From the Comments: Trying to Make Sense of Left and Right (Again)

This one is from yours truly, in a delightful back-and-forth with Dr Amburgey:

Ok. Clearly we need to be using terms that mean the same things to both of us. It’s your thread so tell me what constitutes ‘The American Right’ and what constitutes ‘The American Left’. Once we have a common understanding of terminology we can resume the discussion.

I have been working on a post about this very topic, and this conversation is helping me immensely. Thanks.

First, I think there is a distinction that has to be made between the ‘ideological’ and the ‘political’. The ideological rests atop a higher tier than does the political, like a pyramid. The ideological tier houses philosophical and moral insights, which are produced through the academy and in think tanks. The political tier houses organizations dedicated to parties (I think that factions and parties are two different components of a society, and that factions represent a tier below the ideological and above the political).

The American Right is ideological. The GOP is political. (Factions would consist of actors like bureaucracies, trade unions, industrialists, banks, medical doctors, etc., but can also be used to describe intra-party, or coalitional, differences) The American Right is currently home to three broad ideologies: neo-conservatism (elite and moderate), libertarianism (elite and radical), and traditionalism (populist and radical). I emphasize ‘currently’ because neoconservatives and libertarians were at one point Leftist factions in US history, and could easily end up there again in the near future. In many post-colonial and post-socialist societies, for example, both of these ideologies are considered to be on the Left.

The American Left is currently home to three broad ideologies: fascism, communism, and racism. Just kidding! The three ideologies are, I would argue: New Deal liberalism (elite and moderate), technocratic liberalism (elite and radical), and progressivism (populist and radical).

New Deal liberals and neo-conservatives are only moderate because they are dominated by Baby Boomers and Baby Boomers dominate the population at the moment. Libertarians and the technocrats are broadly younger and more cerebral (hence the radicalism). Traditionalism and progressivism are ideologies for the vulgar mob, of course.

Ideology, using the pyramid analogy, trickles down from the top tier into the factional and political tiers. This is just how it works in societies governed by laws rather than by men. Libertarians have been dominating the ideological discussion for the last 30 years or so, and the technocrats have been playing defense, largely because they are politically aligned – wrongly, of course – with socialism’s failure, but also because technocrats are just libertarians who don’t have the chutzpah to become non-conformists.

Successful politicians from the Democrat Party have been trying to balance their New Deal liberalism with the insights of their technocratic betters, but have been calling themselves ‘progressives’ because of the populist narrative and the fact that they need the votes of the vulgar mob to be successful.

I already don’t like this because I don’t think the Left deserves to be considered ‘liberal’ at all, and there is also the shortcoming of being strictly American in scope. We have got to think in internationalist terms when we discuss power and liberty. NOL has tried to hash this whole issue out before, by the way, and numerous times.

European Union: Creative Destruction Wave?

Some thoughts in reply to Edwin’s recent very interesting piece on the European Union.

The Greek crisis, the refugees crisis and the recently announced German suspension of the Schengen agreement on free movement are all very testing for the European Union. I certainly agree with Edwin that ideas of a highly integrated European Union superstate are in a bad state, but that has been the case for some time now, it is just that some European Commission people and ‘federalist’ enthusiasts have been very slow to realise this. I put ‘federalist’ in the scare quotes because ‘federalist’ can mean so many things as a form of relation between existing states and should not be only identified with highly integrated forms of federation in which the central state is dominant. Any such idea was effectively killed off  years ago by a mixture of British opt outs from the Maastricht Treaty and the Danish referendum rejection of that treaty.

Of course these were thought by some to be secondary events which could be given temporary ad hoc solutions while the integrated superstate juggernaut rolled on. It is worth remembering that the phrase ‘ever closer union’ was in the Maastricht Treaty as a substitute for ‘federalism’ at the insistence of John Major (the then British Prime Minister) as a way of signalling the end of federalist ambitions. Since ‘ever closer union’ is open to not just integrated federalist meanings, but even unitary state interpretation, this is perhaps a bit strange, but the fact is the phrase signalled an end to integrationist federalist dreams in which John Major was probably quietly supported by some other states (including the Netherlands I believe) which did not want to stand out as anti-superstate. All this created the illusion of a process that only the UK and Denmark were standing aside from and they could be expected to join in later.

However, the integrated superstate model of federalism was already a paper tiger, a rhetoric only used as a way of legitimising a Franco-German dominated Europe, in which EU unity was heavily dominated by the wish to keep the French-German partnership going and offer everyone else the hope of a voice in an essentially Franco-German dominated process in which the two key states sought trade offs between individual national goals. Events since then have unravelled the superstate ideology as the French-German partnership has been reduced in importance by German unification, with some help from French failures at internal reform. The emergence of a reality concealed by the older sort of ‘federalist’ language can be seen in the referendum ‘no’ to the Lisbon Constitution in a few countries and the move to a Treaty. The Lisbon process was one of shifting power to the Council, to the place where intergovernmental decisions are made. The Eurozone upheavals have made it clear that Germany has a role in the EU unmatched by France.

