Saturday, October 31, 2015

Strict equality: Introduction

For the next several posts, until I finish or lose interest, I want to make a case for a strictly equal distribution of income (and wealth). I'm not going to argue that we have "too much" inequality; I'm going to argue that we should have no inequality of income and wealth whatsoever. The argument that communism and socialism are in a deep sense "about" equality of income is, I think, accurate and important. As a communist, I think I should argue for the value of strict equality directly.

As a utilitarian and small-d democrat, I will concede right away that if people really want inequality, then we should have as much inequality as we really do want. However, part of my argument is that a lot of people do not actually want inequality; I suspect that people at the bottom of the distribution tolerate inequality because they believe it is objectively moral or that equality is physically impossible. Furthermore, utilitarianism entails that society changes because people change what they want, and I want to change what people want.

Before I begin the actual argument, I want to state again what I do and do not mean by strict equality. Strict equality means that each person, under all circumstances, receives an equal share, by some metric of "equal", of the social product.

I do not, however, mean that everyone receives exactly the same bundle of goods: 2 lbs of chicken, 17 tomatoes, 2 board games, etc. People have different preferences, and will consume different bundles of goods. I also do not mean that everyone must work the same amount and receive the same amount of stuff: leisure is part of the social product, and people can choose to trade off stuff for leisure. I am also talking only about equality of demand on the social economic product; I am not talking about equality of physical characteristics or capabilities, social status, admiration and prestige, or anything else like that. I'm arguing only for equal access to the goods and services we produce as a society.

Finally, I understand that I cannot simply wave a magic want and implement strict income equality. Similarly, I am not arguing about a particular method of implementing strict income equality. A minority of people overthrowing the government by force of arms and imposing strict income equality on the citizenry by force would be a Very Bad Idea. However, there are a lot of other ways to move society materially towards strict equality.

Essentially, I want to argue that we should move towards strict equality, and we should move there by intentionally and deliberately decreasing inequality directly, rather than ignoring the problem and hoping other, more "fundamental" changes will deliver equality indirectly.

My argument will (hopefully) include the following points (I'll add links when I flesh them out, and otherwise adjust the summary as I think of new points or abandon old ones):

Positive argument:

  • Economic argument: Declining marginal utility of income; consumption as a zero-sum game.
  • A perfect, ideal world would have strict income equality.
  • Strict income equality is entailed by the ideal of "free markets."
  • Income inequality is undemocratic.

Counterarguments and rebuttals:

  • Access to medical care could be unequal; people who receive a lot of the social product in the form of medical care should not have to trade off access to other stuff. Concede: this form of "inequality" will probably be the last to go.
  • There is utilitarian value for income inequality today. Concede, but argue we can and should change present inequality; present inequality poses a technical problem, not a fundamental problem.
  • There is a non-utilitarian, deontic case ("just deserts") for inequality. Rebut by arguing that deontic morality is incoherent in general, and terrible when applied to access to the social product.
  • Utilitarianism is incoherent. Rebut by arguing utilitarianism is coherent.
  • Strict income equality is less efficient. Partially concede — so what? — but fundamentally rebut: argue strict income equality is more efficient than inequality.
  • Strict income equality is a million years away. Rebut by arguing it's feasible soon.
  • Humans are naturally competitive. Weakly concede, but we can compete over things (e.g. prestige) other than the social product.

If you want to suggest other arguments or raise counter-arguments, please do so in the comments.

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.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Do the rich deserve their wealth?

Do the rich deserve their wealth? Greg Mankiw believes they do. But Mankiw is asking the wrong question. Suppose everyone had as much wealth as today's 1 percent. Undoubtedly, some would not "deserve" such wealth. But so what? Everyone's rich; let's just enjoy our wealth, right?

A better question would be, do the poor "deserve" their poverty?

Much depends on what we mean by "deserve." Like most moral language, "deserve" and related words are equivocal. We often use "deserve" in a utilitarian sense. When we say, for example, "The rich deserve their wealth," we might mean that the everyone is better off with what wealth and income inequality we have. Arthur Okun makes an implicitly utilitarian argument in his "leaky bucket" theory. Okun argued transferring wealth from the rich to the poor always involved some inefficiency; we might become more equal after a transfer, but we have less stuff overall. Whether or not Okun was correct, and whether or not the utility of equality outweighs the overall loss of stuff, Okun is making a utilitarian argument. Similarly, when we say that criminals "deserve" punishment, we often mean that punishing criminals deters others from committing crimes, thus making the world better off. That the criminal himself suffers is the price we must pay, and because the whole problem arises because of the criminal's choices, we are less troubled by his own suffering. We use this sense of "deserve," with its utilitarian implications, all over the place, mostly unproblematically.

