David Thompson
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October 27, 2008

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JuliaM

Ahh, 'do as I say, not as I do' behaviour observed in the wild. So to speak... ;)

TDK

Interestingly a common feature of revolutions is that tipping ceases (at least in the short term). I think Orwell noted the absence in Homage to Catalonia http://tinyurl.com/6gxv9f

...and Reed in "Ten Days That Shook The World"

TDK

Oops, lost my Reed link: http://tinyurl.com/6yh8yc

Ed

I wonder if that actually happened.

David

Ed,

“I wonder if that actually happened.”

Would that significantly alter the basic point of the example?

dirigible

"Would that significantly alter the basic point of the example? "

No. Either way the anecdote makes the point that redistribution of wealth by individuals is ineffective and should be left to the state.

AntiCitizenOne

Great cartoon from the comments.
http://www.srkconsulting.com/soc_cap.gif

AntiCitizenOne

Redistribution of wealth should be left to criminals and the states job should be to catch them!

The state might like to tax externalities such as pollution and rent-seeking though.

Alcuin

Blimey, this redistribution of wealth is trickier than I thought.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnf2aRCYRSI

georges

I think it was absolutely excellent that Gordon Brown made it a precondition of rescuing the Royal Bank of Scotland that the senior executive who had ruined the bank had to be fired and not paid his contractual 5 million pound bonus. If that's redistribution, I'm wholeheartedly in favour.

Jason Bontrager

I liked Glenn Reynolds' comment on this story.

"And if you split the tip among two homeless guys, they can outvote the waiter every time!"

Ed

David,

Well, that the Piltdown man was a hoax in no way disproves evolution. Even so, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Piltdown man was a hoax, if you see what I mean. Obama’s wealth distribution policies, for all I know, might well be utterly misguided.

David

Ed,

I read the extract above as a comment on socialist redistribution generally. A parable, perhaps. It is, I think, important to remind enthusiasts of redistribution that theirs is not the only moral perspective.

See also this, on the slightly ridiculous Zygmunt Bauman:

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2008/05/details-details.html

AntiCitizenOne

On as similar note, it seems the UK needs the right kind of racism.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7695470.stm

AntiCitizenOne

Even more bizarre.
http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23578775-details/Phillips%3A+%27Give+whites+positive+discrimination%27/article.do

georges

All taxes redistribute. Some taxes redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. Historically that's what all taxes used to do - fund the luxury lifestyles of the rulers from the toil of their subjects. Gradually this idea developed - that for the rulers' taxes to be legitimate, the ruled must consent somehow, through some kind of elected body.

Let's discount the anarchist option of no government at all. Crime and foreign invasion create forms of redistribution we'd all rather do with out, and governments are probably better than private militias at countering them. That leaves us with an elected government raising money by taxation. All government activities are going to redistribute money from where it would have gone otherwise. A state health service, free at the point of use, paid for out of taxation, is obviously redistributive compared with a totally plutocratic approach to medicine. Ditto schools. Even if you don't want a system as socialistic as the NHS, I can't imagine any civilized country deciding to forego all health provision or education for the poor, or of some government involvement in it. So some degree of redistribution is built in to the very existence of governments.

Lovernios

georges,

But that redistibution doesn't have to be by government. It can be done, as it has for centuries, by private concerned citizens who feel motivated to do so. If the many wealthy leftists in the US feel that strongly they can form charities and redistribute their wealth as they see fit. I won't stop them. But it seems they rather prefer government coersion (a government they control) so that they can make me join in on the righteousness. In Massachusetts where I live, chock full of limosine liberals and wealthy lefties, one can elect to pay state income tax at a higher rate by merely checking a box on your tax form. In the last year analyzed, a paltry few thousand (out of a taxpayer population in the millions) so elected. And the median income of that group was under $25K. That means that scads of "compassionate champions of the downtrodden" didn't do the right thing voluntarily.

georges

The point about coercion is that there will always be some, and government coercion - if the government is elected, and can be removed by election - is actually fairer. There is a limit to how far taxes can be made optional, and only paid by those citizens who approve of the specific expenditure.
In the UK there have been cases of Quakers and others who wished to opt out of paying any taxes that went towards the military. Some made their cheques payable exclusively to the National Health Service, rather to the Inland Revenue. They were taken to court, and in some cases jailed, I believe. If only people who approved of the Iraq war paid taxes for it, the UK would have withdrawn ages ago.

