Do people think of themselves as further left than they really are?

by Chris Bertram on August 2, 2010

A recent piece of research by British economist James Rockey into people’s misperception of their place on the political spectrum got a certain amount of gleeful mileage in the right-wing press, and for predictable reasons. The research claimed that many people mislocate themselves – identifying with the “left” even though they hold opinions that are fairly right-wing. Having worried this over for a few weeks now, my considered view is that whilst the research is flawed at a quite fundamental level, the conclusion might contain some truth. Let’s see if I can express that thinking without contradicting myself!

The key difficulty with the research as I see it is that it relies on a right-wing economist’s idea of what left-wing people ought to think, an idea that it then presses into the service of the conclusion that, since they really don’t think those things, they are not actually on the left. Specifically, the research asks two questions, the first of which is used the generate the variable that is central to the project and the second of which generates another variable which the researcher thinks ought to line up with the first. This provides a check: sharp divergence might show that there was something weird about the main variable and its associated question, thus invalidating the findings.

Here are the two questions, the first is associated with the variable moreineq and the second with variable secfair .

“Incomes should be made more equal vs We need larger income differences as incentives. How would you place your views on this scale?”
“Imagine two secretaries, of the same age, doing practically the same job. One finds out that the other earns considerably more than she does. The better paid secretary, however, is quicker, more efficient and more reliable at her job. In your opinion, is it fair or not fair that one secretary is paid more than the other?

A moment’s reflection by anyone familiar with the political philosophy literature of the past forty years will show that (a) there are good reasons why someone might think of themselves as being “on the left” and yet give the “wrong” answer to each question and (b) that different flavours of leftie-liberal will give the “wrong” answers in each case for different reasons. So, in the case of the moreineq question, a committed Rawlsian might – in the right circumstances – favour more inequality to provide incentives that would ultimately benefit the least advantaged. (This, incidentally, is a big problem for the claim that moreineq is a variable that tracks leftwingery across different societies, since, obviously, a Rawlsian with invariant principles will answer the question quite differently depending on what the local and temporal facts are.) In the case of secfair, it is the luck egalitarians who will be tempted by the “wrong” answer, unreconstructed loons though they are (by right-wing standards). Admittedly, the question is rather underspecified from the luck-egalitarian point of view, but, assuming that the secretaries face identical opportunity sets to one another (etc, etc) then divergence in income that is down to choice isn’t going to be a problem.

But whilst the research is therefore a mess, and doesn’t justify its conclusion, I suspect the conclusion is closer to the truth that is comfortable, a belief that I base largely on observation and anecdote. Why so? Well, it is very implausible that the inequalities that exist in actual societies are mainly caused by the exercise of choice against a fair background. Rather, brute luck plays the main role. I’m just going to assert that. Nevertheless, many self-described left-wing academics of my acquaintance, though earning in the very highest percentiles of the income distribution, believe they are underpaid and ought to get more. This belief, I submit, is in practice inconsistent with even sophisticated egalitarianisms, and supports the view that they are more right-wing than they fancy themselves to be.

(In the interests of full disclosure I should reveal my own view, which is that a just society would be massively more egalitarian that the one I live in and that it would require me (and others like me) to take a pretty large pay cut. I’m lucky to earn what I earn, and don’t usually experience strong feelings of desert, entitlement, or resentment about my relative position (OK, the occasional irrational twinge when I compare myself to some other professors). It would hurt me to give up what I have, but that’s what I think ought to happen, that’s what I would vote for, but I lack the strength of will to do much about it individually (I do a bit). That’s how come I’m so rich, even though I’m an egalitarian .)

{ 128 comments }

1

bob mcmanus 08.02.10 at 5:54 pm

“that it would require me (and others like me) to take a pretty large pay cut.”

Comparative salaries or compensation is not the framing I prefer. My idea of equality presumes a massive increase in public goods and the commons. So if you have equal access to health care and education, among other things, what salary you earn makes less difference, and I have less interest in whether or not there are billionaires.

In fact, reducing economics and policy discussions into questions about monetary distribution is in itself a right-wing framing, perhaps the quintessential capitalist framework, and probably just be instantly shifted to public goods by lefties.

2

william u. 08.02.10 at 6:16 pm

What an obviously silly exercise. For most of those who give the ‘left’ answer to the first question, the relevant comparison isn’t between two secretaries, with a picayune 1.4x pay differential, but a secretary and the CEO of his or her firm, with a 50x differential. Moreover, while the former (by construction, in this hypothetical example) is the result of difference in skill, the latter is conditioned by changes in the political and business environment that favored soaring executive ‘compensation.’

Even a system of socially necessary labor time vouchers would give the ‘right-wing’ answer to the second question.

3

Matt 08.02.10 at 6:23 pm

When I read the first question, I thought, “larger than what?” Does anyone who is not crazy think we need larger income differences than we have now in, say, the U.S., as incentives? That would be an awfully hard argument to make. That’s why I hate this sort of thing- the questions are ill-defined, and I’m quite skeptical that the idea that if you let enough different people define them as they like the differences will wash out.

4

Hidari 08.02.10 at 6:38 pm

““Imagine two secretaries, of the same age, doing practically the same job. One finds out that the other earns considerably more than she does. The better paid secretary, however, is quicker, more efficient and more reliable at her job. In your opinion, is it fair or not fair that one secretary is paid more than the other?”

Well I’m about as left wing as you can get, and yet, given the way that that question is phrased, I would find it hard not to answer that it was fair that the ‘better’ secretary gets paid more.

To repeat, given the way that question is phrased.

5

CMK 08.02.10 at 6:58 pm

Are they any equivalent studies which demostrate that many self-identified right wingers are actually further to the Left than they believe themselves to be?

6

chris 08.02.10 at 7:02 pm

“Incomes should be made more equal vs We need larger income differences as incentives. How would you place your views on this scale?”

Implicitly, the baseline for the comparison is the society in which the respondent lives. Therefore, this is not the same question when asked in different places or times, which is going to make it difficult to interpret the results.

The other question IMO is too underspecified to answer. What is the source of the performance difference — training, experience, innate ability? How large is the income gap (even if you think that some difference is fair, I hope most people would agree that there would be some size of pay differential that would be unfairly large)?

Of course, income differences between people doing similar jobs based on measurable performance differences have little to do with the real income inequalities in a contemporary society, which are mostly inter-industry (the most efficient and productive janitor in the world still makes peanuts) or have no relation to work at all.

Nevertheless, many self-described left-wing academics of my acquaintance, though earning in the very highest percentiles of the income distribution, believe they are underpaid and ought to get more.

How many academics are really in “the very highest percentiles”? You can be well above the median and still be a net gainer by some inequality-reducing measures, if you’re starting from a distribution like the present-day USA’s. And I thought the academy infamously paid rather poorly. (I suppose not compared to janitors or perhaps security guards, but the actual very highest percentiles are mostly occupied by rentiers, financiers, corporate managers, some entertainers and athletes, a few unusually successful lawyers, maybe medical specialists, most of whom *just happen* to be at the pinnacle of large-to-enormous support structures of less-well-paid people… I don’t see anyone in the academy getting even close to breaking into those ranks except maybe as an author.)

7

Chris Bertram 08.02.10 at 7:09 pm

_How many academics are really in “the very highest percentiles”?_

Well anyone in the UK, as I am, can use the IFS’s very handy calculator

http://www.ifs.org.uk/wheredoyoufitin/

and get the result for my _household_ (partner is a lawyer in local government)

“you have a higher income than around 99% of the population”

I suspect that your incredulity is because your attention is fixed on the super-rich (a tiny percentage) who are well above the level of academics and so you’re missing the overwhelming majority of the population.

8

Chris Bertram 08.02.10 at 7:10 pm

If someone has a link to a similar calculator for the US, please post it.

9

SusanC 08.02.10 at 7:15 pm

My first thought was “How did this get past the journal’s referees?”, shortly followed by “Oh, it’s a working paper – you can put any nonsense in a working paper.”

As you point out, why should we believe that moreineq and secfair are an “objective measure” of how right/left-wing someone is? If people who describe themselves as leftwing don’t believe them, that’s possibly evidence that they’re not actually left-wing beliefs, but it’s hardly evidence that people’s self-assement of their position on the spectrum is wrong.

(If more than 50% of people said that they were more left-wing than the median, that might be evidence of incorrect self-assement).

