Bryan Caplan  

Can You Save Egalitarianism By Making It "Analytical"?

California Energy Tax Proposal... Dochia On Analytical Egalitari...

Scott Clark, an Econlog reader, responds to my critique of analytical egalitarianism:

The way I viewed analytical egalitarianism when i was in Levy's class was not that everyone is the same as everyone else. But when analyzing and making policy decisions, it best to act as if everyone were equal.

This sounds good. But here's the problem: Why would it ever be best to act on an assumption that you know to be false? The most convincing response: Because the assumption is a very close approximation to the truth, so the marginal benefits of increased accuracy are less than the marginal costs of increased complexity.

By this standard, analytical egalitarianism still fails, because it's assumptions are grossly wrong. People are very far from identical in talents and preferences; a lot of these differences are due to genetic differences; and saying this does not remotely put us on a slippery slope to genocide.

But isn't it often "best to act as if" something very false is actually true? Individually speaking, no. If you're weighing whether to take a walk alone at night, it is foolish to act on the assumption that you WILL get mugged. If you really acted on that assumption, you'd stay home! If there is a .1% chance of getting mugged, the optimal response is take actions and precautions appropriate for a danger with this .1% probability - perhaps going on the walk but carrying a big stick to deter predators.

Now socially speaking, it may be "best to act as if" something very false were actually true. If you have a Prisoners' Dilemma, it is socially better if everyone believes that defection will make the defector's head explode. Then no one defects, and everyone enjoys the cooperative payoffs.

Is analytical egalitarianism the kind of belief that helps society even though it is false? Hardly. It's a mixed bag, at best. Analytical egalitarianism weighs against coercive eugenics, but tilts the scales in favor of social engineering (if all differences are environmental, why not radically change the environment?). Analytical egalitarianism weighs against apartheid, but tilts the scales in favor of anti-discrimination witch-hunts (if all groups are equally talented, then don't unequal incomes prove the existence of widespread discrimination?). Analytical egalitarianism weighs against dictatorship by experts, but weighs in favor of dictatorship of the majority (if everyone is equally knowledgeable, then why not follow the most popular advice?).

In each case, analytical egalitarianism reduces the risk of one set of bad policies, and increases the risk of another important set of bad policies. We can imagine cases where bending the truth would benefit the world, but this isn't one of them.

Comments and Sharing

TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL:
The author at Biopolitical in a related article titled How harmful is egalitarianism? writes:
    Bryan Caplan discusses how the false assumption that everyone is born with the same talents and preferences may harm society. For the sake of contrarianism I am going to reply to several questions he poses in his post. Before that let me say that I d... [Tracked on October 27, 2006 4:13 PM]
COMMENTS (2 to date)
Tom West writes:

In each case, analytical egalitarianism reduces the risk of one set of bad policies, and increases the risk of another important set of bad policies. We can imagine cases where bending the truth would benefit the world, but this isn't one of them.

Let me be succint.

Societies that are not built (perhaps correctly) on the assumption of egalitarianism: Just about every society since time began except for some late Western societies.

Societies that are built (perhaps incorrectly) on the assumption of egalitarianism: The United States.

Both have flaws, but I know which one *I'd* pick.

Do you?

Ryan Muldoon writes:

Might I suggest reading "How the Laws of Physics Lie" by Nancy Cartwright? Virtually every science is based on things that are known to be false. (Have you ever come across a frictionless plane? Neither have I) That the basics are false isn't what is at issue. It is whether they provide close enough approximations to the truth such that we can learn more from using these assumptions than we could otherwise. No model is going to be perfect, and most do not aim for realism in the strong sense that you seem to endorse.
In the case of egalitarianism, there are two programs one can consider. First, there is the traditional account that is trivially justifiable. For this, look to Book I of Hobbes' Leviathan. People are all considered equal insofar as no one is so much stronger than others than they couldn't kill him if they wanted to. No one is so much smarter than others than they couldn't band together to outdo him as well. This is a premise that is going to be hard not to accept. Of course, if you want to caricature the position by claiming that it states that everyone is precisely equal, then sure, it is easily refuted. But the core notion is merely that everyone has roughly the same abilities, whether they be physical or mental; no matter how powerful you are, a group of people can still knock you down.
That is the descriptive claim that is pretty hard to argue against. It has been a standard in political theory since at least Hobbes. One can try pushing the descriptive claim further, and argue that people are very nearly equal by nature, but again, one could simply view this as a modeling assumption, justifiable by reference to the weaker claim. One can make a further normative claim that people ought to be treated as if they are equals. This is where substantive moral and political theory comes from. A luck egalitarian could happily agree with you that there are some innate differences, and then respond: why should that matter when forming social policy? Those people that start out ahead didn't do anything to earn it - they just ended up that way. They won the lottery of abilities. But that scarcely entitles them to the full range of gains from that lottery. If we are behind a veil of ignorance, surely we would agree to spread the benefits of this lottery around. So why not set up our institutions in such a way to both promote growth by rewarding the utilization of those abilities, and promote justice by ensuring that that growth is used to help equalize the difference in innate capabilities?

There is plenty that one could latch onto for critique, but what you try to use is almost certainly not it.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top