Taking Inequality Personally, Take 2

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24 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    I don’t think the lecturer felt entitled to “the most prestige and power” in society. I think he just wanted a fair share relative to what someone like Kushner was getting. Admittedly, it was fortuitous that in this particular case Kushner’s buying power allowed him to directly, adversely affect the lecturer’s life. But as I’ve shown repeatedly in the Law & Inequality archives, that type of extreme imbalance in wealth does often result in the direct reassignment of resources from those with less to those with more.

    On one plausible narrative, someone like Kushner became extremely wealthy because of a) very loose monetary policy and b) cozy relationships between big developers and big government–precisely the types of relationships traditionalist conservatives have found unsettling. . . . and one that even Nozick might have let the state scrutinize under the rubric of “rectification of unjust transfers.”

  2. Nate says:

    Frank: I agree that extreme imbalances in wealth will often lead to perverse redistributions of income, because money makes rent seeking easier. On the other hand, I also think that there is a general contempt for commerce among many intellectuals, a contempt that is fueled by something like the dynamic that Nozick describes, even if not every inked stained wretch thinks they are entitled to the most power and prestige. I suspec that most of them feel entitled to more power and prestige than they currently have.

    I certainly do! ;->

  3. Matt says:

    It might be worth noting that even Nozick eventually came to the opinion that very great inherited wealth, of the sort discussed in Frank’s first post, was a bad thing and one that make the sort of freedom he was interested in impossible to achieve.

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    I think Nozick’s paper is nonsense. Perhaps there are some people whose opposition to capitalism arises from sour grapes at not having the most power in society. But why does he assume that all intellectuals think that they contribute the most value to society? Why does he portray “opposition to capitalism” without nuance, as an all-or-nothing proposition? Why does he omit the possibility that some intellectuals oppose capitalism, at least to some degree or in certain of its manifestations, because of injustices they perceive being done to others?

    The answer to these questions is, obviously, because otherwise he’d wreck his polemical point. But it’s a ridiculously overbroad one. From the end of Nozick’s article: “The sociological generalization we have stated is intuitively compelling; something like it must be true.” One might have hoped for something far better from an Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy.

  5. Jeff Lipshaw says:

    Like A.J., I don’t love blanket characterizations like “intellectuals.” It strikes me Nozick was ranting about the classic “why is there a separation between virtue and happiness, and particularly MY virtue and MY happiness?” lament many of us have to come to terms with. I suspect “intellectuals” are just more likely to write about it. If sports and dancing instructors had the same lament, how would we know?

  6. Nate Oman says:

    I agree that Nozick overstates his argument, but I am inclined to forgive rhetorical excess when I think that there is some value to the underlying insight. In this case, I think that Nozick is right in that part of the hostility toward commerce among intellectuals stems from the fact that they feel that commerce under values their activities. Certainly, since Plato at least there has been a powerful intellectual tradition that sees the activity of intellectuals as the highest good, but no market has ever rewarded them accordingly.

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    “the hostility toward commerce among intellectuals “: This is the same fallacy as Nozick’s of letting “some” slide into an implied “all”, both in the blanket term “intellectuals” and in the use of the definite article. (Though in Nozick’s case, this was clearly an intentional propagandistic technique.) The term “commerce” is similarly overbroad. Opposition to the style of liberal capitalism favored by Nozick and the Cato Institute, for example, is not necessarily “hostility toward commerce.”

    BTW I am a “wordsmith intellectual” in Nozick’s terms (in fact, currently 100% of my earnings come from my writing), unaffilited with any university, think-tank or other non-profit institution. I want my books to sell well, and the same with the magazines I write for. I’ve worked as an in-house lawyer and as an exec on the business side at Fortune 500 companies, and I wanted them to succeed too. I’ve also been a lawyer to VCs, entrepreneurs and start-ups. I am hardly hostile to commerce. But I am very opposed to many excesses of capitalism, including excessive consumerism, the current ethos (vel non) of corporate finance, the doctrinaire application of neoclassical economics to health and environmental issues, the encroachment of economistic reasoning into the legal & political spheres, its increasing use as a general theory of human behavior, and much else. That, in fact, is much of what I write about professionally. For readerships of businesspeople, BTW. And it doesn’t bother me at all that I earn much less than what I did when I was a VP at a multinational. Just as people like Jeff have left long, lucrative careers in the business world in order to teach (not that he neccessarily shares any of my views on capitalism). I’m sure we are not unique in this.