Possible explanations for why someone self-described as left might not believe these include:

* They are concerned with income inequality that is not due to differences in performance (e.g. discrimination on the grounds of sex or race)
* There are concerned with (large) inequalities between different kinds of occupation, not the relatively small inequalities between two people doing the same kind of job
* etc.

10

nick s 08.02.10 at 7:36 pm

Garbage in, garbage out.

Off the top of my head, you could come up with an abstract question on educational opportunity and merit, and a hypothetical about similarly-talented interviewees at Oxbridge, one from Bogstandard City Comp, one from Bullingdon School For Boys.

11

LizardBreath 08.02.10 at 7:40 pm

Nevertheless, many self-described left-wing academics of my acquaintance, though earning in the very highest percentiles of the income distribution, believe they are underpaid and ought to get more. This belief, I submit, is in practice inconsistent with even sophisticated egalitarianisms, and supports the view that they are more right-wing than they fancy themselves to be.

Really? I think it’s more likely to support the view that they’re taking the rough level of inequality in society as a given, and thinking that they should be better paid compared to other high-earning parasites. This is sort of thoughtlessly selfish — someone who really felt their egalitarianism down to the bone would believe that “Of course hedge fund managers should make less, but I should also make less.” But it doesn’t seem to show that they’d choose greater inequality society-wide if given the option.

12

piglet 08.02.10 at 7:51 pm

I don’t think wanting a pay rise is inconsistent with being left wing. When “self-described left-wing academics” are more concerned with their own material well-being than with social justice, that might be a clue that their leftism is somewhat superficial. But the way Chris frames the argument is useless. Being on the left doesn’t require a self-sacrificial attitude, it doesn’t require to suspend one’s own interests until after the Revolution (or the Reform, whichever you prefer). In fact, this is a tired old right-wing argument that has been around probably for centuries: “if you really care about the poor, why don’t you donate your own money.” Leftists are committed to social change, not to individual altruism.

Also, “self-described left-wing academics” are not in my view an awfully important demographic. Even if a lot of them turn out to be hypocrites, that wouldn’t justify sweeping generalizations about “the left”.

CMK: “Are they any equivalent studies which demostrate that many self-identified right wingers are actually further to the Left than they believe themselves to be?”

Just ask the “keep your government’s hands off my Medicare” extremists. Just ask how many self-avowed “small government” right-wingers depend on government handouts.

13

ingrid robeyns 08.02.10 at 7:56 pm

following up on Chris @ 7 and 8: if anyone knows of similar calculators for continental European Countries, especially those that are relatively egalitarian, please post.

I think Chris is very right that people in the top one or two deciles (but not top percentile, or two), tend to compare ourselves with the absolutely rich. There is probably some social/cognitive psychology literature out there both confirming and explaining this (for this particular social class of upper-middle class people, not for all socio-economic groups/classes).

14

engels 08.02.10 at 8:08 pm

Like Lizardbreath I’m not seeing the chain of reasoning that gets you from
1. academics (who already earn a lot more than most people) are demanding even higher pay
to
2. academics would be opposed to re-arranging society in such a way that everyone would be paid more-or-less the same
The second statement may of course be true but I don’t think it follows from the first.

15

Matt 08.02.10 at 8:10 pm

I think that, for many academics, one thing that makes them feel like they are not in the top group is that they interact with many people who have similar levels of education and cultural tastes but who make a lot more money- doctors, lawyers, people w/ MBAs, etc. Many of _those_ people make a lot more than most academics, especially in the humanities, while many academics make a salary that’s closer to more senior school teachers, nurses, some police officers, etc.- people who usually have less education and social standing. (I mean, an average associate professor in philosophy likely has a salary that’s closer to that of an experienced nurse than to a big-firm lawyer or a doctor with similar levels of experience.) So, it’s easy for the academic to feel like he or she isn’t in the top group.
(I just realized the Ingrid makes much the same point.)

16

Chris Bertram 08.02.10 at 8:17 pm

#14 @engels – I was thinking more in terms of psychology than logic. Can you be (comparatively very) rich person and both be gripped by a burning (and considered, non-transient) sense of injustice that you aren’t paid even more AND be a sincere egalitarian?

17

Nur al-Cubicle 08.02.10 at 8:23 pm

Don’t Europeans (and the British) laugh at what we call “Left” here in the USA -somewhere to the right of Gianfrano Fini and left of Pim Fortuyn?

18

CJColucci 08.02.10 at 8:28 pm

And what if people do think that they are farther to the left than they actually are? (Based purely on anecdotage, I suspect that’s true, but mainly because of the long-term rightward shift of the Overton window.) They still think whatever it is they actually think, however it is, or ought to be, labeled. And in a world in which a centrist technocrat like Barack Obama can be called a “socialist” by large portions of the commentariat and body politic, the actual views of these faux-leftists are certainly unacceptable to righties who think they have made a point here.

19

LizardBreath 08.02.10 at 8:30 pm

16: What does sincere mean? While I’m not an academic (government lawyer), I’m in about the same financial position, and am vaguely annoyed by my underpaidness. And I also know this is ridiculous of me, and (I think) if I had the power to bring about a substantially more egalitarian society, including lowering my own standard of living, I would.

In some psychological sense, I’m an inconsistent and insincere egalitarian, because I’d really very much like to be extremely wealthy. But I don’t think that means my politics are further right than I claim, it just means that I’m not wholeheartedly and imaginatively ready to ardently desire the society that I think is right and would choose if given the option.

20

Thomas Jørgensen 08.02.10 at 8:30 pm

You are missing at least one standpoint which is perfectly compatible with both :”Even though I am currently near the top in terms of pay, I am still in need of more money” and “Inequality should be lower” – namely, the stance that the world, as a whole, is just not rich enough, and that said loaded academic could use another 30% in real income, and the janitor at the university another 500%. And in terms or real, as opposed to relative, wealth, that is a possible goal.

21

djr 08.02.10 at 8:40 pm

CMK@5: I remember hearing of a US study that showed that on average people thought that the international aid budget should be cut to a small fraction of its current size (which I would consider to be a right-wing viewpoint), but when asked for a dollar amount for how big it should be, tended to suggest a figure far higher than the actual amount.

22

Crystal 08.02.10 at 8:41 pm

Shades of “women over 30 have a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married!” as well as much dubious ev/psych speculation. Of course the usual right-wing suspects are going to be all over this like a cheap suit; this paper practically has “Fox News fodder” as a subtitle.

23

engels 08.02.10 at 8:44 pm

I don’t think academics (or other high earners) usually ground their pay demands in claims about justice.

I agree that someone who said she was a socialist and felt it was an injustice that she ‘only’ earned 50 000 or whatever would seem extremely lacking in perspective and pretty ridiculous. (However, such a person might, I suppose, still be the victim of injustices due to her subjection to the power of those with much greater wealth.)

24

engels 08.02.10 at 8:49 pm

(My second sentence should have said ceteris paribus. It would not be ridiculous of her, for example, if the reason she was paid less was because she was a woman.)

25

chris 08.02.10 at 8:52 pm

Another non-hypocritical position for the academic in the 90th+ percentile: “There really shouldn’t be such large income disparities in society. But as long as there are, my work is more valuable to society than say Bernie Madoff’s (or even his non-crooked counterparts’), so I should be higher on the income scale than I am.”

I don’t know how many academics are married to equally well-paid or better-paid working spouses — although it may be quite a few, since people do tend to marry by class.

Comparing raw household income between multiple-worker households, single-worker multiple-person households, and “households” of one person living alone does seem likely to skew the former *way* up if they’re anything other than an overwhelming majority of the total households, though.

26

Kieran Healy 08.02.10 at 9:11 pm

An obvious question would be to ask how easily one could construct a parallel instrument that would indicate that people think of themselves as further right than they really are — manipulating the contrast between, e.g., a general belief about letting the market set prices, and a more specific hypo about price-gouging or somesuch.

27

Phil 08.02.10 at 9:12 pm

Pfui. Academic, two-earner household, 42nd centile. (Admittedly I’m not a full-time academic, but it’s not by choice.)

28

nick s 08.02.10 at 9:15 pm

for many academics, one thing that makes them feel like they are not in the top group is that they interact with many people who have similar levels of education and cultural tastes but who make a lot more money- doctors, lawyers, people w/ MBAs, etc.

It’s the classic discomfort of the gaudy. And while there might be a smidge of regret that they didn’t show up for the milkround as undergraduates, or didn’t consider the call from the City when their doctorates were done, they were never likely to do it in the first place.

29

8 08.02.10 at 9:31 pm

Do people think of themselves as further left than they really are?

