Greatest good versus least harm, and the money proxy

It seems to me that the main difference in principle between Labour and National-based governments in NZ is an old question of utilitarianism – whether one should work toward achieving the greatest good or toward ensuring the least harm. The two philosophical positions are sketched out reasonably well in the wikipedia article on utilitarianism.

In principle, the difference boils down to a strategy of positive ambition versus negative mitigation. The former sees achievement as the highest goal, and failure as a necessary collateral effect of attempted achievement. They grade a society by its upper bound, by how much success its leading members achieve. In this regard, the ideology emphasises ambition, celebrating that qualities as the most beneficial to society while disregarding the worst consequences of its failure – destitution, disease, starvation, etc. The caricature of an ambitionist, if I may coin the term, sees the world as humanity’s oyster, and humanity in positive terms – as potentially successful and satisfied and healthy and secure, and considers that anyone who does not achieve these things has simply not tried hard enough, or for long enough, or lacks the innate characteristics needed to achieve those things and is therefore not entitled to them. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their success. In symbolic terms, the way to appeal to these people is in terms of opportunity, advantage, individuality, and the idea of just desserts for effort rendered.

On the other hand, the caricatured mitigationist (to coin the opposite term) grades society on its lower bound, by the extent to which the least successful members of the society are allowed to suffer by the more successful. They see the world as a dangerous, inhospitable place in which the default state is abject meanness, and humanity in negative terms of limiting those inhospitable forces, keeping out the cold and the hunger and the disease, while anything else is a bonus. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their humanity alone. The way to appeal to these people symbolically is in terms of compassion, brotherhood, sacrifice, cooperative achievement and that principle that none should suffer needlessly.

Although it may sometimes seem so, the world is not made up of caricatures, and this is my round of defence against complaints of false dichotomy. Both of these two broad positions hold some resonance for each of us, and it seems plausible that the balance of that resonance has a strong determinant effect on our political preferences. The problem, as always, comes with implementation, and the primary problem of implementation in the society we have is that money is used as the main measure of success and therefore as a proxy for a person’s innate value. This is perfectly acceptable to the ambitionists, whose ideological basis enables them to embrace money just as easily as they might embrace any other measure of human importance, but it’s not so attractive to mitigationists, who argue that entitlements accrue to a person on the grounds of their innate status as human beings and members of society, regardless of their achievements.

Push comes to shove at times like this, when things (in terms of that prevailing measure of success, money) are tight. When many people are deprived them, the human necessities of health, comfort and dignity can more readily be achieved by an idea of the common good than by the burning desire of ambition. However, when things get good again, it’s a terribly hard ideological position to peel back, and inasmuch as the common good can constrain the urgency of effort required for success it can be counter-productive, entrenching mediocrity. Indeed, without the incentive of individual reward for ambition, it could be argued that society would never pull out of any trough. But contrary to what the Randroids say, this isn’t an absolute constraint. In good times it’s easy to emphasise the greater good because a reasonable minimum standard can be expected to exist or be trivially provided for the few who need it. None need suffer except by a relative standard. In hard times, however, when raw success is less achievable, mitigating harm at the temporary expense of ambition becomes more valuable by its easy achievement.

The case in point is the Key government’s recession strategy, which gives a great deal of consideration to maintaining ambition but little to mitigating harm. It’s a tacit acceptance of a certain amount of harm in service of a longer-term good. If not from the policy itself, you can tell this from the terms used to talk about it. That’s a complicated philosophical and utilitarian question for a supposedly non-ideological government to be tackling.

L

18 thoughts on “Greatest good versus least harm, and the money proxy

  1. MacDoctor

    Interesting ideas, Lew, but you overlook the fact that the ambitionist sees all of society gradually improving in the wake of the success of individuals and the increase in general productivity.

    Your mitigationalist sees only the gap between the wealthy and the poor and tries to correct this by redistribution with varying degrees of success.

    As you point out, most of us are a mixture between the two. We all admire success and strive towards it (or, at least, dream about it). But we also appreciate that there is a safety net beneath us.

    The trick (in my mind anyway) is for the safety net to be good enough to encourage financial risk taking and ambition, but not be big enough to be comfortable.

  2. Patrick

    I’ve observed that, following Schumpter’s dictum of creative capitalism, that National’s role in Aoteroa NZ’s life is to destroy things (in order that they may be rebuilt) – hence National destroys jobs, health services, communities etc, which is what they do do par excellence (cv with Labour).

    Labour’s role is to pick things up and rebuild things – jobs, communities, health services etc which is what they do do, par excellence (cv with National).

    Or as one bored housewife said to me, National is like a three year old brat, while Labour is the mother.

  3. MacDoctor

    Patrick: What a load of codswallop.

    Jobs: Labour does indeed create jobs – in the public service.
    Communities: Stand or fall on their own. If they need government intervention for survival, it is dubious that they are real communities.
    Health: ROTFLMAO! Labour rebuilt health! Good one, Patrick! Haven’t laughed that much for ages.

