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Why Fairness Should Not Be the Foundation of Liberalism September 15, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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“It’s so unfair” is one of the first morally-based complaints that  children make, and as adults, unfairness can get our hackles up. Even some animals seem to have a sense of fairness. Some versions of liberal theory treat fairness as the most fundamental political value. But fairness is a highly contested concept, fraught with ambiguity and should not be the basis of liberal political theory.

Is it fair that Alex Rodriquez makes millions of dollars but people equally talented and far more useful to society earn a fraction of his salary?

According to one meaning of “fairness” there is nothing unfair about Rodriquez’s salary. If by “fair” we mean that rules are applied equally to everyone, then assuming A-Rod and the Yankees freely entered into their contract, both parties are playing by the rules of contractual agreement—every other player and team has the same opportunity to negotiate.

Fairness understood as “equally subject to rules” is an important value but it is limited because the rules themselves may be unfair. One might argue that a compensation scheme that permits the marginally more talented Rodriquez to earn an astronomically higher salary than other players is itself unfair; or that a compensation scheme that pays a talented entertainer or athlete more than a doctor or teacher is unfair.

The intuition behind this kind of judgment is that fairness is tied to what one deserves.  If we base what someone deserves on their contribution to society then Rodriquez probably doesn’t deserve his salary. But what is the proper basis for what philosophers call desert claims?

One dominant strand of liberalism has a general answer to this question. We deserve a distribution of goods based on our efforts and choices. But since none of us choose our families or genetic heritage, and how we do in life is dependent on such factors that are outside our control, it is not obvious that we deserve anything. Rodriquez was just lucky to have the genetic endowment and developmental opportunities he had. But his birthright is not deserved; and neither is that of someone disadvantaged by birth. This entails that a society based on fairness, on what people deserve, should compensate people for their bad luck, since they don’t deserve their fate, and such a society should refuse to excessively compensate the fortunate because they don’t deserve their advantages.

But this is a problem for liberalism because: (1) it is counter-intuitive from the standpoint of common sense, and thus citizens will resist it. Most people are morally bothered only by intentional unfairness. We seem to accept unfairness when it is a matter of luck but don’t like it when someone is stacking the deck against us, and (2) such a compensation scheme will crowd out other things we value.

Sometimes getting good outcomes requires that we tolerate unfairness. It may be unfair that talented, diligent workers are laid off in times of economic contraction but it may be necessary to save the firm. It may be unfair to put federal money into saving Wall St. bankers while more deserving people lost out in the financial collapse. But doing so may have saved the financial system. Enhancing the capabilities and resources of the already talented and successful will sometimes produce goods that benefit everyone even though that seems unfair to the less gifted who may be denied those resources.  Achievement is likely only under conditions where people who are already fortunate are allowed to continue to flourish.

Regardless of how many resources we devote to it, we can never prevent bad luck from influencing outcomes without disabling the fortunate which is itself a morally monstrous thing to do.

Life isn’t fair. But there is not much we can do about that.

How then should liberals think about treatment of the disadvantaged?

What is morally disturbing is not that one person might have been lucky in life’s lottery and another less fortunate—rather it is morally disturbing that some person has too few resources and capabilities to lead a decent life. It is more important to arrange social institutions to enable the less fortunate to flourish than it is to ensure fairness or equality.

We should aim at improving the condition of the worst off, not because their condition is unfair, but because we are concerned about their welfare. Compassion not fairness is the foundation of liberalism.

We cannot disentangle questions of fairness from questions of what one deserves. But determining what one deserves requires separating out good or bad fortune from what one is genuinely responsible for—and this is an impossible task. None of us really know where our capabilities, personality or character traits come from. What is clear is that, for the most part, we didn’t choose them. Thus, aiming at the fair outcome involves us in lots of contentious, unanswerable questions. It lacks moral clarity and allows conservatives to co-opt the moral high ground by injecting questions about deservingness into any discussion about the distribution of resources.

The current dustup about illegal immigrants receiving  health care is an example of how excessive focus on fairness harms liberalism. It would be far better for all of us if illegal immigrants received health insurance, since they would be less susceptible to disease, more productive, and less a burden on emergency services. Conservatives rail that they don’t deserve it—and conservatives are right. They probably don’t.

But that should be irrelevant; compassion and a concern for our collective health should be the over-riding response. But one reason why what one deserves continues to be relevant is because liberals keep insisting on the foundational importance of fairness.

 book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


What Is Wrong With Democrats? August 18, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy, politics.
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Nothing, at least nothing that isn’t baked-in to the liberal world view like eggs in a cake.

