Invitation: Ordinary Gentlemen’s Inequality Symposium

By James Hanley

You (yes, you) are invited to submit a post for the Ordinary Gentlemen’s Inequality Symposium. The question to be addressed is: What, if anything, is wrong with inequality?

Anyone may participate, including official League contributors, unofficial League commenters, those quiet readers who too rarely share their thoughts with the rest of us, and folks from other blogs who want to share their perspective with us.

The stimulus for this symposium is two-fold. One is an intermittently recurring debate (sometimes verging on steel cage death match) between liberals and libertarians on the subject of inequality, and the other is a recent recurrence of the suggestion that the League ought to occasionally choose a particular topic for its many authors to all write about (like the great Opposite Day idea (hat tip to Murali), but about a specific topic. I think this may also hearken back to some approaches from the early days of the League.

In the best tradition of the League, we’d like to have a variety of positions represented. So far Roger and Jason K. are (at least tentatively) planning to write, but other libertarians shouldn’t let that deter them. We want liberals of course, since in various comment threads they’ve demonstrated that they have at least some passing interest in the topic (Jesse, Elias, I’d really like your contributions here), and if you don’t like the appellation liberal but you’re somewhere left of center, I mean to include you, too, whether you’re a socialist, a progressive, or just the classic commie-dem. And although there seem to be few true Scotsmen conservatives hereabouts, I beg some of those few to contribute as well. And of course that still leaves room for principled pragmatists as well.

I’d like to suggest but one rule: Write about your own perspective rather than focusing on a critique of another perspective. Obviously there’s going to be some comparison going on, but don’t go into this with the decided purpose o eviscerating the libertarian/liberal/conservative/principled pragmatist…

We’d like to start putting these up within the next two weeks, so I’d imposing a tentative quasi-deadline of June 13 for submissions. Of course I have no real power here–I’m just facilitating and making suggestions to get the ball rolling–Erik will ultimately decide if you’ve submitted too late, or if he wants to keep accepting submissions long after my not-really-real deadline. But the idea of a symposium is to be able to get posts on a similar topic clustered together, not strung out over a period of too many weeks. So get cracking!

Posts can be submitted directly to Erik, of course, but if you want to use me as an intermediary feel free to do so. At all events, if you’re planning to participate, please shoot me an email so that I have a sense of how many posts we’re looking at having, and how many from what various perspectives, so that I can try to make sure no side is under-represented. My email is jhanley then the classic “at” sign and the domain is adrian.edu.

[Editors note: If you know of non-League bloggers/writers who might be interested in participating, please invite them to submit posts or pitches to edkainblog at gmail.com. I’ve created a new post category for these posts: Inequality Symposium. Authors should use this if they plan to contribute to the series; readers can click on the category link to see a list of all posts.]

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96 thoughts on “Invitation: Ordinary Gentlemen’s Inequality Symposium

  1. “And although there seem to be few true Scotsmen conservatives hereabouts, I beg some of those few to contribute as well.”

    I don’t know that I follow this statement. Does it mean that few of us that call ourselves conservatives actually are conservatives or does it mean that conservatives are in the minority?

    Regardless, I will be happy to contribute. Do regular authors just post themselves or will you and Erik post these entries on our behalves?

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    • Mike, It was just a bit of snark. Truly conservatives are in the minority here. And none of you are actually rabid Tea/Nazi Party members, so obviously you’re not Real True Conservatives (*grin*).

      But I do hope you will contribute.

      I think there’s no reason for regular FPers to go through Erik or me, that sounds like needless bureaucracy. I’d just recommend waiting until the pseudo-official due date, so we don’t get a post two days from now and then nothing for another week or so.

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  2. E.D., Great picture. I tried to find one to submit with the invite, but couldn’t find anything I liked, and nothing remotely comparable to that one.

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  3. I will probably chip in something about healthcare, though that means I’ll have to think more seriously about my own beliefs between now and the deadline in order to come up with something that gestures toward coherence.

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  4. “What, if anything, is wrong with inequality?”

    A bit like asking what, if anything, is wrong with pregnancy. It sort of depends on how you got there. Inequality being nearly universal in human societies larger than a tribe, the question would be is inequality in America is the same as inequality in Dubai or inequality in China?