On the current refugee crisis, the suspension of Schengen free movement is very disappointing, but an unavoidable response to such a massive tide of refugees. To my mind it may well be possible to integrate them, but clearly it is a challenge and clearly it is a challenge that public opinion does not seek, or not beyond some defined number of the most ‘real’ refugees. Anyway, this is not a completely new problem for the EU, France for example, has previously imposed border controls to deal with migrant influxes and deported unemployed migrants from eastern EU member states. This is a crisis situation which would exist with or without the EU and would lead to exceptional measures with regard to external border controls and internal security measures, including checks on identity papers. So I suggest it is not in itself an end to free movement within the EU, but more an indication that free movement will be subject to qualification in any foreseeable future. That still leaves the very real achievement of the EU in making movement between states easier, with all the attendant benefits for individual liberty and prosperity.

The Greek crisis has emphasised a form of economic integration in the Eurozone dominated by Germany, which is not what anyone would have put on paper as a federalist dream, but the reality is that the Eurozone was always about turning the Deutschmark into a European currency in which all members would benefit from the German reputation for sound finances and a strong currency, and therefore a de facto agreement to be subject to German economic discipline. No one used those words in public and everyone hoped that the crisis situation in which someone would have to impose order would never arise, but it has and we can see what was really been agreed to in the first place. That arrangement has worked at least moderately well so far. Ireland has actually done very well out of going along with German economic discipline. Italy, Spain and Portugal at the very least seem to have got past the worst. Greece is the most dubious case, but wild left populism has now receded in that country and that must be a success for the German led Eurozone. We are waiting to see whether the deal works in the long term in Greece. This does not have to be a complete German hegemony. In defence and foreign affairs, for example France and the UK are still strong compared with Germany.

The current regional tensions make it unlikely to my mind, as Edwin suggests, that the EU will not develop in the foreign and defence spheres. It would be more accurate, I believe, to say that the EU will develop an opt in personality in these areas in which not all states participate, but the core makes the EU more important in that field. Putin’s direct and indirect provocations, the nightmare in Syria and Iraq, and the threat of Islamist fundamentalism in west Africa, have all pushed EU states and previously neutral European states to become more engaged with security and defence issues. Now of course NATO is important here, but US willingness to look after Europe’s security for it is in decline and rightly so.

A response to the dangers I’ve just mentioned requires increased defence spending and and co-operation for European states and we can see this happening. Some of it cuts across the EU, as in co-operation between Nordic countries including Norway, which is outside the EU, but does not separate defence from the EU sphere. The membership of previously neutralist Sweden and Finland in the EU is clearly helping them co-operate with NATO countries. EU states are increasingly working with regard to a total European defence presence in which smaller states will limit the military spheres which the operate so that there is a co-ordinated division of labour. The UK is engaged in co-operation with the EU states on the border and hinterland problems in eastern Europe and the Middle East and this is likely to be a way over time in which the UK becomes more European oriented. This is a gradual process in which we will not see a Euro-army and a treaty in which the EU becomes sovereign in security matters, but we will see the EU mattering more in the defence and security sphere. One of the factors contributing to this is the refugee crisis.

Edwin raises some issue of (classical) liberal thinking in these areas and that is the final topic I will address, hopefully providing a framework for addressing the public policy and institutional issues above. Edwin is correct to say that voters want to see some important issues addressed on the national level and feel remote from the EU level, but let us be clear about what this means in reality. No individual voter has more influence over national policy that EU policy. Even in Luxembourg any one voter has no real voice, does not make a difference, in a community of three hundred thousand. There is no real difference between Luxembourg and the 500 million of the EU on this issue.

What people like when they think of the national level is that decisions are made by people like them, people with whom they can identify. Immigration and other forms of social change which undermine notions of self-contained homogeneity, such as the Internet, increased travel, decreasing identity with national religion, and regionalist movements, do not put am end to national identity, but they do qualify it. The recent EU crises have increased the visibility of European leaders across the continent, Angela Merkel must be more familiar to most Europeans than all but a handful of their own national politicians. The national level will  not disappear and we will probably seem more shifts towards national and inter-governmental decision making, but let us not ignore the qualifications and opposite tendencies.

