Friday Ephemera
Phantom Guilt, Revisited

Details, Details

A while ago, I quoted an essay by Professor Zygmunt Bauman - a prolific, if unconvincing, advocate of socialism - and noted his readiness to make rather questionable statements. Among them, his belief that a leftist worldview follows from two assumptions:

The first assumption is that it is the duty of the community to insure its individual members against individual misfortune. And the second is that, just as the carrying capacity of a bridge is measured by the strength of its weakest support, so the quality of a society should be measured by the quality of life of its weakest members.

These, Bauman claims, are, or should be, the “constant and non-negotiable assumptions” of the left. But one of them at least has an obvious flaw. The components of a bridge do not, I’m assured, have volition. Bricks, cables and metal beams do not make choices that determine their strength and functionality. Human beings do make choices that very often, quite dramatically, determine their prospects and quality of life. Bauman’s essay frequently assumes a kind of self-evident righteousness, the details of which are never quite explained, leading to a tone that is not so much analytical as tribal and pious: 

The left wants a humane society, one that strives for justice for all its members. The left defines a just society as one that is aware that it is not-yet-sufficiently-just, that is haunted by this awareness and thereby spurred into action.

Praying_for_socialism_2Bauman is happy to insist that his assumptions are “the basis for a self-assertive left,” and that they “set the left on a perpetual collision course with the realities of the human condition under the rule of capitalism.” Not a perpetual collision with the human condition per se, of course – such a thing couldn’t possibly be entertained - but with the human condition “under the rule of capitalism” - also referred to as the “global capitalist order” – one which entails “wastefulness and immorality, manifested in social injustice.” These are bold claims, and fairly typical, yet Bauman – hailed as “one of Europe's most influential sociologists” - seems to feel no obligation to substantiate them with particulars. These things are, apparently, simply understood. Despite a rush to claim the badge of “social justice” – a term that remains oddly undefined - the professor doesn’t explain in any detail what kind of action he would have us spurred towards. And given the role of individual judgment in how a person’s life plays out, questions of moral action do necessarily follow. Lots of them. I raised a few of the more obvious ones before, but I think some of them bear repeating:

Why is a society to be measured by how the least able fare, seemingly irrespective of why that situation arises and persists? How are people to be insulated from, and compensated for, what are often consequences of their own choices and priorities? How much control is to be exerted and how many freedoms curtailed - including the freedoms of those suffering misfortune? On what basis does Professor Bauman imagine he has a right to ensure that society’s members optimise the quality of their lives, insofar as they’re able? How, exactly, will this feat be achieved, and by whom?

If some individuals fail to make the approved decisions in the approved sequence and with sufficient foresight, will those choices be made by others, and if necessary enforced? Will individuals be compensated for all of their own shortcomings, dispositions and misjudgments, or just some of them? Who is Bauman to determine what constitutes an acceptable qualitative outcome? And how far would he go to ensure those outcomes are arrived at, regardless of the cost to others who may not share his view?

The professor claims that “the quality of a society should be measured by the quality of life of its weakest members.” My initial response to this was to think of a drunken woman I sometimes see not far from where I live. She’s a slightly incongrous sight around mid-morning: fag in one hand, can of cheap beer in the other, chugging away merrily and looking a little unsteady. I’m guessing she’s not a physicist or a brain surgeon, or even a professor of sociology, and I doubt those were ever serious career options. It’s unlikely, I think, that this woman can hold down a job and I’d guess the odds are good that her morning beers are paid for with state benefits. Now if Bauman wants us to judge the quality of society as a whole by the quality of this woman’s habits and decisions, or the decisions of others like her, that seems a tad unfair. It’s also unclear what, if anything, Professor Bauman would want to do to this woman - sorry, do for this woman - in the name of “social justice”. Bauman’s essay is, alas, a little vague on practical detail, and thus vague on moral detail. It does, however, have quite a lot of this:

The ‘welfare state’… is such an arrangement of human togetherness. It resists the present-day ‘neo-liberal’ tendency to break down the networks of human bonds and undermine the social foundations of human solidarity… A social state protects its members from the morally devastating competitive ‘war of all against all’.