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    • Sounds like you have your approach worked out, Rufus, now all you need to do is add the details. ;)

      But what stimulated my idea for this symposium is frequent liberal commenter’s complaints about inequality. I know they’re not actually arguing for perfect equality in every single way, but they’re not always clear (at least not clear to me) about what type and degree of inequality triggers their React-o-Meter.* And one of their complaints is that libertarians don’t care about inequality, which is true enough perhaps for some types and degrees of inequality, but not for all types and degrees. So I’d like to see both sides get more specific about what types and degrees of inequality they think matter enough to be an object of public policy and why, or which types/degrees don’t matter that much and why.

      Of course not being a dictator, I can’t ensure everyone will focus their essays the way I’d like them to, so we’ll get what we get, and hopefully it will be worthwhile regardless of whether it quite satisfies my vision.

      ______________________________
      *No, not a slam, folks. We all have a React-o-Meter.

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      • I think you’re asking liberals for a bright line that isn’t actually there. (I do appreicate you avoiding the obvious strawman of liberals hating the rich, or viewing unequal outcomes as ‘bad’ per se. People aren’t equal, situations aren’t equal, there’s always luck. Unequal is only bad when it’s unequal because someone has rigged the game. Or if unequal, over time, leads to something Very Bad. Like, you know, King of All lording over peons kinda thing. We sorta wanted to avoid that here, in America).

        Income inequality — “Better than the Gilded Age” (which means better than now!). How good? I dunno, and I’m a liberal! (or a close simulation).

        It’s pretty easy too look around and say “There’s a problem here”, even identify the problem and suggest some solutions. Going from there to a bright-line, always applies, “here’s where it starts” kinda of thing? Not so much.

        Personally, I find the problem two-fold — there’s the outcome of income inequality (too much wealth in too few hands, which tends to be a reinforcing cycle that leads to something akin to fuedalism. Which is bad for the wealthy as well as the poor, because sooner or later the starving poor storm the castle) and of course the things that led to rising income inequality in the first place.

        Personally, I think the whole thing can be fixed with a relatively small number of changes. They’d just be very, very, VERY unpopular with the folks with all the money and power, and some of them would be idelogically uncomfortable for both parties.

        For instance — employees and pay. Unions are a beloved scapegoat. Always to blame, never to praise. To me they’re part and parcel of capitalism — without them — or something similar — you have massive power disparities between employer and employee that have no practical solutions. Oh sure, with full employment and frictionless travel and full information maybe…but that ain’t the real world.

        The real world is one where you have to work “off the book” hours, unpaid. Where you’re expected not to use your vacation time. Where, sadly, the company can’t give you a raise this year — times are hard (and your job could be outsourced to India, aren’t we nice not to?) — but the CEO’s ten million dollar bonus this quarter? Well, he’s just THAT GOOD. We can’t outsource him to India.

        And why shouldn’t a company pay it’s workers as little as possible? That’s more money in profits! (Well, not even that these days. More money for the board. If you ain’t on the board, you’re not an investor — you’re a chump). I’m 100% behind profits!

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        • I think you’re asking liberals for a bright line that isn’t actually there.

          Hmm, the irony is so thick it’s choking me. I frequently feel like discussions with liberals here are nothing but them demanding that I draw bright lines, or them drawing bright lines for me then challenging me on them.

          But, no, you don’t need to draw bright lines. I perceive in your comment here the League’s liberal privilege at work yet again. They need to specify and justify themselves, we don’t. Just suck it up and do your best to explain your position. Whinging about how the mean ol’ libertarian is asking too much of you isn’t an effective way to persuade anyone that you really have given much thought to the issues.

          And, yes, I meant that to be precisely as provocative as it sounded.

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          • You’re gonna write stuff like this at the same time that you take as much exception to people paying close attention to precisely how you frame questions for proposed debates (wait, I’m sorry, symposia) as you do below ?

            Very impressive, James.

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            • You make no sense, Michael. The only options aren’t either drawing precise bright lines or being impossibly vague. The great majority of the real world happens in that vast area in between those two extremes. In claiming that both you and Morat are insisting on a precision that is unnecessary for the particular moment (emphasis on the particular moment), I’m being quite consistent.