The point of the above paragraph is that we are not returning to the time of absolutely sovereign national governments in Europe (and of course the sovereignty was always limited in practice, particularly for the smaller and poorer countries) and I dispute what I take to be Edwin’s assumption that this is what is happening and should be welcomed. Apologies for any misunderstanding, but it looks very much to me as if he is saying that classical liberalism has preferred and should continue to prefer interaction between sovereign states over federalisation of any kind. He mentions David Hume, Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek in this context.

However consider this quotation from Adam Smith: ‘Were all nations to follow the liberal system if free exportation and free importation, the different states into which a great continent was divided would so far resemble the different provinces of a great empire.’ (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. IV.v.b). Surely this contradicts Edwin’s claim. Hayek was the author of ‘The Economic Conditions of Inter-State Federalism’, which advocates federation between democracies to entrench free trade and basic rights. Similar comments can be found in The Road to SerfdomNow maybe Hayek did not mean to advocate something like the EU as it is now, and even less what the most pure advocates for integrationist federalism wish for, but he did offer support to federation and constraints on national sovereignty.

Going back to the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, a liberal advocate of market economies, limited government and freedom under law, wrote essays favouring ‘federation’ or ‘confederation’ to enforce world peace. We can take it that Kant meant a kind of European federation as like most of the time he did not really regard non-Europeans as equals, even if he should have according to his own philosophical principles. Anyway, he had liberal arguments for constraints on national sovereignty, even if very limited in scope.

Edwin may perhaps feel that what Smith, Kant and Hayek said fits with what appears to be his desire for a European Union limited to free trade issue. However, it is important to establish that classical liberalism is open to federation or ’empire’ (which for Smith can be a confederation) and furthermore that a federation for very limited purposes is likely to spill over into other spheres. How do you guarantee peace, security and free trade without a lot of other connected  government functions. It could be argued that classical liberal federation is limited to pure minarchist functions of national defence, and enforcement of laws, but why should we expect transnational  federal states to stay limited within such a sphere when national states never do.

Liberal economics leads us to regard upheaval, change and destruction as healthy, within the limits of law and contract, as this is how there can be innovation and prosperity. We can think of politics in the same way. Current crisis conditions will change the EU but are at least as likely to do so in ways which reconstruct its various activities, and the ways in which they are conducted, to the benefit of its health, as to lead to an EU restricted to free trade or in a state of complete collapse.

Is the European Union Collapsing?

Lately, the European Union (EU) stumbles from crisis to crisis. After a long hot spring dominated by the financial crisis in Greece, we now see the collapse of the system based on the Schengen Treaty, which secures the free movement of people within most countries of the EU. The upheaval is the result of the huge numbers of refugees entering the EU, mostly from Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. It is expected that Germany alone will offer asylum to approximately 1 million people this year. With no end of the refugee wave in sight more and more countries are either closing their borders, building fences, or reintroducing border patrols. The situation in Hungary seems worst, especially in the temporary refugee camps. This weekend we saw footage of guards throwing food into the hungry crowds, just like zoo keepers do when feeding the wild beasts. An absurd lack of civilization.

Both crises have at least two factors in common, namely issues of sovereignty and property rights. Sovereignty is claimed back by European politicians, who previously made arrangements at the European level, yet are now confronted by their electorates who want to end the infringements of their property rights. In the case of Greece it was about (mostly) Northern European leaders who were pressed by public opinion to stop paying for the support of what was seen as an almost bankrupt country. Certainly in Germany and The Netherlands it was seen that Greece made a mess of things which itself needed to sort out (this was the dominant perception, I underline that I do not say this is also the right presentation of all relevant facts). In the current refugee crisis public opinion also welcomes large numbers of people who –again as it is widely perceived- are seen a poor sods fleeing from a terrible war. Yet at the same time the people understand that the refugees, no matter how well educated some of them are, also need to receive all kinds of welfare arrangements and will go through an often hard process of integration into society. This against the background of more than a decade of heated debate about immigration and integration in most (Western) EU countries.

In both questions the politicians eventually tend to back out, by reclaiming national sovereignty. Not directly, as this would be embarrassing. So Greece got its third support package, and in the refugees crisis it is underlined that ‘temporary border patrols’ and even ‘border closings’ are still within the letter of the Schengen Treaty. There is also talk of centralizing the intake of refugees at the European level, instead of the current principle of ‘first country of entry is the country where asylum should be requested. This may well be a good idea given the fact that refugees will  arrive (as the US experience also makes clear). Yet it is hard to predict how the negotiations will end, because there are large objections against the European Commission spreading refugees among the EU member states at its own peril.