Choking_on_virtueWell, I’m not aware of a British political party that wants to abandon the welfare safety net – the “social state” as Bauman prefers to call it – let alone abandon “human solidarity,” and the arguments I’ve heard tend to centre on whether long-term welfare dependency is a desirable state of affairs for any human being. It’s one thing to rail against the “rule of capitalism” in abstract and fanciful terms; it’s something else entirely to address particulars – such as those of a soused, if amiable, woman drinking beer by the road. Is Bauman suggesting that this woman should be steered away from her morning refreshments? These do, after all, affect her employment prospects, finances and health, and thus make her one of society’s “weakest members”. Or does the professor believe that she should be compensated indefinitely by the state for being an unemployable alcoholic and not terribly bright? How, I wonder, is her life to be brought closer into line with mine or yours? Does she have a say in the matter? Do those of us who would have to pick up the tab?

Professor Bauman is happy to charge the “capitalist order” with “sins of wastefulness and immorality, manifested in social injustice.” Yet one might very easily charge advocates of socialism with much the same sins precisely because their worldview so often degrades or denies the role of individual judgment and responsibility. What, for instance, happens to a person’s moral agency if that person is permanently shielded from the fallout of their own actions and is compensated not just for hardship and misfortune, but for negligence, selfishness and habitual idiocy? As a result, do they become a better person?

The professor tells us,

The left stands for the awareness that the job of making the world more hospitable to human dignity - the dignity of all humans - remains unfinished. It stands for the principled action that derives from such awareness.

Stirring stuff. But, again, it isn’t at all clear how socialism so conceived would improve the dignity of the woman mentioned earlier. Is her dignity enhanced by the state’s accommodation of, or correction of, her preferences and shortcomings? Is your dignity enhanced by paying for either of the above? Bauman’s enthusiasm for some idealised social system is, if not attractive, then at least hard to miss; his familiarity with individuals, human nature and practical questions of morality is not so obvious. Bauman defines the left, and apparently the left alone, as “want[ing] a humane society, one that strives for justice for all its members.” This is an absurd rhetorical conceit. I can’t offhand think of a major political outlook that defines itself as striving for a society based on inhumanity and injustice. The question is whether Bauman’s romantic view of the state as some benign parent figure is actually humane, or desirable, or in any sense fair. And using loaded, ill-defined terms such as “social justice” is a contemptible sleight-of-hand. Objecting to Bauman’s assumptions, or the assumptions of socialism generally, doesn’t imply a disdain for “human solidarity,” or callousness, or cartoonish supervillainy. Compassion and egalitarianism are not at all the same things, and to claim that they are is either woolly or dishonest.

Feel free to contribute to my welfare. 



I give the definition of Social-X on my blog. The word Social in front of anything means the opposite of the next word.

Social Justice means to punish people who have done nothing wrong.

Social Insurance means to reward people who do stupid things, by punishing those who are hard-working.

ism - a belief (or system of beliefs) accepted as authoritative by some group or school

Socialism - Gibberish.


Reading things like that, it really makes you wonder if Bauman actually thought through his ideas (and their implications) on a practical level at all. If I decide to argue for low / flat taxes, minimum state intervention and so on, I've at least got enough common sense to consider the consequences of what I'm arguing for.
It doesn't say much for the field of sociology either, if someone like that can be one of Europe's most influential sociologists. Then again if you can make some money writing books that spew this nonsense, maybe Bauman's onto something...

John D

"under the rule of capitalism" –as opposed to the rule of statist collectivism?


It’s the implied assumption of a monopoly on morality and human feeling that galls most, I think. There is, it seems, a tendency to assume that some formulation of egalitarianism is self-evidently virtuous and correct and that anything that deviates from this, or argues against it, is - equally self-evidently - wicked and unjust. (“But… egalitarianism must be synonymous with humanitarianism, justice and virtue – it must be, it simply must…!”) This seems to be related to the assumption that if socialism doesn’t square with reality, then reality is at fault and the “global capitalist order” or “false consciousness” or something is preventing socialism from emerging as a natural, moral default. As a piece of analysis, this is rather silly; as a statement of quasi-religious fervour it’s a little more comprehensible.


Prof Bauman would no-doubt want the society to do a collective kum-by-ya (sp?) rescue of this woman, in the same way that the police gang-tackle a ruly citizen. The enlightened "members of society" would all stand around this poor woman and bombard her with wonderful-sounding socilaist aphorisms, and she would just have to affected by them in the most positive way. Of course.

Then they would go on to the next victim...

Brian Micklethwait

I agree with Bauman that a very good way to judge a society is by asking what happens to those at the bottom of the heep. But socialism utterly fails this test, when set beside rampant low-tax capitalism. Neither scores 100%, but rip-roaring capitalism does decently, while socialism fails pathetically, often murderously.