Lovernios

I agree that there will always be some level of taxation and government coersion; the trick is to keep is strictly limited. In the US it is through limited government and checks and balances.

JeffB.

Why not award the tip to another server who supports McCain? The extra lesson will be that even under Obama's redistribution plan, the awarding won't be fair.

rxc

Here is a thought - does anyone think that Obama and the Democrats will revive the slavery reparations issue, and go through with it? If they have 60 in the Senate, they won't have to worry about a filibuster.

Any guesses about how much Obama himself (an immigrant son from Africa) would be entitled to for slavery reparations?

KarenM

"The point about coercion is that there will always be some, and government coercion - if the government is elected, and can be removed by election - is actually fairer."

Let's assume we have a situation where 51% of the electorate approve of the enslavement of the other 49%. We'll let the minority of slaves keep their vote.

The demos element doesn't make it right. We have to separate the issues of the redistribution from the fact that the majority approve. The morality doesn't improve if we assume the 51% live at the same level as the 49%. The rights of the 49% to the fruits of their labour are greater than the right to majority rule.

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the Public Treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the Public Treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy always followed by dictatorship." -- Alexander Fraser Tyler, 18th century Scottish historian, The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic

georges

KarenM

Could you fill out your argument with actual historical examples?

Enslavement, such as African Americans suffered until the Civil War - that's a very serious matter. It would be absurd and frivolous to claim that a progressive income tax amounts to the same thing.

The historical experience of the USA suggests that true democracy is incompatible with slavery. Hence the Thirteenth Amendment.

gaffee

Heh.

http://maggiesfarm.anotherdotcom.com/archives/9767-unknown.html

David

Maybe a real life illustration would help.

Mr A has studied hard, works hard, pays taxes and supports his family. He discovers he requires some costly dental treatment. Having handed over a very large chunk of his earnings in taxes of various kinds, the best treatment for him is an expensive luxury and an inferior but cheaper treatment is reluctantly settled for and, as usual, paid for out of his own pocket. Mr A then runs into an old acquaintance, Miss B, who happens to mention she’s just had the expensive treatment that Mr A couldn’t afford. She explains how great it is and - best of all – how it cost her nothing.

Unlike Mr A, Miss B has not studied hard, or worked hard, or done much work at all. Conventional employment is something she’s made considerable effort to avoid, thinking it somewhat bourgeois and uncool. Instead, she navigates the twilight world of benefits and modest but undeclared earnings, and does so with skill, having done it for many years. Now a single mother and deemed suitably “deserving,” Miss B’s treatment, like so much else, is paid for by the state. Which is to say, it’s paid for by people like Mr A.

Is Mr A entitled to feel just a little pissed off with this arrangement?

georges

David

Thank you for bringing the argument back to reality. I hope we can agree that making richer people pay higher marginal tax rates isn't the same as putting them in leg-irons and making them work on cotton plantations.

Voters feel two contradictory impulses. They want higher government spending and they want lower taxes. The poor underclass pay no direct taxes, and they're very dependent on state services; the NHS, the state school system etc. The rich overclass pay whatever taxes their accountants cannot work around, and they use almost no state services; they have private health cover, private schools for their kids, even private security for their properties. Most of us are somewhere between these two extremes.

In the UK, voters punish parties which seek to increase taxes. John Major won the 1992 election because voters feared higher taxes under Labour. In 1997 Tony Blair paid for huge adverts promising voters they would pay no new taxes under Labour. This was seen to be a precondition for him winning that election.

