Scott Sumner  

Beyond victims and villains

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Question-Begging and Victim-Bl... Scott on Victimology...

I've always had a visceral distaste for dividing people up into victims and villains. Thus I wasn't happy to see this analogy by Bryan Caplan (when talking about the Ashley Madison affair.)

Constructing hypotheticals with blameworthy pseudo-victims is easy enough. Imagine someone attacks you with a chainsaw because you failed to kiss his feet. When he misses your head, he accidentally saw offs his own hand. Telling him, "This is your fault" as he clutches his bloody stump is not victim-blaming. Or to take a less egregious case, suppose a worker feigns sickness so he can go to the basketball game. Co-workers spot him on t.v. in the audience and he gets fired. If he decries is fate, "This is all on you" is the bitter truth.

Or, to get a lot less hypothetical: Imagine you swear a solemn vow of fidelity to your alleged one true love. Then you get bored and sign up for an adultery website. Your life seems fine until hackers steal your information and publicly post it. Your spouse discovers your betrayal and divorces you. The obvious victims in this story are the betrayed spouse, children, and other family members who trusted and depended on you. Not you, the adulterer who's sorry he got caught.


Or let's take another case; you decide to violate the law by jaywalking, crossing the street in the middle of the block. You are struck and killed by a car. (This happened to a Bentley student a couple years ago.) Are you going to claim this person was a "victim" when she was clearly violating the law? Um, actually yes, I sort of do view her as a victim. Now you might say that my example is quite different from infidelity. Well, pardon my French attitude, but aren't chainsaws also kind of different?

On a related topic, I've always been annoyed by identity politics, which divides whole classes of people into victims and villains. You might be thinking, "He would say that, as he's an upper class non-gay, non-handicapped white male, so he's in with the villains, not the victims." But what makes you think I have an American attitude toward victimization? Maybe I have a Russian or Arab or Chinese or Chilean perspective. Maybe I'd rather say I came from an aristocratic family than a humble log cabin.

I tend to associate this identity politics with the left, but the right also does it. People are labeled "illegal aliens" or "heroin addicts." "Why give them clean needles, you are just encouraging them to break the law."

I think we are all victims and villains, although obviously in vastly different proportions. But not as different as it's now fashionable to assume. There is no level of victimization that precludes one from also being a villain. Read about life in Stalin's gulags, even among the inmates there were victims and villains. And no life is so charmed that one avoids being a victim (think JFK, or Marie Antoinette.) Historians reduce the people of the past to crude caricatures. They increasingly refuse to give our ancestors the dignity of being considered complex fully rounded human beings, just like us. The proletariat were just "victims." Actually throughout all of human history almost all humans were extremely poor. At what point in the long evolutionary chain from the apes (who are also poor?) did we magically transform into victims? I suppose you could argue the transformation occurred when "public policy" could have prevented mass poverty. In the sweatshops of 1830? Good luck with that.

Here's how this shows up in economics. I'll sometimes say that extended unemployment compensation raises the unemployment rate. Actually, liberal economists used to say the same, until they moved sharply to the left after 2008. Now I get accused of "blaming the victim." But why can't it be both? Why can't someone be the victim of bad monetary policy, and also a villain by coasting on unemployment compensation? (I hope it goes without saying that I am talking about effects at the margin, not claiming all unemployed are "lazy". And what does the word 'lazy' even mean? Prefer not to work? Then I'm lazy.)

I'm not going to even comment on the Ashley Madison case. I've found that Americans are so deranged when it comes to matters of gender, race, and sex that it's almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation on those subjects. So I generally try to avoid those topics. (Actually Bryan is one of the few people I know with whom I could have an intelligent conversation on any topic, if no commenters were listening in.) But I will say that I think the wisest view is usually to regard broad classes of 33 million people as being composed of both victims and villains, in varying proportions.

PS. Suppose you had time to read 33 million 6 volume novels about each of those 33 million lives. Karl Knausgaard or Elena Ferrante-type novels. Do you think that might change the way you regard those 33 million people?


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
E. Harding writes:

Scott's voice is kinda confused here, but I totally get where he's coming from.
"Do you think that might change the way you regard those 33 million people?"
-Probably not.
"Actually Bryan is one of the few people I know with whom I could have an intelligent conversation on any topic, if no commenters were listening in."
-LOL!
"People are labeled "illegal aliens" or "heroin addicts.""
-Because that's what they are?
"Why give them clean needles, you are just encouraging them to break the law."
-Doesn't that fit with what you say about incentives? That they matter more than most people think?

RohanV writes:

Well, I think the punishment needs to be proportional to the crime. In your jaywalking example, being killed is an excessive "punishment".

