Monetary Inequality vs. Functional Inequality

From a comment thread at Econlog, Grant writes:

I care about inequality - I think it would be great if everyone on Earth had access to good food, water clothing, shelter, water and transportation - but I'm no left liberal. I happen to think the best way to go about equalizing the world is freer markets and open borders.

I think its important to distinguish between monetary inequality and functional inequality. A S500 Mercedes is far more expensive than a Toyota Corolla; there is a large amount of monetary inequality there. But functionally, the cars aren't that far off. The Mercedes is more comfortable, but the Toyota is more reliable. Both do a damn good job at getting people from A to B, and in fact the Toyota may even be better at that than the Benz. In many state-run industries such as health care, the justice system and education, monetary inequality does lead to large disparities in outcomes, but in most cases I don't think thats true at all.

I would take the same position that Milton Friedman did, that markets are the best way to alleviate real inequality in society, and not any nebulous definition of "economic" inequality.

I'd still like to see something that shows how inequality across 300 million people makes some unhappy. People organize themselves into social groups based on socio-economic status. Why would it make some poor people - who's peers are generally all poor - unhappy that Warren Buffet or Vladimir Putin are rich? And if it does, should that externality be viewed as any more legitimate than a racist man who is unhappy because he has a black neighbor?

Two points are worth reiterating here. First, his observation that monetary equality is much more salient in state-run industries, and much less so in a free market. So by moving more and more economic transactions under the umbrella of government, people concerned with power inequalities are actually shooting themselves in the foot.

Second, the observation that soaking the rich simply for the sake that they are rich - deriving from base jealousy - is a form of bigotry and should be regarded as such. To the extent that bigoted preferences are thwarted, that is a good thing, as satisfying bigoted preferences necessarily harms others - bigotry is a zero-sum game. The best way to ameliorate bigotry and envy is not to satisfy the preference, but to eliminate the preference through moral education.

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Stretching bigotry too far again

Envy has long been understood to be shameful, even sinful, but now you want to call it "bigotry"? I'm sure that one can draw parallels - as one can between many distinct things without necessarily classing them as the same thing.

I don't think you're doing anything but looking slightly odd and diluting the idea of bigotry by trying to class malicious envy as bigotry. And please, don't answer (as you did before) that it's not a matter of how you look but The Truth about whether something is or is not bigotry. The Truth about bigotry is that it is a human concept, and like most concepts somewhat vague and malleable to fit circumstances and uses. There is no independent discoverable Truth about what a word means - the word means what we humans decide to use it to mean, and I am warning you about a decision you are making here.

Here is my theory of why you, and some others, stretch the concept of bigotry to cover other sins. The reason is that in certain quarters moral talk has decayed to such a point that the only universally recognized sin is bigotry. That being the case, you find yourself tempted to classify other sins as bigotry so that the cretins that you are trying to get your message across to will finally recognize those sins as sins.

Okay, so we agree that you

Okay, so we agree that you and I have different definitions for the word "bigotry". How do you define it? Here is one definition taken from Wikipedia: "A bigot is a prejudiced person who is intolerant of any opinions differing from their own or intolerant of people of different ethnicity, race, or class." It seems that people who hate the rich for being rich are prejudiced and intolerant of people of a different class.

And I do agree, for the most part, with your theory of why I use this tactic. Not that I find it at all embarrassing or at odds with rational discourse. It's always easier to make a convincing argument if you appeal to premises your opponent already shares. Since the people I am trying to convince already recognize the evils of bigotry, this serves as a shared basis for argument.

It fails because

It seems that people who hate the rich for being rich are prejudiced and intolerant of people of a different class.

To resent a person for his good fortune is no prejudice. If you believe, without evidence, that a rich person is probably lazy and arrogant, then you are judging him prior to encountering evidence specific to him, and so you are expressing your own prejudice against the rich. But to hate the rich for being rich, because you envy his wealth, is no such thing, because you are not hating him prior to encountering evidence that he is rich.

Much more can be said. Sadly, I don't feel I have the time right now really to explore this topic.

[edit]

But I found that Wikipedia echoes many of my thoughts, so I will simply copy and paste:

The word prejudice refers to prejudgment: making a decision before becoming aware of the relevant facts of a case or event. The word has commonly been used in certain restricted contexts, in the expression 'racial prejudice'. Initially this is referred to making a judgment about a person based on their race,religion,etc., before receiving information relevant to the particular issue on which a judgment was being made; it came, however, to be widely used to refer to any hostile attitude towards people based on their race or even by just judging someone without even knowing them. Subsequently the word has come to be widely so interpreted in this way in contexts other than those relating to race. The meaning now is frequently "any unreasonable attitude that is unusually resistant to rational influence".[1] Race, gender, ethnic, sexual identity, age, and religion have a history of in citing prejudicial behavior.

