Monday, October 26, 2009

republican virtue and equality

The view of equality that was reflected in the first phase of Cold War liberalism could be summed up in a sort of koan: equality is one of the necessary goals towards which any good society strives. At the same time, the failure to attain equality is a necessary structuring principle that makes the good society possible.

Among the canons of Cold War Liberalism, no text was clearer about this double bind than Rawls’ Theory of Justice. In no other area of political philosophy was the difference between Cold War liberalism and its classical predecessors so significant. The experience of the devastating wars of the twentieth century, and the Great Depression, had destroyed the old gentleman’s liberalism for which Hayek pined. In its place was a liberalism that ceded, and promoted, an interventionist state. But, in continuity with the old anti-egalitarian thematic, the CW Liberals saw the danger of perfect equality from two perspectives. From the economic perspective, while conceding the performance of the mixed economies of the developed world, that performance would be endangered if positional incentives were wholly removed from the picture. Thus, the people on the bottom would be peculiarly hurt by a totally equal society, for those were the people who benefited most from the technological innovations of the private sphere. The second danger was political. To maintain equality required some body, some institution, some party. But the enforcers of equality would not only destroy liberty, but would themselves simply recreate inequality in terms of other goods. The administrator whose pay, in a capitalist society, put him well above the wealth of a worker on the assembly line, was matched by the party administrator whose perks and power, in a communist society, permitted him access to a lifestyle far above that of the workers for whom he supposedly spoke.

It is important, nonetheless, that these perspectives on the vicious effects of equality did not annul the idea that a society should strive for equality – rather, they dictated a strategy of indirection. The being in Rawls’ Original Position, here, is doing something similar to the Duke in Measure for Measure, who hides himself in order to deputize another, in the ‘ambush of his name’, to create decorum in the state. And just as the Duke’s more puritanical laws prove unworkable without mercy – that is, without interpretive elbow room, and a consideration of circumstances – so, too, laws that too bind the powerful in the state so as to lower them altogether to the common level will deaden the creative function in the social order.

I make this comparison because in the end, the striving for equality is a form of republican virtue, and the argument for it is based on that virtue.

As we all know, the Cold War liberal consensus fell apart. Its fall was the fall, too, of the ideal of equality. From being an ideal that was expressed in opportunity (always a mooncalf of an idea), it became the target of a prolonged attack in itself. Rather inequality became, if not the open ideal of the neo-liberal thinkers, at least a correlate to the triumph of the most meritorious. The most meritorious, it turned out, were the administrators of corporations, and the investors. What their merit consisted in is that they were rich. In other words, inequality was its own justification. The neo-liberal ideology rescued the old Cold War liberal critique of equality while jettisoning the saving corollary of striving for equality.

Which brings me to a comparison of two very different articles. One is this excellent piece in the London review of Books by David Runciman. It is a review of a blast from the cold war liberal past – The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Wilkinson and Pickett produce a critique not of the striving for equality that was part of the Cold War order, but of the assumption that the closer a society got to perfect equality, the worse off it would become economically and socially. On the contrary, Wilkinson and Pickett use plenty of cross country analysis to show that, in any number of lifestyle measures, from prevelance of obesity to the size of the incarcerated population, the more equal the society, the better for everyone.

For everyone… that’s the rub for Runciman. He takes up a theme that is familiar to us Foucaultian-Marxy types, a theme that is ignored by the Cold War Liberal position. It is that the positional economy is all about power and its entrenchment. From this perspective, the fiction of the original position is not benign, but blinding. It blinds one to the struggle for power that makes it the case that the wealthy want to be wealthier, and more powerful than, others.

The dark tradition of Republican virtue goes back to Thucydides, and up through Machiavelli, Hobbes and Montequieu. The lesson of all Republics is that they last only as long as their institutions are not hollowed out by private power. Thus, the first duty of the state is to exercise violence against the most powerful private parties. To put it in plain English, we do not tax the rich at a higher rate because we want to use that money for social welfare, or for the poor – we do it firstly in order to make the rich less rich. This, I think is always true. Rawls’ Theory assumes that we have passed a historical point where Republics could be threatened by private parties in this way. The whole of the last thirty years, I think, proves he was wrong.

But the liberal hope lives on that the rich and powerful are, somehow, simply rational actors who, accumulating their goods successfully, want more than anything else to contribute to the social good. Thus, Wilkinson and Pickett argue that even the rich would be better off in more equal societies. Runciman doesn’t buy it:

This sounds like a knock-down political argument: more equality would give rich people in unequal societies the kind of life chances that even poor people enjoy elsewhere. Who could object to that? It needs to hold for more than just infant mortality, however, and this is where the evidence is shakier. Another area where Wilkinson and Pickett present the data according to social class instead of simply the overall average is literacy scores. But here we find a slightly different story. Finland probably has the best educational system in the world, and disadvantaged Finnish children significantly outperform disadvantaged children in the UK, just as these do better than their counterparts in the US. But it is not the case that rich kids in the UK have worse literacy scores than poor kids in Finland; they simply have worse scores than rich kids in Finland. Moreover, rich kids in the UK have much better literacy scores than poor kids in the UK, because the social gradient is so steep, so the gap between the top and bottom is wider than it is in Finland. Education, unlike infant mortality, is a comparative as well as an absolute good. Parents want their kids to do better than other kids (whereas, one hopes, they don’t need to see other people’s children die in order to enjoy bringing their own safely home from hospital). Inequality in the UK means that rich parents can see their kids doing much better than other kids, even if they are not doing as well as they might if they lived in Finland. So the politics is considerably harder here: you can’t simply say that inequality means we are all suffering together. Instead, it may mean that the poor are doing so badly that the rich aren’t interested in looking at the wider picture. They are focused on making sure they don’t wind up poor.”