Yes. Or perhaps rephrase…do academics think of themselves as less jewish than they really are? Yep.

30

politicalfootball 08.02.10 at 9:31 pm

An obvious question would be to ask how easily one could construct a parallel instrument that would indicate that people think of themselves as further right than they really are

Do you think the government should keep its hands off your Medicare?

31

Luis Enrique 08.02.10 at 9:32 pm

you think that interpreting the survey answers the way he has reveals James Rockey to be right wing?

This gives us a marvelous opportunity to test his theory: we can ask people how they’d interpret answers to those questions, and also where they place themselves on a left-right scale, and if then they share Rockey’s interpretation but think they are left wing, we can say hah! not according to the Bertram indicator of objecitve right-wingedness you’re not sunshine.

honestly, what are you on about? why on earth do you pin this guy as a right-winger? this says more about you than him I think. I reckon that on average people answering 1 for “strongly more equal” are objectively more left wing than those answering 10 for “strongly more different” – you’re going to tell me this makes me right wing now?

Really, I think this is a shoddy response to the paper. Based on a quick read, the author makes it quite obvious he knows ideology isn’t a simple one-dimension thing, he talks about ideology implying different things in different places, etc. He’s just found an interesting regularity in the WVS data and is arguing that a one-dimensional scale is sufficiently meaningful (he mentions how much variation in Congress voting it can explain) and the answers to these questions are sufficently related to it, to bear the interpretation he puts upon the relationship between them and the respondents self-positioning on a left-right scale. Given that you also think the exact same gulf between self-perception and objective position exists, I don’t quite see why you object to him interpreting the data in this way. What else might explain how the relationship between ideological self-positioning and the answers to these questions is varying, as he finds? Whatever it is, why doesn’t it also explain your anecdotal data?

I find it hard to believe you even read the paper properly. That test for “sharp divergence” between answers to the two questions that you suggest is more or less what he uses the two questions to test for isn’t it? If the respondents’ answers to the two questions did “sharply diverge”, he wouldn’t be finding the same results with the two alternative variables would he?

32

Tol Ondro 08.02.10 at 9:39 pm

Well this result comes as no surprise for me, I’ve always thought that the person I should be is to the left of actual existing me. Nobody is perfect.
It’s only when you fully embrace your lesser instincts instead of deploring them that you become a rightie.
Might put it in religious terms: We are all weak sinners, but some choose to be downright evil and flaunt it.

33

JM 08.02.10 at 9:57 pm

Another example of how the right doesn’t “do” science, though they do play at it on occasion.

34

Chris Bertram 08.02.10 at 9:57 pm

Luis, I find it hard to believe you read my post properly. You write:

bq. That test for “sharp divergence” between answers to the two questions that you suggest is more or less what he uses the two questions to test for isn’t it?

But I wasn’t _suggesting_ a test for “sharp divergence”, I was merely, in that sentence, _reporting_ what Rockey was doing.

35

Chris Bertram 08.02.10 at 10:10 pm

But Luis, I do concede the point that it might be unfair of me to deduce that Rockey is a _right-wing_ economist. I would, however, insist that the questions asked are pretty hopeless as detectors of leftism.

36

Billikin 08.02.10 at 11:43 pm

I don’t know about left wing vs. right wing, but these questions seem flawed to me.

“Incomes should be made more equal vs We need larger income differences as incentives. How would you place your views on this scale?”

Note that a reason (providing incentives) is given for the second option, not for the first. Generally people tend to accept statements for which reasons are given (even non sequiturs!). Also, there may be people who would object to large income differences in general, but not if they existed to provide incentives. Note also the word “need” in the second choice. That can cut either way. It suggests that larger income differences are needs. OTOH, someone might think that larger income differences would be nice, but they are not needed. Such considerations confound the choice. Better:

Incomes should be made more equal vs. Incomes should be made less equal.

“Imagine two secretaries, of the same age, doing practically the same job. One finds out that the other earns considerably more than she does. The better paid secretary, however, is quicker, more efficient and more reliable at her job. In your opinion, is it fair or not fair that one secretary is paid more than the other?”

Note that one secretary earns “considerably more” than the other, yet the question of fairness is about the fact that one is paid “more”. People do not interpret text simply by logic. There will be those who will answer that it is not fair, because they think that the better secretary should be paid more, but not considerably more. Also note that the statement that one finds out that the other earns considerably more than she does tends to elicit sympathy for the one who earns less. The reader naturally imagines the state of mind of the subject of the sentence, that she would be quite disappointed, if not outraged. That will bias the results. Better:

Imagine two secretaries, of the same age, doing practically the same job. One earns considerably more than the other. The better paid secretary is quicker, more efficient and more reliable at her job. In your opinion, is it fair or not fair that one secretary is paid considerably more than the other?

37

parsimon 08.02.10 at 11:55 pm

I must say, Chris’s 16 captures the only variant of the question I find myself interested in, and my answer to it would be: No.

38

john c. halasz 08.03.10 at 12:07 am

Well, IIRC there was a fellow how basically answered “more equal” to the first question and “fair” to the second in a little screed he wrote called “Critique of the Gotha Program”.

For the rest, what Bob MacManus said. Except for the billionaire part. (Stopped thinking through the implications of why some are billionaires and how they get that way, Bob).

39

piglet 08.03.10 at 12:21 am

chris 16:

“Can you be (comparatively very) rich person and both be gripped by a burning (and considered, non-transient) sense of injustice that you aren’t paid even more AND be a sincere egalitarian?”

Again, the way you are framing the question is useless and not progressive at all. If you look at the global income distribution, a welfare recipient in Britain would probably still be above the median globally speaking. Your argument would lead to the conclusion that a true egalitarian shouldn’t even demand more for the poor in rich countries as long as there are even poorer poor elsewhere. A relatively well-paid union worker in Europe shouldn’t strike for better pay because this would deepen global inequality. If I frame it this way, it should be obvious how nonsensical this is. With regard to academics, I don’t know the conditions in Britain but I find it hard to believe that academics in any country are, as a group, members of the upper class. They are probably better off, as a group, than many others but that really doesn’t show that they cannot have justified complaints. Further, it seems to me that you are thinking of certain specific individuals who, as you say, have a “burning sense of injustice” while really being quite lucky. Maybe you have a point there but the generalization you make in this post seems totally uncalled for.

40

vivian 08.03.10 at 1:51 am

There was a paper from sometime in the early nineties that found people in, I think Florida, identified as centrist, split them into three groups: one got asked mainstream feminist agree/disagree questions, one got asked “radical” feminist questions, third got something control-ish. Between 80-90% agreed with the radical statements, far more than either other group. Radical feminism was taken to assert “equal pay for equal work”, importance of quality childcare/schools, and similar, while mainstream was more of the “abortion is important but icky” school. So European mileage (or km-age) will certainly vary. (google scholar fails me, alas, I miss web of science)

41

geo 08.03.10 at 3:07 am

Perhaps we should stop arguing about equality (perhaps even stop doing political philosophy altogether) until every human being has 2000 calories a day, clean water, shelter, basic plumbing, basic medical care, basic schooling, and basic physical security. Until then, what’s to argue about?

42

engels 08.03.10 at 5:07 am

Also note that for luck egalitarianism what matters is not income but welfare. (‘Expensive tastes’ are principle to be catered to.) If someone on a moderate income with a much higher-earning reference group is made sufficiently unhappy by her relatively modest lifestyle, from an LE perspective she does suffer an injustice.

43

Chris Bertram 08.03.10 at 5:19 am

piglet @39 Not necessarily, as your point presupposes that egalitarians have to believe their distributive principle has global scope. Maybe they should, but it isn’t as if there isn’t loads of literature arguing the contrary.

engels @42 not necessarily so. LE is a view about correcting involuntary disadvantage. Which of income, resources, welfare etc is the right currency space to measure disadvantage in is a further question.

44

GMcGrumps 08.03.10 at 5:27 am

I’m very confused by the post’s analysis of why the first question is considered slanted towards finding a “right-wing” bias. While it may be true that an educated left-winger may reasonably give a “wrong” answer to the first question, I find it hard to believe that any of the survey participants were “familiar with the political philosophy literature of the past forty years” (and thus reflection on that literature will get you nowhere). Agreeing with the results by citing anecdotal evidence of academics who think they are underpaid is likewise absurd.

