequality: power. Wealth and property is not just about who consumes what, but who controls whom, who is dominant and who is subordinate, who's the boss and who's the wage slave. Beyond a certain level (and different socialists will argue about where that level is, but almost all agree that we are waaaaaay past it) inequality of income and wealth directly creates inequality of political power, which is fundamentally inconsistent with our notions of democracy. Wealth and income inequality causes political inequality, and we cannot function as a democracy with too large an imbalance of political power.

But there's yet another moral issue, deeper still. But before I confront the moral issue, I want to talk about what's not any kind moral issue.

First, if you want to be a terrific piano player, you have to practice for at least 10,000 hours. And to practice 10,000 hours, you have to practice a lot every day. If you practice eight hours a day for three or four years, you will become a terrific piano player. Some people will choose to practice, and others will not; the former will become terrific piano players, the latter will not. But that's just not a matter of inequality, or not the sort of inequality that socialists ever worry about or condemn. At best, socialists might say that no one should be barred from practicing enough becoming a terrific piano player just because of his or her choice of parents.

Second, there will always be "inequality" in social admiration. There are a lot of popular musicians who practiced just as hard as Beyonce, just as many basketball players who practiced just as much as LeBron James, just as many economists who studied as hard as Paul Krugman, but they're not as popular. I myself, for example, do not believe that my blog ought to be as popular as Perez Hilton's; he and I are not "unequal" in any important sense. Whether or not other people like someone's work is just not a moral issue that socialists are concerned with.

Finally, I want to exclude the utilitarian argument for inequality. The utilitarian argument is that to optimize the social division of labor, under circumstances where technological circumstances require the social division of labor, we need to give some people a larger portion of the social product to get them to do something other than what they would otherwise want to do. I would argue that this social structure is not at all inequal: everyone is on the same preference curve that trades off doing what they want versus doing what other people want. In any event, even if this is "inequality", it is not the kind of inequality we see under capitalism, and apologists for inequality often reject utilitarianism as justification for inequality.

What is astonishing, though, is the moral idea is that people who have high social status deserve to consume a larger portion of the social product. Utilitarian arguments aside, given that leisure is itself part of that product, why should it be in any sense wrong that each person had an exactly equal share in the total social product? I don't mean to say that everyone should consume exactly the same amount of each and every product; I just mean that every person would have exactly the same income, to spend as they choose, with prices of each product set exactly according to the socially necessary abstract labor time?

To repeat myself, because, sadly, I often receive comments from people seriously deficient in reading comprehension (not that they would even bother to read this disclaimer), but I am explicitly excluding utilitarian arguments for inequality. I don't think utilitarian arguments for inequality actually work, and I'll probably discuss this issue in another post, but save the utilitarian arguments — "If we didn't have income inequality, people wouldn't work, and we'd all starve!" — for that post. If, however, you want to defend the idea that some people somehow deserve more of the social product than others on non-utilitarian grounds, argue away.

There are a lot of good arguments against inequality, both as actually exist and at the theoretical level, and no good arguments for it. I could be wrong, but the idea that even any inequality is a moral good is a fundamental moral premise is at best lazy and at worst malicious.

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