Meritocrats and Egalitarians

When it comes to discussions about economic and social fairness among liberals and leftists, there seems to be a great deal of people talking past one another. This is because a lot of liberals think that they are egalitarians even though they are really just meritocrats. Liberal meritocrats believe they are a different breed from conservatives, but in reality, the two agree on the fundamental nature of fairness. They just disagree on whether the current system reflects that fairness.

For liberal meritocrats, unfairness exists where people do not get to rise to the level of respect, authority, and wealth that is fitting their characteristics. So, for them, the greatest injustice is that certain groups are underrepresented in high levels of the social hierarchy. And the remedy is to fix the institutions that they believe account for that underrepresentation. This leads to a heavy emphasis on school and on cultural movements centered on respect and recognition.

But for leftist egalitarians, unfairness exists where some people have more respect, authority, and wealth than others. For them, the greatest injustice is that some people are richer, more powerful, and afforded more respect than other people. Their complaint is not about the composition of the higher levels of the social hierarchy, but rather about the existence of such a social hierarchy in the first place. This leads to a heavy emphasis on leveling the distribution of resources and power and on cultural movements that encourage treating people the same regardless of who they are and what they have accomplished.

These two general orientations are very much in tension with one another. The liberal meritocrat worries about who gets to be in the 1%. The leftist egalitarian wants nobody to be in it (or, I guess, for all of us to be in it). The liberal meritocrat implicitly accepts the social positions that exist in the current order, but is mad about how people are distributed across those positions. The leftist egalitarian thinks that the unequal social positions generated by the current order are problematic regardless of who happens to fill them.

More Notes on Reparations

I wrote a post last week about the political valence of reparations. In it, I discussed the ways in which reparations fits into different philosophies of political economy. I am not going to rehash that piece here, but I recommend you read it before pushing on below. Here, I want to add a few other notes that I think are worth bringing in, given the current state of the internet debate.

1. Can Reparations Be Race Neutral?
For both political and practical reasons, the most prominent reparations plans are somewhat oddly race-neutral. For instance, the Darity-Hamilton Baby Bonds plan involves transferring wealth to all children born into the bottom half of the wealth distribution. Because Blacks are overrepresented in the bottom half of the wealth distribution (even more so than they are overrepresented in the bottom half of the income distribution), this is seen as having a reparative effect in that it would close the overall racial wealth gap considerably.

But does this actually count as reparations? It’s really a race-neutral generalized leveling of wealth across the entire society. If race-neutral programs that disproportionately benefit Blacks count as reparations (a principle these kinds of plans implicitly endorse), then basically any egalitarian program can be said to have reparative effects. If you allow race-neutral programs to count as reparations, then it becomes difficult to see how reparations necessarily differs from egalitarianism except in its branding.

2. Must It Go Beyond Your Typical Policy Preferences?
On its face, it seems to me like a reparations policy must go beyond your normal policy preferences. If you believe that everyone is fundamentally owed public health care, then you cannot say public health care counts as reparations, even if it disproportionately benefits Blacks. Similarly, if you think everyone is owed public education, then you cannot say public education counts as reparations. If you think everyone is owed the protection of a robust welfare state, then a robust welfare state also cannot be reparations.

The reason these things cannot be reparations is that they are owed to people simply as members of society (assuming you believe that). They are not owed to them for special reasons related to slavery and Jim Crow (or whatever else). Reparations thus needs to be something extra you provide to Blacks (or other relevant groups) beyond what you think everyone in society is entitled to.

This seems like a simple enough formulation, but it’s actually the source of great problems depending upon your own economic justice philosophy. If you are a libertarian and believe (roughly) that people are only owed whatever they receive through “voluntary” transactions within capitalist institutions, then it is easy enough to say simple income and wealth transfers can constitute reparations. And indeed, many libertarians do say that.

But if you are an egalitarian and believe that people are already owed distributive equality, then identifying special actions that can count as reparations becomes very difficult. For an egalitarian, the wealth gap is a problem regardless of how it came about. Even if there never was any racial discrimination or slavery or Jim Crow or whatever, an egalitarian would look at the wealth gap and say there is an injustice that must be remedied by reordering the distribution of resources. So, if you think that such reordering is already required, then you cannot say such reordering is reparations. Reparations must be something special above and beyond your normal policy preferences.

Given the egalitarian’s preexisting desire to level out distributions, it actually becomes somewhat difficult to identify a reparations policy that egalitarians wouldn’t already support as part of their normal ideal political economy. And if it would already be supported as part of their normal ideal political economy, it is not in fact reparations.

3. Would Intuitions on Reparations Change if the Distribution Were Different?
The most generic way of thinking about reparations is to analogize it to compensating workers who are victims of wage theft or to analogize it to compensating victims of other kinds of civil harms like battery. In these cases, the commission of wage theft or battery creates a certain legal liability that is discharged when the offending party pays a certain sum of money to the aggrieved party.

In the legal situations, the obligations to pay the aggrieved party the sum of money obtains no matter what the parties’ background resources are. So, even if the offending party is way poorer than the aggrieved party, they still have to pay the lost wages or the civil damages.

But would anyone actually insist upon reparations if the wealth inequality was flipped? For instance, imagine that, due to slavery and Jim Crow and the like, Black wealth is a certain fixed amount lower than it would “otherwise” be. But despite this drag on Black wealth accumulation, Blacks were actually 5x wealthier than Whites (but would have been 6x wealthier in the counterfactual). In this situation, would we really say that, for justice to be served, we would need to enact reparative transfers from Whites to Blacks? That we need to increase wealth inequality by transferring from a group that is 1/5th as wealthy as the group being transferred to?

