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Lucky Penny

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Let me start this off by saying that there are entire days during the summer when I have to do nothing but sit around and remind myself that I don’t REALLY hate pollen.

Today is one of those days.  My head hurts.  Everything itches.  It was miserably hot when I ran out to the grocery store at ten this morning, and it’s going to get nothing but worse for the rest of the day.

I am not a heat person.

What I am, apparently, is somebody who can read through anything, and what I read this morning (aside from the end of the Dante, almost) was this:


I ended up looking at this because of a rather misleading link posted today on Arts and Letters Daily.

And from one point of view, it isn’t a very interesting piece.  It’s a book review posted on the website of the Literary Review of Canada, written by somebody named Andy Lamey.

And I just refuse to make all the jokes that come to mind with that one.

The book being reviewed is called “Why Not Socialism,” by G. A. Cohen.  I’d actually heard of the book before, but not of its author, and I’ve never read it.

And the review itself, as I said, is not really all that interesting.  It’s a left wing book being reviewed by a left wing writer in what appears to be a left wing journal–I could probably write it myself, in my sleep, much the way I can usually foresee everything that’s going to be said of right wing books by right wing reviewers in right wing journals.

But in among all the not-very-interesting there are two very interesting things.

The first is something called “luck egalitarianism,” which is apparently a submovement in modern left wing political philosophy.

The second is the claim that Cohen found the arguments in favor of socialism–and against other forms of political organization–to be entirely moral in nature.

First, luck egalitarianism, because it addresses something that’s always nagged at me whenever anybody talks about freedom, equality and the meritocracy.

The felt legitimacy of a meritocracy relies first and foremost on the general agreement that opportunities are equal, so that unequal outcomes are deserved.  That is, it’s all right for Bill Gates to have fifty billion dollars and your brother in law to have only $1.95, because Bill Gates built a huge company and employs millions of people and your brother in law drinks Wild Turkey by the case and robs liquor stores to get it.

In real life, of course, opportunities are not entirely equal, and for many reasons.  The children of Bill Gates did no moe to deserve their good fortune than the children of your brother in law did to deserve their bad luck.

We therefore tend to feel, instinctively, that we should do something to at least attempt to equalize the possibilities for all children.  We build public schools, for instance, and programs that provide money for college for kids who might otherwise not be able to afford it.

But luck egalitarianism goes farther than that, because it faces up to the meritocratic myth–that it is nurture, and not nature, that matters the most in every instance; that people may be brought up unequally, but they are not born unequal in talents and abilities.  We can all of us be whatever we want to become, if we just work hard enough at it.

This is the place to throw in something that matters to anything I’m going to say.  I grew up and went to school largely with rich people.  Although it is true that the ranks of the Ivy League and the successful in general are disproportionately filled by the children of the rich and the educated upper middle class, the fact is that most of the children of the rich and the educated upper middle class do not go on to the Ivy League or to “success” in any form.

I’ve seen plenty of people with “all the advantages” crash and burn through drugs, alcohol, and general inertia, and even more just sort of settle into middle-management dead-end jobness.  I don’t care how much intelligence and talent you’re born with, to get anywhere with it you actually have to do something.

That said, the simple fact is that we’re not all born with equal intelligence and talent, and that intelligence and talent are to a significant extent heritable.  That means that intelligent and talented parents will tend to have intelligent and talented children, and that most people are born with significant limits placed on their ability to realize their aspirations.

Your good for nothing brother in law’s children did nothing to deserve your good for nothing brother in law, but they also did not do anything to deserve their 101 IQs and the fact that when they try to sing, cats commit suicide.

The fact that some people are born less equal than others is the crux of the problem so many people have with the concept of meritocracy.  A kid born with an IQ of 160 might as well have been born with a trust fund.   He might put either advantage to good use, or not, but at least the opportunity is there.  A kid born with an IQ of 98 has vast areas of human endeavor barred to him from the start.  He won’t be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, no matter how hard he works.  Calculus will be beyond him.   So will any substantive understanding of the meaning of most SCOTUS decisions.

Now, a caveat–I’m using “IQ” as shorthand for a certain kind of intelligence.  I am not referring to specific intelligence tests.

The point here should be obvious:  if meritocracy is legitimized by our belief that anybody who works hard enough can “be whatever she wants to be,” and that is not in fact true, then meritocracy begins to look as unjust as any aristocracy ever conceived.

And if you go back to the second point above–that for Cohen (and I suspect most other appeal) the defense of any political system must be made on MORAL grounds–

Then it’s easy to see why large hunks of people think that capitalism is inherently immoral and socialism is inherently moral in spite of the real world historical consequences of each.

Which brings me back to the idea that defenses of political systems must be made on moral grounds.

But I’ll get back to that tomorrow.

There’s supposed to be a storm from hell any minute now.

Written by janeh

June 24th, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Lucky Penny'

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  1. This is a problem because of the narrowness of the definition of ‘successful human being’ – only the person with the most toys wins. Or the one with the highest marks in school.

    If you start with the idea that all humans are intrinsically of value, and therefore the person who can’t understand political debate or earn much money can have a respected position in society.

    If you start with the idea that all humans must have an equal right to become of value, with that value being determined by how much they earn, well, of course you will end up trying to figure out how to assign everyone equal value on criteria guaranteed to recognize only a minority as being people of high value.

    If someone wants to defend their political system on moral grounds, they have to get a lot more basic than simply deciding whether they like equality of opportunity or equality of outcomes more, and consider things like what a human being is, and why they are of value. Surely it isn’t merely because they’re smart or rich.


    24 Jun 10 at 1:53 pm

  2. Those large hunks of people baffle me, and I’ve met entirely too many of them. To divorce the morality of political and econmic choices from the consequences–the PREDICTABLE, REGULAR consequences–is insanity, no matter how many educators and ministers do it.

    As for the randomness of birth as an argument for socialism, I first ran into it in H. Beam Piper’s “Last Enemy” which must be 50 years old now. (Piper didn’t buy it either.)

    How to put this? While I see the point, and sometimes agree in particular cases, I not only see the consequences of teaching despair, I know how wrong the examples often are. An undersize child from a poor family of a recently conquered province–one who never quite mastered his new country’s language–clearly stands no chance in politics. But this does not seem to have stopped Napoleon. A malnourished son of a drunken and abusive father, poorly educated in the bargain is also clearly going nowhere–unless he’s Joseph Stalin. (Another one who never mastered the language of the country he ruled, now I think of it.) A list of American Presidents who could not possibly have become President would certainly include the incumbent–but at least Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Harry Truman as well. But the lists of “impossible” successes in science, generalship, business and literature would be equally long.

    Go back to Cluasewits. He never says two sides stand an equal chance in war. He advises commanders to behave in a certain fashion, and NEVER says “if you do this you will win.” And he never says luck plays no part. He counsels energy, activity, concentration of effort and a focus on what is necessary to succeed, and says “if you do this, you will be more successful than if you do not.”

    He and the man telling me I don’t stand a serious chance may both be right. But I know whose counsel is more useful.


    24 Jun 10 at 4:29 pm

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