What Passes for Idealism

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

“If we were highly idealistic, we might say rising living standards are not enough: A child’s background should have nothing to do with where the child ends up,” suggests David Schmidtz in Elements of Justice, p 126. It’s an idea he ultimately does not endorse.

And he shouldn’t. Every feasible method of achieving the goal is also perfectly repugnant. We could ensure that background and outcome were entirely unrelated by making everyone exactly equal, or by distributing wealth and social station by lottery, or by empowering some sort of vast wealth-confiscation bureau that was only permitted to act at random. But I can’t think of too many other ways to do it.

So why does it seem intuitive to call this an “idealistic” project? Why does it have the appeal, however momentary, that it does? Why, when we want to exclude certain forms of person-stunting, to do we so often reach for the ideal of equality of opportunity?

 

–Jason Kuznicki

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29 Responses to “What Passes for Idealism”

  1. #1 |  delurking | 

    “If we were highly idealistic, we might say rising living standards are not enough: A child’s background should have nothing to do with where the child ends up,”

    Aldous Huxley has a solution.

  2. #2 |  JohnCMulligan | 

    Hmmm…. I can think of at least one reason that equality of opportunity sounds like a good idea (even when it’s not being used as a proxy for equality of outcome, which is the true ideal here).

    http://www.theagitator.com/2012/08/29/school-to-prison-in-not-so-many-words/

  3. #3 |  MH | 

    Interesting question. Perhaps it sounds (momentarily) idealistic because for much of history, there has been quite vicious and arbitrary discrimination of people based on their background (slavery, serfdom, religious and ethnic segregation, etc.). It makes sense to want to stop that. And many of us value meritocracy; a meritocracy is distorted when people start from different stations. In a 100 meter race you don’t have one guy running 90 meters and another 110. The fallacy is in thinking a set of rules that work in a narrow, simpler context can be applied to a much broader, more complex context. It’s the same kind of thinking that leads people to wonder “if we can put a man on the moon” then why can’t we solve the problems of poverty or drugs.

  4. #4 |  Robert | 

    I love it. In other words: “It would be great if our society stopped rewarding the hoarding resources and wealth along ancient lines of heredity, class warfare, and white supremacy… unfortunately any effort to do so would be ‘perfectly repugnant,’ so I guess we might as well continue hoarding of wealth and resources along ancient lines of heredity, class warfare, and white supremacy. That’s totally not repugnant (at least not ‘perfectly’ so).”

  5. #5 |  billhang | 

    “Why does it have the appeal, however momentary, that it does?”

    Because the alternative is the Dark Ages.

  6. #6 |  Jason Kuznicki | 

    Robert, I don’t think that’s a quote. You’re free to argue that the two are the same, but asserting it is improper. Try again, perhaps?

  7. #7 |  Jason Kuznicki | 

    To everyone: I would frankly find it monstrous if a child’s upbringing were deliberately made to have no effect on his or her later life outcomes.

    If you’ve worked and studied hard early in life, you ought to be able to enjoy the benefits of it. And if you have had a difficult or somehow unfortunate upbringing, you still ought to want others around you to be productive. It’s not as if they capture all the value they create; arguably most of it goes to people a lot like you, at least in industrial societies.

  8. #8 |  hilzoy fangirl | 

    Jason, that’s why many liberals support Rawls’ difference principle, which endorses economic inequality to the extent that it is to the benefit of the worst off. But if your argument is that we already live in a society where that is the case, that’s an empirical argument that requires empirical evidence. So: what “value” has, e.g., Mitt Romney created? How has most of it gone to “people a lot like [me]”?

  9. #9 |  Mattocracy | 

    I really like the idea of a meritocracy. The problem is that some people are gonna prove themselves be used as janitors or garbagemen. There are plenty of people who will admit that they aren’t worthy of being a doctor/scientist/college professor, but not many people want to believe that they’re potential is capped at being a bus driver.

    You see this already with parents and schools. Little Timmy is smarter than the grades he’s getting. What’s wrong with his teacher? The school? They system

    If we had a utopia where people reached their max potential based soley on their own merits and not on the circumstances they were born into, the people in the bottom 50% still aren’t going to like where they are in life.

  10. #10 |  Aresen | 

    Hmm. Haven’t rtfa, but in the abstract, I would agree that a child’s background should have nothing to do with where he ends up, so long as ‘background’ is simply taken to mean who his parents were, what there income level was, what race, ethnic group or religion he is.

    However, if you are going to take ‘background’ to mean whatever actions he did or did not take (studying/not studying, doing drugs, stealing, etc.), then I would say that actions and decisions must have consequences and the clearer it is that those actions will have consequences, the better for the child and for everyone around him.

    Ironically, the very tools that statists promote to achieve ‘fairness’ (by their definition), tend to handicap rather than help people who want to achieve something.

  11. #11 |  Mattocracy | 

    Ugh. Don’t judge my merit on the poor typing in my post above.

