Monday, January 24, 2011

Philosophies, Summarised

Two of my favourite bloggers help render irrelevant long-postponed posts by providing pithy explanations of why I still, at times reluctantly and with distinct reservations, opt for social democracy as my general political / ideological orientation.

During the US election in 2008, Obama was harried by conservatives for supposedly telling a questioner that he wanted to "spread the wealth around". For the rest of the campaign, Obama responded to queries about this by immediately stressing how he wanted to give most Americans tax cuts. I was rather depressed: if the best hope of progressive politics couldn't at any stage mount a single defence of economic redistribution, what was the point?

I started to write a post that set out at least five moral, historical, and practical reasons why we should spread the wealth around. That never got very far advanced. However, in a recent post, Paul Krugman has a neat summary of one of the central, and perhaps most easily understood, points: the "equality of opportunity" that most people say they support would require rather more radically redistributive policies than we actually have:

So when you hear conservatives talk about how our goal should be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes, your first response should be that if they really believe in equality of opportunity, they must be in favor of radical changes in American society. For our society does not, in fact, produce anything like equal opportunity (in part because it produces such unequal outcomes). Tell me how you’re going to produce a huge improvement in the quality of public schools, how you’re going to provide universal health care (for parents as well as children, because parents in bad health affect childrens’ prospects), and then come back to me about the equal chances at the starting line thing.

In another post, Krugman describes his philosophy as "basically Rawlsian" and that would capture my general position, too: you choose the kind of system to live under not knowing your place in it beforehand (unlike Rawls, I would see this basic principle applying internationally and not being limited to the nation state).

I also think there are conceptually even stronger, historical reasons for justifying spreading the wealth around, but that's for another post.

Then, at Waylaid Dialectic, Terence Wood goes some way to summing up why I'm not an anarchist or even really a thoroughgoing left-libertarian:

... once the unit of governance gets large (i.e. a state as opposed to a tribe or what have you) the potential for violent coercion of minority groups increases. On the other hand, larger units of governance bring with them dramatic benefits, if they behave, they facilitate trade, labour mobility, and social insurance. They also benefit from economies of scale in providing public goods and services.

Which means that development depends to a degree on forming reasonably large units of governments. Ones large enough to tyrannise minorities. What’s the solution? Surely not returning to anarcho-tribal collectivism? Rather, I’d say that the best, or at least, least worst, solution is the one we’ve already got: governance systems with checks and balances — democracies and constitutional protections.

At different levels of social grouping, humans have always formed "governments" that set obligatory rules and mediate conflicts. I'm with the libertarians in worrying that the bigger the scale of government, the more capacity for evil -- so we should be very careful about making sure there are checks and balances. But I don't think that government at a larger scale is necessarily more likely to be evil. In fact it might be argued that in "community" or "local" forms of governance regular human despotism has a greater chance to run amok. In short, I think it's probably an empirical question which things should be decided at which levels, and, as Terence says, we should concentrate on building good institutions.

Open to having my mind changed, though.

1 comment:

terence said...

hhhmmm...well I couldn't really disagree, could I.

Very flattered to be mentioned in the same blog post as Paul Krugman though :)