Political identities, an apology, and more on the money proxy

BK Drinkwater replied several days ago to my post on the core philosophical difference between Labour and National. Unfortunately I’ve been too busy (with work and with caring for family members at either end of their lives) to give very much attention to this sort of thing, and this state will continue for the foreseeable future. His is a good post, and although it’s couched as a critique of mine, I mostly agree with it. It’s not so much arguing a different point than mine as looking at the issue more deeply. I especially like his restatement of the matter in formal terms:

The big question, and this is the one that will probably decide which camp of economic thought you pitch your tent in, is this: to what extent do the ill social products of income inequality compound as according to income inequality, and does this effect rival the benefits of economic growth to the point where you’re willing to see less of the latter?

A therefore B (therefore A)
I was in the initial post perhaps a bit vague about which parts of my argument were the hypothesis and which were the evidence to prove it (in truth, they’re both, which is itself problematic). This meant BK accepted the utilitarian dichotomy I raised (greatest good versus least harm), but didn’t follow it completely through. Once followed through, I think it illuminates the reasoning behind both sides’ policy preferences and ideological truisms. I pegged the core philosophical difference to a crude split of those who see the world as being bounteous with opportunity and potential, and those who see it as being fraught with danger and risk. For example:

Classical liberals in National are concerned almost solely with negative rights: the right not to have your stuff stolen, the right not to be raped, etc etc. Labour recognizes also positive rights: the right to a high standard of education and healthcare, the right to share equitably in the prosperity of the nation as a whole.

(Ignoring for a moment that the example isn’t accurate because both National and Labour believe in the things ascribed above to Labour). The notional ambitionist is concerned with negative rights because they see the world as basically beneficial, and consider that if people are just left the hell alone human beings will generally be sweet. The notional mitigationist ideologue, on the other hand, believes that the world is a harsh place, and that minimum entitlements of comfort and dignity should be guaranteed in positive rights. The two positions positions don’t explain the worldview as much as they are derived from the worldview. Other dichotomies map to this with a fair degree of accuracy: the abundance versus scarcity split of how full the glass is represents just one, you can probably think up others.

Above, I used `the world’ deliberately, because I think a good case study for this sort of thing are the linked matters of climate change and peak oil. Ambitionists, by and large, see neither of these as a great problem, because at core they hold an unshakable confidence in humanity’s ability to overcome anything and will find ways to mitigate against both, given enough time and good reason to do so. This is the throughoing theme of Atlas Shrugged. Mitigationists, on the other hand, believe that there are forces greater than humanity and that these problems cannot be overcome – at least not by the ambitionist approach. This is the throughgoing theme of another great dystopic novel, The War of the Worlds, where humanity is saved through no fault of our own but through careful preservation of a lower bound.

These dichotomies are heavily propagandised, and are a significant matter of political identity. I reject much of the Marxist cui bono? approach to explaining political allegiance, and rather think that (warning, rash generalisations follow) the wealthy support National because National reflects their experience that the world is a sweet place where everyone has opportunities, they just have to take them; while the less-wealthy support Labour because Labour reflects their experience that it’s tough to scrape by without a decent base-line of public support. This leads me to my next point: what do people really believe?

Answer: what their ideological identity tells them to. The dirty little secret of my initial post is that I appealed to utilitarianism because it’s a useful framework, but I don’t actually buy it, and I don’t think very many other people do either. The unstated assumption was that people think rationally about matters like this, in terms of actual utility. I think people should, but I don’t think they do. When it comes to propagandised political identity markers such as these dichotomies, people assess policies or political positions in deontological terms, not in utilitarian terms – they identify themselves with an end and then rationalise the necessary means, inventing or adopting or appropriating arguments which allow them to sleep at night. The question is what does this policy advocate vis-a-vis what I believe to be right rather than what utility will this policy bring vis-a-vis the alternatives. So all this talk about opportunity and risk and discount rates and such is useful in theory, and useful in practice inasmuch as it might form the basis for ideologically resonant arguments which might lead to greater support for better policy outcomes, but I don’t think the question I raised was strictly one of utility – it’s one of identity. Sorry about that.

More on the money proxy
I want to expand on why I have problems with the money proxy, which I touched on in the last post. It’s pretty simple, and explains the reason why I’m not strictly an ambitionist: money is both the means by which we judge a person’s worth (in the human sense) and the resource needed to enjoy the comfort and dignity to which I (and most people) believe human beings are entitled by simple virtue of their being human beings. Because the same thing is used as both a means and an end, there is inevitable conflict: by denying people access to sufficient food, healthcare, accomodation, etc. on the grounds that they cannot afford to buy it for themselves, a society tacitly says: you are not worth it because you do not have enough money. This, to me, is not acceptable. If we cannot divorce the value of a person’s dignity, comfort and wellbeing from the monetary cost of sustaining it, what’s the purpose of society?

I suppose that’s my A.