My guess is that the first question suggests a “right-wing” bias because the persons answering the question have been deprived of any exposure to Rawls and are, due to constant media bombardment, predisposed towards believing that any suggestion of egalitarianism is akin to socialism and that incentives for working harder (i.e., capitalism, in their mind) is preferable.

I also think that an academic who thinks they should be paid more is not in conflict with a belief in egalitarianism. That academic probably also thinks the elementary school teacher and factory worker should be paid more. Perhaps they are wrong in the math, but the sentiment is simply that the “market” isn’t valuing certain professions correctly.

45

Luis Enrique 08.03.10 at 7:28 am

Chris,

oops, yes I see I got that arse about tit. egg on my face.

(I also think you’re being a unfair implying – which I think you do, but could be mis-reading you again – that the author isn’t aware of / hasn’t thought about the subtleties of ideology and what they might relate to these survey questions)

46

ben 08.03.10 at 7:55 am

In a compressed/blindered ideological field in which “progressive” is as far left as one can see, the answer to the question in the post title is “yes.” I observe that US politics reflect this. Whole universes of thought are simply absent from our discourse, skewing people’s perception of the vast width of “l e f t”.

For example: when was the last time you heard an American lefty skip questions of income inequality in order to contemplate the more pressing problem of eliminating the category “income” entirely by abolishing the wage relation. Maybe in some heady seminar, I guess.

Ultimately the usefulness of the leftright metaphor breaks down. For example, some anarchists, autonomists, and left-communists might prefer to place themselves on one end of a statist/anti-statist spectrum, lumping “liberals”, “conservatives”, and leninists together at the other end. I’m not trying to argue specific fine distinctions amongst leftist factions, just point out their divergence.

47

John 08.03.10 at 9:14 am

When it is all said and done most of right wing politics is essentially a form of individual and collective psychosis.
A case in point is the right-wing response to the recent Avatar film–a very apt and timely parable for our time
At a very basic level the film was about the “culture” of death versus the culture of life.
It was interesting to observe the entirely predictable right-wing group-think response to the film.
They all came out very loudly in support of the “culture” of death.
The techno-barbarian invaders who had already “created” a dying planet. Which is what we are doing.

48

Harry 08.03.10 at 2:14 pm

Following up on engels (#42).
If the right metric is something like prospects for overall wellbeing, then I think it is easy for academics to have the thoughts Chris identifies. Here is a plausible, and I suspect widely held (though I think entirely wrong) view: I am entitled in this society to the prospects for wellbeing that I would have under justice – -i.e. the prospects that everybody would have.

Then one makes the, I think plausible, observation that in our society, structured as it is, it takes a lot more money to have those prospects for wellbeing than it would take in a just, and well-structured society. There’s a lot of alienation, it is hard to build community with others, we are not very solidaristic, etc, so private consumption plays a much larger role in accessing wellbeing than it would in a just, well-structured, society (maybe what engels means by socialism, for example).

But then, if I am entitled to what I would have under justice, then I’m entitled to much more than an equal share of the money in this society, and maybe to a substantial raise (just to make it clear, I think that in my own cases this last thought is ridiculous).

No contradiction. As I say, even granting everything else, it seems to me entirely wrong to think that I am entitled to what I would have under justice.

49

engels 08.03.10 at 2:19 pm

Chris, I’ll concede the definitional point but I think the substance of my point remains. A well-off egalitarian academic who is made especially unhappy by comparing his salary to those of his banker friends could in fact have suffered an injustice on Cohen’s view, I believe. _If_ such a character is psychologically possible and _if_ Cohen’s version of LE is valid, then I think your question can be answered in the affirmative.

50

engels 08.03.10 at 2:27 pm

(Sorry, I didn’t see Harry’s until after I’d posted.)

51

Chris Bertram 08.03.10 at 2:53 pm

Harry, do you think that pattern of thought can survive being made explicit to the thinker? In particular, do you think that “if I am entitled to what I would have under justice, then I’m entitled to much more than an equal share of the money in this society” is something someone can hang onto once its implications are made clear? (Of course, people think all kinds of crazy things.)

52

Harry 08.03.10 at 3:13 pm

Chris, that’s funny, because I’ve always thought it was a coherent thought (or long thought so — I think it came to me after a discussion of Murphy’s book with you, Matthew and Andrew in London some day) but as I was writing it out (which I never have before) I had exactly your thought. But kept going… Maybe there’s a paper there. You write it.

53

engels 08.03.10 at 3:37 pm

Harry, I thought your last post was surprising and I’m not sure I’ve completely understood what you are saying. However, my immediate reaction was (in my old-fashioned language): if we are not morally entitled to demand what we would have under socialism while living under capitalism where would the pressure to transform capitalism into socialism come from? (Marx had an interesting answer to that question btw, and it didn’t assign much of a role to talk about morality or justice.)

54

Chris Bertram 08.03.10 at 3:53 pm

I’m puzzled at your surprise engels. Why would anyone think that just because I’m entitled to seek a change in my normative situation to an new one in which I enjoy different entitlements, I thereby enjoy those entitlements now?

55

Harry 08.03.10 at 4:41 pm

Maybe this helps. There’s a difference between saying we are entitled to demand and collectively to create socialism (and thereby secure its benefits for ourselves and each other) and saying, what I think a lot of people think, that I am entitled to secure those benefits or benefits of equivalent value under capitalism. So I agree with your thought about what we are entitled to do, engels, but that doesn’t imply my thought about what each of us is not entitled to do.

Maybe some stability is lent to the view by positing the entitlement to secure exactly and no more than one would have under justice as a self-interested agent-centered prerogative. We all think there are some agent-centered prerogatives (we meaning everyone, or nearly everyone, who participates in the egalitarianism debates) and this one doesn’t sound crazy when stated alone.

56

bianca steele 08.03.10 at 5:15 pm

Ultimately the usefulness of the leftright metaphor breaks down. For example, some anarchists, autonomists, and left-communists might prefer to place themselves on one end of a statist/anti-statist spectrum, lumping “liberals”, “conservatives”, and leninists together at the other end.

Well, sure. If A says B is to the right of A, and B says A is to the right of B, you don’t have to split hairs to think the metaphor has become less than useful.

57

engels 08.03.10 at 5:40 pm

Now I need to find out what a self-interested agent-centred prerogative is… As I understand it though there’s an interesting assymmetry between your argument and Cohen’s in IYaE. Cohen starts from the collective obligations egalitarians have to transform society and (tentatively) derives very strong moral obligations for individuals under capitalism. You start with our collective license to transform society and seem to derive rather weak licenses for how we may individually live under (or perhaps protest against) capitalism.

58

engels 08.03.10 at 5:44 pm

licences!

59

ScentOfViolets 08.03.10 at 7:03 pm

@40:

There was a paper from sometime in the early nineties that found people in, I think Florida, identified as centrist, split them into three groups: one got asked mainstream feminist agree/disagree questions, one got asked “radical” feminist questions, third got something control-ish. Between 80-90% agreed with the radical statements, far more than either other group. Radical feminism was taken to assert “equal pay for equal work”, importance of quality childcare/schools, and similar, while mainstream was more of the “abortion is important but icky” school.

Coming in late, but this something of a hobbyhorse with me: it’s been my experience that people are frequently to the left of how they identify. “Get the U.S. out of Iraq” is supposed to be pretty lefty, right (at least, so say the Talking Heads, talk radio, and any number of MSM dead tree outlets.) And yet, when polled on the issue, a majority of Americans say that, yes, they don’t see any reason for wasting lives or treasure over there. The same with that horribly lefty preoccupation, the public option. From what you see on the tube, you’d think that most people were against it. Wrong. Solid majorities were very definitely for the public option.

And so it goes on any of a number of issues – Americans who say they’re “moderate”, or even “conservative” will by decisive majorities opt for the lefty stance.

Now, I call myself a moderate for the good and sufficient reason that most of my opinions on the issues are in accord with the majority. So why am I and the majority not called “moderate”? Why is it that, say, vouchers for private schools that come out of public school funding have been voted down by the public every time they appear on the ballot, and yet being opposed to them is evidence that one is some sort of “liberal”? Contrariwise, if this is a “Center-Right” country – odious meme that – why is it that very few people seem to be in favor of dismantling Social Security?

I think it’s past time that these kinds of labels got sorted out publicly and applied correctly.

60

Zamfir 08.03.10 at 7:41 pm

Just a note on the calculator, it seems sensitive to household size and the number of kids you have. Adding two kids to my household dropped us 20 pecentile points.

