Not Saussure

September 2, 2006

Envy and Social Policy

Filed under: Blogroll, Politics — notsaussure @ 3:53 pm

Stumbling and Mumbling: Envy: two questions takes issue with the proposition ‘I am uncomfortable making envy a basis for public policy’.

One of his points, that ‘the unhappiness the poor feel about the consumption of the rich [isn’t necessarily] really just envy. There are two other hypotheses. One is that there are genuine consumption externalities. For example, if the rich drive hummers and big SUVs, they make roads more dangerous for the rest of us. Or perhaps their demand raises the prices of positional goods, such as houses in nice areas’ I fully agree with. There’s a difference between resenting my neighbour’s good fortune that he can afford a powerful sound system that’s beyond my budge and my resenting his playing it so loud he keeps me awake half the night.

I’m not completely sure, though, about his next observation; ‘The other possibility is that “envy” is, in fact, a sense of injustice. Most people don’t much begrudge a lottery winner or top sportsman his fortune. Instead, what looks like “envy” is instead a discomfort that some people’s wealth is unjust. When people look at the wealth of David Lesar or Paris Hilton, is it really just envy they feel?’

Well, I can’t really comment in what’s going on in people’s heads — though I certainly envied Paris Hilton being able to ask ‘Who is Tony Blair?’ (You don’t want to know, Paris, you really don’t) — I’m not quite sure that the perceived injustice of someone else’s wealth is a sound basis for social policy. By all means complain about how someone makes his money — how he treats his employees, for example — or what he does with it, but I don’t see the bare fact that he’s got it is a genuine cause for complaint. By all means let’s decide, if we’ve got good reasons for so doing, that we need a decent social security system and that progressive taxation is the best way to fund it, if it is, but that’s a bit different from ‘it’s unfair he’s got lots of money and others haven’t, so we’ll rectify the situation by redistributing it more equitably’.

He continues:

The second question is: why should we disqualify envy from influencing policy?

The obvious possibility is that it’s an other-regarding preference. But why should these be ignored in policy-making? In simple-minded utilitarianism, they’re preferences just like any other, and not fulfilling them makes their owners unhappier.

There is of course a powerful liberal case for ignoring other-regarding preferences. But if we do this, it’s not just envy that might get disqualified. So too (arguably) must distaste of homosexuals and drug-takers, and – of course – racist preferences.

Indeed. But there’s an equally powerful case to be made which brings us to the same conclusion from a rather different tradition:

The spring of this other disposition in respect of governing and the instruments of government – a conservative disposition – is to be found in the acceptance of the current condition of human circumstances as I have described it: the propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the inventiveness, the changefulness and the absence of any large design; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise. And the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, not to direct them, to galvanize them into action, to lead them or to coordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule. This is a specific and limited activity, easily corrupted when it is combined with any other, and, in the circumstances, indispensable. The image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it.

As the Stumbling and Mumbling article concludes, ‘If other-regarding preferences such as envy are to be discounted, American [and British] politics would look rather different.’

Indeed they would; the world, to my mind, would be a far better place if Conservatives — and others — actually behaved like ‘men of a conservative disposition’ a bit more frequently. That they don’t helps explain why I was rather horrified to learn, on discovering Oakeshott later rather than sooner, that I must be a conservative even though I’d always thought of myself as, if anything, a member of the disgruntled left. I blame Mrs Thatcher, who was certainly anything but a woman ‘of conservative disposition’.

Footnote: I’ve not read the original, but I recently came across a very interesting account of Oakeshott’s work, The Tower of Babel, apparently to be found in his On History and Other Essays in which

The citizens of Babel want not just affluence, but an end to any sense of deprivation. They resent the humiliating conditions imposed upon Adam and Eve when they were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. They want to transform their world of dirt and pain, of thorns and thistles and sweat and mortality, into a land of guaranteed plenty. They take seriously the old fantasy of a land where everything is for free; the land flowing with milk and honey, the peach-blossom fountain, the Big Rock Candy Mountain. They are going to make good their dreams by storming heaven; by taking away from God control of the satisfactions he doles out so stingily to humankind.

The summary is too long to reproduce here, but it seems germane to the topic.

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