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How "Experts" Hijacked Egalitarianism
Adam G. Martin
F. A. HAYEK argued against social justice understood as distributive justice, especially in its egalitarian form. Among his many complaints was the idea that egalitarian morality was not suitable for a Great Society in which we regularly interact with strangers rather than only with a small group. Egalitarianism is an atavistic impulse from our evolutionary past in small tribes of hunter-gatherers. Our socially evolved morality, by contrast, enables us to interact with strangers by adhering to general and abstract rules. These rules allow us to expand social cooperation to the extent that they are simple rules that apply to all and do not require us to make detailed judgments about what we owe others. The social morality that facilitates cooperation with unknown strangers is distinct from the instinctual, small-group morality that still dominates our more intimate relationships.
Equality before the law or informal norms is a desirable quality of social morality, but concern with equality of outcomes would undermine the functionality of that morality. By creating a sphere of individual liberty within the boundaries set by abstract rules, social morality enables us to act on our individual knowledge. Hayek's work stresses the economic benefits of allowing individuals to act on their local knowledge of time and place. Mario Rizzo builds on this argument, claiming that there are important moral benefits as well. Regardless of the particular moral philosophy individuals follow, they can instantiate moral principles appropriately only when they are free to act on their beliefs about their particular circumstances. These beliefs might stem from individual conscience, Aristotelian judgment, or some other vision of individual moral capacity. This Hayekian approach to social morality makes room for both universals and particulars: general, abstract rules facilitate interactions with strangers but also enable the use of subjective individual knowledge and require the use of individual moral judgment.
A different form of egalitarianism has recently become a noticeable political force: egalitarianism focused on identity. This family of egalitarian views is often referred to by terms of abuse such as political correctness, and those who believe it are demeaned as social justice warriors. Identity politics is one manifestation of these ideas but predates them and is also a tactic used by other groups. To avoid the polemical and misleading connotations of these terms and to highlight what is truly distinctive about this strain of thought, I refer to it as "New Egalitarianism." The New Egalitarians are focused on eliminating inequality predicated on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other identifying characteristics of traditionally disadvantaged groups.
A distinguishing feature of the New Egalitarianism is its focus on structural inequality. This focus is distinct from a focus on pure material deprivation associated with luck egalitarianism and from the widely shared belief that bigotry against particular groups is unjustified. New Egalitarians argue that systemic inequality stems from deeply rooted social structures that do not rely on overt prejudice. It is not correct to say that they focus exclusively on equality of outcomes, but they do tend to cite systematically unequal outcomes as evidence of inequality of treatment. But New Egalitarians tend to believe that correcting these inequalities requires positive action (and not mere procedural equality), so it is fair to say that they have a thicker vision of equality in mind than Hayek's classical liberal view.
Certain aspects of the New Egalitarianism are appealing. It asks how different groups can live cooperatively together, a question that all liberals should take seriously. Some New Egalitarian views sound like invisible-hand explanations of inequality rather than naive constructivism. Although these concerns are valid, New Egalitarians articulate them in terms of a peculiar set of tendentious social scientific claims that, upon reflection, have troubling implications.
The most distinctive feature of New Egalitarianism is the way it draws on critical theory and related schools of thought such as Marxism, structuralism, and post-colonialism. Though there are differences between these schools of thought and between thinkers within them, there are important commonalities. Most notably, they all tend to emphasize functionalism, the belief that "social practices of the most varied kind can be explained by their tendency to maintain the hegemony of dominant groups." The goal of theory in these schools is to shine a light on forms of domination, in contrast to existing ideologies, which try to excuse or cover up domination. Critical theorists in particular argue that the point of social theory is emancipation, not just explanation.
New Egalitarians operate with an often implicit mental model of society drawn from critical theory. This essay argues that implementing the New Egalitarianism requires transforming social morality into an obscurantist epistocracy. The New Egalitarianism requires a set of moral experts to make judgments about right and wrong actions rather than to rely on either individual conscience or widely understood social rules. And this epistocracy, the rule of those with knowledge, is obscurantist in that it seeks to question the standing of critics rather than the substance of their claims.
I do not directly challenge the substance or the truth of New Egalitarian ideas but rather raise concerns about their implementation. As a consequence, I do not focus my critique on any one New Egalitarian thinker, for there are important differences in various thinkers' ideas. My argument parallels F. A. Hayek's description of how socialism creates a "road to serfdom." Hayek's critique does not depend on socialist moral ideals being mistaken; he merely points out what implementing central planning in a world of disagreement and imperfect intentions would require. Similarly, my goal is to sketch out some of the consequences of implementing the New Egalitarianism for the sorts of imperfect people that inhabit our world. If what we want is a social morality appropriate for beings like us, the aspirations of the New Egalitarians should be deeply troubling.
Consider two definitions of racism, Racism 1 and Racism 2. One might draw parallel distinctions between Sexism 1 and Sexism 2 or Homophobia 1 and Homophobia 2. Everything I argue about conceptions of racism carries over to those issues and to others, but I use the term racism as a token for all issues surrounding group identity.
