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The Death of Republican Technocracy and Rationality

John Holbo: The Flip-Side of Noble Lie-Side Economics?

Moral philosophy from John Holbo:

The Flip-Side of Noble Lie-Side Economics?: Matthew Yglesias points to this Arthur Brooks piece, “Obama says it’s only ‘fair’ to raise taxes on the rich. He’s wrong.” Brooks says he’s shifting from the usual perverse consequences argument – if we tax the rich it will actually cost more money – to a fairness argument. But really it’s just a twistier iteration of the perverse consequences argument. Basically the first part of the argument goes like this.

1) Americans think it’s fair to reward merit and hard work.
2) Americans think merit and hard work are in fact rewarded in America.
C1) Americans think it’s unfair to redistribute income. (from 1 & 2)

3) Obama’s proposal would change the way income is distributed (i.e. would be redistributive).
C2) Americans don’t agree that Obama’s proposal is fair (from C1).

This part of the argument is boringly bad. If you want to know whether Americans think it would be unfair to raise taxes on the wealthy, you can ask them....

[T]he argument now gets interestingly bad, as Brooks tries quietly to patch the logical badness of this first bit. The above argument is absurdly all-or-nothing. There is, after all, no contradiction – not even a tension – in believing 1, 2 and the denial of C1). All you have to believe is that reward for merit is imperfect, as things stand, and that changes to the existing rules would make the system a bit less imperfect. Brooks avoids considering this obvious possibility, proceeding to a sort of noble lie argument that addresses it indirectly.

Since equality of opportunity is not universal, doesn’t this invalidate — or at least weaken — the romantic notion of meritocratic fairness? Of course not.... [I]f we reject the ideals of opportunity and meritocratic fairness, we will end up with a system where outcomes are simply based on luck or political power.... [T]he more citizens believed in a merit-based system, the more their public policies produced such a system...

This is a variant on the old ‘some see the glass as half-empty, some see it as half-full’ adage. Some people see the half-full glass as completely full. And: we should be those people. If there is any element of meritocracy in the system, the system ought to be regarded, simply, as a meritocracy. It’s important that people think of America not as a half-functioning meritocracy but simply as a meritocracy. Otherwise (now finally we get to good old perverse consequences, for the first time without benefit of laffer curve) people will ask that the rules of the game be changed. And that’s a bad way to think. What we want is for people just to play the game as hard as they can.

Since this is an argument that belief that the system is perfect as it stands is a good belief for people to have, since it is regulatively healthful, whether it is true or not, one immediate and obvious consequence of Brooks’ argument is that one of the biggest threats to the health of the free-market system is … Arthur Brooks. If you keep telling people that Obama is a socialist, or is putting America on the road to European-style social democracy, you are attempting to convince them that Obama is introducing unfairness into the system. You are convincing Americans that the glass is only half-full, meritocracy-wise. But Brooks’ whole point is that people should not be encouraged to have that attitude...