Saturday, October 16, 2010


FLG got a couple of emails from people about Rawls. Apparently, Ned Resnikoff found the only other time FLG can remember even referencing Rawls recently and tweeted it, which happened to be when FLG criticized his piece. FLG really isn't too interested in continuing this whole thing, but he would like to clarify.

Both of Bouie's and Resnikoff's arguments are premised upon something like this:
Our wealth today is primarily determined by our wealth yesterday. Our wealth yesterday is primarily determined by our wealth the day before. And so on...until you get to childhood and birth. And this is pretty much the key point. Our wealth today is, according to this argument, primarily determined by the wealth and genetics of our parents. Thus, our wealth today wasn't earned. Consequently, we don't really have any claim of deserving it.

Broadly speaking, this is the argument Rawls makes and Resnikoff explicitly mentions this in his piece. FLG actually thinks Rawls has a more sophisticated take on this than either Resnikoff's and Bouie's stances. But that's getting off-topic.

FLG's disagreement with Resinkoff and Bouie revolves primarily around the extent of their material determinism. Yes, FLG will concede that the wealth of your parents plays a role in your wealth as an adult. But it's not a perfect correlation. Some kids screw up and some overcome odds. Why is a complicated question, but the staunch material determinism is off-base.

Let's say that your wealth today is primarily determined by your wealth yesterday and so on and so forth. That doesn't mean it's some linear function from the previous days over which a person's choices have no impact. If a person, just to offer a simple and easy example, chooses to save money one day, even a little bit, then compounding interest will increase their wealth exponentially over the years. That decision to be thrifty is part of what FLG'll call the bourgeois virtues. A tiny decision that on the margins, if you are looking at each and every day as a function of the previous, wouldn't show up. Thrift is but one case.

Why FLG sees this same mistake applied to all sorts of things in Jamelle's writing. For example, and FLG is too lazy to find the post, Jamelle attacked Nick Kristof for having the gall to suggest that poor people in Africa would be better off if they'd stop spending so much money on hookers and booze and applied that toward their kids education. Jamelle's response was that these people don't spend money on these things at any greater a rate than the average person. Their problem is simply that they are poor. FLG remembers not being totally convinced of the data, but even if we grant it, then it still doesn't make sense. Okay. It's unfair that poor people in Africa don't have the additional income to blow on hookers and booze like middle class Americans. But perhaps those circumstances dictate that they ought spend less on it as a proportion of income so that they can not be as poor at some point in the future. In other words, thinking about the long run rather than the instantaneous, proximate, and material explanation.

And this is where the objection comes in to Rawls comes in. Yes, initial endowments matter. But so do choices. If you've got a shitty initial endowment, yes it's unfair. But the idea that the unfairness of the initial endowments renders all subsequent choices irrelevant is interesting as a thought experiment, but entirely devoid of how things must and do work in reality.

And with that, FLG will move on.


Anonymous said...

My beef with Rawls has been, okay, shitty initial endowment, and you are behind the curtain and you don't know what YOUR initial endowment will be. But, if things are set up so it doesn't matter if you do bourgeois virtues, the whole society will be a drifting mass of do-nothings. From behind the curtain, is it your choice to go to a situation where high production is not rewarded because you may turn out to be someone who cannot produce? Or do you want to choose a situation where, if you are one of those who can, you will be rewarded?

I'm not sure I have made entire sense here - try again - I think Rawls is assuming that from behind the curtain one will want to ensure that one is not a left-behind. But I think it is at least as plausible that one would want to enter a society where those who have it in them to make it big, can. dave.s.

Tim Kowal said...

While I'm not qualified to comment on whether Resnikoff has Rawls right, I'm sympathetic to the general determinism argument. It's an interesting philosophical exercise, the whole atomism idea. It's why long ago I decided, from an intellectual point of view, I'm more-or-less a Calvinist. Yet, I've learned that my Calvinism has exactly no practical effect on my faith. In fact, it would dangerous if it did, for it would lead to the conclusion that nothing anyone did matters. Why take up matters of faith with others, when we are each powerless to change the course of predetermined fate?

Just so with wealth and status. It very well may be that every bit of political and purchasing power is determined by parentage or fate or what have you. But to allow this idea to direct our actions in the political and legal arenas would lead to anarchy and nihilism. If actions do not matter, then we have no way of prioritizing them, and thus no way of promoting some while minimizing others. If we have a right to everything, we have a right to nothing.

FLG said...



Tim Kowal:

Calvinism is a dangerous road. Drives some people batty. Materialistic Calvinism, Calvinism without the faith. That's super-duper dangerous.

Tim Kowal said...

Silly is probably the adjective I'd use, but I won't object very vigorously to dangerous.

Miss Self-Important said...

Calvin doesn't actually think that accepting divine providence permits you to do nothing.

FLG said...

Did I imply Calvin did?

I just said it's dangerous.

Miss Self-Important said...

The other guy did. In either case, I'm not sure what the danger is--epidemics of predestination-induced apathy were not really a widespread problem in Calvinist societies.

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