  12. #12 |  el coronado | 

    Why is it “idealistic”? Easy. Because such a project would require being administered by a powerful, highly-educated, unimpeachable, in-office-for-life, **unelected** Priestly caste/bureaucracy. Wise shepherds making the decisions for their simple, befuddled flock. Just exactly the sort of ‘perfect government’ that idiot Plato dreamed of….and the basis of all modern statism/liberalism. (“Leviathan”)(“Phillip Dru, Administrator”)(“League of Nations passes declaration outlawing all war”)(“War on Poverty”)(“UN passes harshly-worded statement against Rwandan genocide to no effect whatsoever.”)

    It’s also ‘idealistic’ because it runs completely counter to all known observations of human nature, and would devolve into a cesspool of corruption, cronyism, and enormous waste within a very few years. (see: Chicago, city of) In the modern context, “Idealism” is just another way of saying “I wish I could fly! And become invisible! And had a pony!!”

    The political philosophy of children – yoked to the incredible destructive power of the State. Yeah, a fine recipe for success there.

  13. #13 |  Mykeru | 

    Jason,

    You are completely wrong. Equity of outcome can be achieved if some of us are willing to sacrifice.

    For example, as a 5’8″ male, I don’t think it unreasonable for taller guys to have a few inches of the long bones in their legs sawed off to make me feel accommodated.

    A plan that I would find perfectly reasonable until the dwarfs show up and demand the same.

    At which point I would abandon it.

  14. #14 |  liberranter | 

    by empowering some sort of vast wealth-confiscation bureau

    Um, three letters: I, R, and S

  15. #15 |  Robert | 

    Jason, cute. Are you really unfamiliar with the expression “in other words”?

    At any rate, without “sort of vast wealth-confiscation bureau” charged with reallocating wealth into the public domain and mitigating aggressive attempts to hoard wealth so as to calcify existing inequalities for generations, you’re effectively perpetuating those inequalities. If you have no serious problem with those inequalities or the means through which they were achieved — again, white supremacy, class warfare, the seizure of public institutions, legal and extralegal violence when necessary, and so on — then of course it will be “monstrous” to try to mitigate the lingering effects of these inequalities. Even still, you can perpetuate those very institutions — need I say “white supremacy” again? — while engaged in disingenuous concern trolling about “upbringing” and, jeez, I wish we could do something about this… but we can’t! So sad!

  16. #16 |  Matthew F | 

    We’re in a society where, between wealth of birth and hard work, the former statistically determines far more of one’s success than the latter. I don’t call that “equality of opportunity”, and I can’t see eye to eye with anyone who does.

    Solidifying early childhood nutrition and education programs, bringing the schools in our poorest neighborhoods up to par with those in our richest neighborhoods and removing cost as a barrier to entry to universities would take us most of the way to reversing that. The only determinant to success should be one’s intelligence and willingness to work.

  17. #17 |  Robert | 

    Matthew,
    There’s a good reason you can’t see eye-to-eye with people who speak of equality of opportunity, but who also don’t feel the need to acknowledge (or attempt to mitigate) the fact that the most predictive criteria for an individual’s economic success is their parents’ economic status. The reason? Simply, they’re full of shit. They don’t actually want a meritocracy. They don’t care about equality of opportunity. Actually, they do care — that it’s maintained. They wouldn’t wish to establish a true meritocracy here or anywhere else with a wave of a wand, so they definitely wouldn’t do it if it required any actual hardship in the interim. Hence the aforementioned concern-trolling and handwringing about how we just can’t do anything about that problem — to do so would be monstrous! — without allowing for even some, perhaps less than monstrous solutions like Affirmative Action and increased education funding, etc. Are efforts to combat housing discrimination as “perfectly repugnant” as well?

  18. #18 |  Coises | 

    idealism: The property of a person of having high ideals that are usually unrealizable or at odds with practical life.

    — first definition at http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/idealism

    Used in the sense clearly intended in the quote, “idealistic” *means* something that appears desirable when viewed in a vacuum, but falls down in the attempt to make it real.

    “So why does it seem intuitive to call this an ‘idealistic’ project? Why does it have the appeal, however momentary, that it does?”

    Elementary notions of fairness? The thought that in a world that didn’t suck, individuals wouldn’t be disadvantaged due to circumstances for which they bear no responsibility?

    Like any ideal, this one cannot be achieved, nor can it be approached too closely without sacrificing greater value elsewhere. It’s still something that makes sense to want, even if we know there will always be limits to how close we can come to having it.

  19. #19 |  delurking | 

    If individuals are allowed to raise children, there cannot be perfect equality of opportunity for children. Most people care about their children, and use their resources to help them succeed. Since there is not equality of resources among adults, there will not be equality of opportunity for children. We know where trying to enforce equality of resources among adults leads.

    Public education systems can mitigate disparities in opportunities among children, but they cannot eliminate them. I have not seen anything that could eliminate them that I would not consider repugnant.