              I do get what you were saying about the question as I phrased it. It wasn’t an unreasonable point in itself. But you made an unreasonably big deal out of it. A simple, “I hope not everybody focuses just on that, but that somebody looks at it thisaway” would have sufficed. As it stands, most of those I’ve been in contact with are looking at it thisaway, and not being bound too tightly by the specific question. As I said, I apparently have more confidence in them than you do, and the indications from already are that it’s well placed.

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          • *shrug* Like I care. Income inequality isn’t a bad thing or a good thing, just pretty much a thing. An unavoidable thing. “The poor you will have with you, always”.

            But like water, too much is a bad thing. If you can’t swim. Or if it puts your house under water. But it’s grea to fill your pool.

            So hey, if I was writing about income inequality? I’d start by talking in general about when it’s too much — because honestly, I’m more concerned about how to fix it. I think wherever “okay” turns into “too much” was sometime back, so I’m more about the “here and now” than “catching it early next time”.

            But you want to be provocative because I don’t feel like talking about what you’re interesting in hearing? Okay. Go ahead.

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  5. James,

    Thanks for getting this started. This may also be a good place to coordinate our posts. It is a real broad topic, and it would be useful if we could cover as much ground as possible.

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  6. But what stimulated my idea for this symposium is frequent liberal commenter’s complaints about inequality. I know they’re not actually arguing for perfect equality in every single way, but they’re not always clear (at least not clear to me) about what type and degree of inequality triggers their React-o-Meter.* And one of their complaints is that libertarians don’t care about inequality, which is true enough perhaps for some types and degrees of inequality, but not for all types and degrees. So I’d like to see both sides get more specific about what types and degrees of inequality they think matter enough to be an object of public policy and why, or which types/degrees don’t matter that much and why.

    Oughtn’t this to have been in the post, then, or at least go there now, as nearly everyone has always agreed the obvious answer is that there’s nothing or very little wrong with inequality per se, but there might be something wrong, or at least undesirable, about some degree or type of inequality or other? As it stands, the question itself is something of a straw man, unless I am forgetting a bunch or arguments that any inequality at all is “wrong.”

    If it was what you meant, then why didn’t you write, “How much inequality is too much if any amount is, and why?”?

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      • They certainly will if what you say the topic is about isn’t even actually the topic you are interested in discussing.

        I guess the reason I spoke up is because we could if we wanted have the discussion about inequality simplicter. But that’s not what anyone is interested in, I don’t think, because I think practically everyone agrees that some inequality is not only not wrong, but is desirable. It is much more interesting to explore how much and what kind might be wrong. And now you’ve framed it that way here in the comments, so that’s good.

        But just because the inequality simplicter discussion might be one-sided around here, it wouldn’t have to be uninteresting, depending on how we approached it. Consider: An Opposite-View Symposium on Inequality Simpliciter…

        To post according to the rules, you would need to articulate the best argument you can come up with in good faith for the opposite of whatever your basic position is on whether inequality – any at all – is or could be justified in an ideal world.

        Just a thought.

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        • Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, Michael, the question was just a kick starter and I never for once imagined that those who decided to contribute would restrict themselves to a particularly narrow interpretation of it. I guess I have more respect for their intelligence and independence than you do. Or maybe I’ve paid more attention to blogs and noticed that you can’t keep people focused on the OP’s argument in a thread of more than 10 comments, so there’s no reason in the world to expect that when you invite a bunch of people to write on a topic that they’ll all feel bound by the specific question, especially if they–like you–don’t care for the way it’s phrased.

          There’s two types of people in the world, those who sit on their ass pissing and moaning about how others are doing things, and those who get off their ass and go do it the way they think is right. So instead of being a pedantic pain in the ass about whether I phrased the question to your satisfaction or not, why don’t you put your obviously excess free time into writing your own contribution to the symposium? Feel free to spin off the posed question in whatever way you think is valuable.

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          • If it was clear what question you really wanted people to address, more people might be attracted to the symposium because they thought it would be focused on the question they were precisely interested in, and/or their responses might address that question more directly. So I guess I just differ with you about how the question itself will frame and direct the responses: you think certainly not at all, I think probably somewhat. Beyond that, the question you used suggests there is actually more of a schism here on the overall question of inequality than there even is, and I think that was worth pointing out.

