Saturday, March 13, 2010

Clash of the Titans

I had a long conversation Friday night with an old friend of mine.  In fact, that conversation was the reason I didn't get a blog post created, though it did give me material for this one.  This old friend Warrior lives in the US.  He and I spent a long time discussing politics and philosophy, particularly as it relates to taxation and wealth distribution and I ended up being really blown away by his beliefs.  I shouldn't have been since he is actually not too outrageous in light of American politics, but from a Canadian perspective he is a right wing extremist.

Warrior's views included things like tying votes to taxation and removing many government programs.  Specifically he felt like anyone on welfare shouldn't get a vote and further that all government paid welfare and health plans should be removed along with most social programs.  He justification was that if poor people suddenly didn't receive their welfare payments or get free health insurance they would go out and get jobs and become productive and take care of themselves.  I responded by telling him that a world where the poor have no government support is a world of crime and conflict; people who can't get jobs and are starving are prone to doing very dangerous and violent things.  His response was to suggest that more police and harsher criminal penalties would solve that problem and get people working by fear and force.  By and large his intent here seemed to be getting justice, that is the justice of successful people being rich and safe and unsuccessful people being destitute.

There is something appealing about that justice.  When I was younger I definitely fell into that camp, figuring that if people were going to make bad decisions and end up in dire straits they could just deal with it.  The trouble with that theory is not so much that it lacks appeal to some people but mostly that it just doesn't work.  Harsher criminal penalties for severe crimes have minimal effect and paying police to control the poor instead of just paying the poor doesn't help anything.  Regardless of whether or not you believe that this 'monetary justice' is moral or right there just isn't a practical argument for it that holds up.  Universal health care drastically lowers the cost of delivering health care and improves the lot of people as a whole.  Supporting people who are in temporary distress leads to people staying within the legal system and eventually getting back to work by and large; the number of people who actually are dedicated leeches is extremely small, most want to work.

Distribution of wealth to ensure health care and basic needs for all citizens doesn't cost money compared to the alternative since the end costs of denying those services is the same or higher than the cost of supplying them.  It doesn't feel much like justice though, and I suppose different people put different values on those things.  I personally am fine staying at the same level of service and allowing those who are less fortunate to benefit.  Some people would prefer that those who makes mistakes or are in bad circumstances suffer for it even if it benefits no one else.  When it comes to justice vs. altruism I will always pick altruism, and I find the idea of a society that does not share that value set quite unappealing.


  1. The vast majority of people who are rich are just rich because they are lucky. The latest financial meltdown and the accompanying collapse of lots of major financial institutions showed that these supposed great businessmen who run things at the top are generally little better than a coin flip at making important decisions, and aren't worth twice what a front-line worker in those companies is worth, let along 400+ times what they are worth to the company.

    If you can convince yourself to hate poor people and regard them as less than human then it doesn't hurt when you think about how badly things are really going. If you can convince yourself that there is an inherent difference between those who are doing well and those who aren't then you don't have to be terrified of what might happen to you, which is convenient when the American economy should give everyone at least a small reason to be terrified. *That* is the appeal of this kind of "justice," it is a backstop to pain and fear.

    The instance on a police force emphasizes the fact that this is all about fear. If someone is so insistent that by having money you deserve to have it, then why balk at murder and theft? By doing so they clearly admit that some ways of getting and keeping money are acceptable and others are not, so now we are just haggling over the details. Of course, according to this person it would seem that the way that *they* came into their own position is the right way. It's a willfully blind and completely self-serving philosophy.

  2. I suspect the combination of "old friend" who "lives in the US" and "is a rabid right-wing extremist" may lead some to believe that I could have been in this conversation... Sadly no.

    I disagree with Sthenno that the difference between wealth and poverty is primarily luck. It's true that some idiots are rich, and some hard-working intelligent people are poor, but they make an outsized impression by virtue of being exceptions to the trend. Generally, an intelligent and hard-working person who *desires* wealth will have it. Similarly, a lazy idiot will tend to be destitute regardless of intent.

