Philosophy, Politics, recent

Bitterness and Inequality—A Reply to Matt McManus

In a recent article for Quillette entitled “The Argument for Equality and Fairness,” Matt McManus attempts to rebut the charge that the Left is motivated more by a hatred for the rich than concern for the poor. McManus’s main argument, drawing on John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, is that while some on the Left may be motivated by an abiding resentment of the rich, sound arguments for policies designed to redress naturally occurring inequalities have merit independent of that antipathy. But McManus’s argument doesn’t answer—or even attempt to answer—the question of how can we tell the difference, or why a reasoned argument for redistribution is so frequently discarded in favor of a bitter hatred of the wealthy, successful, and fortunate.

Justice vs Cosmic Justice

It is interesting that McManus uses John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice as a launching pad for his argument about what the Left gets right, because it is the same example used by Thomas Sowell in his book The Quest for Cosmic Justice to make precisely the opposite argument. Equality of opportunity is not enough, according to Rawls, and a deeper conception of fairness would entail providing everyone with equal prospects of success. Sowell prods at this view by drawing a distinction between “traditional justice,” where individuals abide by the same social and economic rules and processes, and “cosmic justice,” which “seeks to mitigate the undeserved misfortunes arising from the cosmos.” The problem, in Sowell’s view, is that cosmic justice can often come at the expense of traditional justice, insofar as “this conception of fairness requires that third parties must wield the power to control outcomes, overriding rules, standards, or the preferences of other people.”

In other words, the attempt to create equality between individuals despite societal processes (such as market forces or the rule of law), tends to create an elite caste of decision-makers, leading to government overreach and the inevitable slew of unintended consequences. So, if people are willing to override the rules of the game to achieve a desired result, such as wealth parity, there is a good chance that cosmic justice is subordinating traditional justice. Traditional justice would involve focusing on policy proposals that, universally applied, might help specific segments of the population in specific ways, while cosmic justice seeks to blame every inequity on the self-interested actions of powerful individuals that need to be corrected by morally superior and more enlightened decision-makers. It is the difference between steering societies rather than attempting to determine them.

It’s healthy and normal to want to rearrange society according to what seems fair to us personally, but the question is how far we are willing to go to ensure an equality of outcomes at the expense of an equality of process. It is not necessarily a reflexive defense of the status quo to be sincerely concerned about the possible side-effects of the former, and yet many on the Left seem to assume it is the only explanation which gives rise to the frustration and anger McManus identifies.

Diagnosing Problems vs Developing Solutions

Another important distinction concerns whether a person is preoccupied with fetishizing a political issue or taking practical steps to address it—the theorist or polemicist who fulminates about racism versus the economist who formulates policies designed to alleviate hardship. As the critics of the Left cited by McManus in the first half of his essay point out, many progressives seem to derive more pleasure from denouncing what is wrong with the world than figuring out what can be corrected and how. For instance, we hear a great deal about the injustice of wealth disparities in society, and how these disparities reflect inequalities of race, gender, and class. But it’s not obvious that such gaps represent any kind of problem—or, indeed, what that problem is—unless we delve into the specifics.

It might seem unjust in a cosmic sense that some people are billionaires and others work at the checkout counter of Whole Foods. But shouldn’t we be more concerned with improving the actual conditions of the poor, perhaps through an expansion of social safety nets or incentive-based job programs, than with the fact of inequality itself? I am not convinced that this fixation on diagnosing problems over developing solutions is the exception on the Left. In my experience growing up in a left-leaning bubble and traveling in predominantly left-leaning circles, I would say this phenomenon is closer to being the rule, because simply venting about the problems of the world allows us to signal concern for the underprivileged without doing the hard work of formulating the steps needed to solve complex social problems.

Innocence vs Guilt

In The Content of Our Character, black conservative writer Shelby Steele contends that the obsession with innocence is an entrenched vice of post-civil rights liberalism. For example, environmentalists who fly to conferences to fret about looming climate catastrophe may be entirely earnest in their concern for the wellbeing of the planet, but there seems to be a hidden investment in their apocalyptic thinking that is inconsistent with how they actually live and behave. That hidden investment is the moral certainty derived from a belief in our own innocence—although we all participate in the society we hold responsible for the evils we condemn, we believe we can somehow exculpate ourselves by denouncing others. Steele identifies a relationship between the inward guilt we feel for our relative advantages and our self-aggrandizing displays of innocence. Progressive venom and bitterness, he argues, are simply a means of coping with that guilt. The religious zealotry and self-flagellation of radical anti-racism activism, whereby the privilege conferred by skin color is held to be an ineradicable sin that requires endless displays of atonement, is illustrative of this underlying sense of guilt. Sensible progressives seldom call out this narcissistic behavior, which creates space for conservatives to win over fence-sitters.