            I do certainly have excess free time in my life right now since you mention it, but my thoughts are too muddled on the level and kinds of inequality to be concerned about and why to be able to produce a coherent piece on the question. (While my thoughts on why any inequality at all is not wrong wouldn’t run to the length of a post worthy of them name.) And in any case my energies are better spent in other endeavors in my life at this time, I assure you. A few comments, though, I have time for, though I’m trying to cut back on that as well, as it’s no more what I ought to be spending my time on than writing a submission. I hope others are in a better place on the question and on life priorities than I am, however, and I hope the symposium turns out great.

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                    • I’m actually not entirely clear what you take my criticism to be. I really haven’t meant much criticism at all – I more just meant to clarify and highlight what you yourself said in comments the issue really is. I thought maybe it would be useful to clarify the topic if we all agreed on it, and suggested putting it in the OP so people would for sure see it (because I think that clarity will definitely affect what some people write), but then decided a) it was clear enough in the comments and b) this is your thing, so i made a note on my own initiative to the effect of, hey fuggedaboutit.

                      Be that as it all may, I suspect you’ve actually considered what I’ve said more than you let on (in fact I think you’ve done it publicly), but obviously I have no frickin’ clue what goes on in your brain, James Hanley.

                      I do know that in this thread you’ve both bragged about the extent of the intentional provocativeness with which you approach discussing some of the communication issues that persist between libertarians and liberals here, and also jumped way the fish down my throat basically for reading what you wrote too closely.

                      You’ve had a rough semester, and you were on my mind as it wrapped up after your blog post about that, and you deserve a really relaxing camping trip, and I hope that you have one, and that when you get back there are some great entries submitted or at least in progress for this symposium on inequality, which I think is a great idea.

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  7. Happy to write if there is a desire for my perspective, but I am likely much less well-versed on the topic. I’d contribute something of a “man on the street” perspective, with certain ideological bends but not subscribing to any particularly theory or philosophy. Otherwise, I’m happy to watch and weigh in in the comments?

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  8. By the way, folks, I’ll be off camping for a few days, so I won’t be able to answer many more short term questions. The general response to anything you might ask is: If it’s about posting/scheduling, that’s ultimately up to Erik–if it’s about anything else, there are no hard and fast rules about how to do it; you’re all adults and all intelligent, so I have confidence that however you approach it is likely to be right.

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  9. That is the most open ended topic I’ve ever heard.

    “Inequality, discuss amongst yourselves.”

    Vague topics lead to people talking past each other. Discussions should be focused on arguments for and against a very specific proposition. If a symposium isn’t so focused, everyone just talks about what they are interested in and the whole thing just trails off into nonsense.

    How about this as a question: Assuming that some kinds or levels of inequality are morally justified and others aren’t morally justified, what criteria should we use for determining when a particular instance of inequality is morally justifiable? And why should we use those criteria?”

    I suggest reading some Nozick and Rawls or Cohen as a primer, but that isn’t necessary to have a fun debate. Though it’s doubtful that anyone will come up with anything better than the professional philosophers in a format like this.

    I suppose this is too late to make a difference, but maybe you can post this as a clarification. You could say, feel free to post anything, but please focus on this core question.

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    • There’s also: Assume income inequality has reached a position wherein in threatens, say, economic growth. Or is morally bad. Or whatever. As in “assume we want to fix or mitigate income inequality” — what should we do?

      Although it should be noted that even the most flaming of American liberals sees ‘fixing income inequality’ to rolling back to the 80s or 90s in terms of wealth distribution, not eliminating it. Or heck, back to the 70s. Or 60s. None of which were exactly communist paradises were all were paid equal. :)

      Me? I’m more concerned with “how do we fix”. Others might be concerned with “When does it go from ‘a thing’ to ‘a bad thing’ (if ever)”. Others still might wonder if there there really is any moral way to handle it, insofar as virtually every method of addressing it is confiscatory in one sense or another. (higher taxes, more bite to larger inheritances, whatever. Even something like massively increasing unionization or minimum wage or other methods of ensuring more money ends up with the Average Joe and less with the Average CEO is confiscatory).

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    • Kris,
      The idea is that the individual OPs will focus the issue. The reason it came about is a few of us suggested that we could each write on dozens of sub topics. Yours would be a great angle. Thanks also for the link.

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  10. James.

    I’d like to do one along the lines of “Inequality, Human Nature, and Florishing,” or something like that. The general thrust would be sociological / anthropological.

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