On Obama’s signature issue, his first priority (after dealing with the inherited financial crisis), Democrats appear to have lost control of the debate. The political atmosphere is thick with charges that Obama is a commie fascist (?) who intends to kill the elderly, destroy Medicare, set up internment camps for opponents, and substitute bureaucrats for doctors, charges that are backed up by armed thugs who show up at Obama’s speeches.

Despite almost universal agreement that our health care system is sick and near collapse, Democrats have allowed scare tactics and lies to derail reform.

And liberals are fed up. Here is Jane Smiley at Huffpost today:

It was always pretty clear to me that the right wing was not ever in a million years going to play the bipartisan game, and I couldn’t figure out why Obama thought they might. At first I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt — that he knew he had to appear to extend the hand across the aisle so that he could then do the right thing with a clear conscience (and good PR). But then it became evident that he really does care more about the Republicans across the aisle than the left side of his own party, and this is really peculiar, because the more that he has attempted to woo those Republicans, the more hysterical they’ve become. They think he’s weak, and they think they’re winning. If he foregoes the public option, they have won. Simple as that, and we on the left can and must come to the conclusion that he used us and our money, but never intended to listen to us or give us a G-D thing.

How did this happen? Was the Obama Administration taken by surprise by the strength and volume of the opposition? Doesn’t anyone remember swiftboating? As Rick Perlstein pointed out recently, this has gone on for decades. Are Democrats really slow learners?

No. I don’t think that is the problem. I doubt that the Administration was surprised. They are not naive nor were they out-maneuvered by clever conservatives, or duped by Republicans moving the goalposts on reform. After all, the Obama Administration is staffed by political operatives who engineered a brilliant election campaign in the face of dishonest Republican attacks. They are not beholden to the DC establishment consultant class, who became experts at losing elections and are in the pockets of special interests. Obama himself is well-versed on the “lies and disinformation” campaign that has been standard operating procedure for conservatives for years.

The whole point of the “hurry-up” offense—Obama’s attempt to get health-care reform legislation passed before the congressional recess”—was in anticipation of these attacks.

So why is health care reform coming off the rails?

There are structural impediments to progressive legislation. The U.S. Constitution gives inordinate power to small, rural states that tend to be conservative, and Senate rules give inordinate power to self-important centrists who get juiced on their influence.

But Republicans, when they are in power, don’t seem to have the same reticence about pushing their agenda despite structural impediments. As Matt Taibbi writes:

I’ll say this for George Bush: you’d never have caught him frantically negotiating against himself to take the meat out of a signature legislative initiative just because his approval ratings had a bad summer. Can you imagine Bush and Karl Rove allowing themselves to be paraded through Washington on a leash by some dimwit Republican Senator of a state with six people in it the way the Obama White House this summer is allowing Max Baucus (favorite son of the mighty state of Montana) to frog-march them to a one-term presidency?

No, I can’t imagine this. So why does it happen to Democrats?

The explanation lies in part in liberal philosophy.

Liberals assume that human beings are rational and if you present them with the facts they will acknowledge the truth. Liberals think this because they are committed to deliberative democracy, which is based on respect for opposing views and aimed at achieving a rational consensus about how to solve problems. (It is no accident that two of the better books about advancing progressive ideas were Robert Reich’s Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America, and Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason.)

The commitment to reason and dialogue is, as I said, baked-in to liberalism’s view of the aim of politics.

Hence, Obama’s calls for changing the culture of Washington, to turn it toward a more rational discourse, to seek bipartisan solutions, etc. He’s not trying to be nice—he is just being liberal.

But liberals need to wake up! We know that people are not rational! The entire field of psychology is an extended litany of irrational behaviors, and even economists are now coming around to the view that human beings are fundamentally irrational even when their self-interest is at stake. But the word apparently hasn’t reached liberals who continue to lay out facts and invite dialogue.

Well, that is actually unfair to some liberals. Writers such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen have written widely-discussed books detailing the less than rational assumptions that inform political behavior. The problem is that we don’t know what to do with these insights. We don’t know how to conduct liberal politics without belief in the efficacy of rational discourse, because rational discourse is at the heart of liberalism. How do you engage in deliberative democracy when people refuse to deliberate?