The real problem in the UK is that voters want certain things to be done by the state - the NHS, the schools especially - but they don't want to pay the extra taxes needed for the state to do them better. So governments, Labour or Tory, are permanently reorganizing them, trying to make the same money go further. If the Tories proposed abolishing the NHS and replacing it with compulsory private health insurance, they'd lose the next election. But if Labour proposed raising taxes to bring NHS health provision up to the level of other countries, they'd lose. So we're stuck in a no-man's land of state provision which isn't good enough.

Coming to your dental example; from what I know, fewer and fewer dentists want to do NHS work. Very large numbers of them have opted out completely. The amount they get paid for NHS work is much lower than they get paid for private work. There is a massive growth in demand for cosmetic dentistry, such as teeth whitening; and the NHS isn't going to pay for that. You can't get David Bowie's new mouth on the NHS.

There is a massive growth in dental tourism. People get on a Ryanair or Easyjet flight to Poland or Croatia to get their teeth done privately, in a hi-tech surgery, but for much less money than they'd pay in the UK.

David

Georges,

You’ve pretty much sidestepped the question above, though. Isn’t Mr A entitled to feel the arrangement is unjust, perhaps egregiously so? Or does Mr A have no moral basis for resenting his enforced subsidy of Miss B’s preferential treatment and the supposedly “deserving” basis on which that treatment is given? Where is the “social justice” for Mr A and others like him?

David

Georges,

To clarify… I’m trying to highlight the loaded nature of phrases like “social justice”. I’ve often heard it assumed that any objections someone like Mr A might have are mean, unserious or lacking in moral substance. I’ve yet to hear anyone use the term “social justice” to address *his* point of view. Socialist “redistribution” is generally presented as a self-evident virtue, as something good people ought to be in favour of, and those who oppose such efforts or insist on limits and conditions are frequently dismissed as uncaring, selfish, etc. But what could be more selfish than choosing not to support oneself (or one’s child) and expecting complete strangers to compensate for that decision indefinitely and without complaint?

Oh, I forgot to add that Miss B considers herself very much a socialist. But then she would, wouldn’t she?

Dom

Slavery reparations will almost certainly be revived, if not by Obama then by some senator or the Black Caucus. I'm surprised that the issue wasn't raised in a debate. My guess is that any answer from Obama would hurt his chances, and we know the press does not want that.

Will there be reparations? My guess is no, because some Dems won't get back into office if they vote in favor of it.

Does Obama expect reparations himself? Definitely not. He doesn't even want Affirmative Action for his daughters, even though his wife benefited from it.

Dom

There is another side to redistribution, quite aside from the (im)morality of it.

If I am paid twice what you are paid in a free market for labor, then I am supplying more of a service that society needs. If my wealth is taken from me and given to you ... then more people will go into your profession (which supplies a service no one wants), and less into mine (which supplies a service that everyone needs). Ultimately, you end up with a society that has as many librarians as doctors.

My cousin, in Italy, is waiting for a job as a trash collector. The union is controlled by communists, which the government appeases by giving them (relatively) huge salaries and great vacations. My cousin is able-bodied, smart ... he could be an engineer, but he'd rather wait for a trash collecting job. There's redistribution for you.

georges

"If I am paid twice what you are paid in a free market for labor, then I am supplying more of a service that society needs."

That doesn't follow. The social value of a job isn't obviously reflected in how much people get paid for it. Arms dealers earn massively more than teachers. I think teachers - at least good teachers - offer far more to society.

Dom

"I think teachers - at least good teachers - offer far more to society"

But there is a greater supply of teachers. If there were 1 teacher per 1000 students, then that teacher commands a higher salary.

And I notice you said "at least good teachers". Your assumption is that some -- the good ones -- should earn more than others. Why? Because they are "supplying more of a service that society needs".

Lovernios

Isn't "arms dealers" really a loaded term? Sounds like they're similar to drug dealers. If you mean manufacturers and distributors of military equipment such as rifles, ammunition, etc. That encompases a lot of people not just the CEOs of those companies: engineers, designers, IT folks, line workers, drivers, etc. And because those companies keep the military well supplied it is in better position to protect the country and preserve the liberty of teachers and the rest of society. So in that sense, they are of more value than teachers.

