On “strawmanning” some people and inequality

For some years now, I have been interested in the topic of inequality. One of the angles that I have pursued is a purely empirical one in which I attempt to improvement measurements. This angle has yielded two papers (one of which is still in progress while the other is still in want of a home) that reconsider the shape of the U-curve of income inequality in the United States since circa 1900.

The other angle that I have pursued is more theoretical and is a spawn of the work of Gordon Tullock on income redistribution. That line of research makes a simple point: there are some inequalities that are, in normative terms, worrisome while others are not. The income inequality stemming from the career choices of a benedictine monk and a hedge fund banker are not worrisome. The income inequality stemming from being a prisoner of one’s birth or from rent-seekers shaping rules in their favor is worrisome.  Moreover, some interventions meant to remedy inequalities might actually make things worse in the long-run (some articles even find that taxing income for the sake of redistribution may increase inequality if certain conditions are present – see here).  I have two articles on this (one forthcoming, the other already published) and a paper still in progress (with Rosolino Candela), but they are merely an extension of the aforementioned Gordon Tullock and some other economists like Randall Holcombe, William Watson and Vito Tanzi. After all, the point that a “first, do no harm” policy to inequality might be more productive is not novel (all that it needs is a deep exploration and a robust exposition).

Notice that there is an implicit assumption in this line of research: inequality is a topic worth studying. This is why I am annoyed by statements like those that Gabriel Zucman made to ProMarket. When asked if he was getting pushback for his research on inequality (which is novel and very important), Zucman answers the following:

Of course, yes. I get pushback, let’s say not as much on the substance oftentimes as on the approach. Some people in economics feel that economics should be only about efficiency, and that talking about distributional issues and inequality is not what economists should be doing, that it’s something that politicians should be doing.

This is “strawmanning“. There is no economist who thinks inequality is not a worthwhile topic. Literally none. True, economists may have waned in their interest towards the topic for some years but it never became a secondary topic. Major articles were published in major journals throughout the 1990s (which is often identified as a low point in the literature) – most of them groundbreaking enough to propel the topic forward a mere decade later. This should not be surprising given the heavy ideological and normative ramifications of studying inequality. The topic is so important to all social sciences that no one disregards it. As such, who are these “some people” that Zucman alludes too?

I assume that “some people” are strawmen substitutes for those who, while agreeing that inequality is an important topic, disagree with the policy prescriptions and the normative implications that Zucman draws from his work. The group most “hostile” to the arguments of Zucman (and others such as Piketty, Saez, Atkinson and Stiglitz) is the one that stems from the public choice tradition. Yet, economists in the public-choice tradition probably give distributional issues a more central role in their research than Zucman does. They care about institutional arrangements and the rules of the game in determining outcomes. The very concept of rent-seeking, so essential to public choice theory, relates to how distributional coalitions can emerge to shape the rules of the game in a way that redistribute wealth from X to Y in ways that are socially counterproductive. As such, rent-seeking is essentially a concept that relates to distributional issues in a way that is intimately related to efficiency.

The argument by Zucman to bolster his own claim is one of the reason why I am cynical towards the times we live in. It denotes a certain tribalism that demonizes the “other side” in order to avoid engaging in them. That tribalism, I believe (but I may be wrong), is more prevalent than in the not-so-distant past. Strawmanning only makes the problem worse.


  1. The English-Scottish Border Alasdair McKillop, New Statesman
  2. How to change the course of history David Graeber, Eurozine
  3. Universities are destroying freedoms of speech and association Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine
  4. Soviet Bloc’s environmental catastrophes James Bovard, Explore Freedom

Unanimous direct democracy

I was recently introduced to a few positive arguments for this in R. P. Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism. Lacking the book to cite, he was absorbed with the problems of democracy, namely, the triumphant majoritarian democracy, in the manner that the minority suffers exclusion from representative processes and alienation in their laws. Philosophically he thinks contemporary liberalism leads to an illegitimate government, and anarchism is the only legitimate form of governance.