But Mankiw spends considerable ink denying the utilitarian argument. His argument against utilitarianism is not very good, but that's not my concern for today; what matters is that Mankiw argues that the rich "deserve" their wealth on grounds other than utilitarianism. It is inherently wrong, regardless of effects on utility, to confiscate the wealth of rich people, precisely because they "deserve" it. But if that's true, if we reject utilitarianism, then if (most) rich people deserve their wealth, then (most) poor people deserve their poverty.

It is therefore equally wrong, regardless of the utilitarian consequences, to give money to poor people. Not only must this money be taken from rich people, violating their rights, but the overall argument is that people should get what they deserve, and giving them something other than what they deserve, whether they deserve wealth or poverty, is inherently wrong.

If we take Mankiw's argument to its logical conclusion, then a society with tremendous economic inequality is not merely tolerable, it is mandatory. The highest moral imperative is that people must get what they deserve. If the poor deserve poverty and misery, it is immoral to alleviate their misery, even if we could do so without diminishing anyone else's happiness. (Which would blatantly contradict economists' usual endorsement of Pareto efficiency.)

Mankiw he probably does not, at least consciously, intend this interpretation: he admits the utility of some transfers. But without this interpretation, the argument is pointless. The claim that it is immoral to be rich — that no one should ever be rich, regardless of our economic circumstances — almost by definition is immune to an argument from positive deservingness. No one would argue, for example, that anyone deserves to murder, rape, or steal. Even apologists for murder, rape, and theft don't argue that doing so is a reward for merit; they argue that the victims deserve to be killed, raped, and expropriated by force. Arguments from deservingness always work to justify the lack of a privilege or right.

I think a democratic communist must fundamentally reject the concept of deservingness, except in the trivial sense that everyone "deserves" to be happy, and no one "deserves" to suffer. That everyone cannot all be happy, and that some will in fact suffer becomes a practical problem rather than a fundamental problem. Notwithstanding the enormous practical problems, the fundamental role of all our social systems should be to make as many people as we can as happy as we can. To do otherwise is simply to dress the legitimate grievances against capitalism in robes of red rather than green.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

What's so bad about socialism?

I'm not really a socialist, in the sense that Bernie Sanders is a socialist. There's a lot to criticize about Sanders from the left, primarily that he seems — from the secondary sources I've read — to buy into American imperialism. However, I think a lot of criticism ostensibly from "progressives" is misguided. For example, "Iron Knee," author of the blog Political Irony, uses Sanders as a vehicle to criticize some of the foundational tenets of both socialism and communism. I like the author, and I like his blog; however, I think he or she has some incorrect opinions, which I'd like to address.

Iron Knee's first criticism asserts that socialism is about equality of outcomes, and that equality of opportunity is superior. This position is flawed on several points.

I don't think that socialism really is about strict equality of outcomes, and in the present context — the United States in the 21st century — I don't think that it's even possible to talk meaningfully about equality of outcomes; the problem right now is the massive inequality of outcomes. One does not need to assert that everyone must be exactly the same to point out that the enormous magnitude of the existing differences seem unjustifiable and oppressive.

Second, the concept of equality of opportunity is not really coherent, and to the extent that it is coherent, is not by itself moral. How do we know when we really do have equality of opportunity, as distinct from equality of outcomes? How would we measure it?

Curiously, in another post, Super Bowl Socialism, Iron Knee labels the NFL as socialistic just because they do enforce equality of opportunity, and regulates the individual teams for the benefit of the collective sport. And second, Iron Knee points to the potential inequality of outcomes as the justification for providing equality of opportunity: " If big or rich cities were allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money then . . . would most likely win most (if not all) of the time. What a dull sport that would be, with the same teams winning game after game, year after year." If Iron Knee is in favor of equality of opportunity, and labels as socialism a system that enforces that equality, is he in favor of socialism or not?

Finally, there is a distinction between the kind of equality of opportunity where anyone can win to the kind of equality of opportunity where everyone can win. We could have a system with absolute equality of opportunity, with a literal lottery where the winners became slave owners and the losers remain slaves. Sure, anyone could become a slave-owner, but not everyone could be, and we would still have slavery. Of course, I don't believe for a second that Iron Knee would assent to such a system; I just think he hasn't really thought the whole issue through: it's not so easy to strictly separate equality of opportunity from equality of outcomes.

Second, Iron Knee criticizes Sanders' call for "massive government job creation programs," which he or she believes "unwise." The author points out that "Even socialist countries failed at that," a somewhat vague assertion. But Iron Knee ignores that there have been a lot of (more or less) successful massive government job creation programs, notably many provisions of the New Deal in the United States. And, of course, the military is nothing but a massive government job creation program; the obvious connection between the military and U.S. imperialism notwithstanding, What Paul Krugman calls "weaponized Keynesianism" has not brought the U.S. economy to its knees.