    The exception to this of course are the ultra-rich, the top 0.1% of the population who buy zeppelins and circumnavigate the globe, trained monkeys at their sides (or buy yachts I guess, to each their own). I couldn't suggest with a straight face that a person who has a thousand times the wealth of another has a thousand times the worth either. In any random system which provides long odds there will always be the random big winners. (Bet on 00, whoo!)

    But I digress... where this person has gone wrong (IMHO) is by failing to consider the role of government to be for the betterment of the population at large. I love capitalism and the free market, and enjoy the great game they define. The role of government though is not to *enable* the free market, but to *exploit* it. Our laws (with respect to the economy) should be constructed such that a businessman who acts to maximize his own worth is also maximizing his contribution to society. Capitalism is an engine which powers the greater good.

    Taxes should be as high as possible in a net sense; that is, they should be so high that if they went any higher they would generate less absolute revenue for the state. (Tricksy balance to achieve!) Social support should be as strong as possible without becoming a crutch for those who could achieve more (just as tricky), and without exceeding the government's ability to pay.

    Of course, at a certain point things get complicated, generally around morality. Those are the interesting discussions, IMHO.

  3. Snidely, you should have checked the name of the friend - Warrior. I pick names such that any random person stumbling on my blog can't connect the name in the blog with the real person but that anyone who knows the people involved should be able to make a connection. Warrior is identifiable to those who know both Warrior and myself, but no one else can likely make that connection. You already have a name on my blog anyway, Corporate Plunderer. :)

  4. How does Warrior feel about Public services like Police, Fire, Schools (most) and Library? Does he feel that these can be more effectively managed on a for-profit basis with persons desiring the service buying in?

    How does Warrior feel about Americans over the age of 65? Should they be taken off of (Government Run) Medicare and made to choose a private health carrier?

    Another important question. Does Warrior have children? (I'm not sure that that would affect a person's viewpoint but I have my suspicions).

    The American Health Care debate has been interesting (once you get past the "Death Panels" and charges of "Marxism"). One thing that seems to be missing is a reliance on evidence to inform the debate about choosing a health care system. The evidence, of course, is provided in the health care systems of other countries (a challenge to untangle the exact cost/benefit to be sure). What countries choose single payer (Canada etc)? How do they fare in relative health outcomes and costs? Who falls through the cracks? What are the inefficiencies? What about a mixed system (France etc)?

    My Scientist side tells me that the best way to decide what to do is to look at the evidence and pick what works best. I suspect, however, it is difficult to look at another country and assume that they are doing anything better than you are, no matter what country you are.

    This comparison seems to be missing from the public discourse. ex/ "France has great health outcomes and lower costs so let's try to copy their system."

  5. Snidely, when I say the vast majority who are rich are rich because they are lucky, I am indeed talking about the very rich. It it totally believable that many of the people who accumulate enough wealth through their careers to retire comfortably would have managed to do that in a number of different circumstances.

    That being said, adjectives like "smart and hard-working" bring to mind a particular image of who we think should be successful in a merit-based society. What about "tall," "emotionally stable," "low autism quotient," "without chronic pain disorders," "not from a place where joining a gang was the only way they felt they could survive," "didn't make any really terrible mistakes during their angry teenage years that can be traced back to them." There are lots of people out there who are smart and are hard-working who have very little chance of success; they just aren't the people we think of when someone says "smart and hard-working."

    We can never really have a merit-based success system. No matter how we set up society, success will always be based on who is most able to master the mechanisms of success. In school, knowing your subjects well is a good proxy for being a high mark earner, but it is only a proxy, not the actual thing being measured. The same for society and wealth, "smart and hard-working" may be a proxy for wealth (a worse one than knowing your subject in school) but you get money for getting money well, not for being smart. And I know this suits you fine because you like to try to get money, and getting money well is something you are very interested in. But it is not a merit-based system. Merit-based distribution of wealth is nonsense at best.