Well, I suppose the question is why the “weakest members” of a society “should” be the most important yardstick of that society’s overall merit and functionality. I’m not suggesting those so defined shouldn’t be *a* measure, one of many; I’m just unsure why they should be *the* measure, as Bauman seems to think. Presumably, a society could be organised in such a way that those defined as “weakest” are slightly better off by various measures, yet everyone else is made more frustrated and miserable, or at some other cost. And, again, Bauman doesn’t seem terribly interested in the various reasons why a person would qualify as “weak” and thus be deserving of such preferential attention.


The assumption by most leftists is that the greedy manipulative selfish gini-exanding bastards who screw everyone in capitalist societies will suddenly and magically disappear, or undergo enmasse some kind of pauline conversion, when socialism takes hold.

Thus, under socialism you still have "weakest" people, for exactly the same reasons as you have them under capitalism, because those people still exist.

In fact, they probably fair better under socialism.

Not everyone in the USSR had a dacha in Gragra.


I would contest the belief tha under socialism, the weakest people probably fair better. I think that it is too difficult for the leaders in any society to treat themselves the same as the mass of the people. The leaders are where they are because they WANT to be the leaders, and they actively compete for those positions. The competition takes many forms, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone who had the stamina and skill to make it to the top of the hardest popularity contest around, would suddenly decide to live like everyone else. They are also surrounded by the trappings of power, and all of the protective machinery that is needed to keep them from being harmed by the people who do not just go away when they lose.

It don't believe it is possible for these leaders to just insist on everyone (including themselves) being "equal" and "just". And their "staff" and supporters also feel the same way, which is why you eventually end up with a perpetual retenue of hangers on who do not feel like living the same way as the weakest ones. They won, and they were clearly the best and the brightest, so they NEED more in order to better provide "for the society". You can't come up with good ideas if you are stuck eating gruel with the commoners.

Peter Horne

"The ‘welfare state’… is such an arrangement of human togetherness. It resists the present-day ‘neo-liberal’ tendency to break down the networks of human bonds and undermine the social foundations of human solidarity… A social state protects its members from the morally devastating competitive ‘war of all against all’.

Of course the problem for the mad professor is that it is socialism that is far more likely to produce the 'war of all against all' than free markets and a free society.

As Rothbard said ("Man, Economy and State")

"The free market, therefore, transmutes the jungle's destructive competition for meagre subsistence into a peaceful co-operative competition in the service of one's self and others. In the jungle, some gain only at the expense of others. On the market, everyone gains. It is the market—the contractual society—that wrests order out of chaos, that subdues nature and eradicates the jungle, that permits the "weak" to live productively, or out of gifts from production, in a regal style compared to the life of the "strong" in the jungle. Furthermore, the market, by raising living standards, permits man the leisure to cultivate the very qualities of civilization that distinguish him from the brutes."


This, by Peter Risdon, seems relevant. It touches on some basics that Professor Bauman doesn’t:

“If Simone goes into the forest to gather firewood, works very hard and collects enough for a week, Joe follows her and is more half-hearted but gathers enough for the night, Fred just can’t be bothered and sits in the pub, and Angela is disabled and can’t go at all, it is not at all clear why the ‘fair’ outcome would be reached by taking wood from Simone and giving it to the others. Perhaps all four would agree that, not least as a provision for their own possible need (as a result of injury, illness or age), all four are willing to chip in a few logs to a communal log pile so that Angela can have a fire that evening. But why should Fred get anything? And why should Joe get more than he gathered?”

A typical response to such a scenario is to pretend that people like Fred (and Joe) don’t exist, or don’t exist in large numbers. Yet I’d guess we’ve all known such people, or seen them, and not just very occasionally.

Raging Tiger

Milton Friedman talks about equality in "Free to Choose". Friedman highlights three types on equality: equality before God, equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.

Equality before God and equality of opportunity is something most people agree on. It means that society must not deny opportunities to anyone based on race, gender, religion etc.

Equality of outcome on the other hand demands that society must share the fruits of economic labour more equally. This has been the dominant leftist view. Friedman recognises the good intentions of those who seek the equality of outcomes but finds such equality inconsistent with the idea of personal freedom. As highlighted by David, personal choices have great bearing on individual outcomes and therefore a free society will always have some degree of inequality.

Friedman also says that free society is not incompatible with equality but there must be an important distinction. There is a huge difference between the society where 90% vote to pay more taxes to support the bottom 10%, to the society where 80% vote to have top 10% pay to support the bottom 10%.

Friedman concludes that any society that puts equality ahead of freedom will end up with neither. But the society that puts freedom before equality will end up with both greater freedom and great equality. Indeed this has been the experience of all communist/socialist societies compared to most free-market democracies.


