Saturday, April 30, 2005

Left-wing Ideology

What are, or should be, the core values of left-wing thought? Equality is often thought to be fundamental, as when Stephen Cooper remarks that "Closing the gaps is an integral part of what the left stands for." But if he's right, that's bad news, because egalitarianism is a truly terrible ideology. Those who self-identify as "egalitarian" are more likely prioritists, and think that benefitting people matters more the worse off those people are. Making everyone equally miserable is not a good thing, so simply 'closing the gaps' cannot be our core value. Rather, we should care about people's absolute (rather than relative) level of welfare, and try to benefit everybody as much as possible.

Stephen also hints at the idea that people deserve reward in proportion to how hard they try. My previous post criticizes this notion. While I'm on the topic of what Leftism shouldn't be, another bad habit is to be concerned about the welfare of (minority) groups rather than individuals. The "favouritism" which results from this is inconsistent with showing equal concern for all people -- and it's little wonder that we suffer at the polls in result.

There is still much that sets us apart from the Right. For one thing, we should care about well-being and quality of life, not merely economic prosperity. Utilitarians want to maximize happiness, not GDP. And the evidence suggests that, above a certain point, having more money doesn't make people happier at all. It just makes everyone else more miserable. So we might end up embracing some degree of economic egalitarianism, but we should be clear that the motivation for doing so is to benefit people's well-being, not merely equalize it. This is a much more admirable end.

A similar conclusion could be reached through taking autonomy as our core value, as I wrote last year:
Anyone who truly values individual freedom and independence is committed to the necessity of some degree of wealth redistribution. Without this, less fortunate citizens could find themselves forced to submit to the will of (richer) others in order to satisfy their material needs. Rousseau's answer was that "no citizen should be so opulent as to be able to buy another, and none so poor as to be constrained to sell himself."

This too, I think, sounds more admirable than brute "bring everyone down to the same level" egalitarianism. We should distance ourselves from such envy-driven rhetoric -- it makes far too easy a target for our right-wing opponents!

I recently suggested that differing interpretations of freedom might underlie the left/right divide:
Those on the right have a thin or 'formal' conception of freedom as the absence of external constraints. Hence the lower taxes. Those of us on the Left, by contrast, value something rather more substantive: the ability to achieve one's goals in life. "Freedom as capability", you might say. Hence the higher taxes, to pay for public goods and welfare that supports people in pursuing their conception of the good life, whatever it may be.

Naturally, I see this as a huge advantage for the Left, and one that we really should be doing more to highlight. After all, given a choice between thin and substantive freedom - mere absence of obstruction, or actual positive help - which are you going to choose?

5 comments:

  1. The problem is that if you wnat to properly define the left you need to divorce yourself from the attempt to "sell" the left. Otherwise you will jsut define it as the opposite of some arbitrary "evil right". For example

    >For one thing, we should care about well-being and quality of life, not merely economic prosperity.

    The right cares about the well being of peopel they jsut think htat economics provides the best approximation of that well being, and that GDP aproximates wellbeing.

    > having more money doesn't make people happier at all. It just makes everyone else more miserable.

    the interesting thing here is we are factoring envy into the utilitarian equasion in the end this means that my utility is increased by yours lowering. this implies a fundimental problem in the system the problem in this case being envy. This is an argument made by the right that if you use envy as one of your things to be maximised in the end your system will never reach the utility levels you could reach if you directly attacked the problem of envy - for example by rewarding and celebrating sucess. Surely the first thing to do would be to solve such a fundimental problem.

    of course I also accept that there may be a misallocation of resources due to rich peopel diverting key resources away from poor.

    > Without this, less fortunate citizens could find themselves forced to submit to the will of (richer) others

    We have two sides to our life -
    1) work - where we sub mit ourselves to the market to be owned in a sense by a collection of others.
    and
    2) our consumer side where we "own" others and make them do our bidding.
    these two sides vary in size - in my experience in NZ richer people probably are "owned" for longer periods of time but effectively own more people when they are acting as consumers.

    Of course you mean a more fundimental submission which is a result of allowing rich to become too powerful and destroy the market (somthing the right would also oppose) or as suggested the individual becomes too poor. As long as individuals dont become too desperate and you deny monopolies of power then it doesnt matter how rich people get.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've not read such a crock for a while. Who is this 'right' you are referring to which thinks economics are the best approximation of well being?

    I know many on the broad 'right' which this does not describe. They are generally rule utilitarian if utilitarian at all, even those from ACT, who are definitely not Act utilitarian.

    And how can you speculate on what the utiles are? It is usually those on the political left in my view who seem to think in act utlitarian terms, the utiles being related to economics. The focus is on removal (euphemistically 'redisribution') of economic resources from some to others, to achieve some short term myth of maximum collective economic well being.

    Most of those on the broad right I have met come from a culture of abundance so are less likely to be hung up on money. They are more likely to value spiritual connections, personal freedoms,leisure time and family , in my humble view.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Graham, I was not suggesting that right-wingers were utilitarian, but that they should be. That is, if we want to maximize anything, it should be well-being, not merely economic productivity. The latter has no intrinsic worth.

    "And how can you speculate on what the utiles are?"

    Well, if you followed the link I provided, you would find that I have in fact written an entire essay on the issue of well-being. It's a philosophical topic I find to be of great interest, and have written a dozen-odd blog posts on over the past six months. I hope I've achieved something beyond mere "speculation" through all this.

    "Who is this 'right' you are referring to which thinks economics are the best approximation of well being?"

    It's a pretty standard assumption of right-wing thought, in my experience. It's certainly widely assumed in Economics itself -- students get taught that maximizing profit (alone) is "rational". Other values are entirely ignored.

    (It's been found that Economics students actually become more selfish people as a result of their studies -- probably due to this pernicious nonsense about rationality which gets drummed into them. But I digress.)

    Anyway, it's generally the case that those on the right want to see greater productivity (through longer working hours if need be), whereas those on the left are more concerned about our harmful "work and spend" culture, and achieving a satisfying work-life balance. You know the slogan, "work to live, not live to work", etc.

    "[Rightists] are more likely to value spiritual connections, personal freedoms,leisure time and family , in my humble view."

    I don't think many rightists are at all concerned about the leisure time of single mothers or minimum wage labourers. I don't doubt that they value their own leisure, of course.

    ReplyDelete
  4. > Anyway, it's generally the case that those on the right want to see greater productivity (through longer working hours if need be)

    the theory is that workers collectively would not work the extra hours unless they colelctively gained service enough to more than compensate in terms of cheaper goods. (I don't think this works - but it seems to me the solution is authoritarianism since it is mostly a failure of their ability to make choices).

    Part of it is a unit of analysis thing. If you look at the world as somthing you can control you could reduce the work hours of everyone by law - those who like to work would loose out but those who dont might feel have competition from them (and thus get a greater share of the worlds resources for the same amount of effort)

    But if you unit of analysis is a country you cant just reduce the amount of hours everyone works because then you will just make yourself less productive compared to everyone else. In the long run this implies you will slowly loose ground to those countries untill your economy collapses or you fall under their influence.

    So you could have a leftist person saying "we must all reuce our work hours" ana right win person saying "we cant do that we will suffer in the long run!" and in a sense they are both right.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm trying to do a report for school and you guys aren't making it very easy for me. Appreciate it...

    ReplyDelete

Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)