10 thoughts on “Political identities, an apology, and more on the money proxy

  1. BK Drinkwater

    Your analysis strikes me as being obviously correct. Your writing is also better than mine :(

    Nicely done, and all the best with caring after family, which is all that really matters in the end.

  2. reid

    Unfortunately Lew I think you’re way off beam.

    Most wealthy people I know aren’t guilty of avarice although some are and they at some time will lose their fortunes. Seeing avarice when it’s not there is not only a sign of envy it’s a sign that it’s present in the beholder since people often assess a trait in their “enemy” in order to avoid confronting that trait in themselves.

    Of course if one concludes a person or group is avaricious then naturally one thinks they probably enjoy treading on people and dehumanising them in order to pursue their vice. It’s much easier that way, isn’t it.

    Unfortunately life doesn’t work like that.

    The way to success in any field in life is to conquer your own weaknesses and make them into virtues. The only way to do that is to look within and use discernment, self-discipline, self-denial and self-sacrifice. No-one has ever achieved anything without doing this. Everyone, every single person alive, has it within themselves to become anyone and do anything they have it in their mind to conceive and in their heart to believe, provided they are prepared to do the work. That’s the way the Universe works. It’s proven time and again throughout recorded history in all cultures and in all epochs and in all civilisations.

    Other people no matter who, cannot hold anyone back who has determined in themselves to set themselves on a path, provided that person is focused enough and determined enough to do it. This has nothing whatsoever to do with anyone else, it is an entirely internal struggle. If such a person is deflected or even deterred altogether from achieving their goals, that is a weakness in that person, not a reflection of strength in their protaganist.

    This is the law of the Universe. It’s how life works. The ultimate expression of this arises from those who have understood the ultimate truth, that we are all connected and who practice that accordingly in their every action, both hidden and in public. The ultimate bastardisation arises from those who seek merely to impose their will upon others seeking a Nietzschean nihilistic landscape.

    Almost the entire human race lies somewhere between these two extremes but the mistake is for anyone to imagine that they are somehow prevented from achieving either pole because of the influence of others, whoever they may be and whatever their current position in life.

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  4. student_still


    I disagree with you entirely. The will to succeed is not enough in itself. Every human being has limitations, whether they be physical, academic, emotional…These shortfalls within each individual is displayed when others (or society as a whole) set the bar at a certain level, and individuals, through no fault of their own, are unable to live up to these pre-determined standards/expectations. I’m not saying that the standards are too high, and should be lowered, I’m simply saying that some individuals in some areas of their lives simply cannot meet ‘the mark’. For example, I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent and educated person, at one stage in my life I wanted to be a Forensic Scientist. I have a natural ability in art, English, reading, writing, geography, history, etc…but I really struggle with logic/tech/science learning. Because Forensics is essentially a science, and because I lacked (academically/mentally/emotionally) the natural ability to grasp science and succeed in this area, I soon became aware I would be unable to pursue the life-path that would lead to me eventually becoming a Forensic Scientist. This was not for lack of ambition or want, as I tried incredibly hard at school to succeed in my science subjects. Teachers, tutors, lecturers, institutions all set the bar at a certain level, and I could not meet this level, therefore I was excluded. Another example is that South Korean woman who failed her drivers test 771 times. The level was set, and she could not reach this level. Society has effectively told this woman 771 times that she is not fit to legally drive a car. I guess what I’m trying to say is that society sets the bar, and quite often no amount of determination on the part of the individual will allow them to reach the level required. Sometimes pure determination can work, other times it does not. Success and overcoming obstacles is not a purely internal struggle when the obstacles are put there by external forces.

  5. Carol

    To me the polarity that Lew posits, (amitionists verses risk aversionists), is based on an individualist outlook, and not theway I usually view the differences between left and right wing policies.

    To me the left is much more into the idea that society is more than a collection of (self-serving) individuals. In order to achieve any kind of success, or to avoid major risks, there needs to be collaborative endeavours, such as social provisions and services.

    The individualistic oultllok is more one I associate with the centre-ground of politics and the right.

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  7. Fo

    “The notional ambitionist is concerned with negative rights because they see the world as basically beneficial, and consider that if people are just left the hell alone human beings will generally be sweet. The notional mitigationist ideologue, on the other hand, believes that the world is a harsh place, and that minimum entitlements of comfort and dignity should be guaranteed in positive rights.”

    Also there is the Tragic vision/Utopian vision of the world described by Thomas Sowell & discussed in Steven Pinker’s book ‘The Blank Slate. Basically, the tragic vision is that we are limited in what we understand & can change. Therefore a conservative approach is sensible. The utopian vision is that people are perfectible & policies that aim to change social arrangements should be pursued.

  8. Lew Post author

    Rauparaha at The Visible Hand In Economics presents a quote by Winston Churchill which encapsulates in two sentences the essence of what I’ve mostly failed to explain here in a couple of thousand words:

    The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.


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