  8. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I second A.J.’s typically lucid remarks (at least the non-autobiographical ones). What many intellectuals on the Left oppose is the fetishism of capital, the commodification of social life, conspicuous consumption, the worship of technology and Mammon, thus markets and commerce are not intrinsically bad (hence ‘market socialism’ or ‘socialization of the market,’ as part of the sovereignty of good, by way of countering the ‘tyranny of the market’). To be sure, those of us on the Left who are devoted to experimenting with the extension of democracy and social control over the economy (experiments in socialism, as it were), thus we believe in undermining what Eduard Bernstein called the “absolutism of capital” (and what for Marx fell under the rubric of the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism; incidentally, it was also Bernstein who was, as the Russian intellectual Boris Kagarlitsky notes, ‘much closer to Marx [than Lenin in this regard] when he said that “democracy is at one and the same time both a means and an end,” for it is in democratic institutions that the prototype of socialist institutions is to be found.’).

    The problem, as Michael Luntley has succinctly stated, is that “Capitalism requires, and receives, the economisation of all social relationships in place of reference groups which alne ensure the continuation of moral life.”

    Slavish deference to commerce and market-oriented values makes more for an “economic agent” than a “moral agent,” thereby interfering with proper deference to the good. Assigning a role for market mechanisms is subordinate or antecedent to articulating an account of the good. Commerce and market mechanisms today have run roughshod over the traditions, worldviews, and reference groups that are the repository of our conceptions of the good life, of eudaimonistic values (hence the ‘Protestant ethic’ and the spirit of capitalism, the commodification of religion, ‘gospel of wealth’ ideologies, etc.). This is one reason the critique of the absolutization of commercial values is often found on the periphery of religious traditions (the Catholic Worker movement, the evangelical Sojourners, etc.). As Luntley has written, historically, “The emergence of the market in labour power required the dissolution of the reference groups (whereby one learned the normativity of the good), so that one subject came to face another no longer within the web of norms presented by the sharing of various reference groups. Instead one subject came to face another solely as competitor in the market to supply Capital with the labour poswer necessary for the maximisation of profit. Capital needs labour power to be freed from the normative bound of our moral traditions, or else its supply will be economically inefficient.” The absolutization of commercial values threatens the articulation of non-economistic evaluative terms for psychological and moral growth and human fulfillment in general. Which is to say we might think in radically new ways about income distribution, attitudes to work, social differentiation, social stratification, occupational ranking, the definition of success and failure, and so on. Werner Sombart’s portrait of the modern values in mature captitalism embedded in an adolescent culture remains telling (summarized here by Raghavan Iyer):

    “He referred to the tendency to mistake bigness for greatness; the influence on the inner workings of the mind of the quantitative valuation of things, the connection between success, competition, and sheer size; the tendency to regard the speediest achievements as the most valuable ones; the connection between megalomania, mad hurry, and record-breaking; the attraction of novelty; the habit of hyperbole; the love of sensationalism and its effect on journalism; the concern with fashions in ideas as well as clothes; and the consciousness of superiority through a sense of power that is merely an expression of weakness.”

    In our society, Sombart wrote, “everything is sacrificed to the Moloch of work; all the higher instincts of heart and mind are crushed out by devotion to business.”

    Why is it, as documented by the economist Juliet Schor, among others, and in the words of Iyer, that “The wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world may be the poorest in what was supremely precious to the highest cultures of classical antiquity and the renaissances of world history–the availability of time for thought and contemplation, for relaxation and creative work, for conversation and study, for love and friendship, for the enjoyment of the arts and the beauties of nature, for solitude and communion, for doubts and dreams”?

    One can appreciate the necessity and value of commerce and the mechanisms of the marketplace while recognizing that “under capitalism life is lived not under the Authority of the Good, but under the aristocracy of capital.” In other words, as long as our society is organized primarily around the “needs of Capital” we have accorded de jure and de facto supremacy to economic agency over and above moral agency, particulary when the two, as they invariably do, come into conflict.