He proposed a possible method in which unanimity might be lost (as is the case in any large enough governed society), but directness and egalitarianism sustained and an authentic “rule by the people” enacted: socially-funded television sets, installed at large community centers or subsidized for private homes, with featured debates at every election season. Specialists, e.g., in fields like economics, American history and foreign policy, could feature, from various recesses of the political spectrum, to explain the more complicated issues in a collaborative, unpedantic effort. Middle Eastern history, for example, could be briefly clarified before candidates discuss their stances. (Of course, biases would find an entry point through specialists. Further discussion is necessary for this.) At the end of the week of debates, once issues are clarified and nominees understood, the remote control could be used to cast a vote for each member of the household according to the census. This system would greatly increase voter participation, and make domestic politics worthwhile for the average citizen, returning policy-making to everyone affected.

This is an idea of working within the current society on a system for better voter say: it should be judged on these merits as such.

Is it feasible? Is it at all admirable? Discuss.

A Matter of Expectancies

We agree with the opinion that radical social discontent is strongly related to a disappointment of expectancies. The relation emerges from the observation that the most extremist activists are not the most disadvantageous people in society but persons who have a relative wealthy social background and a high level of education. People often believe that radical ideals must be addressed to the poor, because they have “nothing to loose but their chains”, and then get astonished when they find out that most revolutionaries come from the elites. The answer to this puzzle is that political conservatism and radicalism mostly depend on the degree of fulfillment of previous expectancies –or, better, the current expectancy of fulfillment of previous expectancies.

I consider that this contention allows us to translate the Egalitarian claims for a more fair society into the language of the Classical Liberalism. A Classical Liberal view may agree on that every individual deserves to be treated with equal consideration and respect, if this means that the most quantity of expectancies are to be fulfilled only when citizens are equal before the law and the restrictions on individual plans are the minimal necessary for them to coexist. This is all the Egalitarianism that Classical Liberalism can provide.

Notwithstanding, there is an enormous advantage of Classical Liberalism on Egalitarianism about this issue: Classical Liberalism judges every individual plan of life only at a very general and abstract degree (do not kill anyone but in self defense; do not coerce liberty of locomotion of anyone, and so on). On the other hand, Egalitarianism needs to qualify the legitimacy of every individual plan of life in accordance to a particular scale of merit on which there is no guaranteed consensus.

But let us suppose that, due to “the veil of ignorance” which we were behind, we might reasonably agree on a particular scale of merit in order to judge the legitimate limits between each personal plan. We reasonably accepted some particular restrictions in our property and liberty in order to proceed to the redistribution of wealth regulated by the system we agreed on when we were “behind the veil of ignorance”. The problem is that we had accepted an Egalitarian system behind the veil of ignorance, but we formed our personal plans and expectancies when later unveiled.

If this is so, we may expect of every Egalitarian system to be unstable. We are in serious trouble when this instability is attributed not to a lack of freedom, but to an absence of regulation –and that is how markets become both accused of being the oppressing iron cage of liberty and the chaos. The other way is to regard each plan of life as intrinsic valuable as far as it does not interfere with basic aspects of other’s. It is true that expectancies are made from perceptions and that sometimes the system works as the tale of the fox and the grapes. But, at least, every individual will be full responsible not of his chance but of what he does with it. That is a right to fight for: not equality, not even prosperity, but the right to be responsible for one’s own days.

Another Liberty Canon: Arendt

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the more influential writers on political thought during the twentieth century. Born in Germany, her political views and Jewish origins (she was also Jewish in identity though not in religion) meant not only that she had to leave Germany after the Nazi takeover, but that she had to escape from Gestapo interrogation. A period in Paris was ended by the 1940 German invasion, which led to another escape from detention, and her final destination of the United States. She was able draw on this direct experience of totalitarianism and antisemitism to write The Origins of Totalitarianism, one of the classic works on this topic, which also considers the role of political anti-Semitism, as distinct from older religious prejudice, in the formation of the modern phenomenon of totalitarianism.

Arendt reached beyond an academic and scholarly audience in her most widely ready book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, based on her journalistic reporting on the trial of one of the major administrators of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. Though the book did much to draw attention to the extreme horror of  Holocaust, and and its history, which strange as it might seem now was not the object of a great deal of public or scholarly discussion in the immediate postwar period, also led Arendt into a morass of angry criticism and even hatred, in part for supposedly trivialising Eichmann’s criminality. However, the point of referring to the ‘banality of evil’ was not to say that the Holocaust was trivial, or to deny Eichmann’s criminality, but to suggest that as a person he was more of a small minded conformist than a grandiose anti-hero of apocalyptic evil.