Which is probably fair, in the sense that highly educated DINKies really are materially well off. But it does mean that most people go through a bit of an income-percentile roller coaster throughout their lives: up as their income rises and they go from a one to a double household, down when they have kids, up again afterwards to a likely peak, and then deep down when retiring.

But comparing yourself to people in a similar phase of your life, you probably stay much more constant, and probably somewhat below the DINKy peak.

61

piglet 08.03.10 at 7:45 pm

Chris, your remark 43 doesn’t help either. You state that my argument supposes that left-wing egalitarianism is global in scope. True, but then your argument supposes that it is at least national in scope. Both assumptions can be questioned.

It seems to me that in order to defend your proposition (and you are the one who has a proposition to defend – I only point out the weaknesses in your argument), you need to clearly state all your assumptions, your data, and your conclusions. Maybe I would even agree with you, but so far all you have offered is a context-free anecdote about unnamed “left-wing academics”.

62

Chris Bertram 08.03.10 at 7:53 pm

_you need to clearly state all your assumptions, your data, and your conclusions_

You have noticed that Crooked Timber is a _blog_ I suppose?

63

Harry 08.03.10 at 7:55 pm

Engels — that’s interesting and maybe right. But the fact the suggestions I am making are entirely in relation to the (wrong) thought I was outlining. I think we are individually obliged to make our fair share of a contribution to making the world more just (where fair doesn’t mean equal — some of us, being more privileged, are under an obligation to contribute much more). And I think that the advantaged are under very stringent obligations to ameliorate injustice even when there is no prospect of achieving substantial institutional change. (And that the tendency to think one has done one’s bit when one has, in fact, done far from one’s bit, is very strong. I told my 9 year old how much I give to Oxfam every year, and she told me that I should multiply it by at least 4. She gives 30% of her allowance).

64

Philip 08.03.10 at 9:03 pm

Chris @ 7, according to that I am in the 46th percentile. Average income is usually underestimated in government statistics, at least in the UK, so you are probably in a lower percentile. From the Household Below Average Income analysis, which that calculator is based on:

‘Income components – as previously mentioned, there are particular problems with
the collection and quality of data relating to the incomes of the self-employed. The
FRS also records a shortfall in investment income when compared with National
Accounts totals. This may lead to an understatement of total income for some
groups for whom this is a major income component, such as pensioners, although
this is likely to be more important for those at the top of the income distribution.’

65

Philip 08.03.10 at 9:06 pm

Here is the right link.

66

engels 08.03.10 at 11:18 pm

Harry, sorry, my throwaway point was that while Cohen’s argument (which I know you endorse and imo radicalise into a rather severe form) loads us up with obligations, yours seems to leave us with fewer rights. Anyway, I do think that people who have been on the sharp end of the injustices you are rightly concerned about are in general likely to feel far less of your sense of noblesse obligé, and this can include people surprisingly far up the income scale, though not at the top of it.

67

Cynthia Haven 08.04.10 at 4:03 am

“A few years ago he said to me that the old distinctions between left and right had become irrelevant to him, adding very mildly that fools and knaves of all kinds needed to be opposed and that what was really needed was ‘a United Front against Bullshit.'”
— Christopher Hitchens on Robert Conquest

68

Chris Bertram 08.04.10 at 6:12 am

[I’ve removed egregiously insulting comments from piglet. Piglet, I have no wish to engage in further exchanges with you on any topic, so please don’t post here again. SoV, you’re last couple of comments removed only because they make no sense once piglet’s are deleted.]

69

Phil 08.04.10 at 8:30 am

There’s a difference between saying we are entitled to demand and collectively to create socialism (and thereby secure its benefits for ourselves and each other) and saying, what I think a lot of people think, that I am entitled to secure those benefits or benefits of equivalent value under capitalism.

Old joke. Trotsky goes to visit Lenin in Zurich. Lenin meets him at the station and is shocked to see him getting out of a First Class carriage. Lenin remonstrates – “First Class coaches are just the kind of bourgeois privilege the revolution will sweep away!” “That’s where you’re wrong,” says Trotsky. “We’ll be keeping those coaches – it’s the rest we’re going to get rid of.”

(I’ve never quite known what the point of that joke is, or who it’s aimed at; it seems to point in several directions at once.)

70

novakant 08.04.10 at 10:19 am

Nobody really cares about income inequality unless they think they’re at the receiving end of it. Just as nobody really cares about wars of aggression financed by upright citizens paying taxes. Nothing will ever change unless we do. So let’s just stop the silly handwringing.

71

engels 08.04.10 at 4:54 pm

I don’t think many _socialists_ believe that they are ‘entitled to secure [the benefits of socialism] under capitalism’. I’m not sure this view really makes sense. As for securing ‘benefits of equivalent value’ I don’t think that makes sense either _for a socialist_.

72

ajay 08.04.10 at 5:00 pm

Nobody really cares about income inequality unless they think they’re at the receiving end of it. Just as nobody really cares about wars of aggression financed by upright citizens paying taxes.

Manifestly not true.

73

engels 08.04.10 at 5:16 pm

(What’s the discounted present value of living in a world free of exploitation?)

74

bianca steele 08.04.10 at 5:22 pm

@67

There is a large difference, however, between deciding that questions of morality, culture, science, religion, and so forth (whether or not referred to the state), have nothing to do with a left/right split*, and mixing together a lot of people who think Stalinists are to the left of Communist anti-Stalinists with people who think the opposite (or Right Hegelians with Marxists).

[1] It’s not at all clear to me what people do when they decide this and still want to engage in political activity.

75

engels 08.04.10 at 5:42 pm

Ajay is right btw. For example, capitalists (who are not poor) care about income inequality because if it was reduced they would have to pay their workers more.

76

Salient 08.04.10 at 5:52 pm

Nobody really cares about income inequality unless they think they’re at the receiving end of it. Just as nobody really cares about wars of aggression financed by upright citizens paying taxes.

Bah, nobody really cares about anything, for some sufficiently flexible definitions of ‘nobody,’ of ‘really,’ and of ‘cares.’ (Or some sufficiently expansive definition of ‘we’ when saying nothing will change in less we do.) And yet people do care, and things change, and different groups of people suffer more or less as a consequence of those changes. Hm.

77

engels 08.04.10 at 8:06 pm

Okay, well the last part of the discussion wasn’t so interested and it was probably my fault for taking an interesting argument about justice (#48), re-formulating it as an argument about socialism, and then claiming that, so formulated, it doesn’t make sense.

I would like to reply to the original argument with a thought experiment.

You are the inmate of a Victorian workhouse, along with a hundred or so others. Owing to the inhumanity of the charity that runs the workhouse, all inmates are expected to survive on a single bowl of gruel per day, which is not enough for anyone to live on and remain healthy. At the end of one meal you consider demanding you be given another bowl. If you do so, any of the following might happen: you will be given an extra bowl and as a result somebody else will go without; everybody will go hungry tomorrow, as punishment; you alone will get an extra bowl and everybody else will only get one; the management of the workhouse will increase the rations for everybody; the incident leads to a riot with unknown consequences…

Do you make your demand? Are you morally entitled to make it?

78

novakant 08.04.10 at 8:17 pm

I’ll give you a sufficient definition of really caring:

– refusing to take part in a war of aggression as a soldier and facing the consequences for doing so
– refusing to finance a war of aggression with your taxes and facing the consequences for doing so
– committing acts of civil-disobedience in protest against a war of aggression and facing the consequences for doing so
– resigning from your government funded position in protest against a war of aggression

Very, very little has happened in this regard during the Iraq war, because barely anybody was willing to imperil their livelihood or social standing in the slightest, even though this war of aggression cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. So no, we don’t really care, because in the face of the crime of the century we weren’t prepared at all to take any action that might be detrimental to our well-being.

And you really expect people to suddenly start caring about income inequality or economic exploitation, though that might result in loss of income and social standing?

79

engels 08.04.10 at 10:00 pm

A parallel case?

I am entitled to stretch out to my full height. However, I am currently hunched under a cucumber frame, and Fred is in here with me. If I stretch out to my full height, _without breaking the cucumber frame_, Fred will be even more badly squashed then he and I already am. So I am not entitled to stretch out to my full height _under the cucumber frame_.

80

bianca steele 08.04.10 at 10:14 pm

engels,
I’m having trouble figuring out what context to put your examples into. Who says you can’t have more gruel–are the rules posted somewhere, or is it possible you are assuming things are worse than they are? Who is Fred, and why are you under a cucumber frame? You seem to be signaling something with your choice of example, perhaps about your intended audience, perhaps summoning up some sense of solidarity with everyone who understands it in the same way as you.