Runciman baulks, here, at reading the Will to Power into the entrenching force of great wealth. I myself have no doubt. The reason a person with one hundred million dollars pays a lobbyist to pay off a legislature to make sure that his taxes don’t go up by a million dollars is not from some fear that he will be a poor, bereft fellow with merely 50 million smackers: it is because the money, at that point, is about power. And, in the ceaseless struggle for power in the Republic, when the wealthy aren’t continually attacked in their bases, the poor will be attacked.

Which is the tale told by the second article, this one in the NYT:

“MEDFORD, Ore. — Dressed in soaked green pajamas, Betty Snyder, 14, huddled under a cold drizzle at the city park as several older boys decided what to do with her.
Betty said she had run away from home a week earlier after a violent argument with her mother. Shivering and sullen-faced, she vowed that she was not going to sleep by herself again behind the hedges downtown, where older homeless men and methamphetamine addicts might find her.
The boys were also runaways. But unlike them, Betty said, she had been reported missing to the police. That meant that if the boys let her stay overnight in their hidden tent encampment by the freeway, they risked being arrested for harboring a fugitive.
“We keep running into this,” said one of the boys, Clinton Anchors, 18. Over the past year, he said, he and five other teenagers living together on the streets had taken under their wings no fewer than 20 children — some as young as 12 — and taught them how to avoid predators and the police, survive the cold and find food.”

These are, of course, the Children of the Great Moderation:

“Over the past two years, government officials and experts have seen an increasing number of children leave home for life on the streets, including many under 13. Foreclosures, layoffs, rising food and fuel prices and inadequate supplies of low-cost housing have stretched families to the extreme, and those pressures have trickled down to teenagers and preteens.
Federal studies and experts in the field have estimated that at least 1.6 million juveniles run away or are thrown out of their homes annually. But most of those return home within a week, and the government does not conduct a comprehensive or current count.
The best measure of the problem may be the number of contacts with runaways that federally-financed outreach programs make, which rose to 761,000 in 2008 from 550,000 in 2002, when current methods of counting began. (The number fell in 2007, but rose sharply again last year, and the number of federal outreach programs has been fairly steady throughout the period.)”

It is questionable how far the rot has gone in the American republic. The last thirty years has produced an amazing spectacle of the comparatively poor defending the rights of the ominously rich. A friend of mine, an avid hate radio listerner, has many a terrible thing to say about Obama’s socialism and how it will destroy our system of healthcare. Meanwhile, his brother, who had nothing, just died in the hospital, after accumulating a debt there of at least a million dollars, which nobody in my friend’s family could, or has any intention of paying. The altruistic defense of greed is surely one of the poison plants that signal the collapse of republican virtue.

As for Betty Snyder, her kind have long been targeted by the theologians of power, the economists. I’m reminded of a remark in freakonomics by David Cochrane, the University of Chicago economist, in November of 2008:

“I absolutely love the following excerpt, which better captures what it is like to hang around with Chicago economists than just about any quote I have ever seen:
“We should have a recession,” [John] Cochrane said in November, speaking to students and investors in a conference room that looks out on Lake Michigan. “People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.”

Among the things they do is lose their homes and their children, who fall prey to meth and rapists, as par of this wonderful thing – this contrarian ecstasy – that are the wages of the violence of the powerful against the miserable in America.


Anonymous said...

Roger, this is a really beautiful piece of writing about the terrible state that the US finds itself in after thirty years of neoliberal dominance. Thank you.

One small quibble: I don't quite follow your placing of Hobbes within the republican tradition. He seems to me a progenitor of the very liberalism that you excoriate here. I think the following excellent piece by Corey Robin examines this very question; it serves as a good companion piece to this post.


duncan said...

Roger - I think you are being unfair to Cochrane! Don't you know that he gets "a bit sensitive" when that quote of his is used against him?

"the quote actually makes sense as economics. The only point [in reproducing it] is to make me, personally, seem heartless — a pure, personal, calumnious attack, having nothing to do with economics."

You should stop with these calumnious attacks!

duncan said...

But seriously, this is a great post: very measured.

JCD said...

I like the dark side of the republican tradition, because I want to take some skin off my betters.

Roger Gathmann said...

Thank y'all.
Yes, maybe I too hastily included Hobbes - and should have included Rousseau. I simply wanted to broaden this tradition to include more than the left since Marx - since, after all, the notion of Republican virtue is much older than the modern left.

Unknown said...

Good post. In particular this part struck home:

"Thus, the first duty of the state is to exercise violence against the most powerful private parties. To put it in plain English, we do not tax the rich at a higher rate because we want to use that money for social welfare, or for the poor – we do it firstly in order to make the rich less rich. This, I think is always true. Rawls’ Theory assumes that we have passed a historical point where Republics could be threatened by private parties in this way. The whole of the last thirty years, I think, proves he was wrong."

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks Roger and the sad thing is it's only going to get worse. I'm 60 and don't believe I'll see it get better before I die and that's Sad.

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