Are you arguing for some kind of anarcho-capitalism?

It seems to me that there are some vital decisions about a society that can only be taken collectively. That is, we all vote in elections, and agree to accept the outcome, even when we don't like it. If we don't like it, we're free to argue with our fellow citizens, and persuade them to vote differently next time.

At the heart of all this is taxation. In broad terms the rates of taxation, and what the tax revenue gets spent on, have to be decided collectively. You have some individual freedom to pay or not pay indirect taxes. If your elected government sets a high tax on alcohol, you can drink less. But if you don't like the level of income tax you're paying, you have to either change the government or emigrate. If you try and dodge paying it, you'll go to prison.

Governments set tax levels for all kinds of reasons. The main one is to pay for all the things the voters want - schools, hospitals etc. But, inevitably, other factors come into play. Governments put high taxes on alcohol and tobacco, but generally shy away from taxes on books and newspapers. In effect, they're making a moral judgement; first, that drinking and smoking is bad for us, while reading is good for us; second, that expressing opinions in books or newspapers isn't the sort of thing a government should penalize with taxes.

We're all tired of the nanny state. But a degree of nannying is inherent in the tax system. I can't see how it could ever be otherwise. Many of us want to wean our societies off dependence on middle east oil, and some creative use of the tax system could help. Of course a bad government could mess it up, but that's politics.

IanCroydon mentions Mr Gini, whose coefficient measures social inequality. A Gini of zero represents a society where everyone has exactly the same income, and a Gini of one represents a society where one citizen owns everything while everyone else has nothing. There is statistical evidence that low Gini societies like Japan tend to have low crime rates, while high Gini societies like Brazil have high crime rates. No doubt there are some benefits to being a high Gini society. Maybe life is more exciting in Sao Paulo than in Tokyo. But the collectively taken decisions about taxes will have a huge effect on all this. Nordic societies have historically been low Gini societies, and there is evidence that many voters there prefer things more that way than, say, the US way. That's their choice. Fair, surely?



“Are you arguing for some kind of anarcho-capitalism?”

I’m not sure who you’re asking, but from what I can make out no-one is arguing for “anarcho-capitalism” - unless I’ve missed something, which does happen. For my part, I’m just interested in how a person arrives at certain, not uncommon, assumptions.

“There is statistical evidence that low Gini societies like Japan tend to have low crime rates, while high Gini societies like Brazil have high crime rates.”

Here, I may have to defer to any economists among us, or indeed Brazilians; but a question does occur. There’s a difference between correlation and causation; and even if a strong causal link were established, that still leaves the question of whether enforced equality of income, with all that entails, is a price worth paying for (possibly) lower crime rates.

The Thin Man


We have been down this road before. Two points about the gini effect.

First, the gini number cannot be a "coefficient" since coefficients are well defined constants acting upon a variable. So whilst it is possible to have a coefficient of drag or a coefficient of friction, it is not possible to have a coefficient of "social justice" or "inequality" because human behavior and differentiation is not amenable to such simplistic analysis.

Second, why does this gini number only work one way - that those societies with a high gini number ipso facto have high crime rates. Why could it not be that high crime rates PRODUCE high gini numbers - because in an equation like this, the equals sign is blind to the particular contribution or scale of each variable - in other words, many values of p, A and v give the same result.

D=½CρAv2 -(which calculates drag)
C is a drag coefficient, which varies from case to case
ρ is the air density (mass per volume)
A is the effective cross-sectional area of the body
v is the velocity of the body

I would love to meet the social scientist who could define an equation like the one above which would predict with accuracy some human behavior - because he'd be like God or Hari Seldon ( ) or something.

All this talk of social coefficients remind me of the attempts in the 60s to model the economy with coloured water and lengths of hosepipe ( ) - it is nonsense and bears about as much resemblance to the real world as climate models that show temperatures rising whilst measurement shows them to be falling.

The Thin Man

Not that I want to lower the tone or anything, but does anybody else think that the photos of Bauman, above, would be good candidates for an appearance in "Viz" "Up the Arse Corner" ?


“Not that I want to lower the tone or anything…”

I fear we crossed that bridge some time ago, and set fire to it. Then nuked the ashes from space.

The Thin Man

"Always burn your bridges behind you; you never know who might be trying to follow."
- Enabran Tain


> At the heart of all this is taxation. In broad terms the rates of taxation,

Too Broad. What gets taxed is more important in some ways than the level of taxation. Taxes on time exchange are much more damaging than taxes on property.

