We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day*

The left should be sensitive to inequality, the left should never accept liberty on a playing field that is unequal.

– Conor Gearty. Quoted in this account of a debate on liberty at the Hay Festival by Afua Hirsch (do I detect an elegant lefty lawyer’s eyebrow raised in, “There was no competition for this position…”?).

Every time I hear Prof Gearty or another human rightist of his water argue for a policy with which I agree (banning torture, say, or permitting freedom of expression), I have to remind myself that they are proceeding from an entirely different foundation. The position is coherent, but coherently alien.

* Well, last week, actually.

10 comments to Samizdata quote of the day*

  • Nuke Gray!

    As any lawyer can tell you, words can have many meanings. Calls for a level playing field from a socialist are probably calls to for wealth confiscation by a strong government, making everyone else equally powerless!

  • guy herbert

    I’m skeptical of all calls for ‘level playing fields’ as I am those for ‘balance’, wherever they emanate from. It is the extreme condition on that call that struck me as so extraordinary:

    …the left should never accept liberty…

    There are plenty of lefties who say that liberty is “not enough”, or who seek to disqualify a certain form or exercise of personal liberty on the ground it violates some superordinate social goal or as part of a claim that it is an expression of an inauthentic desire. But most who deem liberty to be desirable at all, think having some liberty now is better than denying it all pending a perfect society.

  • Paul Marks

    Quite correct Guy.

    To say “no liberty till their is a level playing field” is the same thing as saying “no liberty”.

    There is never a “level playing field” – some people have rich parents and some do not. Some people have parents who, although poor, have lots of friends – and some do not. Some people have parents who take an interest in them in children – and some do not.

    And, no, the education system can NOT make up for the differences in background.

    In short “equality of opportunity” is nonsense.

    In fact it is worse than nonsense – it is cruel, because it implies that if someone is poor it is “their own fault” whereas it may be bad luck.

    Trying to “organize society” to prevent bad luck leaving people poor, of course, crushes liberty.

    Poverty is the natural condition of humanity and always have been (there has never been a time of “the happy labourer”) – some people are not poor and their good fortune should be welcomed.

    If property rights are respected, money not inflated, government spending radically reduced, and a policy of radical deregulation followed – then more and more people may become non poor over time.

    But there will never be (can never be) “equality of opportunity” or a “level playing field”.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Good point, Guy.

    These guys need to be clear what they mean by inequality, anyway. Do they mean simple differences at any point in time in wealth, or something else?

  • Cleanthes

    “Do they mean simple differences at any point in time in wealth, or something else?”

    You’re asking the wrong question again Jonathan. Or at least, because you are not of the left, you are not allowed to give an acceptable answer to it.

    If it could be defined and – I know it’s unlikely but bear with me – tackled, leftists would then have nothing to do which would be bad. Hence the never-ending “defence of the revolution” and so forth.

    We see it here with “relative poverty” and other such scams.

  • el windy

    I suppose it depends on whether we would prefer to live in “egalitarian” Sparta or “corrupt and wasteful” Athens or even “sensuous” Sibari. I’d personally prefer a life in Athens with holidays in Sibari. Amazingly, a substantial number of people would state a preference for Sparta as long as they could put others through the tough qualifying tests without having to do so themselves. They mostly populate left-wing parties and some Far Right organisations although it must be said that the latter don’t impose the qualifying tests on others without going through them themselves.

  • “… the left should never accept liberty on a playing field that is unequal.”

    The left seldom enough supports liberty on any playing field at all.

  • TomC

    There is a difference between “redistribution of wealth” and “equality of opportunity”.

    In a libertarian sense, “equality of opportunity” has much to be said for it, for relative wealth is there for the taking, given sufficient effort and talent. That the state might allow the said equality to take place is another question, which is the real problem.

    The idea that “the left should never accept liberty on a playing field that is unequal” on the other hand, states all that is corrupt with collectivism:

    If “from each according to his effort, to each according to his need” is to hold, there has necessarily to be severe curtailment of freedom, if not outright slavery. That has very little to do with “equality of opportunity”.

    Let’s not interpret the word “opportunity” in it’s modern relativist sense of “being permitted to choose or not, depending on one’s social and/or racial historical baggage” compared with the real meaning of “being able to profit from a combination of favourable factors and some risk, maximised by one’s own effort”.