Anna

"But what could be more selfish than choosing not to support oneself (or one's child) and expecting complete strangers to compensate for that decision indefinitely and without complaint?"

Just thought that needed repeating. :)

KarenM

I think you miss the point. Sometime philosophy deals with hypotheticals. eg. The potential benefits of spikes on steering wheels to prevent excessive speed.

I was trying to illustrate the point that the fact that a majority votes for it doesn't make it right. There was widespread voter support for eugenics and compulsory sterilisation. That didn't make it right.

If you want to bring it back to a different level then consider the arguments about utilitarianism raised by JS Mill. Forgive my inexact memory but I think he recognised the fact that some get happiness through cruelty. By extension, the majority might do injustice to a minority judging that their happiness outweighs the harm.

Do you accept that just because a majority approve it does not follow that it is right?

georges

David

I thought you might find this interesting. It shows that the UK tax system is actually regressive. Direct taxes cut the Gini coefficient by 4 points, but indirect taxes raise it by 5, according to table 2:

http://www.statistics.gov.uk/elmr/07_08/downloads/ELMR_Jul08_Jones.pdf

georges

KarenM

There's a precondition for democracy to work properly. That is, the society cannot be so tribally polarized that no political change is ever possible. Northern Ireland is like that. At every election there is only one issue: which country should Northern Ireland be part of, the UK or Eire? Since there is an absolute fixity of opinion on that, with two entrenched religious communities taking opposite and incompatible views, there can be no alternation of governments. An election in Northern Ireland is no more than a census. It tells you the relative proportions of Protestants and Catholics in the population - and nothing else. Power sharing, in which members of the minority Catholic parties are automatically guaranteed government jobs, is an attempt to compensate for what would otherwise be their permanent exclusion from government. It's probably the right thing for that divided society, but it's not ideal. Even if 100% of Ulster voters think Martin McGuinness is a terrible education minister (which he is), power sharing means there's no way for them to vote him out of his job. That's his price for not bombing them out of their lives.

There are several other states build across ethnic / religious fault-lines where UK or US-style democracy is unworkable. Iraq may be one of them.

But in the US it's abundantly clear that voters can and do change their minds. And this matters. If you think your fellow Americans are about to make a terrible mistake in electing Barak Obama you can keep arguing with them, and persuade them to vote Republican next time. It's this fact, that political decisions are provisional, temporary and reversible - that's the key to democracy.

Consider Prohibition - the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. This is generally agreed to be the stupidest law ever passed by Congress. But the voters and the legislators did learn, and prohibition was eventually repealed. Many Prohibition supporters, such as John D. Rockefeller, later openly admitted they had been wrong.

georges

Lovernios

I used the phrase "arms dealers" specifically to focus on the selling of weapons to dubious foreign clients such as Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe etc. You may find this interesting:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BAE_Systems#Criticisms

Domestically, it is impossible to apply market valuations to defense contractors, because they have only one customer - the government. Drug barons, like the bosses of the Norte del Valle cartel, obviously earn far more than the doctors and nurses who treat drug abusers. But again, it's the government that ensures cocaine is so expensive and lucrative by making it illegal.

I still insist it is absurdly reductionist to see the final salary someone can command under a hypothetical free market as the ultimate yardstick of their human worth.

The internal dialogue of georges homunculii.

OK conscious mind, this is Comment Control. We need to comment on Thompsons' blog so let's move like we've got a purpose people!.

Bring the Gini co-efficient generator on line!

Is the social-justice canon loaded?

Get the left wing tax stats PDFs into the Tubes and bring us about.

Bring the Toynbee Reactor to full power!

OK, people- we are going to comment with standard lefty boilerplate # 205. I want a Go - No Go for deployment!

Executive pay blather?
GO!

Guilt laden references to Arms Manufacture?
GO!

Military-Industrial Complex Trope?
GO!

Counter-Argument deflector screens?
GO!

