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10 January 2011

Building a Better Us

Paul Krugman says this:
That [our economy isn't a morality play rewarding hard work per se] doesn't mean the order we have should be overthrown: the pursuit of Utopia, of perfect economic justice, has proved to be the road to hell, while welfare-state capitalism—a market economy with its rough edges smoothed by a strong safety net—has produced the most decent societies ever known. The point, though, is that anyone who claims that transferring some income from the most fortunate members of society to the least is a vile injustice is closing his eyes to the obvious reality of how the world works.
Well, he's right and he's wrong. First, there have been strikingly few legitimate attempts at perfect economic justice. The revolutions of the 20th century that were waged under the name of socialism ended up being usurped by despots and simply shifted inequality from one set of classes to another. The exact same thing can be said of capitalism and the revolutions of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Second, claiming that "welfare-state capitalism...has produced the most decent societies ever know" isn't saying much at all given our history. Yep, it's better than feudalism. Yep, it's better than slavery. Yep, it's better than laissez faire capitalism. So what? That's like saying it's better to be shot in the foot than the chest. I don't know about you, but I'd rather not get shot at all.

Paul does get this right, though:
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 [e.g. allowing children to choose their parents]. For our society does not, in fact, produce anything like equal opportunity (in part because it produces such unequal outcomes).
Exactly. I would add two related points, though. First, the conservative (a.k.a orthodox, individualist, etc.) worldview makes some very vile assumptions about human nature. People are seen as lazy free-riders who would rather get fat watching TV than be productive. I would argue (like others before me) that nearly all people inherently enjoy being productive and that it's actually capitalism itself that encourages, through its own rationale, the very acedia that it repudiates. Second, given this first point, equal outcomes would necessarily result from equal opportunities. I could go on here about the methodology of social science, but I'll save that for another post.

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