The bigger picture however could well reveal that both events mark the end of the movement towards ‘ever closing union’, the old purpose mentioned in the Treaty Of Rome (1957), the most important founding treaty of European integration. That is significant, because if I am right in my assessment it means we are experiencing a real turning point. There are a number of contributing factors, most of which have been identified before, but that does not make them less significant, such as a lack of European identity among the European people, and the desire to accept only a minimum amount of European policy, due to the much stronger desire to make national decisions, which are easier to correct by the electorates. This, by the way, is fully in line with classical liberal thinkers such as Hayek, Hume or Smith.

Does this mean the EU is about to collapse? Hardly likely. The economic basis is still strong and while large the current problems can be paid for and sorted out eventually. Yet if integration stops here it will also mean that the EU will never get a serious common foreign policy or a common defense policy either, both of which have been tried –and failed- over the past decades. So the EU will then only be a ‘super free trade zone’, with a common trade policy, and strong legal apparatus also spreading out over many non-economic issues.  This raises many more issues, but that goes beyond the purpose of this contribution. For one thing: these are once again exciting times in Europe!

The Poverty Of Democracy

I have been a strong proponent of democracy until the Spring of 2012 when I picked up Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed. Since then, I have never looked at democracy with the same warm feelings again. Now, in this post, I would like to explore why democratic political representation is an impossibility and why it deals poorly with value pluralism – the fact that society holds various fundamental values that are in conflict with each other. In addition, I would like to urge that we should look for other political possibilities and stop maintaining that democracy is the end of all forms of social organization.

What most people find attractive about democracy is its underlying idea that the electorate is an embodiment of the general will of the public as if the public has reached some kind of general agreement on public policies and legislation. It is believed that with regular elections, the rulers are in power for a limited time and they “will be compelled by the threat of dismissal to do what public opinion wants them to do” (Popper, 1963, p. 345). Gerard Casey writes in Libertarian Anarchy (2012) that “[T]he central characteristic of representation by agency is that the agent is responsible to his principal and is bound to act in the principal’s interest” (Casey, 2012, p. 125). It is however questionable to what extent the electorate can truly represent the constituency and to what extent the public voice can be considered univocal. We must also beware of attributing “to the voice of the people a kind of final authority and unlimited wisdom” (Popper, 1963, p. 347). When society holds a vox populi vox dei attitude, it can easily slip into a tyranny of the majority. A society ruled by public opinion by no means guarantees social justice.

It is important to realize that the notion of representation is highly questionable. According to public choice theory, political agents cannot possibly truly represent their constituencies when members of a society have different comprehensive doctrines, hold different values, and have different interests. Public choice theory applies economic methods in the field of political theory and provides some interesting insights that are relevant for political philosophy. It maintains that politics is ruled by clashing opinions among policy makers and clashing opinions among members of the constituency. One may for example desire to build new roads with public funds, another may want to use public funds for the modernization of the military and defense, a third may desire to spend more on social welfare, a fourth on education etc.

Given that we live in a world of value pluralism, it is difficult for policy makers to pursue and represent the ‘public interest’. Furthermore, special minority interest groups may have incentives to organize themselves in order to influence public policies through lobbying. When the expected gain of lobbying of such minority interest groups is greater than the cost of lobbying efforts, they have greater incentive to influence legislators. Large interest groups, such as taxpayers in general, have fewer incentives to campaign for particular legislations, because the benefits of their actions, if they are successful, are spread much more widely among each individual taxpayer.

When the principal believes that the cost of being politically active – keeping oneself up-to-date with political actualities and being involved with political campaigns – is not worth the benefits, the principal may become ‘rationally ignorant’ of politics. This gives representatives more incentives not to pay attention to the public interests. Rationally ignorant principals do not know who their representatives are or what they do. This consequently discourages the politicians’ feeling of accountability for their actions and it encourages the politicians to sell themselves to donors and to pursue personal agendas. Different interests, incentives, and ideologies among principals and political agents therefore result in unequal representation.

I believe that Casey is right when he asserts that there is

“no interest common to the constituency as a whole, or, if there is, it is so rare as to be practically non-existent. That being the case, there is nothing that can be represented” (Casey, 2012, p. 125).

Imagine that there is a piece of legislation that our representatives can either pass or not with 35 per cent of the public in favour of the legislation and 65 per cent who oppose it. If our representatives pass the legislation, they will represent the 35 per cent and ignore the interests of the 65 per cent. If they do not pass the legislation, they will represent the 65 per cent and cease to represent the interests of the 35 per cent.

“In this very normal political scenario, it is not that it is difficult to represent a constituency – it is rather that it is impossible” (Casey, 2012, p. 125).