David

Georges,

I thought we’d previously established that the Gini coefficient, of which you’re so fond, isn’t something to be waved about like a talisman*. And I can’t help but notice that the questions I raised earlier still hang in the air unanswered.

*http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2008/05/details-details.html#comment-116387794

The point I’m hoping you’ll concede, eventually, is simply that there are strong moral arguments against socialist redistribution, at least in terms of limits and conditions. I’m not expecting anyone to formulate a precise balance of the various arguments pro and con; but Mr A’s objections, for example, can’t be dismissed as morally trivial, or as uniquely selfish. Who is more selfish in the (real life) example I gave earlier? Mr A or Miss B? And where is the “social justice” for Mr A?

gaffee

""John McCain and Sarah Palin they call this socialistic," Obama continued. "You know I don't know when, when they decided they wanted to make a virtue out of selfishness.""

http://hotair.com/archives/2008/10/31/obama-on-low-taxes-selfishness/

David

Gaffee,

It’s always good to see the language of virtue being slyly monopolised. It’s disingenuous, of course. Not least as several surveys have shown that, taken statistically, Republicans tend to give more to charity than Democrats. And people may object to Obama’s policies precisely because they prefer to choose where and how their wealth is redistributed - i.e., to where they see the most effective use and legitimate need. Is that more “selfish” than delegating redistribution to the state, which can then coerce other people and make them hand over their money too, regardless of their priorities and preferences?

I don’t imagine Obama would so readily use the same pejorative to describe someone like Miss B, though it certainly applies.

The Thin Man

Well, with UK government spending at 48% of GDP, how much more, exactly, is needed before my "selfishness" (you know, working hard to learn skills with a value so that I can support myself, going to work everyday, working hard to update my skills to cope with new technology and working practices, paying my bills, supporting my family, helping the neighbours carry their shopping, giving to charity, supporting local businesses etc.) is balanced by Government largess? 60%, 75%? 95%

I used to work in a building which housed a "collective" of DJs and party animals, who, after a weekend spending large amounts of undeclared income on pot, ecstasy and coke, would struggle out of bed at 11:00 to go sign on and claim their dole and housing benefit. But of course if I object to this, I am, in georges eyes being selfish.

Would it be less selfish of me to pack in my job, reducing government income by £15K in direct taxes alone, and live on benefits? Because at least then I wouldn't be "taking" more than my fair share of the pie!

This is the left's idea of "social value" - it is not related to ones actual contribution to society, but about their political approval of one's positions.

Ms. B, you see, is just better than I am, because she doesn't support capitalism. And I can never be taxed highly enough to make up for the fact that I do.

We have had this welfare state thing for 50 years and it seems to me that despite continual increases in the overall tax burden, we still have not sufficiently punished the "non poor" to assuage leftist guilt over poverty. Maybe Georges can find a PDF of a report showing the cumulative total that we have spent on the poor and an analysis of the value for money that such spending represents.

Does it never occur to him that the only thing that really happens when the government takes more money is that the government becomes richer and more powerful?

"You can't get rid of poverty by giving people money" -- P.J. O'Rourke

"Want of money and the distress of a thief can never be alleged as the cause of his thieving, for many honest people endure greater hardships with fortitude. We must therefore seek the cause elsewhere than in want of money, for that is the miser's passion, not the thief's" -- William Blake

The Thin Man

Instapundit has just posted a Heinlein quote that I wish I'd seen two minutes ago...

"Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as "bad luck.""

David

“With UK government spending at 48% of GDP, how much more, exactly, is needed before my ‘selfishness’… is balanced by Government largess? 60%, 75%? 95%”

I’ve known plenty of people who assume that the Mr A’s of the world should subsidise without complaint to whatever extent is deemed “socially just,” even in cases like that of Miss B mentioned above, which is hardly unique. The list of things that could be subsidised in this way is pretty much endless, and to denounce as “selfish” those who oppose the list getting even longer is fatuous and misleading.