This is what would be necessary to right the wrong in the same sense as a civil harm, but I suspect people wouldn’t think about it the same way in this scenario.

If flipping the inequalities actually flips your view on whether reparative transfers should happen (i.e. you wouldn’t call for reparations if it were Blacks with the wealth advantage even if their wealth advantage was less than it would otherwise be), then what you seem to actually have are pro-egalitarian intuitions not pro-reparations intuitions. That is, you are troubled by the wealth gap regardless of how it came about and even if it came about in the most pristine of capitalist situations. That would still make you an advocate of leveling for its own sake, but would re-raise the difficulties in (2) about cogently fitting reparations into a radical egalitarian philosophy that already wants to level for reasons unrelated to any history.

Like I noted in my initial post on this, reparations serves the practical political ends of egalitarianism given the contingent wealth distribution that actually obtains. And so there is no reason an egalitarian or socialist or similar shouldn’t come out for it (including Sanders). But if we are talking about the philosophy of reparations, it is (perhaps unexpectedly) a much more confounding topic for left-egalitarians than it is for right-wingers, and libertarians especially. Because the right leans more heavily on process (“voluntary transactions”) and desert (“get what you produce”) to define distributive entitlement, it’s a lot easier for them to endorse a one-off reordering of the existing distributive outcome to correct for prior deviations from process and desert. Because the left’s theory of distributive entitlement already focuses so heavily on distributive outcomes, it’s a lot harder to distinguish a special reparative reordering from the normal ongoing reordering that is already endorsed as a permanent feature of an ideal political economy.

Nobody Is On Twitter

Terrell Jermaine Starr has a piece at the Washington Post titled “On Twitter, Bernie Sanders’s supporters are becoming one of his biggest problems.” In it, he argues “the social media battles have shown that Sanders’s supporters also have become a major hurdle for the candidate in building a positive image with the black electorate.”

As evidence for this, he shares the following:

  1. He points to a number of tweets sent by random Bernie Sanders’s supporters to prominent black pundits and the Seattle Times.
  2. He cites a political consultant who notes that Bernie Sanders has not done an interview with black press where he apologized for comments his random supporters have made on Twitter.
  3. He observes that Bernie Sanders’s supporters have pointed out his good record on civil rights and the backlash to that via the #BernieSoBlack hashtag.
  4. He muses about how this reminds him of Occupy Wall Street.
  5. He notes Bernie Sanders has not tweeted condemnation about his random supporters’ tweets from his campaign twitter account.

These things certainly make a strong case for explaining why Starr is deeply annoyed by Sanders’ Twitter trolls, but it’s extremely hard to understand how they make a case for his thesis that “the social media battles have shown that Sanders’s supporters also have become a major hurdle for the candidate in building a positive image with the black electorate.” The claims “I am annoyed” and “pundits like me are annoyed” are different from the claim “a massive population bloc of 40 million people is annoyed.”

Nobody Is On Twitter
Internet writers live on Twitter and it greatly distorts their understanding of reality. According to Pew, around 85% of American adults are internet users. Of those adults, only 23% use Twitter. The number is slightly higher at 27% for blacks.

I would venture to guess that most of these Twitter users do not use Twitter like Starr does, probably do not follow politics much (if at all), and have basically nobody in their mentions ever about anything. That’s the nature of Twitter. A few superstar accounts get a bunch of followers and interactions, while the rest don’t Tweet all that much, and only have a handful of followers, probably mostly people they know.

It just seems wildly improbable that the negative Twitter experiences of a tiny slice of heavily-followed pundits on a social media platform that less than a quarter of the online adult population uses has any effect on the voting trends of a 40 million person group. As someone who loves Twitter, this can be hard to admit, but ultimately Twitter is an ephemeral online forum that nobody really uses, and our tiny politics subpocket of Twitterdom almost certainly has no effect on anything.

Nobody Knows Who Bernie Sanders Is
One of the stranger things about this genre of writing (and I’ve read a number of pieces in it so far, including for Latinos) is how detached it generally is from what the polling tells us about Bernie. Starr, to his great credit, does not make this mistake. At the beginning of his piece, he actually cites to a Gallup poll breaking down candidate favorability by race, and notes briefly that lack of name recognition is one of the things weighing Bernie down among black voters.

There are two interesting things about this name recognition data.

First, notice that 67% of blacks are not familiar with Bernie Sanders. He actually has less name recognition than George Pataki, to put this in perspective. Only 8% of black people lack familiarity with Hillary Clinton. The lack of familiarity is clearly the major driving force behind anything related to Bernie and black people. It dwarfs any other effect you might possibly ever point to. Yet, in this genre of writing, if it gets mentioned at all, it’s treated as a little preliminary note prior to the exposition on the real reason Bernie is failing.

Second, lack of name recognition is totally inconsistent with the “black people are annoyed by Bernie Sanders’ supporters on Twitter” theory. Being harassed by Bernie Sanders people on Twitter would make you know who he is and then, likely, make you unfavorable towards him because of the bad experience. But you can’t simultaneously dislike Bernie Sanders because people are making you mad on Twitter about him and also have never heard of him. This is true beyond Twitter stuff as well. Any theory that says black people don’t like Bernie because of X is entirely undermined by the fact that black people have no idea who he is. He can’t both be disliked for a specific reason and be totally unknown. Right?