Did Churchill Get It Backwards?

Can you all stand some semi-philosophical musing? Because I’ve been mulling something over, and wonder where you all come down on my rethinking of an old adage…

We’ve all heard the saying, usually credited to Winston Churchill, to the effect that “if you’re under 30 and not a liberal, you don’t have a heart, but if you are over 30 and not conservative, you don’t have a brain.”

As I have aged, studied law and history, and dabbled in political philosophy, I’ve come to think old Winston (or whoever) got it exactly backwards.

When I was much younger, the importance of individualism, of personal responsibility for success or failure seemed obvious: one’s life prospects were shaped by one’s energy, skill, hard work, moral merit…People who failed to do well in life simply lacked some essential personal attribute (if it was intellect, that was an unfortunate consequence of heredity, but other deficits seemed more optional.)

As a young person, I shared America’s cultural emphasis on individual merit and obliviousness of systemic realities.  It never occurred to me that the popular admonition to “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps!” incorporated the very misleading assumption that everyone had bootstraps.(Not to mention feet.)

When I had lived a little longer–and especially when I went to law school–I began to see the flaw in those early assumptions. It turns out that our society has a number of structural elements that make life a lot harder for some individuals than for others.

A couple of random examples:

I still remember a long-ago conversation with a friend–a criminal defense lawyer–who explained that when the police arrested a middle-class white kid for smoking pot, he could usually get him off with what amounted to a slap on the wrist. If that kid was Black, however, the result was usually different. The system was less forgiving. (He also pointed out that the White kid from the suburbs who was “using” in the basement rec room of his house was far less likely to be apprehended than the the poor Black kid who was nabbed on the street…)

And I often think of another friend–White male, intelligent, 6’2,” athletic, whose parents had both graduated from prestigious universities– who firmly believed that his own (moderate) success was exclusively the result of his individual merit and hard work, and who insisted that anyone in America could achieve what he had if they just tried.

There are–as most of us now recognize–many, many more examples of what we’ve come to call the operation of “privilege”–a status that may not confer benefits, but does eliminate structural  barriers faced by people who encounter those barriers by virtue of their race, religion, gender, poverty or other facet of their identity or status.

It was my encounter with the political philosophy of John Rawls, and especially  his “veil of ignorance,” that really  opened my eyes to the importance of social systems to our individual life prospects. Rawls’ challenge is deceptively simple: imagine you haven’t been born yet, and you don’t have any way of knowing what your circumstances and personal attributes will be. You might be Black or White, beautiful or ugly, smart or mentally stunted, healthy or maimed, born into wealth or poverty…the lists (and options) go on. What kind of world– with what kind of social contract– would you want to be born into?

What sort of society would be most likely to treat you fairly no matter who or what you turned out to be?

Individual merit, however we define that, is obviously important. So are the social systems within which we individuals must apply our particular skills and talents. If America ever emerges from the “cold civil war” in which it is currently embroiled, we need to consider the appropriate balance between the two. We don’t want or need a system that fails to reward diligence and creativity–but we also can’t afford to perpetuate the structural barriers that prevent too many of our citizens from applying their diligence and creativity in ways that benefit us all.

Rawls had a lot to say about that, too.


Rawls And Masson Are Right

Doug Masson can always be counted upon for thoughtful observations about policy proposals, whether those are at the state or federal level. In a recent post,  he took a look at the GOP’s tax bill, and made a point that is often missed–or misunderstood.

After criticizing Orrin Hatch’s nonsensical justification for a provision that would widen the gap between the rich and poor, Masson writes

I always get grief from my conservative friends when I say stuff like this, but reducing wealth disparities in the country isn’t just a matter of bleeding-heart, feel-good liberal mumbo jumbo like fairness and equality. Concentration of large amounts of wealth in a few hands distorts markets and democratic processes. The system can tolerate — even thrives under — certain amounts of inequality. It creates incentives that fuel the economy. But, beyond a certain point, things start to break down.

The most common defense of Masson’s position–a defense that is entirely accurate, albeit incomplete–is historical. Most countries that have experienced persistent large-scale inequalities have eventually been destabilized by revolt or revolution. This country is already seeing signs of citizen unrest; continued Congressional theft from the poor in order to bestow even more goodies on the rich will be met with anger and resistance, and it won’t be pretty.

Economists also support Masson’s thesis. They point out (as I’ve done several times on this site) that 70% of American economic activity is dependent upon consumption, and when large numbers of Americans have little or no disposable income with which to consume–when they are barely able to afford necessities–the economy can’t grow. When demand is weak, employers don’t increase production–which means they don’t create new jobs.

Those practical arguments are persuasive, but we shouldn’t ignore the fairness argument, because it goes to the heart of what makes a just society.

John Rawls was the pre-eminent political philosopher of the 20th Century, and his book Justice as Fairness established a framework within which political philosophers still argue. Rawls believed that all social primary goods–by which he meant liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and what he termed “the bases of self-respect”–should be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these is to the advantage of the least favored. 

Inequality, in other words, can be justified, but only if that inequality is necessary to the improvement of the lives of the least fortunate.

When Masson writes “The system can tolerate — even thrives under — certain amounts of inequality. It creates incentives that fuel the economy. But, beyond a certain point, things start to break down,” I read that as another way of making Rawls’ point.

When markets work–when we have genuine capitalism, not the corporatism that characterizes the United States today–they usually meet Rawls’ criteria. Invent that better mousetrap, and everyone’s mouse-catching is improved. The money earned by the inventor provides an incentive to other ambitious folks, prompting them to invent something else that will improve life for many people, including  poor people. A rising tide really does lift all the boats–we just have to be careful to define what constitutes a “rising tide.”

The fact that our mousetrap inventor has more money than someone else is thus a permissible inequality, because he has earned it in a way that improves–in some way, to some extent– the lives of the less fortunate.

This definition of justifiable inequality doesn’t reflect the inequities in today’s America. As Masson points out, money acquired isn’t necessarily the same thing as money earned; there’s a difference between that inventor/entrepreneur and those whose wealth was inherited or acquired as a reward for  “gaming the system” or helping others to do so. Bigly.

Our gilded age inequality fails all three tests: history, economics and fairness.

We need to fix it.