One of the points I was hoping to convey is that the left doesn’t have a moral monopoly in these matters, despite what many on the left seem to think and despite a great deal of loaded and fuzzy terminology, such as “social justice.” For instance, there’s an assumption among some that conceding the existence of large numbers of habitual welfare cheats is synonymous with a belief that all benefit claimants are dishonest and should be publicly flogged. (“Oh Dave, you sound like the Daily Mail!”) This is a logical nonsense. Some form of welfare provision is a marker of civilisation - but I’ve known dozens of people who’ve abused welfare with a sense of perpetual entitlement and who saw nothing dubious about chiseling tens of thousands of pounds from “the government” – i.e. from other people’s pockets – and doing so for as long as possible. And it’s surprising just how long that is.

This is the broader problem of welfare; it tends to grow and can very easily become normative, like a valid lifestyle option, to which one is entitled on an indefinite basis and regardless of one’s choices and personal effort. It seems to me that those who have to pay for all of this are dismissed as “selfish” rather more often than those who choose to live parasitically. And again, the term “social justice” doesn’t seem to include the grievances of those, like Mr A, who find themselves obliged to subsidise patterns of behaviour that lead to failure and thus to a need for ever more subsidy.

Anna

"Who is more selfish in the (real life) example I gave earlier? Mr A or Miss B? And where is the "social justice" for Mr A?"

Funny how no-one got round to answering that one.

Georges? :)

David

“Funny how no-one got round to answering that question.”

Yes, it just sort of hangs there, shining prettily.

What I’d hoped to convey is that if someone wants to sermonise on the moral imperative of redistribution and “social justice,” shouldn’t they also acknowledge the *reciprocal* basis of any moral claim? (If there’s an imperative to lower a ladder of opportunity to, for instance, the long-term unemployed, then surely the long-term unemployed have a corresponding duty to reach out and climb it before the bill gets too big?) I’d imagine most of the people here would favour some kind of safety net to soften genuine misfortune and give people a chance to escape from dire circumstances. But there’s still the matter of chances repeatedly not taken – of opportunism, stupidity and carelessness being rewarded, made normative and thereby encouraged, which leads to ever more subsidy. Habitual, needless mooching isn’t something to be waved away as trivial or bothersome only to readers of the Daily Mail, though it often is. And, on Friday morning there was an item on Radio 4 in which it was claimed that criticism of gratuitous dependency is a bad thing because it “lowers the self-esteem” of the people doing the mooching.

The self-esteem of those who have to subsidise the mooching didn’t feature in the broadcast.

Brian H

"By and large, the poor aren't poor because the rich are rich. They're usually poor for their own reasons: family breakdown, low skills, destructive personal habits and plain bad luck. The presumption implicit in the criticism of growing economic inequality is that society's income is a given and, if the rich have less, others will have more. Up to a point, that's true. The government already redistributes much income, often for the good… But the redistributionist argument is at best a half-truth. The larger truth is that much of the income of the rich and well-to-do comes from what they do. If they stop doing it, then the income and wealth vanish. No one gets it. It can't be redistributed because it doesn't exist. Everyone's poorer."

http://maggiesfarm.anotherdotcom.com/archives/9845-Whose-money.html

Horace Dunn

David

Your hypothetical example of Mr A and Miss B raises some questions. I quoted it earlier to a friend who immediately said that this was a skewed and simplistic example. How many Miss Bs are there in the country, he asked, hundreds? Thousands? Millions?

Obviously I couldn't answer. I tend not to look closely into the mouths of the people I meet and certainly I don't correlate the state of their teeth with their socio-economic backgrounds.

But, joking aside, there are some questions here. My friend, when I pressed him on the specific question of whether Mr A was justified in feeling "pissed off" by the circumstances postulated replied "obviously yes" but he nonetheless felt that the hypothetical example chosen was simplistic and loaded.

Without getting too bogged down in dentistry, there remains the question of who, precisely, are these welfare scroungers that you postulate. I'd guess that we've all met some Miss Bs (O don't get me started on Miss B), but surely we should ask whether the presence of Miss Bs if this world should preclude a more understanding and, indeed, just, approach to people who find themselves in trying and limiting social circumstances.