  9. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I second A.J.’s typically lucid remarks (at least the non-autobiographical ones). What many intellectuals on the Left oppose is the fetishism of capital, the commodification of social life, conspicuous consumption, the worship of technology and Mammon, thus markets and commerce are not intrinsically bad (hence ‘market socialism’ or ‘socialization of the market,’ as part of the sovereignty of good, by way of countering the ‘tyranny of the market’). To be sure, those of us on the Left who are devoted to experimenting with the extension of democracy and social control over the economy (experiments in socialism, as it were), thus we believe in undermining what Eduard Bernstein called the “absolutism of capital” (and what for Marx fell under the rubric of the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism; incidentally, it was also Bernstein who was, as the Russian intellectual Boris Kagarlitsky notes, ‘much closer to Marx [than Lenin in this regard] when he said that “democracy is at one and the same time both a means and an end,” for it is in democratic institutions that the prototype of socialist institutions is to be found.’).

    The problem, as Michael Luntley has succinctly stated, is that “Capitalism requires, and receives, the economisation of all social relationships in place of reference groups which alne ensure the continuation of moral life.”

    Slavish deference to commerce and market-oriented values makes more for an “economic agent” than a “moral agent,” thereby interfering with proper deference to the good. Assigning a role for market mechanisms is subordinate or antecedent to articulating an account of the good. Commerce and market mechanisms today have run roughshod over the traditions, worldviews, and reference groups that are the repository of our conceptions of the good life, of eudaimonistic values (hence the ‘Protestant ethic’ and the spirit of capitalism, the commodification of religion, ‘gospel of wealth’ ideologies, etc.). This is one reason the critique of the absolutization of commercial values is often found on the periphery of religious traditions (the Catholic Worker movement, the evangelical Sojourners, etc.). As Luntley has written, historically, “The emergence of the market in labour power required the dissolution of the reference groups (whereby one learned the normativity of the good), so that one subject came to face another no longer within the web of norms presented by the sharing of various reference groups. Instead one subject came to face another solely as competitor in the market to supply Capital with the labour poswer necessary for the maximisation of profit. Capital needs labour power to be freed from the normative bound of our moral traditions, or else its supply will be economically inefficient.” The absolutization of commercial values threatens the articulation of non-economistic evaluative terms for psychological and moral growth and human fulfillment in general. Which is to say we might think in radically new ways about income distribution, attitudes to work, social differentiation, social stratification, occupational ranking, the definition of success and failure, and so on. Werner Sombart’s portrait of the modern values in mature captitalism embedded in an adolescent culture remains telling (summarized here by Raghavan Iyer):

    “He referred to the tendency to mistake bigness for greatness; the influence on the inner workings of the mind of the quantitative valuation of things, the connection between success, competition, and sheer size; the tendency to regard the speediest achievements as the most valuable ones; the connection between megalomania, mad hurry, and record-breaking; the attraction of novelty; the habit of hyperbole; the love of sensationalism and its effect on journalism; the concern with fashions in ideas as well as clothes; and the consciousness of superiority through a sense of power that is merely an expression of weakness.”

    In our society, Sombart wrote, “everything is sacrificed to the Moloch of work; all the higher instincts of heart and mind are crushed out by devotion to business.”

    Why is it, as documented by the economist Juliet Schor, among others, and in the words of Iyer, that “The wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world may be the poorest in what was supremely precious to the highest cultures of classical antiquity and the renaissances of world history–the availability of time for thought and contemplation, for relaxation and creative work, for conversation and study, for love and friendship, for the enjoyment of the arts and the beauties of nature, for solitude and communion, for doubts and dreams”?

    One can appreciate the necessity and value of commerce and the mechanisms of the marketplace while recognizing that “under capitalism life is lived not under the Authority of the Good, but under the aristocracy of capital.” In other words, as long as our society is organized primarily around the “needs of Capital” we have accorded de jure and de facto supremacy to economic agency over and above moral agency, particulary when the two, as they invariably do, come into conflict.

  10. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Please pardon several typos above, as I composed this rather hurriedly in anticipation of Sunday morning breakfast with the family.

  11. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Please pardon several typos above, as I composed this rather hurriedly in anticipation of Sunday morning breakfast with the family.

  12. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Please pardon several typos above, as I composed this rather hurriedly in anticipation of Sunday morning breakfast with the family.

  13. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Please pardon several typos above, as I composed this rather hurriedly in anticipation of Sunday morning breakfast with the family.

  14. A.W. says:

    There is a much simpler reason for all of this. Socialism is one of those classicaly “intellectual” systems. It was created by a philosopher and it sounds so good on paper. And then in all of five minutes in the real world it becomes obvioius it just won’t work. Being a professor is perfect place to develop ideas that sound good on paper but don’t survive 5 minutes of scrutiny in real life. so socialism goes naturally with them.