  4. Lew Post author

    MD,

    you overlook the fact that the ambitionist sees all of society gradually improving in the wake of the success of individuals and the increase in general productivity.

    Trickle-down. I don’t overlook it, but I do highlight the fact that it’s a trade-off, not an unadulterated social good. Long-term gain for all versus short-term pain for some is problematic because those most likely to gain aren’t at risk of pain. The problem with the `rising tide lifts all boats’ argument is that the various boats are not all lifted equally, as the metaphor implies – and indeed, there is frequently an inverse correlation between the amount of effort undertaken in service of this sort of economic progress and the amount of gain. Sure, people working in the sweatshops gain from their work, but not in proportion to their work when compared to those who employ them. So while that situation might be better for them than the absence of any work at all, it’s not better than all possible alternatives, because the absence of any work is not usually the only other alternative.

    The trick (in my mind anyway) is for the safety net to be good enough to encourage financial risk taking and ambition, but not be big enough to be comfortable.

    Indeed – an eye on both the upper and the lower bounds. The key quibble is over that definition of `comfortable’, an important definition which goes right back to what a person is or ought to be entitled to by simple virtue of being a human being. On one extreme is perfect redistributive egalitarianism; on the other, freedom from prison rape is defined as a `creature comfort’.

    L

  5. Ari

    Jobs: Labour does indeed create jobs – in the public service.
    Communities: Stand or fall on their own. If they need government intervention for survival, it is dubious that they are real communities.
    Health: ROTFLMAO! Labour rebuilt health! Good one, Patrick! Haven’t laughed that much for ages.

    It also presided over a large increase in the private sector and had a very successful initiative to minimise unemployment.

    I’m also pretty sure that New Zealand’s public service was not actually very large under Labour by international standards.

    How about we agree to start with that the ideal size of the public service is bigger than just the army police health and education, and smaller than is necessary for the Ministry of Silly Walks. :p

  6. MacDoctor

    How about we agree to start with that the ideal size of the public service is bigger than just the army police health and education, and smaller than is necessary for the Ministry of Silly Walks. :p

    Agreed. :-)

  7. Bill Bennett

    Interesting debate here.

    I’d say from a strictly economic point of view it’s best to have a centre right government in a recession and a centre left government in a boom.

    Which is pretty much what the people of New Zealand have engineered over the last 20 years or so.

    Is that a co-incidence?

  8. DeepRed

    Ironically Reagan & Thatcher pledged to downsize their respective public sectors. By the time they left office, the size of their public sectors had actually increased. And it wasn’t just the military splurges either.

  9. DeepRed

    Ironically, Reagan & Thatcher pledged to downsize their respective public sectors upon being elected. By the time they left office, the sizes of their public sectors had actually increased markedly. And it wasn’t just the military & police splurges either.

  10. SPC

    The Labour governments of 1984-90 and 1999-2008 left office in/with a recession and it got (will get) worse under the following National governments.

    What is seen as the case is Labour governments going out of office as soon as the economy goes into recession on their watch (as if their concern for the peoples well being had been a factor in the economy going into decline). Whereas National governments tend to lose office because of a perceived lack of concern of the well being of the people – as if the people are to serve the economic market and not the economic market serve the people.

  11. Andrew W

    SPC, of course as efforts to redistribute wealth increase, the ability to produce wealth declines, and as a societies wealth increases the average persons willingness to forgo an increase in their own prosperity to help the needy increases. That’s why the democratic system is stable, it’s also why the size of government has steadily increased over the last century as technology has given us greater wealth.

  12. SPC

    I agree, but the key word is the “average” person – which is the ultimate determinant of the democratic outcome. That said, in the USA a nation in which technology advances often originated there has been a growing disparity of wealth.

    There unique factors are a work – an aversion to socialised systems such a universal health care and rising minimum wages, an ideological conviction that distribution of wealth to the poor comes from making the rich richer and waiting for this to trickle down to the poor, a preference to private charity over public welfare, a belief that God blesses Christians for their faith and thus the poor of the world need to help themselves by becoming Christians like Americans.

  13. BLiP

    You are half right when you say: “That’s a complicated philosophical and utilitarian question for a supposedly non-ideological government to be tackling.”

    This goverment wouldn’t even know what you meant. I’m struggling myself.

    But how can you say National is “supposedly non-idealogical”? What do you mean by that?

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  15. Patrick

    I’d say from a strictly economic point of view it’s best to have a centre right government in a recession and a centre left government in a boom. Which is pretty much what the people of New Zealand have engineered over the last 20 years or so.

    Is that a co-incidence?

    I’ve often wondered myself, and no, I don’t think it is. However it does tend to drive governmental behaviour ergo, National destroys (seeking ways to ‘unlock’ wealth), while Labour re-builds and restores (which tends to build wealth).

    It’s a very creative way for society to grow in a way.

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