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As I grow crankier, I am seeing myself disagreeing more with the thoughtful left. I am somewhat surprised by this as I had always assumed the opposite would happen. For today’s edition let me excerpt from a lefty website that I quite enjoy reading despite its regular ad-hominem bashing and mischaracterization of views different than its own:

“For him, pain is the way we learn discipline.” Let me just add a point I tried to make recently. Even if you buy into the “we need pain to learn discipline” idea, punishing people who had nothing to do with our problems, e.g. throwing workers into unemployment even though they did nothing to cause the crisis, does not provide the discipline he wants. If we punished those at the top of the financial industry — the individuals whose decisions drove the bubble — maybe some learning would occur, but that’s not what happened. In fact, punishing the innocent rather than the guilty leads to bad incentives, not the good ones he is after. For that reason the innocent — the workers who did their jobs day after day to support their families who suddenly found themselves unemployed through not fault of their own — should be protected through fiscal and monetary policy, and as much as possible, this should come at the expense of those responsible for their problems.

This is Thoma’s (and the left’s) standard “compassionate” response. It has a lot right – after all, how many folks support bailouts for gargantuanly rich bankers that contributed to the latest meltdown? Even though he does not come out and say it, this sort of response above surely paints people that want more feedback in the system as wicked misers that don’t have a problem with handing the CitiGroups of the world billions of dollars.

But the point of today’s post is deeper and regards my first sentence. The narrative of victim vs. victimizer, innocent bystanders, etc. is an extremely popular one. And it is one that I can easily have much sympathy for – at least until I think about it seriously for a few minutes. One of the major justifications for “social insurance” (e.g. a minimum income, subsidized insurance for born-high-risk individuals, etc.) is that folks “don’t choose their parents.” They lost the lottery of life and therefore they should be somewhat remediated for it. Of course, less is said about who actually is responsible for providing this remediation. But I find this, “they didn’t choose their parents” meme odd for two reasons, the first I think less important than the second.

Sure, younger people do not choose who their parents are, but they indeed choose to be parents themselves. So the position of “children” is not as exogenous as the narrative of “innocent” and “not innocent” make them appear. Do parents not care about their children? Does protecting “children” from every unfortunate circumstance they are born into really protect them in the sense that future children are going to be protected? Remember moral hazard? Do my wife and I bear any responsibility for having children or not having children? Would our decisions be different if we knew our shortcomings would be compensated for? Of course, one must not speak of these sorts of questions in polite company, and I am not sure what my real view is on this – as I am a fan of parents having children in the first place, but it is worth thinking about.

But the second reason I find this meme odd is that I don’t know what the “he didn’t choose his parents,” is the primary source of concern. Virtually none of us choose much of anything around us. And given the importance that folks place on the impact of environmental factors on life outcomes over genetic factors, you would think you’d hear folks arguing just as often, “he didn’t choose his society.” In fact, none of us choose that. I think if you want to make the arguments like Thoma does above, you are going to have to at least spend some time focusing on why the family is the primary unit of importance (yay – a chance for conservative and liberal agreement?) over some other grouping that we are born into without our choosing. Sure, I did not choose my parents (who by the way were not the typical Amherst parents, but that doesn’t count for anything in the world of victim-victimizer, I am an ugly, short, poor gened Italian from Sicilian immigrant family, but surely I oppressed people in America back to the 1700s, and surely my whiteness entitles me to all kinds of special treatment …), but neither did I choose the society I am born into, or the cultural norms that I am born into. And since I lost the “society lottery” don’t you think I should be compensated by some extra-societal group of individuals? After all, being born into this society, I find myself obligated to part with 50% or more of my work effort to fund not just the needy (a shockingly small share actually gets to them) but to fund the rampant cronyism throughout the society, to fund religious institutions I disagree with, to fund college students who’d rather protest me (for what?) rather than study, and so on.

I’m pretty sure the lefties would dismiss this line of thinking as irrelevant and unworthy of consideration, but I am not sure what logical grounds they would actually have to make such a point. Why is one particular hardship of birth (ignoring the endogeneity of these institutions of course, which I think is a major problem) to be worthy of sympathy and the direction of policy but not others? Who chose this? And in an age of the declining family, how is it that this unit maintains its sympathetic appeal even though studies are now happening that show folks don’t really like or do well with their familiar connections in the first place?

Maybe this is all just a fancy way of asking, “who signed the social contract?” but I think there is more to it.

4 Responses to “Check Your Premises: Who, Exactly are the Innocent?”

  1. Aaron McNay says:

    Please, correct me if I misunderstood the point you were attempting to make. However, I do think that people on the left side of the political spectrum do make the point that people do not choose which country to live in, and that everyone living in the United States did win the “society lottery” by being born in this county. When Elizabeth Warren made her speech about rich people paying their fair share, one of her points was that we all benefit from living in a county with a government that is stable and does a reasonable job of respecting and enforcing property rights. In addition, I think that was one of the points that Obama was making when he made his “you did not build that” speech. For Obama, Warren and other people on the left, I think they do feel that everyone living in the United States won the “society lottery,” and, as a result, should have no problem paying at least 50% of your work effort to fund government. After all, if you lost the “society lottery” and was born in some third world county, you would have even less material wealth than you will with the 50% tax. Of course, I think there are a lot of problems with this type of reasoning. However, I do think that people on the left do think in terms of a “society lottery.”

  2. wintercow20 says:

    I understand your point, but it only reinforces my point. How many people of the left, including Warren, believe that the 50% tax should be applied and given to folks who did not win the COUNTRY lottery? You do not get to waffle back and forth between which lottery is lost. It’s a nonsequitur to argue that since we are lucky enough to be born into the USA, we are obligated to take care of those who are so unfortunate as to ALSO have been born … in the USA.

    But yes, those points, as you indicate, are made.

  3. aarmlovi says:

    I think you make a good point Rizzo. There’s not an easily identifiable end to the list of hard luck inequalities, let alone the knowledge problems involved in teasing out the relative contributions of luck and choice.

    The only mileage you get out of hard luck inequality is the idea that taxation isn’t always and everywhere theft. Many of the gains and losses of life are morally neutral in terms of desert, even though identifying the contributions of luck and choice in a particular case is really hard. Taxation and spending is plausibly moral when it passes a cost-benefit test, even though not everything that passes a cost-benefit test is plausibly moral (e.g. Puritan mob’s measured willingness to pay to burn left-handed witch exceeding witch’s measured willingness to pay Puritan mob to not burn her). As for the correct compensation for identifiable hard luck inequalities…it’s really not an answerable question.

    Bottom line: taxation and redistribution are only sometimes theft. Some fraction of income comes from hard work (and talent accumulated through the hard work of practice); and some fraction of income comes from luck, inborn potential for talent, and station of birth. Since there are real Hayekian knowledge barriers to identifying which is which in every taxpayer’s case, we’re stuck with cost-benefit decisions on this issue. If the taxing+spending institutions are mostly efficient, then social democratic capitalism with top tax rates as high as the Piketty-Saez range (i.e. 50%) is plausibly moral. If the taxing+spending is mostly inefficient, then Nozickian miniarchy is the most moral. “Big government” is morally tolerable in Sweden. “Big government” is morally intolerable in Greece. Where does the US lie in that spectrum…

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