The Seduction of Guarantees

We want guarantees in life.  We are risk-reducing creatures who want to plan and plot and know as much in advance as possible.  We want tight and definite parameters around the possible outcomes of our actions and our world.  Whether we like it or not, they don’t exist.  Still, we persist in fabricating them and acting offended when people acknowledge the impossibility of our desired guarantees.

I recently heard two libertarian philosophers discussing social justice.  One made the case that social justice is a good goal, and that it is congruent with liberty because a truly free society results in the best-case scenario for the least well-off; something even John Rawls would approve of.  He said free-marketers should proudly fight for social justice and remind the world that a free economy will improve the absolute conditions of the poor more than anything else.

The other philosopher responded by saying the world is awash in guarantees   We are not suffering for want of guarantees, but for want of opportunity.  He said guarantees create expectations; when these are not met, they result in complaints, frustration, blame and disillusionment.  We needn’t coddle the unrealistic desire for a sure thing, but encourage an embrace of the risk and uncertainty in life and the courage to create and try even when the end results are unknown.

Even if it is true that free-markets result in better lives for the poor, is it really helpful to make the case for freedom to specific individuals as one that promises this?  To say that freedom will make you better off is appealing to everyone, because everyone wants a guarantee.  And it is correct in a general sense.  But the truth is no system – not a free society or a totalitarian one – can guarantee a specific outcome to specific individuals.  Will markets produce better results than interventionism?  You bet.  But can either system promise what will happen to each individual?  No way.  To hinge the case for liberty on guarantees is to utilize the same false advertising tyrants have been using since time immemorial.

Liberty is beautiful.  It promises nothing but the freedom to be, to act, to try, to create, to produce.  It does not promise what effects will follow cause, only that cause will be unimpeded so long as it does not impede anyone else.  The desire for a guarantee is the very desire that causes people to tolerate and advocate their own enslavement.  This desire itself is dangerous.  Better to disabuse oneself of the myth of a guarantee.

Anyone who’s done sales knows the danger of relying on expected results instead of actual results.  Don’t count the money until the check clears.  If you cultivate a guarantee loving mindset, you’ll find yourself bitter at all the unrealized expectations in life.  You will feel as though everyone, society, the system, or reality itself is your enemy.  Really, by choosing to accept the unreality of guarantees, it is you who have made yourself the enemy of what is.  Why?  It accomplishes nothing but to stunt your own creative and cooperative capacity and replace it with an adversarial outlook towards your fellow man.

The world is uncertain.  We seek to make the most out of it and eliminate hardships, but every course of action only brings probabilities of success, not guarantees.  That’s OK.  In fact, it’s wonderful once we make our peace with it.  Stop debating which ideas can guarantee what, and embrace the fact that guarantees are a serum that slows us down from acting to achieve our ends.  After all, it is the process of seeking just as much as the ends we seek that brings fulfillment   Guarantees put all the emphasis on the sought, and none on the seeking.  Even if our ends are realized, this mindset deprives us of half the joy.

I am not making the case that freedom ought only to be embraced because it’s “right”; far from it.  Freedom will produce better outcomes than statism, and this is the best reason to advocate it.  But what those outcomes are specifically, and how the manifest in each individual’s life is unknown, just as the results of statisms deprivations and favors are unknown.  What is knowable is the fact that freedom produces an outcome for every individual that no system of control and dependency ever could; but it is not an external or material outcome.  It is a sense of pride, of life, of self-worth that is impossible in a system built on false guarantees and dispensations from authorities.  The freedom to experience the effects of one’s cause, regardless of whether it is for good or ill, produces a sturdiness and fullness that humans need to be fully human.  The dignity of uncertain freedom is orders of magnitude greater for the human soul than the patronizing promises of central planning.

Redistribution and Time Travel: A Thought Experiment

A means of effective time travel has been invented. People can freely traverse time, travelling from the present to any point in the past and vice-versa. Access to time travel is pretty universal, and due to this, knowledge of conditions at all points in time is acute.

For those who believe there is a moral obligation on the part of the better-off to help the less well-off, and who believe in redistributive policies to do this, play along and consider the situation.

People in the present are outrageously wealthy compared to people in the past. Even the poorest Americans today have access to abundant clean water, hot and cold water, heated shelter, air conditioning, an overabundance of cheap, calorie-rich food, more clothing than they need, refrigeration, telephony, transport by internal-combustion engine, laundry facilities, bathing facilities, vaccinations, pharmaceuticals, emergency care, and on and on. These present poor are better off by almost any measure than even the wealthy a thousand years ago.

Do people in the present have an obligation to give some of their wealth to those in the past? Is there some minimum standard of living that we need to keep the ancients up to? Do the poor among the rich (present day poor Americans) have an obligation to the rich among the poor (the well-off a millennium ago)?