  • Sam Duncan

    Is it going to far to say that liberty is a level playing field?

    Because to me it seems a fair comparison. The left tends to take the analogy too far. Your local pub team would be slaughtered by Manchester United on a level playing field. It doesn’t mean the field isn’t level, and the rules aren’t fair.

    So, for once, I’d argue with Paul here. There can be a level field (and there probably is, to a great extent); what there can’t be is a levelling of ability to exploit that field, and that is what the left is trying to do.

  • Ian B

    Okay, what do they mean by equality? In economic terms, they usually mean the Gini coefficient, which is a measure of the dispersion of wealth in a society. Like most progressive statistics, it encapsulates a particular assumption- that is that a better society is one in which wealth is evenly distributed. The ideal is a Gini of zero.

    The problem, as with all statistics, is it leaves out much information, including the key value of production. Let us imagine a totally free market (no, we don’t live in one, this is just hypothetical). In such a market, the distribution of wealth, or more precisely incomes would be proportional to the distribution of productive value. That is, more productive traders would have proprotionately higher incomes that less productive traders. Since we live in a partially freeish market, this must have some bearing on the Gini coefficient.

    What is value? The value of stuff is the agreed price between individual traders at the instant of trade. Consider a tin of beans in a supermarket, with a sticker price of 20p. If we ask, “What is the value of the beans?”, a naive person may say, “20p”. But this is not true. 20p is the asking price. If we imagine Alice and Bob in the supermarket, and that Alice buys a tin of beans and Bob doesn’t, what does this tell us? It tells us that Alice considers the beans’ value to be at least 20p, and that Bob considers the beans’ value to be less than 20p, because Alice is prepared to trade 20p for a tin, and Bob isn’t.

    However, because the price of beans tends to be relatively stable, a false perception arises that “beans are worth 20p”; that this is the “going rate” for beans. If the price varies dramatically due to market forces, many people thus believe that, rather than the market simply operating, something has gone wrong with the universe. This is a common fallacy.

    So, if we consider Charlie, who makes tins of beans, what is the value of his production? It is the sum of all the tins of beans’ sale prices that he has traded. Thus, Charlie can improve his productive value either by making a product which is of perceived higher value to more other traders, or by trading more tins of beans.

    Now we consider Debbie, who sells tins of carrots. Debbie’s carrots are perceived to have lower value by other traders than Charlie’s beans. She sells fewer tins, at a lower price. This is unfortunate for the Gini Coefficient, which now deviates from our ideal zero figure. There is inequality. But this is the choice of the marketplace. The government can only repair this equality either by artificially raising the price of carrots, artificially lowering the price of beans, or taxing Charlie to subsidise Debbie. Any of these options will harm Alice and Bob, by confounding their value perceptions.

    We see that the problem is not one of income inequality, it is one of production inequality. That is, Debbie has less productive value than Charlie, to the rest of their society (Alice and Bob). Thus, if we the government (for that is who we are in our thought experiment, apparently) wish to improve equality of income, we can only do so by improving equality of production. But in fact we have no power nor means to do so. The inequality of productive value is a consequence of Charlie and Debbie’s choices regarding what to produce. Perhaps we can order Charlie to switch partially to carrot production, or order Debbie to produce beans. But perhaps Charlie is just a better beanmaker, even if we do that. We are stymied.

    If we worry about a rising Gini coefficient, we must ask whether it reflects a rising disparity in productive value of actors in the economy, since this is what our theory predicts. We may jump outside the system a little and wonder if, in our thoughtworld, the government were actively encouraging and subsidising the less productive Debbies, and discouraging the productive Charlies, whether this would lead to an increase in productive inequality- in a feedback effect, the number of lower productivity workers increases as the government subsidises them. This is not an unreasonable hypothesis.

    We may thus predict that a social market economy will feature rising production inequality, leading to a rise in income inequality. Thus, the Gini Coefficient of social markets may be expected to rise- and this appears to be what the Left claim is occurring. What they have not taken into account is that they may be the direct cause. Rising inequality is social markets, operating as expected. In terms of income inequality, the cure is the cause.

    Right, I’m off for me tea now. Beans and carrots. Yum.