Sunday, March 24, 2013


This piece by Jospeh E. Stiglitz is interesting and touches on some points that Tommi Uschanov has raised before about what people in the United States think about inequality (see also this video, which was all over Facebook recently). The stuff about Singapore put me off a little, since I don't think of Singapore as being the most democratic or free place in the world, but it gets onto Scandinavia towards the end and reads less like a puff piece for one government's policies.


  1. In the news this week, the latest results of survey research from Britain: British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows. You will note that the direction in which it is wrong is impressively (read deplorably) consistent, so much so that it doesn't have to be pointed out separately in the news item.

    I've probably said this before, but I will say it again. To me, this type of empirical research – on which I largely built the middle one of my three books – shows that the relevance of philosophy to issues of social justice is hugely overestimated overall. (To the extent that I have a depressing feeling of waste when I see philosophers engage the issues at all, even in the best of faith.) Rather, the academic disciplines that are properly qualified to engage them are social psychology (mostly) and political science (a bit). Not moral philosophy, and not political philosophy either, for that matter.

    Even if the same people are lacking both exposure to good philosophical arguments and exposure to correct empirical data, the fact that many of their quantifiable empirical beliefs are currently off by a factor of 20 or 30 means that they are action-guiding, not necessarily 20 or 30 times more strongly than their bad philosophy, but much more strongly than 1.0 times.

  2. Yes, I saw the stories about that survey. And you're right that the direction of the bias was both consistent and so predictable as to be almost not worth mentioning. As I recall papers on the left emphasized the scandalous ignorance of the British public while those on the right (or the Telegraph anyway, which is the only one I look at) quickly tried to turn it into a joke or game. (The Guardian had a how-ignorant-are-you quiz, too, but seemed to me to take the matter more seriously. Maybe that's just my bias.)

    What most people seem to need is information. Not just facts, but facts that they take in and allow themselves to be shaped by. But philosophy seems to have a place too, at least in a negative way. The idea that rights are sacred, and that this includes property rights, is very often invoked in US politics. So I think it can be useful to get people to think about the nature, origin, and alleged inviolability of such rights. It seems to me that a popularized version of Nozick's income-tax-as-slavery idea is widespread, so getting people to see the weaknesses as well as the strengths of Nozick's argument is potentially useful. Having said that, I have tried to do this a couple of times and I don't think it made any difference to anyone's opinion. (For the record, I wasn't trying to change anyone's mind, but I was trying to get them to think, and to get a better appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments. I hope I achieved this, but I'd be more confident that I had done so if at least one person changed their mind as a result. Then again, people can be good at ignoring empirical date too.)

  3. What is interesting to me is that the cultural comprehensibility of Nozick's income-tax-as-slavery varies so much from culture to culture. Because this suggests that the question of the sources of Nozick's appeal is itself just one more empirical, social scientific question – and thus not a philosophical one, although Nozick himself was an academic philosopher.

    In my third book, the one about cultural idiosyncrasies of Finland, I asked myself the question why Nozickian views of the state are almost completely alien to Finnish culture. This is an interesting question, because (contrary to what many foreigners think) a solidaristic, social democratic, lefty ethos has never been culturally hegemonic in Finland in at all the way it has been in Sweden or Norway – so said ethos cannot be the explanation in Finland's case, however much it may be in other cases.

    The answer I came up with had to do with the military. It would be far, far easier to compare conscription with slavery than to compare taxation with it. And it would seem to follow that any attempt to compare the latter with slavery would also simultaneously have to succeed in comparing the former with it. But in Finland's case, universal male conscription has existed since independence and is solidly legitimate culturally to this day – if anything, even more among the supposedly "enslaved" people themselves than among the "enslaving" politicians. (I got a medical discharge myself, but the majority of adult men you've met in Finland hold military rank, and the slightly older ones are all likely to be NCOs.)

    And why is the draft legitimate? Because the very future of Finland as an independent country has depended on it so much. To put it bluntly, it has not been a question of whether the Finnish authorities may enslave you or not, but whether it is the Finnish or the Russian authorities who enslave you.

    But while Finland has been involved in three existence-threatening wars in less than 100 years, the territorial integrity of the contiguous United States has not been threatened seriously for approximately 200 years. (The US military has admittedly been popular, but very importantly, its main function has never been that of a border patrol. Indeed, it has sometimes almost seemed that the further away from the homeland it strays, the more popular it becomes.)

    And this is my empirical, non-philosophical explanation why Nozickian views of the state are as popular and comprehensible over there as they are unpopular and incomprehensible over here. Unlike any European nation state, the United States have, for an unbroken period of no less than 200 years, had the indulgent luxury of not resorting to conscription to ensure the inviolability of the national borders. And this has, to a unique degree, cleared the hurdle for the pain threshold for state compulsion to be lowered to Nozickian depths.

    1. Yes, Nozick's appeal to US readers depends in part (perhaps in large part) on cultural factors. There's the whole mythology of the wild west, for one thing, and perhaps one thing that helps sustain that mythology is the absence of a direct threat to the country. MacIntyre is quite good on Nozick and Rawls in relation to US culture, but I haven't thought much about political philosophy in relation to other countries.

      Your thoughts on the military are interesting. And I think you might be right that people here are happier the farther away the military is operating.