    Take for instance, that famous Oliver Wendell Holmes comment that every contract really gives you two options: you can perform as expected, or break it and pay the price. Can anyone see what is wrong with that claim? If you can, I am willing to bet you are a working lawyer and not a professor. The answer is there is a thrid option: break it and hope to sue to get out of it. the fact I went through three years at a prestigious law school were no one–no the professors and not the students–understood this basic reality is in my mind the greatest indictment of the academy possible.

    Professors as a class are not as smart as they think they are. And culturally they love things that look good on paper. Socialism is a natural fit.

  15. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    A.W.,

    Alas, your “simpler reason” is more than a tad simple minded. And it is prudent to remain anonymous so as not to publicly own your ignorance about socialist ideas and practice. It would be tedious to list all the concrete, real world benefits of ideas of socialist provenance (cf. what is today known as ‘welfare capitalism’) and, in any case, much that might fall under the heading of socialism has yet to come to fruition, so the verdict is not in as to the ‘scrutiny in real life.”

    You might begin by reading works on the history of social democracy in Europe:

    *Berman, Sheri. The Social Democratic Moment: Ideas and Politics in the Making of Interwar Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    *Berman, Sheri. The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    *Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

    *Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Oxford, UK: Polity, 1990.

    *Goodin, Robert E., et al. The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    *Paterson, William E. and Alastair H. Thomas. The Future of Social Democracy: Problems and Prospects of Social Democratic Parties in Western Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    And then you might look at works like the following:

    *Carnoy, Martin and Derek Shearer. Economic Democracy. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1980.

    *Case, John and Rosemary C.R. Taylor, eds. Co-Ops, Communes & Collectives: Experiments in Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

    *Drucker, Peter. The Unseen Revolution: How Pension Fund Socialism Came to America. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

    *Jackall, Robert and Henry M. Levin, eds. Worker Cooperatives in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.

    *Thomas, H. and C. Logan. Mondragon: An Economic Analysis. London: Allen & Unwin, 1982.

    *Weitzman, Martin L. The Share Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

  16. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    A.W.,

    Alas, your “simpler reason” is more than a tad simple minded. And it is prudent to remain anonymous so as not to publicly own your ignorance about socialist ideas and practice. It would be tedious to list all the concrete, real world benefits of ideas of socialist provenance (cf. what is today known as ‘welfare capitalism’) and, in any case, much that might fall under the heading of socialism has yet to come to fruition, so the verdict is not in as to the ‘scrutiny in real life.”

    You might begin by reading works on the history of social democracy in Europe:

    *Berman, Sheri. The Social Democratic Moment: Ideas and Politics in the Making of Interwar Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    *Berman, Sheri. The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    *Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. Politics Against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

    *Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Oxford, UK: Polity, 1990.

    *Goodin, Robert E., et al. The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    *Paterson, William E. and Alastair H. Thomas. The Future of Social Democracy: Problems and Prospects of Social Democratic Parties in Western Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    And then you might look at works like the following:

    *Carnoy, Martin and Derek Shearer. Economic Democracy. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1980.

    *Case, John and Rosemary C.R. Taylor, eds. Co-Ops, Communes & Collectives: Experiments in Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

    *Drucker, Peter. The Unseen Revolution: How Pension Fund Socialism Came to America. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

    *Jackall, Robert and Henry M. Levin, eds. Worker Cooperatives in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.

    *Thomas, H. and C. Logan. Mondragon: An Economic Analysis. London: Allen & Unwin, 1982.

    *Weitzman, Martin L. The Share Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

  17. A.W. says:

    Patrick,

    Man, that was great. That has to be the best parody of an intellectual’s thought process I have ever read. I mean when started off the word “alas” and included the word “tad” right in the first sentence? Comic genius. It brightened my whole morning. Thanks.

  18. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    For additional historical and theoretical perspective on the aforementioned issues raised with regard to socialism, please see Michael Harrington’s Socialism: Past & Future. New York: Arcade/Little, Brown and Co., 1989. Harrington reminds us that “one of the main consequences of the socialist movement has been not socialism but a more humane, rational, and intelligent capitalism, usually in spite of the capitalists.” Indeed, and for example, in the mid-1930s, prominent labor leaders were responsible for “organiz[ing] a mass defection from Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party to Roosevelt’s Democrats, effectively destroying the Socialists as a political force” (David M. Kennedy). And it was the participation of these working people in the trade union movement that deepened their faith in and allowed progress toward egalitarian democracy, making realistic their hope for social mobility and renewing their trust in the American dream. With ample reason, and in reflection on the the rise and consolidation of European social democracy during the Cold War, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that “It is not even clear that after the concessions which a professedly capitalist country makes to social welfare and after the concession which a professedly Socialist government makes to what is expedient, there is a highly consequential difference between the two.” Later, Galbraith would demonstrate an economist’s understanding and appreciation of the viability of socialist ideas in his Economics and the Public Purpose (1973).