  20. #20 |  David | 

    I don’t see the original quote about background (which I read as “equality of outcome”), and the summary (“…equality of opportunity…”) as the same thing. I see equality of opportunity as worthy (at least aspirationally and in terms of minimum acceptable services to/for children), but NOT equality of outcome.

    I may disagree with others as to how much equality of opportunity should or should not be pursued with public money or laws (how much government intervention I want varies on the issue), or when trying to encourage or enforce equality of opportunity has too many other “costs”, but I certainly do not like how much birth matters so much more than innate talent and hard work (hard work alone while commendable, doesn’t necessarily lead to becoming highly skilled at something!), etc.

    For instance, if someone’s parent thinks that females are worthless and shouldn’t be taught to read or write or talk, I want that child educated regardless of the parent’s wishes (and quite possibly termination of parental rights if it’s that extreme) and even though it costs public money (I don’t know the solution/how to reconcile supporting public education with despising how terrible some schools/teaching personnel are…).

  21. #21 |  el coronado | 

    “Enlightened people seldom or never possess a sense of responsibility.” – Orwell

  22. #22 |  Jason Kuznicki | 

    Robert,

    The principle of charity demands that when two readings of a text exist, we should take the one that puts the author in a more favorable position until we have reason to believe otherwise.

    I mean, sure, it’s possible that I’m secretly cheering for white supremacy. I guess. But it’s also possible that I mean exactly what “delurking” wrote at 19:

    If individuals are allowed to raise children, there cannot be perfect equality of opportunity for children. Most people care about their children, and use their resources to help them succeed. Since there is not equality of resources among adults, there will not be equality of opportunity for children. We know where trying to enforce equality of resources among adults leads.

  23. #23 |  Inkberrow | 

    Equalitarians are by definition frightened and offended at the prospect of persistently unequal outcomes, which in theory according to their reductionist worldview should not exist, let alone persist, but which in reality are the necessary and perpetual norm. There are simply too many variables, and scapegoating at the top and affirmative action from the bottom are somewhat satisfying but ultimately unconvincing. Ergo, the Cult of the Lowest Common Denominator is the only ethical solution for progressive-collectivists. A revising tide lowers all boats.

  24. #24 |  Barry Deutsch | 

    I agree that perfect equality of resources is not desirable.

    But I don’t see why that means we shouldn’t try to make opportunities for children less unequal than they are today, and access to higher education less unequal than it is today. It’s not as if “do nothing” and “perfect equality of resources” are the only imaginable options.

  25. #25 |  Bernard | 

    The central argument here includes a strange leap of logic.

    Asserting that something is an ideal is not the same as claiming that it’s the role of government to do something about it.

    ‘Wouldn’t it be great if everyone got along?’ is not the same as saying ‘I want a government agency set up to enforce a ban on people having arguments.’

    Likewise ‘I wish we didn’t have to send anyone to prison’ is not the same as saying ‘I don’t believe we should send anyone to prison.’

    I’d say that meritocracy is a fairly uncontroversial ideal, but it’s easy to make any mooted ideal sound sinister if you assume that the person expressing it is pushing a particular policy agenda.

    Of course, we’re suspicious precisely because when politicians express ideals they ARE pushing narrow policy agendas, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is.

  26. #26 |  Sam | 

    Jason,

    Fine if you’re not making that argument, but surely you can see how Robert might arrive at that conclusion, given that what you seem to advocating for is either a continuation of the status quo or a further lurch toward policies which will inevitably benefit those who are already benefiting from society’s current structure. Endorsing the idea that any attempt to level the playing field or create more opportunity for children will inevitably lead us to communism (and all of the evils that it entails) ignores the good that comes from things like access to education regardless of ability to pay.

    Furthermore, insisting that those who are not benefiting from society’s current imbalances should still support those imbalances because some other, more well off person is getting well as a result? Come on. That’s a hugely unrealistic expectation.

  27. #27 |  En Passant | 

    #12 | el coronado wrote August 29th, 2012 at 11:28 am:

    Why is it “idealistic”? Easy. Because such a project would require being administered by a powerful, highly-educated, unimpeachable, in-office-for-life, **unelected** Priestly caste/bureaucracy. Wise shepherds making the decisions for their simple, befuddled flock. …

    That would be the
    Handicapper General.

  28. #28 |  William Berry | 

    @Robert, Matthew F: thnx for bringing some light into this [pseudo] libertarian sewer. You do know you’re wasting it here, though?

    Bring back Radley and some civil liberties, plz.

  29. #29 |  John David Galt | 

    @Matthew F: The only way to prevent inequality of birth is to take all kids away from their parents early, and raise them as the Soviets did. And as they demonstrated pretty well, this will not improve the lot of any kids, only lower the non-poor ones to poverty. Rush’s “The Trees” comes to mind here.

    This is why the theory that each person is responsible for his own success should be believed and followed, whether or not it is actually more than half true. When your viewpoint is taught, kids adopt the “Al Sharpton attitude,” guaranteeing their own complete failure, probably for the rest of their lives.

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