A representative democracy is therefore actually quite inadequate in dealing with a pluralistic society as it cannot fulfill its promise: representing the will of the peoples. Democracy is moreover a system that is inherently violent, because it divides people along the lines of their comprehensive doctrines. People with similar political thoughts organize themselves into groups to campaign against people who hold conflicting ideas. In a democracy, these people then vote for their preferred ruler to rule over people who may have contrasting views or who may be indifferent to political issues at all. It has never happened that the turnout at elections is 100 per cent. According to, the average turnout rate in Europe is around 43 per cent. Nonetheless, the 43 per cent are choosing political agents who are expected to represent the 57 per cent of the non-voting constituency. The violent nature of democracy is that with every vote the voter attempts to enforce their preferred rulers or legislation unto others. This basically makes it a system in which people lose their political autonomy to other voters.

I believe that in order to deal more adequately with value pluralism we have to look for political possibilities that lie beyond a representative democracy. Instead of considering democracy as the end of all forms of social organization, we should ask ourselves how we could discover better forms of social organization.

Popper, K. (1963). Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge.

Casey, G. (2012). Libertarian Anarchy: against the state. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, 20. Concluding Remarks

This series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16i, 16.ii17, 18, 19) has explored a number of ways in which those who support a very sovereign United Kingdom completely separate from the European Union, and even other European institutions like the European Court for Human Rights, which is attached to the Council of Europe rather than the European Union, are attached to unsupportable ideas about the separateness and superiority of England, Britain or the UK.

What Britain’s past was does not prove anything about where it should be now with regard to European institutions, but it is at least possible to say that claims according to which Britain has always stood apart from Europe are false, and so is any connected claim that Britain is somehow fated by history, geography and national character to stand aside from arrangements made by European nations to share sovereignty.

Britain was connected to the rest of Europe through Celtic culture and language, then through the Roman Empire, then through the Saxon conquest, then partial Viking conquest, then Norman-French conquest, then ties with the Netherlands, then a union in the person of the joint monarch with the Netherlands, then a union in the person of a series of kings with Hanover in Germany, then through constant British intervention in European affairs, land holdings which go back to the Channel Islands (originally French), the remains of which still exist in Gibraltar and sovereign military bases in Cyprus, then through postwar European institutions like the Council of Europe (which loosely groups all democracies, broadly defined) and then the European Union.

The peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain are rather less firmly committed to maintaining the existing state than the peoples of France and Germany are, the two European nations usually taken by British Eurosceptics as the negative opposite of Britain in all its glory. There is a distinct possibility that Scotland will leave, with strong separatist tendencies in Northern Ireland and to a lesser but real extent in Wales. So Britain is not uniquely well formed and self-confident as a nation.

As with all other nations, Britain was built through war, state appropriation and the enforcement of a national state system. It is not a country of unique liberty, neither does the Anglosphere of UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand exist as a uniquely coherent transnational grouping based on medieval and early modern English institutions. The Anglosphere countries are diverse, with different historical experiences, with Britain as the odd one out in the sense that all the other Anglosphere countries are still dealing with the status of indigenous peoples who lived there before the relatively recent history of the Anglosphere states.

Other European states have links with ex-colonies, where the language of the colonial power is still widely spoken. More French people live in Britain than those from the Anglosphere (300 000 versus 191 000). Links with the Anglosphere are certainly quite real and exist quite happily alongside EU membership, so the whole idea of making the Anglosphere something that excludes a European path is misleading in any case.

The historical interpretations referred to in this and previous posts are not contentious. No educated and fastidious sovereigntist-Eurosceptic is going to deny them, the trouble is that a lot of less fastidious sovereigntist-Eurosceptic assumptions about history are not in happy accord with these historical realities, and even the more fastidious are trying to emphasise an unrealistic counter-narrative of British distinctness that goes beyond the normal level of distinctness between major nations. Britain has certainly made its contribution to the history of liberty, civil and commercial society, but is not obviously more blessed in these respects than the other most advanced European nations.

The case against the United Kingdom’s participation in the European Union can only be the case against the existence of a transnational political union for any large grouping of European nations. There are problems with the EU and I can agree with many sovereigntist-Eurosceptics on many of these problems, but if we reject the more myth making kinds of nationalism these are problems I suggest that can be addressed with better, more decentralised and flexible institutional arrangements. India, which has a greater population than the EU, and at least as much diversity of language and other aspects of human life survives.

It is of course difficult to know what Europe would look like without the EU and what good things in Europe are due to the EU, but I suggest that it is not a complete coincidence that the period of the EU has been a time of growing democracy and peace, with many countries taking EU membership as part of the path from dictatorship to democracy. The Euro crisis and the more recent Mediterranean refugee crisis are bringing strain to the EU, but that is what happens to political communities, they encounter problems and survive them if they have robust institutions. The economic problems of southern Europe precede the EU and tensions round migration exist in other parts of the world. Britain has anyway remained aside from the Euro, as have Sweden and Denmark, suggesting that the EU can accommodate flexibility and allow member states with doubts about the most ambitious schemes to stand aside from them. This is certainly the path to go down if the EU is to be a robust political community.