81

engels 08.05.10 at 8:26 am

Ok one last attempt to annoy Harry into responding and them I shall gracefully retire.

I am entitled (as a basic human right) to enough to eat. However, I am currently being held in a cell, with Jones, and the guard only gives us less than one man needs between the two of us. If I ate enough Jones would go hungry. So I am not entitled to enough to eat while in the cell.

Isn’t there something wrong with this?

My view: firstly I think there is a conceptual problem with saying the entitlement doesn’t apply just because exercising it would harm someone and secondly, as a political matter, I think the argument has strong reformist implications.

Am I wrong?

82

alex 08.05.10 at 8:44 am

The concept of ‘entitlement’ in the absence of a meaningful political-legal framework for its definition, justification and enforcement is bullshit. That might be a starting-point.

83

Chris Bertram 08.05.10 at 9:26 am

engels – the structure of your examples is interesting because of the way it employs threshold effects. Similar example: two of us are infected with a disease, but if we split the available medicine equally then neither of us would be cured, so the right thing to is for one of us to get it. But I’m not sure why that licenses one of us to go ahead and consume … why don’t we toss a coin so each of us gets an equal chance of being the one. Isn’t that the egalitarian thing to do in such cases, rather than saying both are entitled?

84

Miguel Madeira 08.05.10 at 9:32 am

“Are they any equivalent studies which demostrate that many self-identified right wingers are actually further to the Left than they believe themselves to be?”

Exactly this same study!

After all, the main conclusion of the study is that educated people claims to be more left-wing, but are also more defenders of income inequality (than, educated people think of themselfs further left than they really are).

But… this also mean that people with less education consider themself more right-wing that they are (it is simply a question of changing the signs of the equation)!

85

Miguel Madeira 08.05.10 at 9:36 am

If someone understands Portuguese, an article about that:

http://viasfacto.blogspot.com/2010/07/sobre-o-who-is-left-wing-and-who-just.html

86

dsquared 08.05.10 at 10:02 am

I am entitled (as a basic human right) to enough to eat. However, I am currently being held in a cell, with Jones, and the guard only gives us less than one man needs between the two of us. If I ate enough Jones would go hungry. So I am not entitled to enough to eat while in the cell.

Isn’t there something wrong with this?

Just to flag up a personal bugbear and hobbyhorse and resurrect the debate over philosophers’ hypotheticals, this is a good, non-pernicious example because it motivates Engels’ point but clearly isn’t so far out of the realm of human experience as to make the use of intution suspect.

But if we look at the actions and moral judgements of actual prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates, I think it pretty much supports Chris; people in this situation generally did share the gruel even though they were starving to death. Isn’t there a lot about this in Primo Levi?

87

engels 08.05.10 at 10:20 am

But if we look at the actions and moral judgements of actual prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates, I think it pretty much supports Chris; people in this situation generally did share the gruel even though they were starving to death.

I suspect you’re right and I’d be happy to agree with Chris that in these cases something like this would be ‘the egalitarian thing to do’. My point was that I wouldn’t want to say that, in these circumstances, I am not entitled to enough to eat. Everybody is entitled to enough to eat. (It’s a basic human right…) What I’d rather say is that someone else’s actions have placed me in a position where I am unable to exercise my right without harming someone else (if we accept the premise that I can overpower the guard, etc). So perhaps we have a conflict of rights but I don’t think I have forfeit my right.

88

engels 08.05.10 at 10:20 am

s/b ‘can not overpower the guard’

89

alex 08.05.10 at 10:36 am

I wouldn’t want to say that, in these circumstances, I am not entitled to enough to eat.

But you’re not. Unless, somewhere, there is an agency with both the power and the will to intervene and compel a third party to give you enough to eat, you have no ‘entitlement’ in any meaningful sense. If a particular body chooses to bind itself to a set of commitments, such as the provision of food, and has the material ability to hold good to its pledge, and you have the standing to invoke its action, then you might say you had a ‘right’ accorded by the specific commitment made. You might be able to make a claim to that body for your ‘rightful’ food. But in the absence of that institutional framework, there is nothing.

But you know that.

90

engels 08.05.10 at 10:42 am

To bring it back to Harry’s original post. He said

[..] if I am entitled to what I would have under justice, then I’m entitled to much more than an equal share of the money in this society, and maybe to a substantial raise (just to make it clear, I think that in my own cases this last thought is ridiculous).

and inferred, I think, that I am not entitled, in this society, to ‘what I would have under justice’. But for a socialist ‘what I would have under justice’ might include something like non-alienated work. That might be thought of as something with the same force as a human right. So I am entitled to non-alienated work (always everywhere, under George Bush or under Mao…). But right now my exercise of that entitlement is blocked by the contingent existence of capitalism, in such a way that attempting to exercise it causes harm to others (and — in most cases more tenuously, unfortunately — to capitalism). What I would prefer to say in this case is that I am entitled to non-alienated work but there is a question of what is ‘the socialist thing to do’ in attempting to realise that entitlement.

91

engels 08.05.10 at 10:50 am

To be quite clear I might have written ‘…causes increased inequalities and harm to others…’

92

Chris Bertram 08.05.10 at 11:07 am

alex @82 wrote

_The concept of ‘entitlement’ in the absence of a meaningful political-legal framework for its definition, justification and enforcement is bullshit. That might be a starting-point._

Or it might simply be a dogmatic assertion on your part.

93

Chris Bertram 08.05.10 at 11:22 am

Incidentally Harry & engels, I believe that the resources under the command of someone earning an academic salary in North America or Europe are already more than enough to secure a decent human life and, insofar as such people are failing to enjoy such lives, the explanation does not (in the normal case) have to do with a resource defecit. In fact, chasing more in the way of resources probably makes things worse, not better. So the reasoning of the person in your examples is not just selfish, but also self-defeating. Obviously this assertion is complicated somewhat (and might need adjustment) in societies which lack proper free health care and similar. Maybe a subject for a different post.

94

alex 08.05.10 at 12:55 pm

So, Chris, what is an ‘entitlement’, outwith the frameworks I mentioned in my 87? In what sense does the word ‘entitlement’ have any useful meaning, without a counterparty to enforce it against, a mutually-acknowledged structure to implement that enforcement, and the available resources to fulfil it?

It seems to me that the dogmatic assertion lies in the use of the term ‘entitlement’, not in the questioning of how it could be enforced.

95

engels 08.05.10 at 1:07 pm

Chris, let me be clear that I’m not agitating in defence of well-paid professors’ demands for new second homes. (They can all get stuffed.) I am interested in the theoretical background to Harry’s argument sketch in #48 and #55.

Firstly, the claim about someone having different basic rights under capitalism then he would under ‘Justice’ sounded like a kind of heresy to me (from what I know about Justice — it’s a very familiar position within Marxism, of course) but perhaps I’m just revealing my ignorance about liberal political philosophy here.

More importantly, and interestingly, it seems to me that this kind of egalitarian reasoning can be developed in a very reformist or even reactionary direction. Compare with the putative ‘egalitarianism’ of David Cameron and FT editorial writers who are dismayed by public sector workers’ ‘gold-plated pensions’. Or with the ‘egalitarians’ in the Economist who pointed out, re striking BA cabin staff, that they are better paid than staff in other airlines and paying them more would be unfair. I don’t think either you or Harry think this but it seems to me that this kind of thought can be developed in this direction.

96

Chris Bertram 08.05.10 at 1:20 pm

That’s certainly true engels, and not just about equality. I’ve blogged occasionally about Colin Ward-style anarchism and the virtues of collective self-help in schooling, housing, whatever. But it is hard even to think aloud about such things in the era of the “big society” for fear of giving ideological cover to spending cuts.

97

Chris Bertram 08.05.10 at 1:29 pm

Alex, to have an entitlement to something is just to have a right to that thing. I think that human beings have rights not to be raped or tortured even if they live in failed states which lack the kind of functioning institutions you mention. The fact that they have that moral right, gives us grounds (a) to see to it that the legal right is put in place and (b) to see to it that functioning instiutions are put in place.

98

engels 08.05.10 at 1:42 pm

Chris (#94) Okay, but I have been trying to argue that there are substantive issues for egalitarians (at least of Harry’s kind) here, not just ones of self-presentation and rhetoric. However, I don’t know much about how Harry would develop his argument in #48. For example, I would like to know what he does think people are entitled to demand in an unjust society, if it’s not what they are due by justice?