Racism 1: Individual conduct that is motivated by either (a) antipathy to other races or (b) a belief that those races are inferior.
Racism 2: Socially constructed, "invisible systems conferring racial dominance."
Racism 2 is the idea that critical theory and related schools of thought have brought to debates about social equality. New Egalitarians differ in what account (if any) they give of how structures generate inequality, but this is the common thread that has gained prominence in recent years. Racism 1 is what the person on the street recognizes as racism. Those who think that Racism 2 deserves special attention — including proponents of the New Egalitarianism — acknowledge that Racism 1 is still the dominant definition and lament that it is so difficult to teach students about racism.
Racism 1 refers to intentions. Most individuals think that morally like cases should be treated similarly. What is morally troubling about Racism 1 is that characteristics that seem morally arbitrary, such as skin color, lead to differences in treatment. Conversely, if differences in treatment arise for good reasons, they are not necessarily objectionable. If employers base hiring decisions strictly on the consideration of talent, Racism 1 is not in play, even if this practice results in patterns of racial inequality. Avoiding Racism 1 fits well within a Hayekian framework that stresses the generality of social rules. It also relies on individual moral judgment: individuals can evaluate their own behavior to determine whether they have acted in an objectionable way. There may be a tendency for these judgments to be incorrect or unconsciously biased, but that does not change the fact that Racism 1 is a moral category that can in principle be deployed by individuals to judge and improve their own conduct.
Not so with Racism 2. Accurately diagnosing Racism 2 requires (a) social scientific understanding of how social structures operate and (b) sufficient historical knowledge to judge how social structures have disadvantaged certain groups. Recall that Racism 2 refers to "invisible systems" that prop up members of some groups at the expense of others. There is nothing mystical about claiming that these social structures or the processes that they govern are invisible. But although there is nothing intrinsically suspect about invisible causes of inequality, explaining how structures cause inequality requires social science. The causal effects of social structures do not reveal themselves to the senses or to our everyday experience but rather only through careful theorizing and the analysis of empirical evidence. And if our goal is to right actual inequalities, it is not enough that our causal stories are plausible. It is not even enough that they are true. They must also account for a significant portion of the racial inequality that exists. In the real social world, many causes cooperate to produce broad-scale social patterns such as racial or gender inequality. New Egalitarians themselves recognize this factor, describing the "intersectionality" of how different forms of oppression — racism, sexism, and so on — are related to each other in myriad and subtle ways. So a true account that explains only a small part of racial inequality is not terribly helpful when trying to correct that inequality. Ascertaining the causes of inequality, judging the relative importance of different causes, and understanding how these causes interact ultimately require a great deal of specialized knowledge, one that can plausibly be possessed only by experts.
Consider a partial list of technical terms that the New Egalitarians employ that are either not part of everyday parlance are used in a specialized way: ally, appropriation, cisethnic, cissexual, domination, erasure, intersectionality, kyriarchy, lived experience, mansplaining, marginalization, microaggression, patriarchy, rhizome, subaltern, tokenism, triggering, victim blaming, white supremacy, whiteness. This list only scratches the surface. My aim in mentioning them is not to question their usefulness for discussing some important questions but only to point out how specialized they are. The development of this sort of terminology requires specialists, and learning it requires access to these specialists.
The reliance on experts helps explain why the New Egalitarianism thrives at universities. Universities provide a forum where scholars trained in critical theory, feminist or postcolonial philosophy, multiculturalism, or structuralism can introduce students to this vast lexicon, in addition to retraining them to think in terms of Racism 2 rather than Racism 1. Consistent with an understanding of racism as structural, New Egalitarians usually speak of battling racism as a matter of education. Moral persuasion — appeals to individual conscience — is adequate only as a tool for combatting Racism 1. But individuals require education to grasp the structural cause-and-effect relationships that constitute Racism 2. Such education consists not in an appeal to commonly shared moral sentiments but to specialized expert knowledge. It is more like physics or economics than it is like Sunday school.
Contrast this approach with Hayek's view of social morality. Individuals need rules precisely because they cannot know all the consequences of their actions. The broad contours of invisible-hand processes can be understood, but the specific ways in which individual actions interact to produce large-scale social patterns defies precise prediction. Most importantly for Hayek, this limitation extends to expert knowledge as well. Experts are incapable of designing a moral code that can underwrite widespread social cooperation among strangers. So the existence of genuine experts — those that have a correct understanding of how social structures operate — does not extinguish the need for abstract, general rules to govern individual conduct in an extended order.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to convincingly establish whether Hayek's critiques of constructivism and distributive justice are relevant for New Egalitarians. Hayek's understanding of social orders as largely spontaneous processes would probably undermine a great deal of New Egalitarianism, which tends to draw on very different social theories. Hayek's work would seem to indicate that the New Egalitarianism — by insisting on thicker forms of equality — is morally atavistic. New Egalitarians are animated by an ethos that focuses on substantively benefiting particular groups of individuals. This sort of morality is suitable for intimate orders such as families and organizations within a broader social context. Complex, richly detailed sets of social rules have their place in such small- group interactions, but when applied to entire societies and cultures, such a morality is nonoperational because it requires that individuals have far more knowledge than they can possess in order to evaluate the effects of their actions.
