Monday, September 02, 2002

Welcome to Philosoblog. The most recent essay was “How to Determine the Right thing to Do”. Now this:

The Fundamental Errors of Leftism

Here I will succinctly set forth five fundamental errors of leftism (commonly called “liberalism” today, a habit which causes confusion with classical liberalism, or libertarianism). I won’t discuss any specific leftist’s views, quote leftists, or name them. This is unnecessary, given their familiarity to anyone interested enough to read past the title of this essay. It is enough to think of leftism as the view that justice has not been reached as long as there is a sizeable gap in goods between the wealthy and the poor. There is considerable variation within leftism, and not all leftists make all of the errors that I’ll list. But the following five errors are frequently made by leftists.

The first error is the most important. It is the error of thinking that a gap in goods is a sign of injustice. This is an error because it is not such a sign in the situation in which we find ourselves, a situation in which the poor are not prevented from gaining goods by the wealthy. In conditions in which such prevention was pervasive, a gap would be a sign of injustice. But in our actual situation, in which differences in talent, opportunity, effort, and amount of antecedently held goods are prevalent, the gap is a sign that those factors are operating, and not a sign that some wrongdoing is to blame.

Of course, the leftist will say that in spite of all this, the gap itself is unjust. But this is incorrect. Differences in talent, opportunity, effort, and antecedently held goods are matters of luck or personal responsibility. It’s not unjust that these four factors are distributed unevenly. It’s not unjust for a rich youngster to be given excellent means by which to become a rich adult, while a poor youngster is not given this opportunity. It’s a matter of luck, a roll of the dice, and not the result of any action on the part of the rich or anyone else. To be born without legs is not an injustice, and neither is to be born without a rich father. Only if one were morally required to become wealthy would such unequal starting points be unfair, as unfair as unequal starting points in a game or sport. But no one is required to become wealthy.

Here is further proof that the gap doesn’t matter. If the gap mattered, then in a society in which those at the very bottom of the scale in wealth were so well off as to afford a house, two cars, and a swimming pool, we would have to consider it unjust that they lacked the means to acquire the mansion, four cars, and a jet airplane, which the rich can afford. But clearly that would be absurd. Therefore, gaps in themselves are not morally significant, unless there is reason to suspect they were caused by the rich against the will of the poor, as by theft or other oppression. Therefore, the gap by itself is not morally significant in our own actual case, in which the poor are not able to afford those luxuries.

One might worry that while a gap in itself is not unjust, it will give the wealthy too much economic and political power, as well as power to shape culture. Leftists decry disastrous plant closings, political payoffs, and the degradation of popular culture by large corporations. However, the degradation of culture is the fault of consumers who subsidize it, as well as the wealthy who offer them what they want; there are alternatives to the redistribution of wealth and a degraded culture. Moreover, a degraded culture is not sufficient reason to take wealth from those wealthy people who have not contributed to it. It is clearly wrong to punish them for the faults of those who produce and consumer the rot. As for political payoffs, they can be stopped by legislation and law enforcement. And plant closings are backed up by the welfare net provided by the rich, a minimal security which fulfills every obligation of justice that the wealthy have towards the poor. There is no obligation to keep an employee on the payroll in the absence of any promise to do so. (That some plant closings are done with callous unfeeling by CEOs is a sign of the cruel character of those CEOs, but it does not indicate injustice.) Therefore, the worry about power and wealth gives us no reason to remove the gap in wealth.

The fact that the first error is an error should not be taken to justify an extremely libertarian position, however. The wealthy do have an obligation to help those who are utterly destitute through no fault of their own. This is as obvious as the duty of the good Samaritan to help the injured man by the side of the road. It is unjust for the wealthy not to provide a minimal welfare net for those people. But that rejection of the extreme of libertarian does nothing to show that leftism is true.

The second error of leftism is the contention that any argument against the first erroneous view is flawed because self-serving. This is the Marxist idea that any argument or system of values can be accounted for by the interests of the one espousing it, and that there is no need to suppose that the argument may be sound. All morals are just systems put in place to maintain wealth, the Marxist argues; no morals are genuinely true. Of course, one can understand how someone might be seduced by this line of thinking, since there have indeed been cases of such sham moral ideology, salient examples being feudalism and the right to own slaves in 19th Century America.

Nevertheless, the second error is indeed an error. Whenever one intends to refute a position by attacking motives, one first must refute the argument for the position. This being done, a supplementary demonstration of a selfish motive underlying the position may help to show that the position did not originate in reason and thus cast further doubt upon it. The second error eschews the preliminary duty and sanctions the mere impugning of motives. This is as absurd as rejecting a physicist’s theory on the grounds that he knows it will make him a renowned physicist. Moreover, the second error is self-refuting for leftism. Leftism holds that the poor have a right to the goods of the wealthy. To be consistent, the leftist would have to admit that this contention, too, is based on interest and may also be dismissed. So, the second error is doubly erroneous. (You will find this error in ubiquity. At present many leftists argue against invading Iraq, with little attention to more substantive points at issue, on the premise that President Bush wishes to attack in order to help Republicans win more seats in Congress. Also, leftists opposed the Gulf War on the grounds that it was motivated by U.S. oil companies’ interests)

The third error is an extension of the first and second. It is that all rich people are either wicked or deluded. The rich maintain that they have a right to their wealth. According to the point of view generated by the second error, they do this because they are greedy for their wealth. Thus, the rich are dishonest, oppressive, greedy, and therefore wicked. Alternatively, those amongst them who are not wicked are deluded by conservative ideology. The leftist reasons that anyone who cannot recognize the injustice of a large gap in wealth is under the influence of delusion. This is an error because it is less plausible that the hundreds of millions of wealthy people are all either wicked or deluded than that the leftist argument rejected by the wealthy is sound. Many rich people are decent, well-educated, reasonable people. Delusion requires some error in thinking, which has yet to be demonstrated. On the contrary, the first error is a reason to believe that the wealthy are correct in rejecting leftism. Further, the rich give plenty in charity and in taxation for poverty relief. So, there is no evidence for widespread wickedness, unless we take the fact that they are wealthy while the rich are poor as evidence, which would simply beg the question.