99

ajay 08.05.10 at 1:58 pm

84,85: leave the guard out of it; say you’re in a survival situation on, for example, Elephant Island, and there isn’t enough food for everyone to eat well; it’s extremely well documented that Shackleton’s crew (for example) went to great lengths to share food equally.

What they were entitled to, I would say, is not “enough to eat” but “an even share of the available food, or enough to eat, whichever is the smaller”.

100

engels 08.05.10 at 2:03 pm

For example, if the view is that all I am entitled to demand under capitalism is an equal share of what may be provided under capitalism (per capita GDP, perhaps) then this means that a great many wage demands by better off workers will be morally proscribed on egalitarian grounds. But why would someone who hasn’t ruled out the possibility of positive systemic change believe that our demands must be circumscribed in this way?

101

chris 08.05.10 at 2:12 pm

I am entitled (as a basic human right) to enough to eat. However, I am currently being held in a cell, with Jones, and the guard only gives us less than one man needs between the two of us.

Well, in the strict sense, if the guard gives you less than one man needs, both of you are going to starve no matter how you divide it. So I assume you mean “less than is comfortable for one man” or perhaps “less than two men need”.

I think the agency of the guard is a distraction. You and Jones could be on the proverbial deserted island without enough food for both and your rights w.r.t. Jones would not change.

But I’m a little hazy on the definition of “entitlement” in *any* context, let alone the particular one where your and Jones’s entitlements are physically impossible to simultaneously satisfy.

102

sg 08.05.10 at 2:13 pm

dsquared: in Primo Levi, people did not share the gruel. In fact, they snuck off and made spoons out of pieces of wood, and when new prisoners entered the camp they sold them a spoon for a bowl of gruel. Or they offered to teach new prisoners the (essential) German language, in exchange for… bowls of gruel.

The chapter “The drowned and the saved” in “If this is a man” makes clear in painstaking detail what people do when resources are severely restricted, and “sharing the gruel” is not one of the things that people do. The closest they come to it is “sharing the efforts to rip off other people’s gruel.”

103

engels 08.05.10 at 2:13 pm

Ajay, your example of Shackleton’s crew maybe confuses things a bit as the scarcity of food among them was imposed by necessity. Socialists do not believe that the scarcity that exists under capitalism (at the very least, the scarcity in important goods like self-respect, dignity and autonomy) is like this. But if you return to my example, I can agree that all the prisoners are entitled to demand of each other is an equal share of what they have…

104

dsquared 08.05.10 at 2:19 pm

in Primo Levi, people did not share the gruel. In fact, they snuck off and made spoons out of pieces of wood, and when new prisoners entered the camp they sold them a spoon for a bowl of gruel. Or they offered to teach new prisoners the (essential) German language, in exchange for… bowls of gruel.

That’s what happened, but I think you may have missed the point that the author was trying to make.

105

bianca steele 08.05.10 at 2:20 pm

I think most here are talking about a version of socialism that is close to anarchism, but the problem also arises if the ideal is taken to involve institutions. This example also is closer to the classic example of the Bolshevik Revolution, and of the present situation where the end state of socialism is not an ideal shared by everybody. If North America had been settled by Europeans after a socialist revolution (rather than mostly by dissenting Protestant sects and scattered Anglican younger sons), would the colonists have been justified in denying direct access to agriculture to the Native Americans, in either case on the ground that rights are granted only by institutions and only the Europeans had “real” institutions (whether in engels’s socialist version–where they are seen as hindering the institution of socialism–or alex’s more general one)?

106

sg 08.05.10 at 2:41 pm

I don’t think there are many lessons to be found in “If This is a Man” about the way people share and focus on equality in situations of extreme pressure. I’m interested to hear if you think there are any, though (this is a genuine point, not snark).

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Guido Nius 08.05.10 at 2:46 pm

Chris-94, your conundrum is of course anything but coincidental. The thought of Big Society is the same thought as that of civil society; it is an arch-christian thought of everybody doing what they ‘ought’ to do without explicit coercion. Unfortunately as in anarchist examples the explicit coercion gets traded for moral ‘society’ pressure to do ‘the right thing’. Fortunately for Tories it also allows the powerful to do whatever the bloody hell they like as long as they can create some perception that billionaires will give their surplus money to charity of their own ‘free will’.

In other words: you cannot have your state and eat it too. This applies to conservative christian politicians and academic egalitarian anarchists alike.

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engels 08.05.10 at 2:50 pm

Bianca, I can’t really follow that, I’m afraid, but I certainly haven’t said that rights can not be held by those who lack “real” institutions. Also, for the record, and I hope we can avoid further discussion of this point, I don’t believe that expropriation of indigenous people’s land or genocide is consistent with ‘socialism’.

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alex 08.05.10 at 3:32 pm

But how, in what practical sense, can one have ‘rights’ without the means to enforce them? You have converted an aspirational assertion about how you would like other people to treat you/everyone into a claim that you/everyone possess the ‘right’ thus to be treated. But it’s an unenforceable assertion, unless some actual institution is founded to make it otherwise. Or isn’t it? I’m willing to believe I’m missing some metaphysical dimension here, but nobody’s telling me what it is.

And is there not a whole, very tricky set of problems around the variously status-quo-oriented and wildly aspirational dimensions of the language of rights? For one thing, how does a language of rights tally with the idea of radical social change in which might involve extensively violating the rights of quite a large percentage of the population, if Articles 17-19 of the UDHR are to be given the same weight as, say, Articles 22-25?

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Harry 08.05.10 at 3:33 pm

Engels — so sorry not to have taken the bait — as you must realise I’ve been offline, doing a bit of actual work, but mainly taking care of the myriad children of various ages that seem to congregate round here. I can’t go through all your stuff now, except to say that your comparison of me and Cohen way upthread (the last thing I read when I could think) was too interesting for me to want to respond to without a good deal more thought.

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engels 08.05.10 at 3:36 pm

Thanks, Harry, I did realise. I’ll look forward to hearing it!

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bianca steele 08.05.10 at 3:52 pm

engels,
Thanks for clarifying that it would be wrong for me to assume you and alex agree on the point. I don’t know what knobs (as Hofstadter would say) would have to be twiddled to get you to at least consider the example, but I think the question is an eternal one that can pop up again and again, here and there, under extreme conditions.

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dsquared 08.05.10 at 3:58 pm

#104 – sorry, a bit flippant there – I just meant that the entire book is implicitly affirming that there’s a moral norm here and is about the moral emotions associated with finding yourself in a situation where doing the moral thing is going to lead to certain death. I’d agree with you that I would regard someone as a bit funny (or perhaps a really bad GCSE examiner) who read the book and thought “well, is this the right or wrong thing to do?”. It’s rather like Bernard Williams’ point against utilitarianism, except that it’s a much better example because it doesn’t rely on asserting someone to have perfect knowledge of unknowable things.

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bianca steele 08.05.10 at 5:10 pm

Another example is C.S. Lewis’s rant about “the Inner Circle,” which he explicitly says is a part of the human condition. Lewis relies on the reader’s instinctive emotional revulsion against people who think it’s acceptable to be a hypocrite. The dilemma stated in the essay is the question whether a man ought to violate his moral intuitions when he is told that “people around here don’t do that sort of thing,” and Lewis clearly sides with people who stick with morality and accept social consequences over people who engage in groupthink. He envisions exactly the kind of thing I did above, I think, but with (mere?) Christians in place of indigenous people, and worldly, modern people in place of colonizers.

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chris 08.05.10 at 6:00 pm

@alex 108: Without intending to put words in anyone’s mouth, I think there are some moral realists participating in this discussion, and presumably for them, their concept of “rights” is grounded in their faith in an observer-independent (?) moral reality. I’ve never really understood what that’s supposed to be based on either, let alone how anyone can make knowledge claims about it.

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engels 08.05.10 at 7:29 pm

I’ve never really understood Swedish. However I have not made that many posts to Swedish language discussion boards informing people of this interesting biographical fact.

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ScentOfViolets 08.05.10 at 7:39 pm

@108:

But how, in what practical sense, can one have ‘rights’ without the means to enforce them? You have converted an aspirational assertion about how you would like other people to treat you/everyone into a claim that you/everyone possess the ‘right’ thus to be treated. But it’s an unenforceable assertion, unless some actual institution is founded to make it otherwise. Or isn’t it? I’m willing to believe I’m missing some metaphysical dimension here, but nobody’s telling me what it is.