Moreover, regardless of what one might think about the reasons, it is objectively true that presently, the U.S. is not creating a sufficient number of private sector jobs. Unemployment is economically persistent: because unemployed people don't have money, they don't generate aggregate demand, and thus they provide no incentive for businesses to invest. There are only three possible responses: give people jobs, give people charity, or let people starve. I don't think for a moment that Iron Knee wants anyone to starve, so the choice is between work and charity. I prefer work, not only from moral position that charity is fundamentally subordinating, but also from the pragmatic position that if we're going to give people money, we might as well get some socially useful labor from them.

To a certain extent, Iron Knee has a point: there are certainly a lot of ways massive government jobs programs can go awry, especially when the government in question is owned through and through by the capitalist class. If there is going to be a massive government jobs program, I would much rather it be run by Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton. But in any case, I suspect Iron Knee is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Third, Iron Knee believes Sanders — and, given the tenor and title of the post, socialism in general — attacks the rich "seemingly just for the offense of being rich." I understand the limitations of the blog format, which is not a scholarly article, but I really would like more substantiation for this point; it's a long-established canard against socialism and communism.

Although individuals can definitely be envious, socialist and communist theory has never been based in mere envy. The fundamental theory of socialism and communism is that the capitalist class, the private owners of the means of production, i.e. "the rich," exploit and oppress the working class. Not because they're bad people, but because the relations of production entailed by the private ownership of capital structurally entail the exploitation and oppression of the working class. It's not a fault of individual capitalists, it's a fault of the structure of capitalism. Whether or not you believe this analysis, it is emphatically not simply envy of differences in material reward.

And even a committed capitalist should, I think, admit that the rich are in fact the ruling class not just of the country but the world, and as such have voluntarily assumed responsibility and accountability for the well-being of society. If things are bad, if there are
people who get richer from government corporate welfare, like hedge fund managers who take advantage of insane tax breaks, bankers who throw lavish parties for themselves using bailout money, or CEOs who cash in their golden parachutes after destroying the companies they were supposed to lead.
then it is primarily the responsibility of the rich to correct these deficiencies.

Finally, Iron Knee asserts that "the problem is not capitalism, it is what wrongly passes for capitalism in this country." I think this is to a certain extent a cop-out. I don't think there is any such thing as True Capitalism™. We have the system we have, which is a form of capitalism, which differs from various theoretical ideals of capitalism. Iron Knee argues that according to his theoretical ideal, free markets are the sine qua non of capitalism. However, this construction is very problematic, because the free market is unacceptably vague, and where specific, it is incoherent. Briefly, the free market can be defined as trading free of government interference beyond the enforcement of property rights. In this sense, "protectionist things like copyrights beyond the lifetime of the creator," are just definitions and enforcement of property rights, theoretically justifiable by any capitalist system but the most extreme of Rothbardian libertarianism.

Since Iron Knee would, I think, reject this definition, then the idea of the "free market" becomes incoherent. In what sense can markets be "free"? Does it just mean that markets have only those regulations the speaker likes and are in his or her interests? Absolutely free markets are impossible: markets must have property rights, and property rights entail coercion. This coercion might be justifiable, but I think it is an offense against language to call one kind of systematic coercion "freedom" and another kind of systematic coercion "tyranny" just because the second implements systematic coercion. We would need a much deeper account of what kinds of systematic coercion are legitimate and, more importantly why some kinds are legitimate and others illegitimate.

Iron Knee closes his post with the claim that he does not want "a system like socialism where everyone is guaranteed success." To be honest, I have no idea what the author means here. What is "success"? Can socialism can actually guarantee success, and doing so would be wrong? Alternatively, Can socialism not actually guarantee success, and trying to do so would be harmful? (I suspect the latter, but Iron Knee is not explicit.)

I do not, however, think that any kind of socialism, from the weakest tea welfare capitalism to democratic socialism to outright communism purports to guarantee "success." All forms of socialism and communism instead seek to eliminate catastrophic failure. Regardless of anything else, the first goal of all socialist philosophies is to make sure that no one starves*, no one freezes, no one goes without ordinary medical care, no one is homeless, everyone is appropriately educated. This is not a goal the United States, the most capitalistic country on Earth, has been able to achieve, or even come close.

*At least not involuntarily. If you really want to go live in the woods and eat bark and berries and bugs, no one is stopping you.

If Iron Knee wants to define "success" as having more material wealth than most people, then socialism cannot possibly guarantee "success"; no socialist would want to make such a guarantee.

If Iron Knee wants to be precise about what actual socialist theoreticians, including Sanders, purport to guarantee, then he needs to be much more specific.

If Iron Knee wants to define "success" as not starving, freezing, dying of treatable diseases, etc. then yes, socialism does purport to guarantee "success." And it would then be incumbent on Iron Knee to explain precisely why we should not guarantee such "success," to explain precisely why we should let people starve and freeze.

Sunday, October 04, 2015