The Right Coast

January 28, 2004
What's so bad about inequality?
By Tom Smith

An illuminating if not exactly interesting debate is going on over at Brian Leiter's site, due to reactions to his posting of a Cornell philosopher's epistemological (using the term loosely, believe me) argument that commentators on the left and the right should not be treated with equal skepticism. I simplify the philosopher's argument only slightly by saying that his view is that persons of the left should be given more credit because they are less likely to be wicked, and so less likely to be lying than persons, such as myself, who might be considered on the (ever so reasonable) right. First, let me assure my readers that the chances on any important election being decided by this philosopher or indeed all American philosophers voting one way or another is vanishingly small. The chances that our next President will be Lyndon LaRouche are much higher, so you all can just relax. The hideously unequal regime under which we swill champagne, smoke cigars, oppress workers, not to mention discriminate against every single group imaginable is safe for the time being.

In my wickedness, it has occurred to me to wonder just what is so bad about the inequality that exercises the left so that it leads them to such intemperate remarks? I was an undergraduate major in the very Cornell philosophy department from which this current mini-Jerimiad issued, and I have to say, folks seemed to be living pretty comfortably there last I checked. The Sage School of Philosophy is well endowed by a family that no doubt made its fortune in some very capitalistic endeavour, as indeed is much of the rest of at least the Arts and Sciences college at Cornell. Willard Straight Hall, the student union, is named after one of the great railroad entrepreneurs. I must say I am at a bit of a loss as to how exactly the philosophy professor is benefitting any less from 'hideous inequality' than my friend Gary Lawson, who is also a professor at a large private university, which no doubt has its own pots of cash given to it by people who felt driven to make more money than anybody else. There really are people of heroic virtue out there, and Gary Lawson actually comes much closer to this ideal than most people I know, so it just figures some guy whose mastery of oh, say, economics, is probably well captured by his remark that '95 percent of people were made worse off by Reagan's upward redistribution' (my paraphrase), should decide to pick on him. But I have in mind more the people who really do spend their time trying to help the street children of Lima or Bangkok, rather than trying to figure out whether we are really just brains in a vat.

But of course, I have forgotten that saving a few kids here and there is a far, far too modest ambition for those moral heroes on the left. Why do that when you can build the grand intellectual structure that would lead us all to the promised land of equality and plenty, or at least sufficiency, if only the benighted masses would wake up and follow it? It would be too easy to attribute to energetic leftist youngsters the same bad motives they often seem willing to attribute to their ideological foes, not to mention their intellectual betters, at least in fields that hold some promise of actually helping the suffering poor. Anyone who has spent any time in real politics, which includes very few philosophers these days, I would bet, should know there are more than enough evil people to go around. But what baffles me is how earnest left-wingers don't seem even to grasp the plausibility of the widespread belief along the lines of "socialism is a recipie for poverty and misery." I mean, why don't China, the USSR, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, all the Eastern bloc countries, and every African and South American basket case count? Of course it's obscene that Donald Trump spends ten million decorating his private jet (and making it look like a ladies' powder room in the process) while some poor kid in Queens dies for lack of medical insurance. As soon as we perfect magic redistribution run by the wise and just, we'll be all set. In the meantime, they have socialized medicine in Canada, and you can get absolutely first rate medical care there. The problem is, you have to be a cow. If you're a human, well, wait in line, or get on the bus to Seattle.

In the meantime, Brian has documented how philosophers can't get out of relatively socialist Britain fast enough, and get over to the good, old evil US of A, where, by gummy, a philosopher can put down roots, make an honest living, split rails, bust sod, chop wood, and get his own little piece of the American dream. Excuse me for a moment while I laugh my head off. The problem with the UK? They don't make enough money there! They like it better here, where they can be more rich. You really have to wonder how they would vote if there was a chance they would determine the matter. But be charitable dear reader. Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. In the meantime, if you find yourself in between a philosopher and a hundred dollar bill, my advice is get the hell out of the way!