Saturday, May 17, 2014

The vicious logic of equality

The Left likes to view itself as the champions of equality, compassion, tolerance and support for the oppressed. As with many people, my most dramatic experiences of the Left are of people who are entitled, self-righteous, vicious and nasty.

Some of the latter has been on display in the recent round of commencement addresses in US campuses, where the banning of "heretics" from speaking at US campuses continues to get (via) nuttier and nuttier (while remaining nasty, entitled, self-righteous, vicious and ultimately self-destructive). The science of climate has become infected with the same vicious heretic-hunting, as the recent experience of Prof. Lennart Bengtssom has shown. 

Status through equality
But I have long since realised that ostentatious commitment to equality has a huge status advantage--since social life is so multidimensional, one can always find another "axis of equality" to push. Why is that a status advantage? Because the more committed to equality one is, the more morally virtuous one is.  If one sort of equality becomes generally supported, then one shifts to another to keep ahead in the moral purity stakes.

Support for equality can thus degenerate into a fairly vicious status game. A point that applies to virtues generally, including those the Left is ostentatiously attached to. So the status game of ostentatious morality--the game of feeling morally entitled and self-righteous--generates vicious and nasty behaviour in the name of compassion and tolerance.  Robespierre's reign of virtue (which showed how to transmute alleged virtue into terror and viciousness if enough ostentatious self-righteous entitlement is applied) resonating through history, including the pale and pathetic mirrors thereof provided by petulant and privileged youth on US campuses.

Unequal equalising power
Equality specifically has a deeply vicious potential logic to it, for if equality is applied to the material things of life (beyond welfare state redistribution), then pervasive power has to be applied to ensure people do not exchange or work their way into unequal outcomes. This then sets up a profound inequality--between those to be equalised and those who do the equalising. Not merely an inequality of power (though that drives much of the consequences) but also an inequality of status and moral-historical "understanding".

The compulsorily equal and their equalising hereditary owner.
The most extreme version of this is in North Korea's bizarre dynastic Stalinism, where one family is deemed to have such transcendent status and moral-historical understanding that the entire apparatus of state (which has essentially subsumed the entire society) is directed according to their purposes. A family that includes an eternal President as well as an eternal Secretary-General and whose current ruling avatar is the third generation of such transcendent guides. All in the names of creating the perfectly equal society utterly free of every last element of exploitation and alienation. But the Kim dynasty has just turned into a dynastic principle the underlying logic of complete material equality and entitled moral purity.

This dynastic Stalinism has created a Party-state-society which is, of course, also a standing offence against such complete material equality as the ruling elite (particularly the ruling dynasty) live lives of great luxury. But that is an inevitable consequence of the gulf in power and status between those to be equalised and those doing the equalising. We can see the same logic in another state committed to material equality which (not coincidentally) has also applied the dynastic principle to leadership of the state: Cuba, were an ailing Fidel Castro has been succeeded by his younger brother Raul Castro.

If people want to see the society described by the film Elysium in real life--a small elite living luxurious and privileged lives while the masses live in the midst of decaying economic ruin--then all they have to do is to go to Havana, Cuba. As writer Michael J. Totten describes.  

Elysium: presenting us with a post-Castro Los Angeles.
Great imbalances in power have consequences: a perennial consequence of huge power imbalances throughout history has been a small elite living a luxurious existence and masses living in want. Despite the worship of "correct" historical and moral "understanding" in certain circles, equalising intentions are absolutely no protection against that perennial reflection of human nature. That the logic of material equalising generates great power inequalities is much more important a causal factor than the alleged motivation behind the power inequalities. The means chosen utterly overwhelms the alleged motivation. Indeed, this is the problem with the notion that the ends justify the means: the ends are mere intentions in the mind, the means chosen are what affects the world. So, the disastrous effect of utopian ends comes from the absolute nature of the thereby justified means

If anything, the creating-equality motivations make the effect worse, since material equality is so all-encompassing a goal there is no part of social life that power cannot justify reaching into while full equality without any exploitation or alienation is so ostentatiously "noble" a goal that almost any status game can be justified for its power-practitioners.