  19. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    A.W.,

    I’m happy to oblige.

    Best wishes,

    Patrick

  20. A.W. says:

    “happy to oblige?” YOU ARE TOO MUCH.

    The sad thing is that there are people that hopelessly intellectualized who are actually serious when they talk like that. They apparently believe that they demonstrate their understanding of real life by using words like “alas” and the like. Sheesh. Good to know you are intelligent enough not to be a useless fop who cites books over reality. Have a good one.

  21. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    A.W.,

    I’m sorry, but I can’t make sense of the claim that someone “cites books over reality.”

    You might consider the possibility that you have an irrational fear of books and an even more bizarre fear of vocabulary words that don’t pass your lips.

    And it might be prudent to check your blood pressure after you’ve taken a deep breath. (Seriously, even though this was not in capital letters.)

    Again, all good wishes,

    Patrick

  22. A.W. says:

    Patty,

    Wait, don’t tell me you are a big enough loser to be serious (or at least to take the obvious route out of pretending you were joking)? Then I will be serious, too.

    The reality that your books do not account for is virtually every socialist country has a terrible economy and virtually every socialist institution is bankrupt. Even with America subsidizing every European nation’s national defense, there isn’t a one of them with a solvent cradle-to-grave entitlement program. All the books in the world cannot disguise the fact that Europe is a sinking ship. As Mark Steyn once said (paraphrase) “I am much more optimistic about the future of democracy in Iraq than Europe.”

    I’m not allergic to books. I am allergic to books that tell me that the world is flat or that gravity pulls upward, or in this specific case, tells me that socialism ever works. That is, I am allergic to books that flatly contradict what reality demonstrates on a daily basis. There is nothing wrong with theory, so long as you are constantly checking it against reality—just as scientists test their hypotheses by running experiments. The problem with academia is there is virtually no desire to make sure their ideas actually work before they trot them out.

    As for your vocabulary, seriously, who actually talks like that? I’ll tell you something about people. There are people who are intelligent enough and comfortable enough in their own skin that they feel comfortable speaking like normal people. And then there are the slightly less intelligent people who adopt works like “alas” and “tad” into their daily vocabulary in a lame attempt to convince others of their intelligence. In other words, these are people who are not dumb, mind you, but are a tier below the brightest and deeply insecure as a result.

  23. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I bow deferentially (i.e., in utter humility) to your wise comments.

  24. A.J. Sutter says:

    A.W.: I’m a practicing lawyer. Your make a good point about the failure of law school to mention how people really behave when they want to break a contract. As to whether it’s “the greatest indictment of the academy possible,” you’re thinking way too small.

    Regarding your book allergy, a couple points: First, don’t forget that for many people at one time, “what reality demonstrates on a daily basis” was that the world was flat. If you lived in an inland village, didn’t see ships appearing or disappearing at the horizon, and lived several centuries before TV, that was reality. (And a pretty good approximation, on a local scale, even today.) Second, as for gravity pulling up, maybe you want to reconsider. The sun is above us; or at least, it’s certainly in the opposite direction from “down”, toward the center of the earth. But without the sun’s “upward” gravitational pull, you wouldn’t be able to count the years you wasted in law school, among many other benefits you’d be missing. All this shows that “reality” can be less obvious, and more dependent on point of view, than you seem to ackowledge. And BTW, how many Nobel Prizes (or Bank of Sweden Prizes, if you’re picky) have been awarded to economists who run experiments?

    Finally, your notion that socialism is a professors’ theory: actually, there are people in the world who don’t have private property in the same way that we do. There are community wells, community fields and even community rights in creative works and other systems where people share stuff, especially in some of the less economically-developed parts of the world. Many of those systems have been around for centuries in traditional societies. None of those folks went to law school, unlike you. You are much more familiar with professors than they, and especially with theories thought up by guys who wore powdered wigs (“fops” we might call them today, though, you might claim, not necessarily useless ones). Who came up with the “commons”? English peasants — “normal people”.