The basic point in this series has been that nothing makes British history separate from European history, so that questions about membership of a European political community which pools sovereignty are not answered by looking to a supposed distinct and superior history. Britain is part of Europe and always has been and has frequently shared sovereignty in some way with some mainland European state. Past history does not exclude Britain from Europe and trans-national European institutions, which may or may not be appropriate for Britain and other countries, for reasons in the here and now. As far as history determines Britain’s place, the appropriate place is Europe.

Tricks of Unequal Poverty: A Repost (In Honor of Bernie Sanders)

Note: This is an old post, reproduced today in honor of American Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders

In the previous installment:

I explained how the general standard of living in America, denoted by real income, grew a great deal between 1975 and a recent date, specifically, 2007. This, in spite of a widespread rumor to the contrary. The first installment touched only a little on the following problem: It’s possible for overall growth to be accompanied by some immobility and even by some regress. Here is a made-up example:

Between the first and the second semester, grades in my class have, on the average, moved up from C to B. Yet, little Mary Steady’s grade did not change at all. It remained stuck at C. And Johnny Bad’s grade slipped from C to D.

Flummoxed by the sturdiness, the blinding obviousness of the evidence regarding general progress in the standard of living, liberal advocates like to take refuge in more or less mysterious statements about how general progress does not cover everybody. Or not everybody equally, which is a completely different statement. They are right either way and it’s trivial that they are right. Let’s look at this issue of unequally distributed economic progress in a skeptical but fair manner.

It’s awfully hard to prevent the poor, women and minorities from benefiting

I begin by repeating myself. As I noted in Part One, it’s too easy to take the issue of distribution of income growth too seriously. Some forms of improvements in living standard simply cannot practically be withheld from a any subgroup, couldn’t be if you tried. Here is another example: Since 1950, mortality from myocardial infarctus fell from 30-40% to 5-8%. (from a book review by A. Verghese in Wall Street Journal 10/26 and 10/27 2013). When you begin looking at these sort of things, unexpected facts immediately jump at you.

Fishing expeditions

The US population of 260 millions to over 300 million during the period of interest 1975-2007 can be divided in an infinity of segment, like this: Mr 1 plus Mr 2; Mr 2 plus Mrs 3; Mr 2 and Mrs3 plus Mr 332; Mr 226 plus Mrs 1,000,0001; and so forth.

Similarly, the period of interest 1975 to 2007 can be divided in an infinity of subperiods, like this: Year 1 plus year 2; year 1 plus year 3; years 1, 2, 3 plus year 27; and so forth. You get the idea.

So, to the question: Is there a subset of the US population which did not share in the general progress in the American standard of living during some subperiod between 1975 and 2007?

The prudent response is “No.” It’s even difficult to imagine a version of reality where you would be right to affirm:

“There is no subset of the US population that was left behind by general economic progress at any time during the period 1975- 2007.”

Let me say the same thing in a different way: Given time and good access to info, what’s the chance that I will not find some Americans whose lot failed to improve during the period 1975 to 2007? The answer is zero or close to it.

This is one fishing expedition you can join and never come back empty-handed, if you have a little time.

Thus, liberal dyspeptics, people who hate improvement, are always on solid ground when they affirm, “Yes, but some people are not better off than they were in 1975 (or in ______ -Fill in the blank.)” The possibilities for cherry-picking are endless (literally).

Everyone therefore has to decide for himself what exception to the general fact of improvement is meaningful, which trivial. This simple task is made more difficult by the liberals’ tendency to play games with numbers and sometimes even to confuse themselves in this matter. I will develop both issues below.

To illustrate the idea that you have to decide for yourself, here is a fictitious but realistic example of a category of Americans who were absolutely poorer in 2007 that they were in 1975. You have to decide whether this is something worth worrying about. You might wonder why liberals never, but never lament my subjects’ fate.

Consider any number of stock exchange crises since 1975. There were people who, that year, possessed inherited wealth of $200 million each, generating a modest income of $600,000 annually. Among those people there were a number of stubborn, risk-seeking and plain bad investors who lost half of their wealth during the period of observation. By 2007, they were only receiving an annual income of $300,000. (Forget the fact that this income was in inflation shrunk dollars.) Any way you look at it, this is a category of the population that became poorer in spite of the general (average) rise in in American incomes. Right?