Conclusion

McManus identifies a vexing problem particular to the Left, but he doesn’t explain where it comes from or how it might be ameliorated, so more penetrating criticisms of the Left that might actually help improve it are left unexplored (although, as he mentioned in his essay, he has attempted to describe what a more engaged Left might look like here). Because there are rational reasons, like those advanced by Rawls, to oppose inequality, McManus appears to dismiss the underlying bitterness that disfigures attempts to address social injustice and which can send potential allies into the arms of conservatism and liberal centrism.

Disenchantment with the Left is not simply a matter of refusing to use certain pronouns, or a feeling that one’s privilege or advantage is being threatened—it is often produced by a powerful sense that something has gone wrong with how the Left engages with reality and a rejection of its eagerness to stigmatize its opponents. At a time when we are faced with declining public health and increasing class stratification across the West, when automation threatens to derail our relationship to work as we know it, and when cultural polarization has made the effort of marshaling a bi-partisan coalition to tackle these problems seem impossible, understanding why the Left alienates those it ought to be recruiting could hardly be more important.

 

Samuel Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of culture and politics. After dropping out of college due to a chronic illness, he writes to get a better handle on reality. You can follow him on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome. He also runs a YouTube channel called The Invisible Man on the side.

Featured image by Paul Stein.

Comments

  1. Justice and “social justice” are opposites.

    Justice says that you reap what you sow. “Social justice” says that you would have sown differently if not for “privilege”, and you should get to reap what you would have sown. That can only mean reaping what someone else actually sowed (has sown? hath soweth?). Which is, of course, a violation of justice.

    It’s just another way of stating that so-called “positive rights” can only exist as violations of negative rights.

    Leftists frame violations of others’ rights as requirements of their own.

  2. This is the best essay I’ve seen on Quillette in months. The fact a college dropout easily blows away Ivy League and Oxford writers here is inspiring – a humiliating blow to the ridiculous clownery that is contemporary humanities and social studies departments.

  3. Yeah, with writing like that we should have recruited him for the Sciences. We can use clear thinkers much more than the other departments. Or perhaps, they can use them, they just don’t. They drive them out.

  4. Good article, good comments.

    While it was Orwell who suggested that the great improvers of mankind were motivated by resentment of those better off, it was Nietzsche who made the more elemental observation that they were motivated by a resentment of reality itself. The incapacity to accept suffering and to accept the essential limited nature of human consciousness results in a kind of consciousness which believes reality itself can be made over by human ideas. Or indeed, as we see culminating in postmodern thinking, reality is a mere “social construct”.

    We modern educated human beings have become so habituated to our abstraction from the consequences of our ideas that we spin one ideological fantasy after another of some imagined just society. I happen to have a significant amount of firsthand experience of the consequences of such well intentioned ideation, but virtually every time I’ve tried to illuminate my well intentioned friends of the actual reality of their ideas I’ve been met with hostility or indifference. In fact, I can think of no case of anyone I’ve know who has made any effort to actually follow and study the consequences of their cherished policies. If someone said they loved gardening and went and planted a garden but never bother to weed or check on their garden what might we conclude? Seems safe to say, such a person loved the idea of gardening and not really gardening itself.

    As I’ve noted before – the word “compassion” is from the Latin “to suffer with”. “Compassion” does not mean “to pay others to suffer with”. What are we to make of all these people who are infatuated with the idea of compassion?

  5. CJA
    A briliant comment.
    One of my big problems with the left is that institutes many government programs but very rarely checks to see if the programs actually work or whether they cause harm due to unintended consequences. WHat they do is to pick up on the unintended consequences and blame them on ‘‘capitalism’’ and apply a band aid solution that also doesn’t work.
    Two factors are at play here. Firstly, for the left it is all about intentions and virtue signalling. Secondly, the left’s schemes always involve the need for a large bureaucracy. Bureaucrats have no profit mechanism to show the success of their programs. For them success is judged on the number of employees they have and the size of their budget. There is thus an incentive for Bureacracies to talk up social problems so as to ensure continued survival of the jobs of cicil servants.