Elysium may or may not have been intended as critique of American capitalism: as such it is a failure. To take only one basic point, a fundamental pattern of capitalism has been the diffusion of technology through society, not its elite monopolisation.  But as a description of what a society formally dedicated to complete material equality ends up being like, the film is spot on, as North Korea and Cuba demonstrate.

The Emancipation Sequence, the long fight for equal protection of the law--from the battle against slavery and for Jewish emancipation, Catholic emancipation, votes for women, women's liberation, civil rights, queer emancipation--has been a noble and ennobling series of events in human history. But that is a world away from vicious logic of equality that leads to Havanna's Elysium on Earth, the dynastic Stalinism of North Korea or the pale, pathetic distant mirrors thereof in what the petulant and privileged fortunate heirs of other people's struggles get up to on US campuses.

ADDENDA: Yale law Professor Stephen L. Carter provides a very funny "thanks for not disinviting me" which makes some serious points on the way through.
[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. Quite frankly, Lorenzo, I don't think you've ever written anything so petulantly ridiculous.

    And the "Bengtsson Affair" was because he demanded that a peer reviewed journal publish a paper which failed peer review not because of a "vicious heretic hunt", but because it was bullshit, explicitly attempting to find a gotcha in "inconsistencies" by comparing studies which were already known not to be comparable in that way.

    Here: have a link which isn't sourced via powerlineblog:

    1. And that's how everyone behaves when someone get up on their academic publication high horse?

    2. I seriously don't understand this reply.

      You mean, "When someone submits a paper to a peer-reviewed journal and it is rejected, with clear reasons why it's not up to standard and constructive suggestions how to get something meaningful out of it anyway, then everyone's behaviour is to get on their academic high horse and demand it be published anyway, and then throw a public tantrum"?

      Or are you saying that peer reviewed journals really should publish any and all crap if it's sent to them by someone claiming that Climate Scientists Are All Wrong, even if they're wrong?

    3. The post contains exactly one sentence about the climate change controversy. Even if you disagree with that sentence, I don't think that renders the entire post "petulantly ridiculous."

    4. Oh no, it was the entire rest of the post which is petulantly ridiculous.

      The bit about Climate Change is merely wrong.

  2. So you think the rest of the post, aside from the sentence about the climate change issue, is "petulantly ridiculous." You give no reason for this characterization. Not that you're obligated to give a reason, but without pointing out what specifically is wrong with the post, your characterization of it is not very interesting.

    1. Because it's an evident dogwhistle conflating "equality" (or, at least, a warped, distorted and barely recognisable strawman caricature of the concept, standing in for the entire political Left) with an inevitable decline into Elysium and/or North Korea and/or Cuba. It's an "argument" (if something that a tenth-grade debating student would get failed for can be dignified with the term) which is beneath Lorenzo, and even as rank propaganda fails the giggle test.

      Oh, and that University Student politics are a "pale and petulant heir to other people's struggles". I look forward to Lorenzo calling for the closing down of every single branch of the Young Liberals post haste.

    2. Reflexive leftist wagon-circling. Still not very interesting.

    3. Reflexive Rightist tribalism.

  3. Typical leftist projection.

  4. Well it would seem that the preceding comments illustrated the problems raised in the original post rather well.

    Not very edifying but rather instructive.

    Left and right in this regard are often just as bad as each other but with one key difference. The "right" (forgive me the broad stereotypes) often praise such behaviour as virtuous because they are fortifying a principle, defending a traditional practice or maintaining a standard (albeit their own). On the other hand the left often deny that they ever behave in such a fashion and are blind to their hypocrisy. While the right may be wrong (in some or maybe even in many things) at least they are not hypocritical in this regard anyway.

    Mind you they often find many other ways to join the dance of hypocrisy and self deceit.