That’s very true as a physical observable. But there’s a social component as well, and that’s when everyone agrees that a person’s right’s are being violated, even it they are not in a position to do anything about it. That’s just a little bit different than having your “rights” violated but no one even acknowledging those rights.

One of our local theater groups performed a work based on this theme. The plot-driver was an old white cracker who repeatedly raped one of his slaves until she fought back and accidentally killed him. After the slave girl is found out, she asks what would have happened if he had raped a white woman or a free black woman, and she is told by everybody that, well, that would have been rape, and that he would deserve to go to jail for it, even if he actually didn’t because the victim was black. But just about every other character is appalled at her behaviour. They express the notion that she should be ashamed at what she did and tell her she is in the wrong to resist her master because she has no rights, none at all.

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Tim Wilkinson 08.05.10 at 7:44 pm

I’ve never understood what you metaphysicists mean when you ask what moral reality is ‘based on’.

Alex seems to get the basic idea; a right is a claim on others, though he pretends that it’s only about what one would like rather than what should be the case – a bit like economists who claim that a need is just a desire. But then he seems to think that the question of the vagaries of enforcement in particular cases is relevant to whether there is a normative (as opposed to positive) moral-political right. If not having a right ‘in a practical sense’ just means not having one backed by positive law, or something like that, then it’s uninteresting.)

It’s not entirely clear what enforcement means here, though anyway. I think it’s probably the case that a supposed system of rights can’t be correct if the rights in it are in certain senses unsatisfiable . It rather depends what aspects of human nature or society are to be held constant in working out the content of rights. One might also posit determinable rights which become more determinate based on particular facts, or conditional rights which apply in certain situations.

There’s also possibly been some confusion of positive and negative rights – a positive right, e.g. to food, does imply (IMO) that somewhere along the line there should be a determinate duty to supply the food which falls on some and possibly not on others. A negative right is correlated with a general duty on everyone not to do certain things to the holder of that right.

Generally, whan talking of a right, you need to be clear who holds the right, what its content is, and who is it held ‘against’. In the prison gruel case, the prisoners both (let’s say) have a right against the jailer that they be given enough food, but neither holds such a right against his fellow inmate.

(And I have to take issue with Bianca – the Inner Circle isn’t a rant, doesn’t pose a moral dilemma, isn’t reliant for its force in revulsion at hypocrisy and isn’t (or needn’t be) only about Christians. It is true that Lewis’s penetrating moral psychology does focus on the mechanisms of temptation, corruption and co-option, which in the Screwtape Letters had an explicitly Christian expression, as they did less successfully in the Lion Witch and Wardrobe (which pissed me off mightily as a kid when at the end I realised that it had not only turned into a clumsy and unwonted allegory, but as a result had a stupid and incomprehensible plot contrivance).

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engels 08.05.10 at 11:04 pm

Maybe it’s worth pointing out that the central claim I have been trying to defend doesn’t actually pre-suppose any of the apparatus of moral entitlements, positive rights or moral realism that people are getting so exercised about?

workers under capitalism are (pace Harry) entitled to demand what they would get under socialism

The second part of this isn’t a moral claim at all, but a factual claim or prediction. The first part is an entitlement claim but a negative one. All that is intended is that there is nothing which morally constrains workers under capitalism from making such demands.

As such it is actually perfectly consistent with the positivism/moral subjectivism to which so many CT commenters seem to be fanatically wedded. (If there are no [objective] moral reasons to do or not to anything then there are, in particular, no [objective] moral reasons not to do this.)

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chris 08.06.10 at 2:35 pm

@engels 119: So they’re entitled to demand it, but not entitled to get it? That seems a little hairsplitting (and very, very prone to being misunderstood).

Also, I think it’s at least implied from “they are entitled to demand X” even under that limited reading that they are entitled to not have anyone else interfere with their attempt to demand X, or retaliate against them for demanding X — otherwise the entitlement rings rather hollow — but those are moral restraints on someone else’s actions toward them, so it’s a little more complicated than “there’s no reason they shouldn’t”. If there’s no reason workers shouldn’t demand higher salaries, is there any reason employers shouldn’t fire workers who demand higher salaries? Or even hire Pinkertons to suppress their demonstrations by force?

Anyway, I’m not fanatically wedded to positivism (although there aren’t so many of me, so maybe you’re talking about someone else), I’d just like to see some reason a little more convincing than someone’s unsupported word for adopting a particular moral system, since there are so many and they conflict with each other so frequently. People arguing from different axioms can’t really resolve their differences — they just reduce to the differences in the axioms — and people arguing from different definitions often end up talking past one another without even accurately understanding each others’ claims. ISTM that this makes establishment of a definitional and epistemological foundation for moral argument a necessary prerequisite to actually having the argument produce anything useful.

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alex 08.06.10 at 3:02 pm

Tim, I’m perfectly willing to agree that rights can be about what should be the case. What I don’t get is why it’s worth talking about what should be the case in the absence of a simultaneous discussion about how one actualises that aspiration. Engel’s prison-cell example struck me as a particularly precise case of the problem – you are in a cell, they aren’t giving you enough food to survive, in what conceivable sense is it useful to discuss what you have a ‘right’ to?

Engels’ quote above about what workers are “entitled to demand” seems to take us to another level of oddness. I’m not even sure what the phrase means – I could demand a pony, am I therefore entitled to demand one; and either way, will I get one? Probably not.

One certain thing we can say about capitalism is that it won’t give the workers “what they would get under socialism”, because then it would be socialism. So unless this ‘entitlement to demand’ is actually turned into an institutional transformation, it is, pace any purely rhetorical/agitprop dimension, without value.

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engels 08.06.10 at 3:09 pm

One certain thing we can say about capitalism is that it won’t give the workers “what they would get under socialism”, because then it would be socialism.

Finally my faith in stopped clocks has been restored.

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alex 08.06.10 at 6:51 pm

See, there’s the thing. I’m guessing you assume yourself to be some kind of socialist, what with your name and all, yet you can’t give any kind of argument as to how your opinions about things like ‘entitlements’ actually get, or in fact could get, anybody nearer anything resembling socialism. If I were an uncharitable soul, I’d say you were all mouth and no trousers.

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engels 08.06.10 at 7:39 pm

Whatever ‘Alex’ (/’Dave’/’Lex’).

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engels 08.06.10 at 7:46 pm

I shall follow your workable plan for establishing socialism by posting endless confused and abusive comments on a weblog under various pseudonyms pointing out the ineffectuality, stupidity and/or of everyone on the left apart from you with interest.

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engels 08.07.10 at 8:11 am

(And again, to spell it out in words of one syllable. I am essentially taking issue with Harry’s claim that workers are under capitalism morally _forbidden_ from making certain demands [and taking action aimed at actualising them]. So attacking me as if I were defending some elaborate set of positive claims about moral rights or entitlements rather misses the point at issue.)

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engels 08.07.10 at 11:10 pm

Back on topic. While I don’t want to pass judgement on the merits of this —

I believe that the resources under the command of someone earning an academic salary in North America or Europe are already more than enough to secure a decent human life and, insofar as such people are failing to enjoy such lives, the explanation does not (in the normal case) have to do with a resource defecit. In fact, chasing more in the way of resources probably makes things worse, not better. So the reasoning of the person in your examples is not just selfish, but also self-defeating.

— it does appear to be in some tension with what egalitarian academics were themselves saying as recently as 2004:

British universities have been starved of resources for over two decades, academic pay is extremely poor (especially at the start) and we’ll face a real difficulty in recruiting people to teach some subjects if things don’t change (Daniel—fancy a job an a junior econ lecturer in a British university?). … the likely outcome of a government defeat is further drift and starvation—I hope Blair wins this one.

[…] When it rains heavily in Bristol, water pours into the building where I work; my junior colleagues struggle to find anywhere to live on their depressed salaries. Meanwhile our students, many of whom have been privately educated at costs far exceeding those in the proposal, will go on to earn salaries far exceeding those of their teachers within two or three years of graduating. Time to make them pay.

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Chris Bertram 08.09.10 at 12:26 pm

Thanks for that engels. Well yes you’re right there is a tension between what I wrote “as recently” as 2004 and what I think now. Some points to note:

* academic pay has improved a lot since 2004.
* lack of building maintenance isn’t anything to do with our salaries.
* the question of whether it is possible to lead a decent human life at salary X is a different question to whether you can recruit enough suitable people to do a particular job at salary level X.

The third point is the most important one I think.

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