Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Repeating Rawls Poorly Isn't Provocative

Will at LOG links to this piece of crap and says the author raises "some provocative questions."

Basic gist of the provocative argument is as follows:
Regardless of whether we receive our intelligence and work ethic via either Nature or Nurture, we still receive them from our parents, whom we didn't choose or earn. Therefore, nobody deserves to earn a lot of money because it all flows from that initial luck.

You know, in short, John Rawls.

The author then goes on to write:
there are still two implications of realizing that everything — even your initial endowments — is a matter of chance, not something you deserve.

The first is that you shouldn’t look down on other people (1) because their parents weren’t as rich as yours, or (2) because they aren’t as smart as you, or even (3) because they don’t work as hard as you. I think most people agree with (1); I think you should agree with (2) and (3), too.

The second is that the moral argument should be on the side of redistribution. I am willing to listen to utilitarian arguments against redistribution (e.g., high marginal tax rates reduce the incentive to work, blah blah blah blah blah); I may not agree with them, but they are a plausible position. However, I have little patience for the idea that rich people deserve what they have because they worked for it. It’s just a question of how far back you are willing to acknowledge that chance enters the equation. If you are willing to acknowledge that chance determines who you are to begin with, then it becomes obvious (to me at least) that public policy cannot simply seek to level the playing field, because that will just endorse a system that produces good outcomes for the lucky (the smart and hard-working) and bad outcomes for the unlucky. Instead, fairness dictates that policy should attempt to improve outcomes for the unlucky, even if that requires hurting outcomes for the lucky. But given that society is controlled by the lucky, I’m not holding my breath.

There are several glaring problems with this logic. First, it commits a genetic fallacy. Second, if you think about it, the author's logic rejects free will.

Follow me:
  • We have no control over to whom we are born.
  • Parents make decisions and provide resources that shape our environment and we have no control over it.
  • When we do achieve some modicum of control over our actions, we are so completely and entirely hostage to the experiences and genetics that our parents imposed upon us that free will is an illusion.
  • Therefore, we cannot be responsible for our actions. It's all the vicissitudes of Fortune.

Third, and this addresses a different point, even if our initial endowments are granted and not earned, this doesn't follow: "The second is that the moral argument should be on the side of redistribution."

Let's imagine that a house has been in the family for generations. Does the government have a moral obligation to sell that house when the previous generation dies and distribute the proceeds because I didn't personally pay for it or build it -- in short, earn it? My sense is that many people would object. In fact, most people object to the idea of an estate tax. Perhaps, as many progressives say, it is simply a function of conservative rhetoric involving a death tax, but I don't think so. Similarly to the house analogy, if a child is endowed by their parents through either nature or nurture with certain traits that doesn't mean that redistributing the results is somehow without moral implications. That requires other unstated premises and assumptions that the author seems unaware of.

Nothing upsets me more than repeating Rawls poorly.


Robbo said...

Well while we're at it, I think the guv'mint should arm hundreds of agents with hacksaws to go after the lower legs of all those bastards who grew to be over six feet tall, since I never quite made it. It's so unfair!

Andrew Stevens said...

Hear, hear, FLG. In terms of not accepting free will, he's hardly alone. I am constantly whipsawed between people who think we're helpless prisoners of our genes and people who think we're helpless prisoners of our environment.

This is another example where people tend to favor a long, complex argument over an obvious truth. When I choose to go to work in the morning, it is obvious to me that I could have chosen otherwise and stayed home instead. I'm supposed to ignore this obvious truth in favor of some convoluted argument for determinism which, upon close inspection, isn't even very good?

On the other hand, I do tend to agree with him that intelligence, like sports ability or good looks, seems largely determined by birth or very early environment, so I tend to side with him re: not looking down on people who aren't as smart as you are. (In fact, I tend to look down on smart people who have refused to use their intelligence to acquire wisdom much more than I do on people who are unwise, but also not very clever.)

FLG said...


I'm with you and the author on the intelligence point. I was just in a hurry when writing the post and decided to skip the point.

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