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Don’t try this at home … I’m blogging while driving. I apologize for grammatical and spelling errors.

In recent days I’ve run across a lot of sympathetic Scandinavian navel gazing. The gist is that countries like Finland pay higher taxes, have less “freedom” (whatever that means), are better educated, more “secure” and are happier.

Let’s accept that this is all measurably true and let’s accept the implicit idea from these discussions that “we” ought to be more like them and that it is even possible to be like them. A few observations follow.

(1) It is beyond off putting to eat the seeming moral authority behind this. These articles and discussions are framed starting with the premise that “equality” is correct – allowing that we even know what equality means and in what dimensions it matters. But by what actual authority can you claim that is correct? Is it any different than me arguing that we should all convert to Catholicism? After all most church attendants I know are extremely happy, communal people. Our childrens’ Catholic school performs as well as any and certainly as well as what those Finnish schools seem to be producing. Our community is extremely charitable, class differences do not seem to cause problems, and so on. Yet you’d never see me suggest, or outside of this post, navel gaze at how wonderful being Catholic is. Someone do tell me the difference. Even if 90% of Americans value more “equality” that is a value, no? Is it any different than 90% of Americans valuing college football or going to the beach? Does such massive enjoyment of college football or beach going imply anything at all about policy? I’d not only suggest but rather forcefully argue no.

(2) Equality is boring. Taking the idea quite literally (see next point for clarification) how interesting is a world where we are all the same? And it would seem to me that there is less need for commercial AND social exchange if we’re all pretty much the same? I thought there was value in diversity and difference? And just what is different about economic inequality than other kinds? If you want to answer “political power” then the jig is up particularly since the “solutions” to equality problems seem to be all political.

(3) Dear navel gazers, why is it that when you long for the warm arms of a more equal place, that you can’t even begin to think of non coercive alternatives? Seriously. Where are the articles asking us all to work harder on our charity to establish more inclusive institutions to stop walking ourselves off from each other and so forth? They don’t exist. And I’ve no tolerance for that.

(4) What kind of equality matters and why?

(5) Per usual some Hayek is worth reading on this question. He’s written extensively on the desire for equality, whether it is possible in principle and most important the distinction between equality of outcomes and equality of opportunity. The latter is the appropriate focus of public policy. And the popular navel gazing discussions of equality never quite make clear that they appreciate the difference. For example we are told that better political institutions are related to Finnish people’s reported levels of high happiness. But this says nothing about “happiness opportunity” or even the path of happiness over each individual’s lifetime assuming again you take happiness measures seriously.

As always we need to save more but the NYS Troopers may not like me in this phone too much longer … OK my wife is driving!

7 Responses to “Equality”

  1. Alex says:

    “let’s accept the implicit idea from these discussions that “we” ought to be more like them and that it is even possible to be like them…Our community is extremely charitable, class differences do not seem to cause problems, and so on”
    Do you think there are certain things that can be improved here in the U.S., things that we could take from Finland and graft onto our system? For example, local governments with more autonomy from federal power. Or teachers not being subject to so much standardized testing.
    What if your community were not so great, much like various corrupt and crime-ridden cities across the U.S.? Would you think they had nothing to learn from other communities?

    “But by what actual authority can you claim that [equality] is correct?”
    Would you accept equality of opportunity and a welfare state that promotes it, per Hayek? I think some navel gazers do make this point. Certainly the strongest philosophical arguments concern equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. I wish you’d address those arguments.

    “How interesting is a world where we are all the same?”
    A strong, competent welfare system that provides for the neediest might allow them the means to make their own life choices, to be even more different, not less. Not (all) navel gazers think that “equality” will make everyone the same.

    “Where are the articles asking us all to work harder on our charity to establish more inclusive institutions to stop walking ourselves off from each other and so forth?”
    work harder, be more inclusive…These are also values (is it wrong to appeal to people’s values?). And do you think those articles would convince anyone of anything? I wish they could…but if they don’t, and if a morally superior system is one that promotes equal opportunity (while respecting liberty), then that system would require some coercion: to enforce contracts, tax to support a welfare system, etc.

