Dada is the sun, Dada is the egg. Dada is the Police of the Police.

2/25/2005

The Werewolf bares his fangs; right-wingers cower

Before her sex change, Libertarian Girl attempted to explain the liberal mindset as a desire for equality over freedom:

The liberal sympathizes with the weak and hates the strong. If a libertarian/objectivist like myself sees a man who has become rich because of his hard labor and intelligence, we think that there is someone to be admired. But the liberal sees such a person and hates him, and desires to equalize society by stealing his justly earned wealth and giving it to the poor.

Nearly all liberal policies are about equalizing society. Liberals support high taxes to take from the rich, with huge welfare programs to redistribute that money to the poor. Liberals support trial lawyers because they see the tort suit as a way to take money from the rich and give it to the undeserving but poor plaintiff. Liberals support any program to take from whites, who they see as the strong race, and give to who they see as the weaker races. Liberals support animals because they are seen as weak compared to humans. Liberals hate testing in schools because it exposes that some of the students have superior skills; liberals prefer the illusion that all students are equal.

...

Liberals favor the underdog nations of the third world. Liberals desire open immigration because they see that as a way of equalizing the world, by making the United States more like a third world nation. And they support generous foreign aid to redistribute money from the rich nations to the poor nations. They don't care if the poor nations are poor because of their corrupt governments and lack of free markets. Liberals hate free markets because free markets allow the intelligent and industrious to prosper at the expense of the unintelligent and lazy.


I'm not sure how much of the above is the true opinion of Libertarian "Man of Mystery", since it was written from the perspective of Libertarian Girl; but the general sentiment seems to be a common one. Of course the specific claims made here are preposterous straw men: liberals hate rich people and want to steal their "justly earned" wealth; think African-Americans are "weaker" than whites; think all students are the same; want the U.S. to become a third-world nation; etc. etc. (These statements are perhaps the ones made "in character.")

But the main thesis here--that "nearly all liberal policies are about equalizing society"--reflects a commonly held misconception about liberal policies: namely, that they are by are large designed for the purpose of achieving equality, with equality being an end in itself, something that is desirable above all other values--freedom, prosperity, etc.

The Ethical Werewolf ably demonstrates the fallaciousness of this view:

Let me introduce you to my way of being a Democrat. I'm not an egalitarian -- I'm a maximizer. I'm a hedonic utilitarian, in particular -- I think that maximizing the aggregate happiness of everyone, measured in terms of pleasure minus displeasure, is the goal of good social policy. (...) We get off the equality bus long before the Harrison Bergeron station.

So you might be thinking: (...) why do Democrats seem to be pushing so hard for equality? ... consider the diminishing marginal utility of money. If my currently wealthy father gets $1000 today, he won't buy anything with it that'll make him much happier. But give the same amount of money to a poorly fed Indian village boy (like the boy my father used to be), and you'll increase that boy's happiness tremendously. So if you're going to maximize pleasure, you'll want to massively redistribute wealth down the income scale.
...

we're not doing this to make everybody equal -- we're doing it to maximize the total happiness.


When Neil says he is a "hedonic utilitarian," he means that he subscribes to a specific moral theory, one similar to that advocated by the great philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham believed that a morally correct action was one that brought about the best possible consequences. Consequences were to be evaluated by the degree of overall happiness they produced; happiness, in turn, was to be measured in terms of pleasure and pain. The pursuit of happiness, in Bentham's view, was the pursuit of pleasure (and the avoidance of pain)--a.k.a., hedonism.

Right-wingers often object to the "welfare state" on the grounds that it is unjust to take away money from someone who has earned it for the sake of helping someone else. They say that everyone has a right to his property, and that this right cannot be violated simply because doing so would help someone else. A person can choose to give his money to the less fortunate; but he cannot--or at least, should not--be coerced into doing so.

Utilitarians like Neil reject this argument, because the right to property is necessarily derivative of--and thus subordinate to--the principle of utility (i.e., we ought to do that which maximizes happiness). We only grant the right to property because we think, in general, that people will be better off for it. But when that right conflicts with the greater good, it can and should be violated. To take money from Bill Gates to pay for the healthcare of a poor child would maximize happiness: Bill wouldn't miss it, but the child's quality of life would improve significantly. So it is our moral obligation to take some of what Bill has--which we do via taxes--and give it to someone who needs it more.

Conservatives and free-market libertarians will no doubt object that laissez-faire capitalism produces the greatest good; that the propsperity that (on their view) results from free enterprise will make all of us better off.

If such a thing were true, the liberal/leftist/Democrat would have no problem whatsoever with unfettered capitalism. Unfortunately, this theory, like its close cousin "trickle-down economics," is not particularly plausible, as Neil also explains:

In our messy world, there are lots of other situations where a libertarian 'night watchman' government won't maximize. We live in a world with monopolies, prisoners' dilemmas, bad corporate governance, adverse selection in annuity pricing, and a host of other problems.


Almost without fail, the corporate sector has shown itself to be willing to act in despicable, immoral ways for the sake of profit. The only way they are ever roped in is via popular resistance, which sometimes takes the form of government policy. To think that all problems would simply take care of themselves in the context of a free market is naive.

Libertarians and conservatives often exhibit what seems to me an almost religious faith in the power of the market to maximize not only efficiency but also human flourishing and freedom. But the evidence simply isn't there; in fact, there is much evidence to the contrary.

Of course, you could always reject utilitarianism, and claim that property rights must be absolute, damn the consequences. What on earth would motivate such a view is a mystery to me, though.

Even so, abandoning utilitarianism won't necessarily help the right-winger; it is likely that on every other plausible moral theory--Kantianism, contractarianism, Rawlsianism--the economic philosophy of conservatism and libertarianism will fare no better.

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