What I want to point out here is that the meaning of the word "prejudice" has evolved from its original meaning. This illustrates my point about the malleability of concepts. I would like to make the further point that it is very hard to capture, in an explicit definition, the current state of a word's meaning. It is an attempt to systematize and rationalize the concept which did not, in fact, stretch systematically. I would like to make the further point that the odd shapes that a concept's footprint may take can create a mistaken temptation to come up with a definition sufficiently broad that fits around that shape. The problem with doing this is that such a definition also fits around a lot of other things which are not, in fact, inside the footprint of the concept.

Anyway, I'll stop here, because the above was easy and quick to write, but application to the current question would take a lot more time.

To resent a person for his

To resent a person for his good fortune is no prejudice. If you believe, without evidence, that a rich person is probably lazy and arrogant, then you are judging him prior to encountering evidence specific to him, and so you are expressing your own prejudice against the rich. But to hate the rich for being rich, because you envy his wealth, is no such thing, because you are not hating him prior to encountering evidence that he is rich.

I don't fully grasp the distinction you are trying to make here. Suppose I am an anti-Jewish bigot. I assume that all Jews are greedy. When I meet a person, and if it is not obvious to me at first if they are Jewish, I am neutral with regard to what I assume are their greed levels. But as soon as I discover they are Jewish, I ratchet up my assumed level of greed that I attribute to them. I am prejudiced against Jews.

Suppose I am an anti-rich bigot. I assume that rich people do not deserve their money, because they don't really need it (and more often then not they didn't really even work that hard for it); they only use their money for zero-sum positional goods - conspicuous consumption. When I meet a person, and if it is not obvious to me at first if they are rich, I am neutral with regard to what I assume are their levels of spending on conspicuous consumption and how hard they work. But as soon as I discover they are rich, I ratchet up my assumed level of conspicuous consumption and laziness that I attribute to them. I am prejudiced against the rich.

This illustrates my point about the malleability of concepts.

This is an elementary point, a point I never disputed, and a point I don't see as especially more relevant to this conversation over any other.

The problem with doing this is that such a definition also fits around a lot of other things which are not, in fact, inside the footprint of the concept.

But as you just pointed out, the meanings of concepts and their applicability change over time. This is neither necessarily a good thing nor a bad thing. Appealing to "how things used to be" is not a rational argument if we have no reason for believing things were better back then.

As for application to the current question, take a look at Will Wilkinson's TechCentralStation essay on Solidarity. He points out how the capitalist conception of universal solidarity leads to a lot less bigotry and lot more unity than the more particular conceptions of solidarity traditionally associated with many of those on the left.

You are changing the terms

But as soon as I discover they are rich, I ratchet up my assumed level of conspicuous consumption and laziness that I attribute to them. I am prejudiced against the rich.

You are including particular prejudices that were not included initially. Resentment of greater wealth and the desire to equalize wealth by tearing down the rich might be rationalized by various claims about their kinds of spending, claims for which you have no evidence and which thus constitute prejudice. But not necessarily. Envy of the rich may merely be envy of the rich, just as envy of the pretty may merely be envy of the pretty and envy of the popular may merely be envy of the popular. Furthermore let us not confuse mere rationalizations of resentment and hostility, with its actual cause. I think it is highly likely that the story that you told is an after-the-fact rationalization of envy rather than its true cause. The envy itself is not prejudice, but merely the (sad to say) entirely understandable (because very human) feeling of hostility toward those who have the things we want.

But as you just pointed out, the meanings of concepts and their applicability change over time.

Indeed they do, but if you try to include into a concept more than people will accept, then rather than bulldozing people's opinion into the shape that you intend, your attempt may end up backfiring as they reject as empty the very concept you attempted to use on them. In fact, the hostility to "political correctness" may be an example of this. There are certain entirely fair criticisms to be made of certain reprehensible behaviors and speech, but the PC crowd has taken it to such an extreme that they have in effect ruled out a lot of perfectly legitimate discourse. Calling defensible statements about sex and race "sexist" and "racist" as a conversation-stopper is an example of such overreach. Originally, when the KKK dressed in white sheets, burned crosses, and murdered blacks, that was surely racism. But James Watson is no member of the KKK. The range of things called "racist" has become so wide that the "racism" charge is almost meaningless. "Racism" has become a crime that almost anyone at any time might be guilty of. Now when I hear that someone is a "racist", I learn almost nothing. The charge carries almost no information about them. It used to be that if someone was called a "racist", it was a pretty good bet they were in favor of segregation, anti-miscegenation laws, and possibly the reintroduction of slavery. The charge used to mean something because it used to have a narrow footprint. The wider the footprint becomes, the less the word means. If everybody is a racist, then it's a useless category.

If you try to label resentment against the rich as "bigotry", the main effect may well be to rehabilitate bigotry among those who resent the rich. It is unlikely to reduce resentment of the rich.

Constant, You seem to be

Constant,

You seem to be picking up on the "prejudice" part of the Wikipedia definition I referenced, but there is a reason I chose the term bigotry and not just prejudice. Bigotry is larger than prejudice; it encompasses more. Irrational or unwarranted hostility need not be a result of a false prejudgement of the facts. Perhaps I don't have any particular reason for hating Mexicans; I don't attribute any negative characteristics to them. I just hate them for no particular reason at all. That is bigotry, though it may not be prejudice.