    My questions and comments are theoretical and idealized. Empirically, it’s not clear that those political or other institutions are responsible for the outcomes observed in Finland.

  2. RIT_Rich says:

    Besides the points you raise above, the people who write such comparisons with the Scandinavian countries also miss some rather more obvious and tangible factors. Those countries have tiny homogeneous populations. Their shining star, Norway, relies almost entirely on oil and gas for its income. If the US were subdivided into groups about the size of those Scandinavian countries, plenty of the US would end up with higher levels of economic well-being and personal well being.

    Not to mention that there are certain historical factors that led to some of the Scandinavian countries being well off, such as the fact that Sweden become rich during WW2 trading with all sides while not suffering the consequences of the war, or Finland being the main access to Western markets for the USSR during the Cold War. Either way, none become “rich” or well off because of socialism.

    • Harry says:

      Maybe the Scandinavians would have far better off today if they had not been handicapped, like the rest of Europe, with slow-growth, no growth socialism.

      Whether they are truly “happy” is another question, and it may be a Berkeley myth. Just try to avoid depression with faint sunshine for a few hours a day in winter.

      I have noticed that hits to Wintercow’s map show big red circles in Scandinavian countries. This may be because those countries are English speaking, but it does demonstrate some interest in classical economics , too.

  3. Scott says:

    Great post, a few questions:

    So we are happiest when we all have about an equal amount of money. Why this obsession with money? I don’t get it. I get my happiness from growing vegetables. Why do you think thepeople derive their happiness from how they rank relative to their peers? Does this strike anyone else as vain? Is it possible that the entire quest to achieve happiness by comparing ourselves to others is a practice of vanity? Is it possible that correlation does not prove causation, and scandanavian people are happier because they are genetically engineered to remain cheerful despite living in darkness 6 months of the year? Is it possible that despite our genius, we know little about what we imagine we can design, and these statistics have nothing to do with public policy?

  4. jb says:

    I like this post. The part about equality of opportunity (versus outcomes) got me thinking about K-12 education. The argument for vouchers, choice vs. government run schools aside, I know some libertarians who argue that the government should have no role in education at all. They argue that there are no positive externalities to justify public education as a public good. Others disagree, pointing to things like a literate population allows for better-educated voters and such.

    But maybe this “debate” misses the point. Perhaps there is a simple moral argument to justify public support for K-12. Assuming we all agree that equality of opportunity is desirable, then I submit that taxing everyone in order to provide some minimal level of education might be justified on that argument alone. Then again, I suppose it still could be argued that even without a public subsidy and 100% private schools everyone would have the same opportunity to send their kids to a private school, just like, despite the lack of a subsidy, they have the same opportunity to buy a car, etc. I lean toward the former view (though as far as implementation goes I am fine with abolishing government schools in favor of vouchers or tax credits).

  5. Harry says:

    We know Wintercow is finding respite, perhaps submerged up to his neck in a cool Adirondack lake. A busy bunny, he tweets, this time with a pic of two girls on a government-approved seesaw. No helmets?

    We liked to use the big swings, getting up over eighty degrees to get slack for a free fall.

    Maybe WC might post the pic on TUW, relieving him of further responsibility.

  6. Harry says:

    Who can argue with equality, a notion that conjures up the sorriest of human conditions? The better off we are in this free land, the more we sympathize with the truly unfortunate souls, particularly in far away lands.

    But then there a lot of lazy, malingering folks here in our own country, not willing to wake up early and work, maybe even cleaning the toilets they soiled the night before, who draw zero sympathy from me, and deserve their inequality.

    A few times in the same doctor’s office I saw a child without legs. Such circumstances move one to tears. Her parents were with her, and asked nobody for help, but I would have offered much, whatever possible, if anything was possible.

    This situation is far from our president asking us for permission to take our imagined wealthier neighbor’s property so he can give food stamps to somebody sitting on his backside texting on a smart phone provided free by the government.

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