Or, I could refer to the thousands of women who were making a living in 1975 by typing. (My doctoral dissertation was handwritten, believe it or not. Finding money to pay to get it typed was the hardest part of the whole doctoral project.) One of the many improvements brought about by computers is that they induced ordinary people to learn to do their own typing. Nevertheless, there was one older lady who insisted all along on making her living typing and she even brought her daughter into the trade. Both ladies starved to death in 2005. OK, I made them up and no one starved to death but you get my point: The imaginary typists fell behind, did not share in the general (average) improvement and their story is trivial.

So, I repeat, given a some time resources, I could always come up with a category of the US population whose economic progress was below average. I could even find some segment of the population that is poorer, in an absolute sense, than it was at the beginning of the period of observation. Note that those are two different finds. Within both categories, I could even locate segments that would make the liberal heart twitch. I would be a little tougher to find people who both were poorer than before the period observation and that would be deserving of liberal sympathy. It would be a little tough but I am confident it could be done.

So, the implication here is that when it comes to the unequal distribution or real economic growth you have to do two things:

A You have to slow down and make sure you understand what’s being said; it’s not always easy. Examples below.

B You have to decide whether the inequality being described is a moral problem for you or, otherwise a political issue. (I, for one, would not lose sleep over the increased poverty of the stock exchange players in my fictitious example above. As for the lady typists, I am sorry but I can’t be held responsible for people who live under a rock on purpose.)

Naively blatant misrepresentations

A hostile liberal commenter on this blog once said the following:

“Extreme poverty in the United States, meaning households living on less than $2 per day before government benefits, doubled from 1996 to 1.5 million households in 2011, including 2.8 million children.”

That was a rebuttal of my assertion that there had been general (average) income growth.

Two problems: first, I doubt there are any American “households” of more than one person that lives on less than $2 /day. If there were then, they must all be dead now, from starvation. I think someone stretched the truth a little by choosing a misleading word. Of maybe here is an explanation. The commenter alleged fact will provide it, I hope.

Second, and more importantly, as far as real income is concerned, government benefits (“welfare”) matter a great deal. Including food stamps, they can easily triple the pitiful amount of $2 a day mentioned. That would mean that a person (not a multiple person- household ) would live on $1080 a month. I doubt free medical care, available through Medicaid, is included in the $2/day. I wonder what else is included in “government benefits.”

The author of the statement above is trying to mislead us in a crude way. I would be eager to discuss the drawbacks of income received as benefits in- instead of income earned. As a conservative, I also prefer the second to the first. Yet, income is income whatever its source, including government benefits.

The $2/day mention is intended for our guts, not for our brains. Again, this is crude deception.

Pay attention to what the other guy asserts sincerely about economic growth.

Often, it implies pretty much the reverse of what he intends. In an October 2013 discussion on this blog about alleged increasing poverty in the US, asked the following rhetorical question:

“Or have Americans’ standard of living only improved as the gap [between other countries and the US] closed?“

I meant to smite the other guy because the American standard of living has only increased, in general, as we have seen (in Part One of this essay posted). A habitual liberal commenter on my blog had flung this in my face:

“….Since 1975, practically all the gains in household income have gone to the top 20% of households…” (posted 10/23/13)

(He means in the US. And that’s from a source I am not sure the commenter identified but I believe it exists.)

Now, suppose the statement is totally true. (It’s not; it ignores several things described in Part One.) The statement says that something like roughly 60 million Americans are richer than they, or their high income equivalents were in 1975. It also says that other households may have had almost stationary incomes (“practically”). The statement does not say in any way that anyone has a lower income in 1975. At best, the statement taken literally, should cause me to restate my position as follows:

“American standards of living have remained stationary or they have improved….”

You may not like the description of income gains in my translation of the liberal real statement above. It’s your choice. But the statement fails to invalidate my overall assertion: Americans’ standard of living improved between 1975 and 2007.

What the liberal commenter did is typical. Liberals always do it. They change the subject from economic improvement to something else they don’t name. I, for one, think they should be outed and forced to speak clearly about what they want to talk about.

Big fallacies in plain sight

Pay attention to seemingly straightforward, common liberal, statist assertions. They often conceal big fallacies, sometimes several fallacies at once.

Here is such an assertion that is double-wrong.

“In the past fifteen years the 20% of the population who receive the lowest income have seen their share of national income decrease by ten percentage points.” (Posted as a comment on my blog on 10/21/13)

Again, two – not merely one – strongly misleading things about this assertion. (The liberal commenter who sent it will assure us that he had no intention to mislead; that it’s the readers’ fault because, if…. Freaking reader!)

