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More Equal Than Itself

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Okay, let me come around in a circle here.  And don’t think I don’t know that there are at least a couple of people who read this blog who tell me they’re socialists, and who could make a better case here than I can.

But–let’s get to it.  It’s Saturday.

Robert says that socialism isn’t about equality, but about who gets to control the distribution of resources.

And I think that in any existing socialist state, that’s pretty much what you get–but I wasn’t talking about existing socialist states.

I was talking about the argument people in favor of socialism make to the public at large in order to get socialist policies adopted, and the reason why those people at large accept those policies, when they do.

I don’t really think that all of these people can be hoping to become commissars.  And nothing like all these people believe that their own particular situation will be made better–that they themselves will get a larger share of the resources–under socialist policies.

Socialism presents itself to the public as a moral argument with equality as its basis.  And equality is a very powerful principle in

The evidence of just how powerful is in the fact that even oponents do not usually attempt to deny the principle.  They say the kind of thing Robert did–that socialism may say it’s about equality, but it isn’t really–but that leaves the principle itself intact.  It is a tacit admission that equality is in fact a bottom-line, not to be abrogated moral principle that must be acknowledged by everybody.

The issue is, obviously, more complicated in real life, not only because of the actual history of actual socialist (and Communist) states, but also because “equality” is a word with more than one definition. 

“All men are created equal,” the Declaration says, but it’s hard to fingure out what even Jefferson meant by that.  Even without bringing in the problem of slavery, the m en of Jeffersons era were not equal in a material sense, and they were not equal in terms of natural gifts, either.  We say the Declaration means to install “equality before the law,” which is true enough, but not an end to the argument.

The usual moral–rather than practical–justification for liberty is that liberty is more just than (material) equality because liberty rewards each person according to his or her merit.  Work hard, live prudently, contribute to society and you go up in the world.  Screw around, nap all day, wallow in self indulgence and you go down. 

And, in the cases where poverty and want are the result not of  bad choices but of bad luck–born with cystic fibrosis, crippled by a drunk driver when you were doing everything right behind the wheel–society, in the form of the government, steps in to cushion the blow.

That, right there, is the acceptance of another moral principle–that the rewards of a meritcratic society are just only if they are in fact meritocratic, if they are a matter of personal choices and not blind dumb luck.

And that’s where we get to the pont that keeps bothering me.

It doesn’t matter if we know how to measure talent or not–it ONLY matters that some people are BORN less intelligent, talented and capable than others. 

If that is the case, if some places in the hierarchy of a meritocratic society are fixed by the simple luck of the draw–sorry, Jack, you don’t have the brains to do simple algebra, you were born that way, no astronaut’s training for you, no matter how hard you try–then in what MORAL sense can we defend a meritocratic liberty society.

Note–I said MORAL, not practical.  There are plenty of practical reasons to defend it, and even more practical reasons to choose it.

But in an argument in which one side is appealing to morality and the other is appealing to practicalities, the side appealing to practicalities is always going to lose.

The Republicans may have had “plans” for catastrophic and chronic care–but that was the problem, they had “plans.”  The Democrats were not talking about plans.  They were talking about narratives.  “Here’s this situation here–do you think that’s fair?”  “Here’s this other situation here–do you think that’s fair?”

I heard Keith Olbermann do it last night–in reference to voting for or against the extension of unemployment benefits, he went, “are there no workhouses, are there no prisons?”  It’s a quote from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, but it is not a policy statement.  Its appeal is to the moral and narrative, not to the practical.

And don’t tell me I only think this because the media weren’t reporting on what the Republicans were saying.  I watch Fox as well as MSNBC, I read The National Review, The Weekly Standard and The American Spectator as well as The Nation and Mother Jones and The New York Review of Books.

If Republicans were making a MORAL argument about their preferences for a health care system, if they were defending the private system on MORAL grounds–I would have heard it.

Instead, all I got was policies and plans–wonk, wonk, wonk.

I’m not saying that polices and plans are not important, of course they are.

I am saying that if one side is appealing to a moral imperative and the other is presenting policies and plans, the moral imperative will win out every time.

And this has been the issue from the very beginning of the two Enlightenments–the French, which was always about moral imperatives, and the English, which was always about policies and plans.

But I’ll get to the Enlightenments later.

Written by janeh

June 26th, 2010 at 8:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'More Equal Than Itself'

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  1. OK. Even Marx said you could not, ultimately, sort out the proclaimed moral principles from the centuries of conduct. He was talking about doctrines to which he was opposed, of course, but still…

    Actually, I DO think pretty well all the college-educated advocates of a government-dictated economy hope to become, not commissars, but block wardens. The total control state needs lots of people to check my apartment for refined sugar, and to inform me that my poster has been found to be Offensive and must go, along with some of my books, which have been deemed Insensitive by the Committee. The work doesn’t pay well, but it’s very congenial to a certain mindset. Only the hardest and most fanatical believers will get to become commissars–along with the careerists, of course.

    As for the minds of the average voter, I can only say that if they do not individually expect to profit from an expanded state, it shows unusual independence of mind, because the advocates of an expanded state consistently SAY the majority will benefit from it. Witness, for example, the health care debate, or the debates over income tax.

    Please note that a strongly interventionist state does not necessarily promote equality. Many of our wealthiest used government intervention to achieve that wealth, but the argument that an expanded government could do really great things for a particular corporation or class of professionals is not one generally made in public.

    I have not conceded economic equality as a moral bottom line, but note to the degree that it is, it is not there alone. Even the strongest advocates of this or that state intervention complain that people who “work hard and play by the rules” are deprived of their just rewards. There are many variants on the phrase, but you can’t construe any of them to mean that lazy cheaters rate the same reward. This also is a moral imperative. So we have (1) accidents, including accidents of birth, should have no impact, (2) proper conduct should be rewarded, and (3) we have no way of measuring those accidents of birth so as to sort them out from subsequent behavior.

    Let me know how this particular circle is squared.


    26 Jun 10 at 2:28 pm

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