I realise that your example was intended to highlight the lack of concern that many (or probably most) people of a "socialist" disposition feel towards the likes of Mr A (who is not rich, privileged or influential) but I still wonder whether your dentistry argument is a straw man.

If you'll forgive me for taking over the stereo for a moment, I'd like to play this tape...

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=bTEDudi8PH8

David

Horace,

“I quoted it earlier to a friend who immediately said that this was a skewed and simplistic example.”

Well, left-leaning people often do say that, or something like that, though generally without explaining *how* the example is skewed or simplistic. This leads me to wonder whether the response is an objection to the issue being raised at all, simplistically or otherwise, rather than a serious rebuttal of the point itself. Please note I could only guess at how many Miss Bs there are, though I’ve known dozens, and many of the people I know have known dozens too. And the moral issue I hoped to illustrate exists regardless of the exact numbers and irrespective of being typical. It merely supposes a significant number. It’s an illustration of attitude and principle, not quantity. The example I gave is one of several real-life instances, so if the dentistry aspect is bothersome or particular to one country or one welfare system, I’m sure we could find another illustration to make much the same point. And the question I raised isn’t merely whether Mr A is entitled to feel pissed off; it’s whether his irritation is morally justified. I notice your friend acknowledged the first point but not the latter one.

“I’d guess that we’ve all met some Miss Bs (O don't get me started on Miss B), but surely we should ask whether the presence of Miss Bs [in] this world should preclude a more understanding and, indeed, just, approach to people who find themselves in trying and limiting social circumstances.”

I don’t recall advocating a lack of understanding, or a lack of justice. I’m trying to widen understanding and justice to include other players in the drama, whose entitlement to “social justice” is rarely mentioned by those who most often use the term. If people wish to sermonise about “social justice,” it seems only fair to consider the injustices felt by the Mr As of this world, most of whom are, as you say, far from rich, privileged or influential. Yet they’re frequently taken for granted, in this respect at least.

Horace Dunn

David
"Well, left-leaning people often do say that, or something like that, though generally without explaining *how* the example is skewed or simplistic."
I think that my friend did indicate quite clearly why he felt that the example was "skewed or simplistic". He did this by asking me how many people were like Miss B, and how many examples I could offer to prove the point. I offered none, though I could have offered maybe half a dozen examples. You suggest that you could have countered with “dozens” and, you added “ many of the people I know have known dozens too”. In fairness, though, you couldn’t claim that this was a “representative” sample and neither could I. Is it not fair to say, then, that my friend’s accusation remains unrefuted?

David

Horace,

I’d suggest your friend is missing my point, which doesn’t depend on exact numbers and doesn’t depend on whether or not Miss B is representative. (You’ll note I never claimed she is.) Again, my point is one of attitude and principle, not quantity, and it’s one which has obvious bearing on notions of justice, social or otherwise. My point isn’t (and never has been) to suggest that Miss B is typical, though she certainly isn’t rare. And one could argue that Miss B’s selfish and parasitic attitude is reinforced and excused by somewhat loaded and selective arguments about “social justice” - arguments which may then encourage others to follow her example.

The nub of the point I’m making is that “social justice” isn’t the exclusive entitlement of those who receive welfare, deservingly or otherwise. Those footing the bill have claims to justice too.

Horace Dunn

"The nub of the point I’m making is that “social justice” isn’t the exclusive entitlement of those who receive welfare, deservingly or otherwise. Those footing the bill have claims to justice too."

Indeed. This point is well made and welcome. I recognise that you used the hypothetical example of Mr A and Miss B to highlight the fact that those who plead for "social justice" often (or, in fact, usually) fail to accept that Mr A could also be entitled to "social justice".

What you're getting at here (correct me if I'm wrong) is that Mr A is not some pitiless plutocrat. He doesn't own a yacht, nor a football team. He doesn't sun himself in Tuscany and he isn’t photographed when he comes out of night clubs. He’s a dull bird, but he does provide for himself and his family and he doesn’t expect a medal (or any recognition) for this (which is just as well as he won’t get it).