From the point of view of Arendt’s work in political theory, her writing on the Holocaust and totalitarianism, contributed to her understanding of modern politics in its darkest possibilities, which were distinct from older forms of tyranny. That understanding itself drew on the breadth of her historical approach, including literary and cultural interest, which went back to the Ancient Greek beginnings of western political thought. Her understanding also included the ethical and religious thought of late antiquity, as can be seen in her doctoral dissertation, Love and Saint Augustine. She had a general appreciation of the whole of human life, with regard to consciousness and action, which is behind The Life of the Mind and can be found in some of her political theory, most obviously The Human Condition.

Arendt’s interest and appreciation of ancient politics, particularly the democracy of city state Athens,  sometimes leads to her being labelled a nostalgic and a believer in anti-individiualistic integrated communities. This can only be a parody though, Arendt thought that there might be some things to learn about modern politics through comparison with antiquity, but she did not advocate a return, and her interest in antiquity was in those communities like Athens and the Roman Republic, where we can see individualism growing and a decline in community based on adherence to tradition and to communal assumptions.

Arendt thought that the Athenians had achieved liberty of a significant kind for the aristocracy, and to some degree for the lower classes, on a real but limited basis in which some had the leisure to think and argue about the rules and laws of the city state. That form of library rested on ‘heroic’ and patriarchal values according to which the home and family are the place of economic production and therefore the place of necessity.

Liberty was understood with reference to the tradition of  heroes going to war or to a more recently evolved habit of widespread public free speech about public affairs. Arendt did not argue for this as the all time ideal, but as a moment with some ideal aspects, which was bound to fail. Partly it failed because law was understood as custom and communal obligation, rather than as concerned with contracts between free individuals.  In her historical analysis, the Romans made progress on the legal front, because they saw  that law can and should evolve with regard to the best ways of grounding freely chosen contracts,  while also failing to maintain political liberty as the republic gave way to Imperial autocracy

Arendt emphasised that the Roman model inspired modern movements for liberty, particularly the French and American Revolutions (the comparison is made in On Revolution). Though she wrote about the motives and early actions of French revolutionaries with great sympathy, she pointed out that it had all ended in revolutionary terror and then country-revolutionary autocracy, so that the American Revolution had created a better model, as shown in the long lasting nature of the Constitution. She both respected that achievement and pointed out that it rested on assumptions about the dominance of a land owning class, so that it could not in itself provide all the answers for modern liberty, even it established an enduring framework, which survived major shifts in the location of economic wealth and the sources of political power.

For Arendt, the modern capitalist world undermined the idea of a strict separation between a private realm of economic production, based on family ownership and use of land, as economic activity became what happened in factories and other enterprises, with regard to national and world markets. The social-cultural result was an undermining of the antique assumption that intellectual life is superior to, and dominant over, physical activity and economic life. It also  resulted in states that seemed more remote from traditional forms of allegiance and everyday customs, because the state became increasingly something concerned with legislative and administrative activity that aimed to enable production and trade, so for the first time establishing the state as something that aims to constantly elevate material wealth and ‘national welfare’. Arendt, in this way, argues that commercial society tends to create its own statist reaction.

Arendt equivocated to some degree about whether capitalism was to be preferred to socialism, but in political writing emphasised enhancing individuality and a spirit of competition and that can only be seen as directed against the expanding administrative state, particularly as she argued for more separation between political questions and social welfare questions. She looked for ways in which modern political participation could focus on the best parts of the antique legacy: public speech focused on the conditions of liberty rather than on expanding state activity, contests for esteem in the public sphere rather than levelling down egalitarianism.  Perhaps her equivocation about socialism can be seen as leaving the way open for ‘socialism’ as defined by left libertarians, markets without a state that promotes politically inspired concentrations of wealth and power. She was certainly a prominent critic of Soviet style state socialism.

Arendt had a grasp based in rather classically oriented political theory, of how capitalism tends to produce statist reactions to itself, which parallels the more political economy and economics oriented work of Austrian economics and Virginia Public Choice theory on  the rise of the administrative state and rent seeking.  Together with her interests in how to avoid antique tyranny and modern totalitarianism, this makes her a great twentieth century pro-liberty voice, particularly for those interested in the historical, psychological, moral, and literary aspects of political thinking.

All of Arendt’s major contributions to political thought are mentioned above. A good starting point for those new to Arendt might be the essays collected in Between Past and Future or The Promise of Politics