Re: One humanity, all in the same boat

From: Chris Hibbert (
Date: Sat Jan 26 2002 - 00:05:23 MST

This is Peter and me doing point-counterpoint. Peter's statements have an odd
number of indentations.

> > > A society in which a large fraction of rewards go to a handful of people
> > > is a society in
> > > which a large number of people take big risks to become one of that
> > > handful, and it is a society in which most of the people who make that
> > > attempt fail to achieve what they want.
> >And who do they hurt when that happens? And who benefits?
> They hurt mainly themselves. Whether others benefit depends very much on
> the nature of the competition.

> > [...]

> The extent to which people enjoy the pursuit is very dependent on the
> perceived chances of success.
> Competition to serve consumers or to serve voters produces incentives that
> are better than the complete absence of those incentives or any alternatives
> which don't involve free markets, but there are plenty of costs associated
> with competition, and I think it is often possible to reduce the costs without
> much effect on the benefits.
> And not all competition is competition to serve people.

I don't see anything to disagree with here. Do you want to try further to
convince me that competition is mostly bad? Or that "we" should do something
about it?

> > That's why life is so much better for everyone, including the worst off.
> We can easily observe that some people are worse off than they were 10 or
> 20 years ago, by observing the efforts they make to avoid changes.

I'm not disputing that there are short term ups and downs. Is there something
we (or the government) should do differently because of that?

> I don't
> know of any method of similar reliability that would enable us to say
> what fraction of people are better off than they would have been centuries
> ago, but I suspect that many aristocrats of previous centuries would not
> prefer to have been born in this century.

Is there any need to nail down the fraction precisely in order to say that
it's true in general? Do you disagree that it's true in general?

I can easily imagine aristocrats that would feel that way, but it seems to me
that the reason is largely that they had power over people as they were, not
that they were relatively wealthy to what they'd have here.

Perhaps if we require that those aristocrats consider the possibilities from
behind Rawls' "veil of ignorance"
( they'd agree that people are
better off, even though the aristocrats (being in the aristocracy) had nowhere
to go but down.

> The average voter seems sufficiently uncertain about whether to treat
> job security as a property right that there is no objective answer to
> the question of whether it currently is a property right.

Fine. I wouldn't have argued for an objective answer. But it seemed clear to
me that most here (including you) would have agreed that people who know how
to make buggy whips don't lose anything objective (anything they should be
compensated for by the government or anything they should be able to sue for
in court) if they lose their jobs because buggy whips aren't in as much demand
this year as last. [I intend to exclude unemployment insurance from that
statement. It's mere happenstance as far as I'm concerned that insurance is
provided by the government.]

> It [...] seems to
> be a symptom of the belief that because free markets are better than the
> alternatives, we should ignore problems associated with them.

I don't believe I've said that we should ignore such problems. If anyone
believes that they've identified enough problems that we should consider
scrapping markets or meddling with them more (or even as much as we do) I'd
like to hear about it. I think it's pretty clear that "free markets are
better than the alternatives".

> >> That's why the arguments in Luxury Fever imply that there are negative
> >> externalities associated with celebrity-worship. Since I don't see any way
> >> to internalize those externalities, I therefore believe that a moral system
> >> which creates social pressure to make choices that reduce inequality will
> >> produce a nicer society than a moral system that claims inequality doesn't
> >> matter.

> >I'll grant that there is something to this argument. It doesn't seem like it
> >makes the case for much more than subtle social pressure.
> Social pressure is the only strategy that I am optimistic about.

That's fine. I don't mind if you work on that. I'm not bothered by the
negative externalities. I think the positive externalities at least
compensate, broadly speaking.

> Asking
> politicians, most of whom benefit from inequality of status and power, to
> reduce inequality rarely produces a genuine effort to produce more egalitarian
> results.

I hope you weren't expecting me to defend politicians or the value of relying
on them.

> But I think there are many political issues on which it ought to
> influence voter opinions. For example, I would guess that the duration of
> copyright protection that would maximize material wealth would be about
> 4 years, but that to maximize what people actually value (i.e. adding in
> the benefits of equality) would require a copyright duration of a year or
> so less than that.

That seems like a remarkably precise estimate. Even if I assume that it's a
ballpark number, what's the argument that reducing copyright duration from 4
years to 3 (minus an "or so") would significantly increase society's level of equality?

> >Convincing people that they don't need to be as rich as Croesus to be wealthy
> >by any reasonable measure seems a fine meme.
> If by reasonable measure you mean measures that society ought to encourage,
> then yes. In the absence of social pressures, I doubt that a purely selfish
> measure would cause someone to loose interest in further wealth.

I wouldn't want people to lose interest in further wealth. If someone has
earned 10s of millions of dollars by satisfying some desire of other people, I
don't think we benefit by convincing her that she should stop doing so. We
might arguably benefit by convincing her that she doesn't need to earn 100 or
1000 times what her employees do in order to tell that she's still
contributing something valuable.


Currently reading:  Pauline Maier, "American Scripture: Making the
       Declaration of Independence"; Harold McGee, "On Food and Cooking";
       Donald Kingsbury "Psychohistorical Crisis"
Chris Hibbert

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