But with Miss B we have a problem. Miss B is selfish, feckless and arrogant (Oh the baggage! I know her so well) but is she really indicative of the problem?

Let me remould Miss B. She’s got lovely teeth thanks to an obliging state (which spends Mr A’s money to guarantee the beauty of her smile) but she cannot work because she’s bringing up two children on her own. The children’s father left her a year ago. In short, she’s stuck. She doesn’t have the freedom that many of us enjoy.

Now, if you’d chosen my Miss B, rather than yours (the flighty thing), there’d be a bit of a shift. We could still wonder about the justice of taxing hard-working Mr A in order to subsidise her, but I suspect that we’d be less likely to agree that “Mr A [is] entitled to feel just a little pissed off with this arrangement”.

My Miss B is as hypothetical as yours, of course. But I wonder whose Miss B is closest to reality. Your point remains valid, of course, whichever Miss B one chooses.

David

Horace,

Nicely summarised. I’m glad you see I’m not saying more than I actually am. As it were.

“But with Miss B we have a problem. Miss B is selfish, feckless and arrogant (Oh the baggage! I know her so well) but is she really indicative of the problem?”

Well, we could, as you suggest, recast her in slightly more favourable terms, adding a glow of tragedy and victimhood, supposedly in order to make her a little more typical. But I suspect Mr A would still be entitled to feel pissed off. After all, shouldn’t Miss B’s children be supported by their father? Isn’t that his responsibility, first and foremost? Is he entitled to surrender his parental duties in this way? We could, of course, recast Miss B yet again, dialing up the tragic element. Let’s say the father of her children died while rescuing kittens from a burning building. Well, now our expectations change again. And we could go on doing this for some time. It might be entertaining.

But remember, I’m not arguing against welfare provision per se. Earlier in this thread I referred to a social safety net as a marker of civilisation. And I’m not suggesting Miss B (my Miss B) is representative; merely common enough to raise the original question. I’m primarily interested in how terms like “social justice” and “selfish” are used selectively, and how the term “selfish” almost never refers to the behaviour of Miss B (or her absent partner), though it’s selfishness par excellence. And common enough to warrant some attention.

David

I should clarify the last paragraph above. The “almost never” refers to those who most often use terms like “social justice” and who appear to define selfishness in fairly… selective ways.

gaffee

"In the latest example, a Nigerian mother-of-five is living in a five bedroom, detached house with an annual rent of £25,000 paid for by taxpayers… Government rules entitle Mrs Odia, who has been in the UK for 10 years, to live in a five-bedroom house. She lives off benefits and has not been in contact with her husband, who remains in Nigeria, for at least three years.

More than £4billion of taxpayers' money is being spent on housing benefit across London - an increase of more than 40 per cent in five years, the Evening Standard can reveal. The new figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show £4.15 billion spent on housing benefit across London's 32 boroughs with a further £670 million paid in council tax in the 12 months ending last April. More than £250 million in housing benefit was paid out to Newham residents alone. The housing benefit bill now exceeds £100 million in 21 out of 32 boroughs. On top of the £4.15 billion benefits bill, the DWP also pays the council tax for families on benefit, a bill which has also risen in the past five years from £435 million to £670 million in London. Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "Too little is being done to reduce the bill by helping people become self-reliant. The principle of housing benefit should be that it is a safety net designed to help you get back on your feet, not an automatic life-long provision, no questions asked."

http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23584345-details/Taxpayers+foot+soaring+bill+for+keeping+homeless+in+private+houses/article.do

David

Gaffee,

Thanks for that.

The question, I suppose, is whether it’s possible to provide some assistance to those in genuine misfortune without also rewarding (and thus encouraging) patterns of behaviour that lead to failure and irresponsibility, and ultimately to expectations of ever more subsidy. This touches on another question – of what one thinks taxation is for. Is it to fund certain infrastructure projects and provide a basic, conditional safety net? Or is to narrow the difference between richest and poorest, supposedly on principle and with a whiff of moral correction?

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