If anyone doubts that our political discourse is now driven by fools, here is an example. An allegedly “ordinary voter” Katy Abrams challenged Senator Arlen Spector at a townhall meeting last week, alleging that recent policies amounted to a “systematic dismantling of our country”. She is utterly clueless and incoherent but has apparently become the new conservative hero, since Joe the Plumber retired. Her interview with Lawrence O’Donnell is here. From the MSNBC transcript of the interview:

I mean, I — you know, yes, I mean, there are programs in place that, you know, the — the founders did not want to have here. The — you know, I know that there are people out there that can’t afford health insurance, that can’t afford a lot of different things. And, you know, with the founders, they had — they thought and hoped that the goodness of the people would allow the people to take care of those who could — who were doing without.

“And I know that may seem naive in today’s world. We stayed at a friend’s house last night who is at the other end of the spectrum than what I am. And we have had political debates a million times over. And he thought, isn’t it naive, you know, to think that way? People don’t do that anymore.

And I said, not everybody, but a lot of people that I know go on missions. They-they-they volunteer.”

It turns out that Katy is a Republican political operative, not merely a concerned voter. But she displays a level of ignorance and confusion that is typical of so-called “low information voters.” You can see the dilemma that liberals confront. Presenting facts to such a person is not going to be sufficient to change her beliefs. Significant portions of her belief system are already impervious to facts if she thinks the founding fathers had the last word on current policies. If we listened to the founding fathers, Katy wouldn’t be able to vote!

Not all voters are as clueless as Katy, but vast swaths of the American public hold false background beliefs, especially about liberty and the role of government in our lives, that induce confirmation bias exacerbated by a tendency to believe the loudest voice, or the craziest person in the room.

Conservatives know this. Thus, they are loud, crazy, and complain about the role of government in our lives. Insanity, for them, is not a bug, it is a feature, and lots of Americans prefer insanity to good policy proposals.

So what can liberals do to fight back against pervasive, endemic irrationality? Liberal theory needs to be reformulated but that is the topic for books, not blogs. I’m not about to give up on deliberative democracy just because conservatives won’t play along. In the meantime, there is much we can do to minimize the damage.

1. Stop assuming that people are rational. Don’t be surprised when Republicans lie and people believe them. Be prepared. As noted above, I don’t think Obama was naive about this, but many liberals are.

2. Call out Republicans for the lies they tell and insist that the press reports them as lies.  Realize that the tone of discourse in Washington will not change, at least not with the current Republican Party. This is something the Obama Administration does need to work on. It is not pleasant, and seems intolerant, to attack the character of your opponents, but the people behind these lies deserve to be held accountable. And the American people deserve Democrats who stand up and say that lying to the American people is wrong.

3. Realize that we are up against centuries of the American mythmaking about self-sufficiency and the tyranny of government, along with a well-funded campaign to keep the myths intact. It will take decades, not months, to undo the influence of these myths. In the current climate, progressives cannot expect to win most of the battles. Obama’s election was an election, not a mass lobotomy. The American public that elected Bush for two terms is still with us.

4. Don’t assume the message or the messenger is inadequate—the problem is not Obama, his message, or his strategy. The problem is conservatism and its hatred of deliberative democracy. There is no strategic or tactical plan that will make nonsense magically disappear.

5. Remember that conservatives are not our audience. They cannot be persuaded, and compromising with them on principle is a fool’s game that makes us look weak. Our audience is people without strong ideological commitments who simply want a politics that enables them to to get on with their lives. Showing them that they can get on with their lives through good governance is the most effective arrow we have in our quiver.

6. Thus, it is essential that we stick to our values which allow us to govern effectively. We cannot adopt the tactics of the right and remain liberals. The aim of our politics must remain reason, adherence to facts, and dialogue but realize that the conditions are not always conducive to achieving these aims.

7. Presenting facts is not enough because conservatives will lie about the facts. Rely on stories to get our values across. Policy wonks prefer to analyze evidence and model competing alternatives to get the best outcomes, but that by itself is not enough to sell a policy. The response to Katy should be “if your husband died and you lost your health insurance, would you depend on charity to pay your medical bills?”

8. Most importantly, realize that achieving progressive goals can never be a short-term enterprise. Persistent, pervasive irrationality will be with us permanently. You can’t defeat it. You can only make an occasional dent in it by pushing progressive alternatives through very narrow windows of opportunity that close quickly.

This last point is crucial. Liberalism will always have to do battle with selfishness and unreason. I doubt that we, at least in the U.S., can ever achieve a steady-state liberal equilibrium. The history of the 20th century is a history of backsliding on liberal values. Yet the liberal victories of the past—the welfare state—are still with us and make our lives immeasurably better.

Battlefield victories are meaningful even if the war is unwinnable.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com