[B]ut if you try to include into a concept more than people will accept, then rather than bulldozing people's opinion into the shape that you intend, your attempt may end up backfiring as they reject as empty the very concept you attempted to use on them.

I am aware that you aren't very congenial to (my definition of) the concept of bigotry. That is fine. My arguments are not directed at you. They are directed at people that are comfortable with (my definition of) the concept. So feel free to stop making the same objection over and over to my discussions of bigotry. I am aware of your distaste for these discussions; you don't need to keep reminding me of it.

Calling defensible statements about sex and race "sexist" and "racist" as a conversation-stopper is an example of such overreach. Originally, when the KKK dressed in white sheets, burned crosses, and murdered blacks, that was surely racism. But James Watson is no member of the KKK.

There was nothing defensible about James Watson's statements, as they were quoted by the media. Now, Watson later claimed that he was misquoted, and if true, then he is no racist. But if he was quoted correctly, then he most certainly is one. And one need not be a member (or as extreme as) the KKK to be a racist.

The range of things called "racist" has become so wide that the "racism" charge is almost meaningless.

Nonsense. This goes back to the point I made in the Godwin thread. Racists try to defend racism by saying that as long as they are not as bad as the KKK or the Nazis, then they are not true racists. And they then use this tactic to "prove" that the racist charge is overblown, since the "PC-crowd" uses the term racist to describe lesser evils relative to KKK/Nazism. But this is nonsense. There is no reason to define racism and bigotry in such a limited way.

It used to be that if someone was called a "racist", it was a pretty good bet they were in favor of segregation, anti-miscegenation laws, and possibly the reintroduction of slavery. The charge used to mean something because it used to have a narrow footprint. The wider the footprint becomes, the less the word means.

This is a demonstration of how far we've come as a society and how successful anti-racism as a movement has been. The lines have shifted. But they have not disappeared.

If everybody is a racist, then it's a useless category.

That would only be true if the sole purpose of the word were to separate racist people from non-racist people. But that is not the sole, or even primary purpose of the word. The word is more often used to describe modes of thinking, and we might all happen to hold flawed ways of thinking - even the most enlightened among us.

If you try to label resentment against the rich as "bigotry", the main effect may well be to rehabilitate bigotry among those who resent the rich. It is unlikely to reduce resentment of the rich.

And those who compare laws against gay marriage to anti-miscegenation laws run the risk of convincing homophobes to also become racists who want to back anti-miscegenation laws. There is aways this risk when tying together previously disparate movements. But I see no reason to think that the effect is more likely to move in the direction you expect rather than in the direction that I expect. One of the nice things about moral progress is that it tends to move forwards, not backwards.

That does not work either

Bigotry is larger than prejudice; it encompasses more. Irrational or unwarranted hostility need not be a result of a false prejudgement of the facts. Perhaps I don't have any particular reason for hating Mexicans; I don't attribute any negative characteristics to them. I just hate them for no particular reason at all. That is bigotry, though it may not be prejudice.

That does not work either here. Envy of those who are better off is not for no particular reason at all.

The Wikipedia article on envy has no mention of bigotry. The Wikipedia article on bigotry has no mention of envy. If envy - a well known thing - were a form of bigotry - another well known thing - we would expect to see envy in the article on bigotry as a major example of it, and we would expect to see bigotry in the article on envy as the larger category it is a part of. But we don't. I'll be that the word "oak" will be found in the article on "tree", and vice versa. Yup, just checked. Both ways.

Your linking of the two is idiosyncratic. But there is no correcting Humpty Dumpty, so I will take a rest.

Yes, my linking of the two

Yes, my linking of the two is idiosyncratic. So what? I am trying to argue that this conception should change and we should start to see the similarities between envy and other forms of bigotry, and begin to treat them the same way - not with policy preference satisfaction but with contempt. Insofar as free market policies fail to satisfy bigoted and/or envious preferences, we can either count this as a mark against free market policies or ignore it as irrelevant to policy judgment, on the grounds that hateful zero-sum preferences do not deserve satisfaction. I am recommending the latter course.

Your disagreement with this attempt derives from your hatred of bigotry - not as a character flaw or epistemological weakness, but your dislike of the category itself and arguments involving it. Well, tough. If you don't like discussions of bigotry, my posts about the topic are not for you. Skip them.

Glad to hear it

Yes, my linking of the two is idiosyncratic.

Glad that you acknowledge it.

I never denied it.

I never denied it.

Acknowledge, not admit

That's why I chose the word "acknowledge". Different connotation.

not inequality

I care about inequality - I think it would be great if everyone on Earth had access to good food, water clothing, shelter, water and transportation

That's not caring about inequality, it's caring about access to some goods deemed as important. Unless of course he thinks it would be great if everyone had access to these goods, because some do.

Good point.

Good point.