The third error might seem like merely a repackaged version of the first and second. But it has a life of its own. The rich won’t heed the leftist’s arguments, so they must be under a spell of wickedness and delusion. If this spell leads the rich to perpetrate terrible injustices upon the poor, then the reigning ideology of the wealthy must be dispelled. If argument won’t work, “consciousness raising” will. The left reaches for the subtle and ruinous weapon of thought control by non-rational methods: social ostracism, educational curriculum engineering, repeated exposure to images of poverty, suppression of any evidence of a poor person being responsible for his own poverty, publication of evidence of oppressive acts by wealthy people, etc. 20th Century communist China and the USSR practiced this mind control in particularly egregious forms. The educational establishment in America is largely controlled by the ideology that one of the central tasks of educators is to make wealthy children feel guilty and embrace leftism. It is deeply wrong in multiple ways, and the third error makes one liable to partake in it.

The fourth error of leftism is to think that assistance in defending the injustice of gaps in wealth is to be had in radical relativism, or postmodernism. When certain facts are pointed to as evidence in support of the justice of the gap, these facts are simply denied by leftists succumbing to the fourth error. All distinctions between people, whether in sex, talent, or character, are simply constructs of the reigning elite. The head of a national feminist organization denies that men have more upper body strength than women, anti-war leftists argue that America has no wicked enemies in reality because wickedness is merely subjective (except, incoherently, the wickedness of wealthy America), educational activists deny that differences in intelligence are objectively real or that some arguments are better than others, property rights are said to be based on power and not on reality, etc. These are all echoes of Marx. He is thus the founder of contemporary socio-political postmodernism; by giving us the second error, he assured that the fourth error would eventually be made.

Notice that the fourth and third errors combine. Some leftists chastise those who say “disabled,” on the grounds that the disabled are not objectively disabled and are therefore to be called “differently abled.” The disability being removed from reality, the disabled are therefore to be held up as oppressed if they are not as wealthy as the average. Some leftists hold that all cultures are equally good and charge anyone who denies this with racism (thus confusing race with culture). In every case, the goal is to say anything to cause the rich to give more of their wealth to the poor. Any objection that the case made for this cause are devoid of reason is deflected away on the grounds that structures of rationality are merely constructs established by the rich to secure their interests. This is truly an intellectual house of mirrors, which, thankfully, most leftists never fall into. But most leftists are liable to make the second error, and it commits them ultimately to the mental disorder of the third and fourth error. Resisting the latter two errors, they must renounce the second error and face squarely the first.

The fourth error is committed to nihilism. For any leftist who makes it must conclude that the values of leftism, too, are merely the constructs of leftism. The duty to champion the rights of the poor itself becomes a phantasm. In this way, leftism puts the interests of the poor in more jeopardy than conservatism. Witness the devastation wrecked on the poor in communist economies, all perpetrated by dictators who began with some feeling for the poor and ended up treating them as pawns in their private play.

The fifth error of leftism is to think that there is plenty of goods for an egalitarian economic scheme to work without everyone having to work hard at production. There is not plenty, and nor will people work hard enough to produce enough if they know that the hard work will not improve their situation appreciably. Given that many are lazy, more will become lazy, rather than carry the weight of the lazy for no reward. There is plenty only in systems of free market capitalism. But leftism rarely champions the value of self-reliance at the core of those systems. Rather, it runs under the banner of desert. It therefore falls into the error of eroding other core values of good societies: thankfulness for what one has, joyful desire to recompense the culture which gave one the values, character, and environment in which to thrive, and the desire not to be a burden on others. If the leftist assumption is not that all can have a good life without producing it by hard work, then it is that, given the shortage of goods, all must tolerate a mediocre life. The noble dream of a society in which all have good lives, including those who don’t produce them, yields to the clearly false view that all must tolerate egalitarian mediocrity. This is just the first error again.

The five errors of leftism reflect a failure to embrace the values of liberty and self-reliance, values deeply held in America. Leftism is the bleeding-heart, the myopic view of beneficence which ignores those two values. Of course, beneficence is a fundamental value in America, as well. We are the most charitable country in history. We put great energy into establishing a minimal welfare net, the only duty of beneficence. America’s harmonious combination of the values of liberty, self-reliance, and beneficence is unimpeachable. None of the three values should loom large and dwarf any other. The various errors of leftism can be resolved into the failure to acknowledge this fact and instead to champion only beneficence at the expense of liberty and self-reliance. Moreover, the first error tells the tale. It is the ignorance of what most Americans know to be a self-evident fact: that, outside of contracts or promises, no one owes more than minimal welfare assistance to the unfortunate. If your neighbor needs $5 in order to save his son’s life in an emergency, you ought to give it. This is the common sense of the good Samaritan. But if you neighbor asks for $5 for his son’s college fund, for his summer camp, or for a basketball, you have no obligation to give it.

The position that justice demands no more than minimal welfare support this is therefore on solid ground. (Details about degree and targeting of support, as well as whether support should be state funded or private only will be worked out later on Philosoblog.) While this gives no credence to the libertarian view that the rich have no duty at all to help the unfortunately destitute, it shows the baselessness of the leftist view that justice demands a massive redistribution of wealth in America.

There is more to leftism than its position on gaps in wealth gaps. It is also anti-conservative about values other than justice, as has already become apparent here. Philosoblog will examine other aspects of leftism in the future.