  6. Uhhh, wow!

    This is the kind of writing I came to Quillette to read.

    I feel like I just ate a 24oz Ribeye from Ruth’s Chris, and it was free, thanks to @claire and team.

  7. PeterfromOz

    Thanks for bringing up bureacracy as I think this is a key issue - virtually every single social program or intervention comes with its own increase in bureacracy. .

    Interventionist progressive types seem to operate on the bizarre superstition of the “Beneficent Bureaucrat”. I see no evidence whatsoever that a bureaucrat is other than a bureaucrat.

    Regardless of intentions of social programs, a bureacracy once in place is a kind of ecosystem which means certain behaviors and social types are selected for over time. When I worked for a couple of years in a state mental institution I was surprised, not so much that there were lazy people who studiously avoided work, but that these same people where, as often as not, the biggest whiners and at least as likely to be promoted as anyone else. It was at that institution that I first heard this phrase from a prominent psychologist: “shit floats”.

    An interesting and I believe relatively under appreciated subject is the psychological relationship of a need to believe in good things and the proliferation of bureacracies in the modern world - MAx Weber talks about this, Christopher Lasch, Heidegger, Arendt . . . I think it could be said that the proliferation of bureacracies represents a manifestation of the transformation of reality into information and our own psychological fragmentation.

  8. Maybe the programs do work. A self-sufficient person will likely have little use for more government programs. Unfortunately for someone struggling to get along, government aid often carries with it many perverse incentives and many recipients may become dependent and eventually be part of a whole subculture of dependency. While a program can become deplorable for the recipients, it will be kept in place if it works great at keeping them in their place and reliant on their political overlords.

  9. It’s an authority fallacy.

    Leftists don’t see themselves or other people as “adults”- parents, authorities, etc.

    The State is their adult parent in terms of authority. They don’t see that the state consists of normal people.

    It’s something like the bottom 40% of accounting graduates work for the IRS.

    So they want mom and dad/the referee/the doctor/etc. to regulate the playground, without realizing what that means in practice

  10. RayAndrews

    Exactly.

    I think Lennon’s “Imagine” is one of the most iconic songs of our nihilistic age, indeed, it is nothing less than the Nihilist’s Anthem - " . . .Imagine there are no . . . Imagine there are no . . . Imagine there are no . . .

    An interesting topic to pursue might be the relationship of Rawls’ “original position” and Lennon’s “Imagine”. The Original Position is Rawls theoretic fantasy state of nothing which precedes his ideas of Justice. Lennon song could accompany an audio reading of Theory of Justice to help prepare the listener for absorption into the Great Bureaucratic Borg . . . “and then we will all be One.”

  11. There are no doubt many vectors, but one of them is unselfishness. I’m entirely self-sufficient, very independent minded and something of a moderate libertarian, yet I believe in the social contract, and I consider it my moral obligation to pay taxes even into causes from which I expect no profit. To me, a society of dogs eating each other is no society and I don’t want to live in such.

  12. The point is not to solve anything. The point is to create rage that will bring about a revolution. In the view of the committed Leftist there can be no viable solutions until after the revolution. The Leftist knows the programs for which he advocates will not produce a solution. He does not desire a solution. He desires rage and the empowerment it brings. This is why the consequences of the justice he advocates are of no concern to him.

  13. Very good response. Let me think through this …

    So the first thing is that you’re absolutely right, people get a lot of meaning in their lives out of their relationships, their jobs, Etc. This is very important to them, and is an important stabilizing Factor emotionally.

    The question of faith, however, is a little bit different, because people seem to be hardwired for it. If you look at the work of Jonathan Haidt, you will note his thesis that faith in some kind of higher power is essential for a number of things that Humanity has to be able to do. One of them is intertribal and Intergroup cooperation. So the ability to get together as a group and focus on a higher purpose is essential to being able to get together as a larger group then a tribe, and being able to work it in a multi tribe Coalition requires it. This puts faith in a somewhat different category, because the bonds of family and work are what you might call tribal bonds, they’re bonds at a lower group level. So that’s one thing about faith that’s different from those other sources of meaning.