What kind of redistributive policies should be enacted? Would they work? What might some side-effects be? Is it required to fulfill a moral duty? Is it wrong for someone born in the present to enjoy the relative luxury and wealth they are inheriting from their era, by no merit on their part? Should they pay an inheritance tax to support people in the poorer past?

What about future generations. What if the future is also poorer; does the present owe them a chunk of our wealth? What would be the result of efforts to redistribute from the present to the future? What if the future was wealthier; do they owe the past a portion of their bounty? What would happen if resources flowed to us from the future, in order to ease our relatively lower condition?

Spanning all of human history, would we have a moral obligation to attempt to make all people across all eras more equal? Would we be obligated to narrow the gap between the caveman and the flying-car-owning future woman? How big could we let the gap be? Would narrowing it be possible? Would there be any side-effects of efforts to try?

What is the difference, morally and practically, between redistribution across time and that across space?

Inequality vs. Favoritism

Inequality is inescapable and morally neutral.  There is no virtue in trying to eradicate it, and it makes no sense to talk of reducing it.

My children were born unequal.  They will remain unequal as they learn, achieve and acquire.  Any efforts to make them equal do harm to all parties involved.  Many people agree that I could never make them equal, but maybe I should try to make them more equal.  Equality is not a more or less concept, it is either or.

3 is not equal to 2.  Neither is 4 equal to 2.  It is meaningless to call one more equal to 2 than the other.  We could say that 3 is more equal to 2, because it is only one whole integer removed from 2.  We could say 4 is more equal to 2 because it is divisible by 2, and only one even number removed.  It is entirely dependent on our frame of reference.  Equality between individuals is as impossible as equality between 2 and 3, and degrees of inequality are entirely subjective; a matter of perception, different for all observers and participants.

It is fruitless to attempt to lessen inequality or increase equality.  In fact, it’s worse than fruitless, it is destructive.  Not only does it produce arbitrary and unpredictable results which disillusion and demotivate the targets, it fuels strife, envy, and limiting one’s potential to the achievements of their perceived betters.

Still, there is something to the desire to create equality.  I would be a terrible parent if I lavished gifts and affirmation, or insult and condemnation, on one child far more than the others.  Not because it would make them more unequal; they are and will always be unequal.  But because my deliberate action of applying the family rules, mores and norms selectively and unfairly would break trust and breed conflict.  I would be engaging in favoritism, either negative or positive.

I will not try to clearly define favoritism, because I think putting it into words actually makes it less understandable than if we stick with our intuitive and tacit understanding of the term.  It is not merely acting differently towards different people.  If I speak Spanish to a Spanish speaking person and English to an English speaking person I am not acting uniformly towards them, but I am not showing favoritism.  Interacting with my unequal children in ways that best resonate with their unique “language” is not favoritism either.  Favoritism is when the spoken or unspoken rules of the house are not consistently applied.

If it is known that doing X chores will get you Y payment, or that treating Dad’s iPad carelessly will result in less access to the iPad, these norms must be applied in a uniform way.  I may communicate the norms and remind my children of them in different ways based on their individuality and inequality, but if one kid gets paid more for the same work, or one gets access to the iPad despite throwing it against the wall and the others don’t, I’m engaging in favoritism that damages everyone.

Uniform application of the family norms will result in inequality, as is inevitable with unequal children.  Some will get more chores done and earn more money.  Some will have a hard time controlling emotions and end up throwing the iPad and losing access to it.  Their nature and choices will produce unequal results.  There is no evil in this.  To aim at equality puts the focus on outcomes; the relative positions resulting from individual actions within an institutional context.  This is a meaningless point of reference, and incredibly poisonous when chosen as the basis by which to judge institutions.  It devolves into, “Anything that rubs me the wrong way, or anything you excel at must be curbed.”  It’s a sentiment that coddles and nurtures our least civil and humane and most barbaric and short-sighted tendencies, usually in the name of the opposite.  It is the uniformity of treatment in relation to the understood rules and norms that matters, not the inequality that results.

The attempt to make my children equal, or more equal, or even treat them equally is futile and destructive.  It is enlightening and beneficial to keep an eye out for favoritism and uniform application of the rules.  I have to check my tendency to selectively apply the mostly unspoken institutional arrangements of the family, and it’s healthy to audit myself in this way.  But the minute I make equality the goal, confusion and frustration take hold, and the rules become more, not less, arbitrary.

Of course society is not a mirror of the family, but the lessons still apply.  To seek equality, or more equality, or less inequality, is an unproductive pursuit, and typically a mask for other frustrations we’re trying to ameliorate where we want the moral sanction of our peers to do so.  Drop it.  Inequality is morally neutral and needn’t be resisted or defended.  Focus on reliable and fair institutions that don’t systematize and reward favoritism, but make it harder and more costly.

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