Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Inequity and social justice

"Growing inequality" keeps reappearing in the news cycle, as regularly and uneventfully as rising obesity rates, falling test scores, and evidence of global warming. While most reporters stick to the facts, the unstated implication in all these reports is that inequality is bad, and a cause for moral concern. I give the BBC kudos for at least recognizing the assumption in their last round of coverage, when they spoke with some people from the Ayn Rand Foundation, for whom "egalitarian" is not considered a compliment.

I don't know what to think on the matter. On the one hand, I'm a staunch free-market capitalist. I believe that freedom inevitably creates economic inequality, and that people (both rich and poor) value having that freedom more than they value the wealth itself. Class warfare political rhetoric consistently fails to get any traction with voters primarily because everyone wants to believe that someday they will be rich.

On the other hand, I struggle with the usual upper-middle-class low-level angst about social inequalities. You only need a few stories about Indians working for fifty cents a day to wonder at your own relative wealth, and question the fairness of it all. The usual antidotes -- personal generosity, increased charitable giving of time and energy-- are only partially effective without a consistent philosophy about what's really for the greatest good. In college I dabbled with John Rawls' Theory of Justice to come up with a more consistent rationale for what society ought to be like. I liked his "veil of ignorance" standard: create a society in which you would be willing to participate, without knowing what your lot in that society is destined to be. For all its hypothetical impracticality, it's a clean standard that allows for lots of inequality but not too much. I have some problems with Rawls, too -- I am, at heart, still a meritocrat. I believe that the intelligent, diligent, and hardworking should prosper, and the stupid, lazy and slothful should sink . . . even though I can take no more credit for my native talents than any other environmental factor in my good fortune.

In the end I wind up where I began. I believe our society is the best model, or at least has the greatest chance of all models of getting things right. I think even my own questions and uncertainty about it are themselves a part of the model, and a part of what makes it work.

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