    The other thing about faith that I think is somewhat different is that it can function when the other bonds stop working. In other words, when you are far from family, or have none available to you, when you have no job, when your life is frankly terrible, what holds you together and supports you? This is I think one fairly important thing about faith, is it it operates, almost no matter what it’s in, at a different level than the other bonds. It’s not concrete. As such, it allows you to draw support from something that you can’t see, and that some people argue doesn’t exist or is absolutely insane.

    For example, the people who used fascism and communism, in other words the state as their faith, were called rather insane by the rest of us. The people who, as Tim pool recently pointed out, have joined the cult of intersectionality and alienated their friends by trying to convert them to woke beliefs and try to deal with and repent for their whiteness, well now that they have lost all of those social connections that gave them meaning, what is going to give them meaning? I should point out that intersectionality is not going to give a very good meaning, as it is somewhat nihilistic in some ways, but it does function as a faith in the case that Tim was pointing out. So that is why I think that faith in the state is a support mechanism and can help give meaning to people. It certainly worked for socialism, communism, and fascism, although I think those examples argue that it does not give a very healthy meaning to people’s lives necessarily.

    I actually sometimes go back to Terry Pratchett in hogfather, where Death’s granddaughter Susan ask him why they had to save the Hogfather? What would have happened had he been killed? Death’s answer was that the sun would not have risen, a mere flaming ball of gas would have illuminated the world. In the discussion that ensues, he points out that belief in such things as the tooth fairy is like training wheels for belief in higher things, like justice and mercy. They don’t exist, and yet we act as if they do and they must. Susan’s reply is that we have to, otherwise what’s the point?

    In many ways, faith is a very peculiar thing. We are neurologically hardwired for it, and it has built our civilization out of disparate tribes who otherwise could never have cooperated to build cities, Nations, monuments, art, trade, or anything else that have made us who and what we are. As Terry Pratchett puts it, we are the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape. Quite poetic, and what I take out of it is that we need faith, even though we don’t really understand it, how it happens, and we don’t know how to survive without it. Without it we might not even be able to survive. We might end up like Dylan Klebold, spiraling into nihilism and destruction.

    EDIT: sorry this is a bit of a word wall, I’m in a hurry trying to do various things and so didn’t have time to really organize this.

  14. In the wilds of Canuckistan one can still get away from all of them. Build what you want, and do what you want with your own land. See, bureaucrats have to be able to get to you and back to the office without ever missing a meal, so that limits their range.

  15. Liberty is hard. Most people don’t actually like it, hence their desire to obey parents, teachers, the police, government authorities on myriad levels, religious leaders and god(s). They refuse the undirected wonders of the Universe, of Evolution on Earth, of free markets and of the promotion and progress of Liberty over Authority in the last couple hundred years.

    a deeper conception of fairness would entail providing everyone with equal prospects of success

    Is that deeper, or just more wishful, thinking?

    A free society already allows this for those who really think it demands your money and opportunities for others to be treated fairly. That is, socialists can purchase land and live a communal lifestyle, sharing their wealth. Every person is free to give to charity, give direct donations, or give money to the any of the various sovereigns who rule over us (city/town, county/parish, state, federal governments), but most refuse to do so unless all others are “forced to do good.” Any racial group can purchase land, even dominate a small town or found a new small town, where they are the majority and control the local laws and thus avoid all the racial hatred they purport is systemic. Women can create female-centric towns, or men male-centric towns. The young can live with the young, or the old with the old. We rarely see this “just do it” rather than grumble about it, and those who attempt such utopias all seem to fail as the founders age off. Turns out these utopias aren’t so great even to the true believers, hence the preference to force non-believers to do their dirty work by force of government requirements and prohibitions.

    It turns out modern society today is as good as it’s ever been, based on the history of civilization and the ongoing progress of liberty and equal protection. In fact, we struggle with too much authority and unequal protection in so much of our lives now that just pushing forward towards these ideals makes more sense than pretending society needs an overhaul based on limited experience.

    It is ironic that so many think everyone is equally capable, but just can’t do it themselves without forced help by the master (evil) class to fix the slave (good) class. They could lead by example, but that’s hard to do and lacks the satisfaction of controlling others and forcing your opinion on all others.

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