But suppose that instead of being hit, the jaywalker was splashed from head to toe by a car going through a puddle. I think many people would be unsympathetic, and feel "that's what you get for jaywalking".

Scott Sumner writes:

E. Harding, Yes, it fits with my general theory. But let's be reasonable---even a supply-sider like me doesn't think incentives matter THAT much.

Rohan, That's pretty much my view, although even that might be a bit excessive for jaywalking on a quiet street---maybe in NYC where you disrupt traffic.

Massimo writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Capt. J Parker writes:

Dr. Sumner said "I've always had a visceral distaste for dividing people up into victims and villains." Amen brother! And when the divisions are based not on one's personal and direct actions but on group identity or incidental circumstances of birth then distaste should become categorical opposition. Look at all the horrors that come from the victim narrative; The Nazi holocaust, former Yugoslav Republics' ethnic cleansing, Pol Pot's murderous rule, the Rwandan genocide and otherwise jovial beer-drinking chaps killing each other in Northern Ireland all heavily relied on claims of victimhood buy the instigators of the violence. Yet a big piece of US political discourse is devoted to identifying victims and long ago and far away wrongs in need of redress. When will they ever learn?

john hare writes:

My problem with victim status is that victims seldom contribute to solving the problem as they are too busy being victims. I could legitimately claim a large number of times that I was a victim, but it wouldn't have helped to solve the problems. Focus on solutions is the key rather than who is to blame.

mucgoo writes:

Being from the UK jaywalking is a foreign concept. Unless you show blatant disregard for the traffic (and your own life) no ones bats an eyelid.

E. Harding writes:

@ssumner
-What did you think of Caplan's paper on drug addiction?

Larry writes:

You commit murder and get sent to prison. You're now a victim?

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

One of my pet hates is discussions of (European) imperialism which act if Europeans were somehow especially nasty to non-Europeans.

There is absolutely nothing in the ways of predatory, oppressive or violent behaviour that Europeans did to non-Europeans that they did not also do to other Europeans. In fact, it was practising on each other that made them so good at imperial conquest in the first place.

The worst-administered place in the British Empire was Ireland. The most brutal act of racial genocide was the Holocaust. And so on.

Slavery is a (very partial) exception, since it became accepted that Christians should not enslave other Christians (except if convicted of a crime). But there was plenty of (not-slavery) labour bondage of fellow Europeans.

Racism did not generate either slavery nor imperialism. Though both across a colour line (particularly slavery) generated racism. Given that the slavery and imperialism came before the development of racism, seeing both through the prism of "racism" is particularly silly.

Scott Sumner writes:

Everyone, Lots of good comment.

E. Harding, Which paper is that? I generally agree with Bryan's views on drugs.

Larry, I'd say no, although of course this person might have been victimized before the murder, or while in prison.

mbka writes:

Couldn't agree more, as so very often, Scott. I never quite got that "serves them right" attitude. Goes in the same bin as the "well you don't really _need_ to smoke/drink/drive a car, do you?" attitude towards excessive "nudge" taxation. The need for a perpetrator and victim in every event, no matter how random it may have been. Etc. It's all about being so sure to be right, and on the side of the just.

Hasdrubal writes:

I think the most important factor when looking at a victim is how responsibly the victim acted.

To take your crossing the street example: If the street is clear when you begin crossing, but a car careens around a corner, crosses the center line and hits you, yes you're a victim. You acted responsibly and took reasonable precautions.

On the other hand, if you run across a snow and ice covered street trying to beat a car, who slams on his breaks and slides into you, no, you're not a victim. You brought that upon yourself.

And of course, there's a lot of room in between for partial responsibility for your plight: A few years ago, a concert cellist had his $40,000ish cello stolen from his car in Minneapolis's Uptown neighborhood. That's the bar/restaurant district where all the cool kids go on weekends, where burglaries happen, and he didn't lock his car. Sure, people shouldn't break into your car, but it's not hard to at least lock it, and only slightly more effort is required to drop the thing you use to make your living off somewhere safe.

Yeah, the cellist was a victim, but he also bears some responsibility for not taking the basic efforts to ensure his safety. That doesn't absolve the thief. But suggesting the cellist should have taken more care with his belongings isn't victim blaming: It's acknowledging that bad things can happen and you have to take at least some responsibility for your own safety because other people can't ensure that for you.

Joe writes:

Dividing people up into victims where did this come from? Nixon administration: Statistical Directive 15 in 1973 Casper Weinberger Sec of Health Education asked the Federal Interagency on Education to come up with a formula that would classify the American people What happen to all men are created equal? We are all victims.

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