> and what the tax revenue gets spent on,

This is another problem. Governments tend to focus spending on problems this means they start rewarding problem creators. This can only lead to more problem production. Replace the word "benefit" with "reward" to see what I mean. Moral Hazard is the foundation of modern socialism, and it starts a downward spiral of moral decay.


This is sort of relevant. The Guardian’s Charlie Brooker shares his keen moral insight:

“During the London mayoral election, I had two main fears. The first, obviously, was that Boris was going to win… But the second fear, the one I kept tucked away somewhere near the back of my head, was far more sinister. It was this: what if Boris won - and then turned out to be really good at his job?”

Brooker isn’t the first selfless lefty to hope that a non-leftwing mayor would be a disaster (i.e. for London and its inhabitants). He goes on,

“That might force me to question my cherished anti-Tory prejudice, which is so ingrained and instinctive it feels like something hand-stamped on my DNA…”

I’m guessing “hand-stamped on my DNA” roughly translates as “my reflexive tribalism and unthinking self-righteousness.” But as I’ve said before, a great many Guardianistas seem very concerned indeed with not appearing “rightwing” – which seems to cover pretty much anything outside their own, rather narrow, worldview. In fact, for some, not seeming “rightwing” is much more important than, say, being morally coherent. The nearest Brooker gets to a principled rationale for wishing incompetence and misfortune on Londoners is this:

“I know in my bones that rightwing policies are wrong. Obviously wrong. They just are. It’s Selfishism, pure and simple.”

And nothing at all like the selfishness of wishing trouble and disarray on an entire city in order to affirm one’s own sense of righteousness.


Today's leftists must have very powerfully perfumed hankerchiefs pressed to their noses to overcome the stench of 100 million corpses, the real effect of "social justice". Or perhaps, it smells just fine to them.


The Thin Man

I have an ongoing argument with someone who insists there's no meaningful way to say that the people of Malawi are economically poorer than the people of Sweden. For him that's simply a value judgement. It's like saying red cars look better than green cars. It's not like saying Jupiter is bigger than Mercury.

I don't agree. There are problems with Gini's "coefficient", no doubt. But you are trying to argue from the flawed imperfection of the measurement to the non-existence of the phenomenon being measured.

As to why Japan is relatively very equal while Brazil is relatively unequal the reasons are no doubt complex, historical and cultural. David, you imply that a relatively equal society must be more coercive of its citizens than an unequal one. I'm not sure that's true either. The inequalities of Latin America have often been maintained by dictatorships, crushing movements and organizations of the poor with death squads. Whatever has brought Japan to its present low Gini, I can't imagine it's anything as coercive as that.

(I suspect that Japan's low Gini is a byproduct of its extreme social cohesion, rather than any ideological commitment to socialism. The conservative Liberal Democratic party has been in more or less permanent government there, after all.)

I'm not sure if you consider a progressive income tax determined by a democratically elected government coercive. Everything governments do is coercive. We must obey the laws they make or face fines or prison. Ditto the taxes they levy on us. What tempers that coercion is having a stake, as a citizen, in the collective decisions. No taxation without representation. Democracy.

Some Baltic states are apparently experimenting with a single flat rate tax. I wish them well with it. But whether a society opts for that, or a more progressive tax regime is up to the voters.



“You imply that a relatively equal society must be more coercive of its citizens than an unequal one. I’m not sure that's true either.”

Well, if you take a society like here or the U.S., how do you propose to make it more egalitarian in terms of income without some rather serious interference and coercion? And how do you propose to keep it that way? Mass conversion to the socialist ideal?

“Everything governments do is coercive.”

Well, again, there’s a difference between enforcing the payment of taxes, even objectionably high taxes, and enforcing in perpetuity equality of income.

The Thin Man -

"Economies with similar incomes and Gini coefficients can still have very different income distributions. This is because the Lorenz curves can have different shapes and yet still yield the same Gini coefficient." Still, a broken clock is right twice a day.

Perhaps we should calculate the National Per Centage of Justice ("Yes, Prime-minister, we achieved Justice levels of 63.4% in the last fiscal year"), or build a meter to measure the flow of the milk of human kindness.


I'm intrigued by the simplicity in the way Bauman derives the left worldview from the two assumptions. Sure, it's flawed, but I can't tell whether the flaws are due to the simplistic approach, or just unable to overcome the fundamental flaws of the left. :-)

Does anyone know of any such simplified derivation / explanation of the worldview of the right? (I do realize that something so simplified risks being just as flawed).

I have kids who are teenagers. It's always nice to be able to explain things in small pieces that fit short attention spans.

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