But even if Hayek is wrong that rationally designed social morality is a nonstarter, it does not change the fact that New Egalitarianism requires a class of social scientific experts to combat systemic oppression. In this view, individual conscience is of little help if racism exists primarily due to invisible social structures. To know whether an action is racist or not — at least for as long as invisible systems of oppression continue to exist — an individual must ask someone who knows. The New Egalitarianism requires a moral epistocracy: those with special knowledge determine what morality requires.
Obscurantism is an intellectual style characterized by attempts to evade critical scrutiny. Jon Elster identifies precisely the sorts of critical theory that inspire the New Egalitarians as a form of "soft obscurantism." My aim here is not to attack obscurantism as a practice but to highlight the particular forms and functions of New Egalitarian obscurantism. Obscurantism can take many forms, including the use of vague or indeterminate terms. To the extent that New Egalitarianism relies on these terms, labeling it "obscurantist" would be redundant with labeling it "epistocratic." Components of New Egalitarian thought may be obscurantist in this sense by relying on obscure terminology. But important aspects of New Egalitarianism try to be comprehensible. New Egalitarians typically want to be understood (hence their calls for education).
New Egalitarian obscurantism evades criticism by denying the standing of critics. Critics need to "check their white (or male) privilege," the argument goes. By default, those who benefit from the invisible structures of Racism 2 have no epistemic access to oppression because they have not experienced it. I refer to this argument as the Knowledge Response. Alternatively, critics may be labeled "deniers" or "apologists" who prop up oppressive social structures. I refer to this argument as the Harm Response. These two accusations — the Knowledge Response and the Harm Response — can manifest in the "liberal intolerance" springing up on college campuses that many critics have lamented. The substance of a critique is secondary; what matters is the action of critiquing New Egalitarian ideals. If criticizing is inappropriate because of the speaker's epistemic or moral standing, then there is no reason to engage with the substance of the criticism.
Consider each of these obscurantist tactics in turn, beginning with the Knowledge Response. The concept of privilege may or may not be a helpful tool of social scientific explanation. But when applied to participants in a discussion, it removes any need to address the content of a privileged interlocutor's claims. The privileged person cannot access the "lived experience" of those who have suffered from oppression. This lack of access entails a lack of standing to object to New Egalitarian ideas. Privileged individuals need to be educated about the invisible structures that generate oppression. But even if the critics in question are not white males, their disagreement is evidence of "internalized oppression," an expression indicating that oppressed groups come to accept and perpetuate the social structures that oppress them. If either the privileged or the internally oppressed persist in questioning certain New Egalitarian ideas, the argument goes, it is only proof that they need more education or that they are acting in bad faith.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In All Fairness"
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Table of Contents
Foreword: The Theoretical and Practical Pitfalls in Egalitarian Thought Richard A. Epstein xiii
Introduction: New Thinking on Equality, Liberty, and Human Dignity Robert M. Whaples 1
Part I Problems with the Modern Philosophy of Egalitarianism
1 How "Experts" Hijacked Egalitarianism Adam G. Martin 13
2 The Misuses of Egalitarianism James R. Otteson 25
3 The Conceptual Marriage of Rawls and Hayek Michael C. Munger 37
4 The Role of Negative Rights Aeon J. Skoble 49
5 The Impossibility of Egalitarian Ends Jeremy Jackson Jeffrey Palm 57
Part II The Historical Development of Egalitarian Ideas
6 Religion and the Idea of Human Dignity Peter J. Hill 69
7 A Descent from Equality to Egalitarianism Jason Morgan 81
8 Why Redistributionism Must Collapse James R. Harrigan Ryan M. Yonk 93
9 The Retreat from Equality before the Law William J. Watkins Jr. 105
Part III Egalitarianism, Economic Performance, and the Laws of Economics
10 Classroom Egalitarianism Steven Shmanske 123
11 Financial Egalitarianism in America Robert E. Wright 135
12 The End of Absolute Poverty Art Carden Sarah Estelle Anne R. Bradley 147
13 The Unfair Cost of Reducing Inequality Nikolai G. Wenzel 159
14 Equality Comes from Economic Growth Ben O'Neill 173
15 Taxes and the Myth of Egalitarianism Brian J. Gaines 183
16 Pushing for More Equality of Income and Wealth Edward P. Stringham 197
17 Good and Bad Inequality Vincent Geloso Steven G. Horwitz 213
Conclusion: Final Thoughts on Egalitarianism Michael C. Munger 227
About the Editors and Contributors 305