A The lowest 20% of the population of today are not the same as those of fifteen years ago, nor should you assume that they are their children. They may be but there is a great deal of vertical mobility in this country, up and own. (Just look at me!)The statement does not logically imply that any single, one recognizable group of social category became poorer in the interval. The statement in no way says that there are people in America who are poor and that those same people became poorer either relatively or in an absolute sense. Here is a example to think about: The month that I was finishing my doctoral program, I was easily among the 20% poorest in America. Hell, I probably qualified for the 5% poorest! Two months later, I had decisively left both groups behind; I probably immediately qualified for the top half of income earners. Yet, my progress would not have falsified the above statement. It’s misleading if you don’t think about it slowly, the way I just did.

I once tried to make the left-liberal vice-president of a Jesuit university understand this simple logical matter and I failed. He had a doctorate from a good university in other than theology. Bad mental habits are sticky.

B Percentages are routinely abused

There is yet another mislead in the single sentence above. Bear with me and ignore the first fallacy described above. The statement is intended to imply that the poorer became poorer. In reality, it implies nothing of the sort. Suppose that there are only two people: JD and my neighbor. I earn $40, neighbor earns $60. In total, we earn. $100 Thus my share of our joint income is 40%, neighbor’s is 60%. Then neighbor goes into business for himself and his income shoots up to $140. Meanwhile, I get a raise and my income is now $60.

In the new situation, my share of our joint income has gone down to 30% (60/60+140), from 40%. (Is this correct? Yes, or No; decide now.) Yet, I have enjoyed a fifty percent raise in income. That’s a raise most unions would kill for. I am not poorer, I am much richer than I was before. Yet the statement we started with stands; it’s true. And it’s misleading unless you pay attention to percentages. Many people don’t. I think that perhaps few people do.

My liberal critic was perhaps under the impression that his statement could convince readers that some Americans had become poorer in spite of a general (average rise) in real American income. I just showed you that his statement logically implies no such thing at all. If he want to demonstrate that Americans, some Americans, have become poorer, he has to try something else. The question unavoidably arises: Why didn’t he do it?

Was he using his inadequate statement to change the subject without letting you know? If you find yourself fixating on the fact that my neighbor has become even richer than I did because he more than doubled his income, the critic succeeded in changing the subject. It means you are not concerned with income growth anymore but with something else, a separate issue. That other issue is income distribution. Keep in mind when you think of this new issue that, in my illustration of percentages above, I did become considerably richer.

Liberals love the topic of unequal progress for the following reason:

They fail to show that, contrary to their best wish, Americans have become poorer. They fail almost completely to show that some people have become absolutely poorer. They are left with their last-best. It’s not very risky because, as I have already stated, it’s almost always true: Some people have become not as richer as some other people who became richer!

Policy implications of mis-direction about income growth

The topic matters because, in the hands of modern liberals any level of income inequality can be used to call for government interventions in the economy that decrease individual liberty.

Here are a very few practical, policy consequences:

A Income re-distribution nearly always involves government action, that is, force. (That’s what government does: It forces one to do what one wouldn’t do out of own inclination.) That’s true for democratic constitutional governments as well as it is for pure tyrannies. In most countries, to enact a program to distribute the fruits of economic growth more equally it to organize intimidation and, in the end, violence against a part of the population. (For a few exceptions, see my old but still current journal article: “The Distributive State in the World System.“ Google it.) This is a mild description pertaining to a world familiar to Americans. In the 1920s, in Russia, many people (“kulaks”) were murdered because they had two cows instead of one.

Conservatives tend to take seriously even moderate-seeming violations of individual liberty, including slow-moving ones.

B Conservatives generally believe that redistribution of income undermines future economic growth. With this belief, you have to decide between more equality or more income for all, or nearly all (see above) tomorrow?

It’s possible to favor one thing at the cost of bearing the travails the other brings. It’s possible to favor the first over the second. This choice is actually at the heart of the liberal/conservative split. It deserves to be discussed in its own right; “Do your prefer more prosperity or more equality?” The topic should not be swept under the rug or be made to masquerade as something else.

If you are going to die for a hill, make sure it’s the right hill.

PS: There is no “income gap.”

Ian Bremmer’s American Foreign Policy Quiz

Ian Bremmer, a political scientist at NYU (and numerous think tanks), has teamed up with Time to put together this quiz on what you think the proper role for the US (“America”) is in the world today. According to Bremmer, a neoconservative, there are three basic points of view with regard to the US’s role in the world: Independent, Indispensable, and Moneyball (you can read his explanation for these three types, as well as his analysis of how major presidential candidates fit into these categories, here).

I ended up being “caught between Independent and Moneyball America,” just like Rand Paul. Leave your scores in the ‘comments’ thread! Bremmer got his PhD in political science from Stanford back in 1994.