Thursday, January 20, 2011

Redistributive Justice and Wonkery

There are murmurs on the intertubes about redistributive justice and related murmurs about the lack of seriously left-wing blogs relative to the left liberal policy wonk blogs. I think these complaints are related, probably because I have just finished reading G.A. Cohen's "Rescuing Justice and Equality", which is essentially a critique of Rawls from the left. The point is that the Rawlsian difference principle legitimizes a lot of inequality that runs counter to some of our ethical intuitions, in a way that speaks to contemporary liberal dilemmas about taxation and inequality. Rawls' argument allows talented people to hold back exercising their talents until they are compensated enough to use them in the interest of the worst off. Think of our banking oligarchs, who hold their scarce skills and industry-specific knowledge as hostages against asset expropriation or any restrictions on compensation. Lets hold back judgment on whether or not these folks are actually talented, and just allow that some of the inequality we see today does in fact accrue to talent and human capital.

Readers who are familiar with Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia will recognize the figure of the utility monster, who gets so much happiness from repugnant acts that a utilitarian would have to condone those acts. Nozick uses this to argue for a rights based approach against utilitarianism. In parallel, Cohen's book suggests the superstar doctor monster, who has medical skills and talents that are very valuable to the poorest people, but demands so much compensation that the resulting inequality is horrific. Liberals have no criticism of the doctor, but socialists think the doctor is fundamentally an unethical jerk,a sentiment captured by Tom Lehrer: "There are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings and I HATE people like that". Socialists can believe that the doctor's lack of solidarity, despite material abundance, depends on the presence of capitalist institutions that encourage rapacity, and criticize that kind of selfish behavior (see this paper in Nature by Sam Bowles for some evidence on endogenous preferences and redistribution).

At the core of Cohen's argument is this "trilemma", that it is impossible to have all three of efficiency, equality, and free allocation of labor. Basically any two of these precludes the third (Stalinist rule gets you the first two and Rawlsian justice gets you 1 and 3, and nobody really wants the homogeneously poor society entailed by dropping 1). In economics this is formalized in the Mirrlees optimal income taxation problem, where a planner needs to raise a fixed amount of revenue by taxing people's incomes, but because people can choose their labor supply, talented people should not be taxed, because they produce a large amount per hour worked. A lot of the knock-on early Mirrlees-derived literature had a zero top-tax rate at the optimum (but recent literature weakens this, basically because the income distribution is potentially unbounded above and has fat tails).

Rawls is ok with that kind of inequality. Indeed you can show the 0-tax-on-the-talented result even if the social planner is trying to maximize the welfare of the worst-off. So I don't think that Rawlsianism is a socialist principle of distributive justice. In fact it is the bedrock philosophy of left-liberal and social democratic interventions. What Cohen says is that Rawls is crippled by setting up the object of justice as the "basic structure of society" or "the state". Rawlsianism is also therefore the bedrock philosophy of the policy wonk, who thinks that social justice is a property of states alone and not a whole suite of institutions and behaviors. The resulting political involvement of intellectuals becomes reduced to "if only the right politician or bureaucrat sees my brilliant blog post/technical report, egalitarianism will obtain". So Rawls captures the essence of the left-liberal policy wonk; the state (and only the state) should reduce inequality subject to incentive-compatibility for the rich. Hence the endless key-punching on the details and consequences of this or that Democratic proposal, but little dialogue with social movements, political campaigns that are outside the government (like labor and tenant organizations), or radically non-neoclassical visions of the economy. Make no mistake, I enjoy and benefit from it, but I don't think its particularly agenda-setting for the left.

Cohen offers a way out of the trilemma by suggesting that we expand the domain of justice to include labor-supply decisions and preferences more generally. This is echoed by radical leftists who believe that there are severe constraints on the amount of stable equality that can be generated with policy instruments alone. Both people and politics need to be reconstituted in much more fundamental ways than admitted by the social democratic agenda if a complex egalitarianism is to be sustained and much more basic structural changes are required to get a society that is thriving and equal, without the pathologies of pervasive economic conflict.

Cohen thinks about egalitarianism as an ethic, not just as a property of government. He draws on feminist (and I would add anarchist) ideas that "the personal is political", that people's preferences and values are objects of justice, and that we can have a free allocation of labor that maintains distributive justice if people have ideals and ethics of conduct that sustain egalitarian distributions. So we should have grounds for criticizing the bankers and doctors for demanding so much money to do their jobs. I'm not just asking us to tax them (because of the potential inefficiencies in the trilemma); I think a complementary strategy is to organize for values and ethics (and deliberative politics that let us collectively construct and enforce these values and ethics across a variety of social sites) that sustain a society where anybody with talent would feel ashamed and ridiculous for demanding large amounts of compensation.

The idea that talented labor should demand a high wage is repugnant to socialist ethics; as Cohen eloquently states "labor, like love, should be freely given". As a scholar, the gift (and status) based economy of tenured academia is a lovely alternative allocation mechanism for human labor (and the reason I shouldn't start blogging for another 7 years), as are the collective whale hunts of the Llamelera in Indonesia, barn raising in rural Pennsylvania, or the dynamics of sharing in open-source networks. As Mike Konczal has brought up Walzer, let me suggest that this is also consistent with a Walzerian and Polanyi-esque view that the allocation of labor should not be the according to the whims of the market, but instead according to individually fulfilling, democratic and egalitarian norms.

Bringing this all back together, I think I want to make two points about Rawlsian social democracy: a) It is quite compatible with a large amount of inequality and this is partially because b) it restricts the domain of criticism to the wonk playground of state policy. The Cohen book has the seed of a criticism of social democratic bloggers; it is against both the amount of inequality that Rawlsian social democracy (the kind favored by Yglesias et al.) allows as well as the narrow spectrum of technocratic state-centered instruments by which any extra inequality is addressed, So I think Freddie deBoer's criticism of the left-liberal wonk blog stands, and is part of the general libertarian socialist critique of the social democratic left.


  1. Aren't we all the superstar doctor monsters? Who on this blog is starving and has no skills that would serve another which we waste, e.g. by watching stuff on the internet instead?

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