Moral Chicanery

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Jonathan Cohn, not satisfied that the world's billionaires are giving away their fortunes fast enough (surprise!), makes what he calls "Moral Arguments for Soaking the Rich" at The New Republic.

I ask you, gentle reader, to suppress the urge to tell him to put his money where his mouth is, give away all his possessions, and move to a third world slum -- at least long enough to consider what a tour de force of context-dropping this article is. (And that would be on top of his common, but unspoken assumption that morality equals altruism.)

According to the Republicans and many of their supporters, allowing tax rates on upper incomes to rise would punish the rich for their success, taking away money that the rich have earned. But this argument suffers from two key flaws.

One is that it fails to account for the power of luck. Almost by definition, people who are successful have benefited from some measure of good fortune. That fortune can take the form of obvious, material advantages--like access to advanced technology and good schools. Or it can take the form of more subtle, but still important, assets for moving forward in life--like good health or loving parents.


The other, albeit related, flaw in the conservative argument is that it fails to acknowledge the debt wealthy people owe to society. As Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly argue in their 2008 book, Unjust Desserts [sic],the proverbial self-made man is not exactly self-made. He (or she) is benefiting from the accomplishments of past generations, not to mention the support of public institutions (like the National Science Foundation) and services (like schools) that foster innovation and lead to greater productivity. [links dropped]
Cohn's arguments are both attempts to attack the virtue of justice by pretending that human character has basically nothing to do with the creation of wealth. He looks like he has launched a two-pronged attack, but each prong is just a different way of equating material gain with chance.

Cohn's first argument works in a similar way to cold reading, and relies on subjective validation: He knows that his less-wealthy readers will recall events in their personal histories that might have left them better off had they turned out differently and that his wealthier readers will recall events that could have left them poorer had they turned out differently. Cohn doesn't completely discount moral character, though: He just wants everyone to focus on the "could-have-been" long enough to forget the "actually-happened" at a few discrete points in their lives, as well as the fact that real success requires persistence, hard work, and (gasp!) a conquering of bad luck (aka adversity). In fact, everyone faces bad fortune and everyone catches a break once in a while. And everyone has to play with the hand he is dealt. Cohn wants us to pretend that the last never happens. It's basically all in the cards, and those rich people get royal flushes every time.

Cohn's second argument attacks the role of character in the creation of wealth by basically claiming that the odds have been stacked for the wealthy. Again, we are to ignore all the formerly rich wastrels out there and, I guess, the fact that -- at least in the case of his American readership -- we all grew up "benefiting from the [same] accomplishments of past generations" and various social institutions that any number of much more (and much less) successful contemporaries have. Of course, all we're really supposed to focus on is how those rich people leeched on Thomas Edison's work, the NSF, and our educational infrastructure while we -- oh, never mind.

But all that's nothing compared to the massive evasion about the whole purpose of Cohn's article, which is this: to justify taking money from the rich on the grounds that they don't deserve their money. (As if we'll "deserve" it after we take it from them by force.) Think about that for a second.

To Cohn, possession of wealth is, ipso facto, proof that it's okay to plunder it. Watch your wallet when church lets out: A common thief is at the pulpit delivering the sermon.

-- CAV


Andrew Dalton said...

It's hard to tell how much people like Cohn believe their own arguments, versus how much of it is the secular socialist equivalent of religious apologetics. ("We know in our hearts that the rich are filthy, exploiting bastards whom we should plunder -- but we need a plausible sounding argument to sucker the masses into thinking that we have reason on our side.")

To the extent that his arguments are mistaken rather than Machiavellian, this is another illustration of the role of epistemology in politics. Cohn plucks a concept like "deserve" out of the void, insists that it would apply only in cases of creation ex nihilo (a universal counterfactual), and then enlightens us that -- surprise -- reality never satisfies that condition. And he uses that argument to show that there's a problem with how other people think!

Gus Van Horn said...

Both excellent points.

The second point would apply just as well to the whole "fixed pie" image of wealth favored by collectivists -- which amounts to the same thing as creation ex nihilo insofar as it helps people forget that wealth is created by man.

Pinker's Blog said...

What a revolting second handed human being. What’s truly appalling is how hopeless conservative intellectuals are at countering evil views like this.

Gus Van Horn said...

They can't counter them because they share them.

Mo said...

hehe they share them alright. what we need is Liberta:

narayan said...

Cohn doesn't really make the case for why wealthy people owe a debt to society at large. If the not exactly self-made man had the advantage of good parents, teachers, etc.. at best he has some obligation to those individuals who did in fact add value to his life.

Gus Van Horn said...

Quite true. His "case" is full of holes, including the one you mention that completely escaped my notice.

Snedcat said...

Narayan writes: "Cohn doesn't really make the case for why wealthy people owe a debt to society at large. If the not exactly self-made man had the advantage of good parents, teachers, etc.. at best he has some obligation to those individuals who did in fact add value to his life."

Exactly. I've had arguments with socialists on exactly this point. The problem, of course, is that they seriously believe there is an actual entity called "society" to which every member of society owes something above and beyond what he owes any randomly chosen member of society. Owing "society at large" means in concrete terms owing others in society something just by the simple fact that they speak my language, share my customs, and presumably share a view of things similar to mine. (Or else that I owe obedience to the state, whose masters stand in for society and claim its vague "needs" as their own.) No, all I owe them by living in society is to respect their individual rights, and I don't owe them money or labor just because they refused to prey on me. This of course they call "antisocial."

Gus Van Horn said...

"I don't owe them money or labor just because they refused to prey on me."

I like that turn of phrase, and it highlights what Cohn is trying to do: Get "the rich" to rob themselves on his behalf.

Gus Van Horn said...


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