Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Rawls, the budget and the case for punitive taxation

Rupert Read has instigated a fascinating – if slightly surreal – debate about what John Rawls would have made of the British government’s decision to cut the rate of income tax on the highest earners from 50% to 45%. Read observes that many of the arguments made in favour of the cut are Rawlsian in tenor, and suggests that this undermines Rawls’ philosophy. However, I think that Read’s framing of the debate as being about Rawlsianism and levelling down is unfortunate, as it obscures the important objections he has to the tax cut, and divides him off from potential allies who are likely to be sympathetic to his view. The real argument at the heart of Read’s post – that there is good reason to tax the rich, even if it has limited fiscal impact, and even if it does some harm to the economy – is one that deserves greater emphasis, especially given the fact that a similar debate looms imminent in France.

Rawls’ ‘difference principle’ insists that inequalities can be just if they maximise the position of the worst off in society. Certain Conservatives and businessmen have argued that the worst off in Britain are better off without the 50% tax. Therefore, Read argues that Rawlsians ought to defend the tax cut.

Read’s argument depends on two empirical assumptions:

a) that the 50% tax rate does not benefit the worst-off, and

b) the 50% tax rate reduces inequality.

Read doesn’t actually claim that a) is true – he only asks what would be the case IF it were true. As he observes, many Conservatives and businessmen have argued that the 50% tax rate doesn’t raise a significant amount of money for the government, and harms the poor by acting as a drag on the economy. However, these claims have been rejected by others. Rawlsians can therefore reject the tax cut on empirical grounds.

Even if a) is true, Read’s argument in favour of keeping the 50% tax rate also depends on assumption b) – that it promotes equality. Now if the 50% tax doesn’t reduce inequality by making the poor richer (since we’ve granted assumption a)), then it has to make the rich poorer. It is far from obvious that the 50% tax does have this effect – if the rich mostly avoid it, then they will not be any the worse off. However, the 50% tax may have incentive effects which do not help the poor – the rich might choose to work less, and therefore earn less. It could also be the case that the economic loss resulting from the tax hits the rich disproportionately. Assumption b) is therefore plausible, but does not obviously follow if a) is true.

Read’s argument is that even if cutting the 50% tax leaves the worst-off financially better off, it ought to be scrapped “Because we would still be creating a more unequal society”. In other words, Read looks to be arguing that equality is valuable even if it doesn’t benefit anybody. This makes it appear that the argument is basically about the levelling down objection: Rawlsians don’t believe in levelling down, Read does.

This is an old and entrenched debate in political philosophy. Read’s apparent position – that equality can be good, even when there is nobody benefiting from it has been defended, most famously by Larry Temkin. But looking at the arguments Read provides in favour of equality, this framing of the debate is entirely unnecessary.

The levelling down objection suggests that equality makes nobody better off. But Read invokes the book The Spirit Level in defence of equality. The whole point the arguments in The Spirit Level is that whether or not equality is good in itself, it has all manner of beneficial consequences – it leads to a happier, healthier and less violent society. So Read actually rejects assumption a) – he thinks that the 50% tax does improve the lot of the worst-off, just not financially. Indeed, given that Read’s fundamental point is that the effect of tax changes ought not to be evaluated in purely economic terms, it is bizarre that he makes this error, assuming that making someone richer is the only way to make them better off. (Rawls’ notion of primary goods is less crude, but has still been criticised as too narrow).

Read offers a second argument in favour of keeping the 50% tax that doesn’t even have anything to do with equality: “high tax rates are a good thing inasmuch as they discourage the culture of overwork which grips societies like ours”. This could be framed in a couple of different ways. First, it could be justified as a paternalist measure, similar to taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, which seek to discourage harmful behaviour. Second, taxing overwork might be seen as adjusting for a negative externality, or solving a collective action problem. Your decision to work long hours imposes a cost on me, since it increases the pressure on me to work similar hours. Perhaps we could all benefit from cutting our hours, but nobody can do it unilaterally – this provides the classic conditions for government intervention.

What I’ve tried to suggest here is that Read’s target is mistaken. Rawlsians, or others who accept the levelling down objection, are not his real enemies. Rather, the significance of Read’s argument is that it provides a corrective to the materialism of so much of the budget analysis. His insight is that taxes are not just about raising money, and it is only a narrow Rawlsianism that would object to that.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Luck in Football: A Philosophical Analysis

The frustration of Liverpool fans at watching our team dominate match after match this season, and yet repeatedly come away without victory, is probably matched only by the irritation of those who have had to listen to us bemoan our ‘bad luck’. It is hard not to feel jinxed when you consider that Liverpool have hit the woodwork 21 times already this year (count how often the commentator uses the word “unlucky” in this video) and the slew of astonishing saves opposition goalkeepers have made in stoppage time at Anfield alone. Yet as Gregg Roughley remarked on the back of a disappointing defeat to Arsenal, “it’s got to the stage now with Liverpool that you can no longer say that they’ve been unlucky in every game that they don’t score one of many chances that they create”. Indeed, there is increasingly a lack of sympathy for Liverpool: talkSPORT magazine is typical in denouncing as “absolute rubbish” the notion that Liverpool are unlucky not to be higher up the table.

Both sides of the debate seem pretty sure of themselves, but it is far from clear what they are even talking about. The idea of luck is one that most of us feel we have a clear intuitive grasp of, but which, like so many other concepts, begins to disintegrate under philosophical scrutiny. If we are to make sense of a claim like ‘Liverpool have been unlucky this season’, we first need to understand what it means for a football team to be lucky.

A minimal definition of luck contrasts it with things that we cannot control, or are not responsible for (these need not mean the same thing, but can probably be taken as equivalent for our purposes here). Thomas Nagel helpfully distinguishes four types of luck: antecedent causal luck, constitutive luck, circumstantial luck and resultant luck. Not all of these are equally relevant from the football fans perspective.

The first form of luck – antecedent causal luck - is the most pervasive, but also probably the least commonly observed. This is based on the determinist claim that because of inevitable causal connections and natural laws, that the world cannot be otherwise than it is. If everything is inevitable, then it is argued that it is beyond, say, Luis Suarez’s control whether he scores or misses, and so it is merely a matter of luck. His success or failure depends on a complicated mix of genetic capacities, inherited and developed psychological traits, laws of physics etc., none of which he can do anything to influence. However, this conception of luck is unhelpful as it suggests that everything is a matter of luck. ‘Unlucky defeat’ is a tautology on this view, since all defeats are due to factors beyond the control of the participants, and so all defeats are unlucky. Yet this is clearly not the everyday use of the term.

Constitutive luck is used to refer to our good or bad fortune in terms of our characteristics e.g. intelligence, physical fitness etc. Nagel describes it as “”the kind of person you are…your inclinations, capacities and temperament”. For a football club like Liverpool, the analogous idea might be the team’s location, fan base or owners. Thus in terms of constitutive luck, Liverpool fans might be considered very lucky indeed, supporting a team with the objective background conditions conducive to success, including a big name, supportive owners willing to invest large sums of money, and a quality team. Again, though, this is an unusual sense of luck that clearly doesn’t capture the meaning of Roughley, talkSPORT and the rest.

Circumstantial luck will be more familiar to football fans. This is luck in “the kind of problems and situations one faces”. So, for example, this might cover things like weather or pitch conditions (whether you face Stoke on a benign summer afternoon, or he infamous wet Tuesday night). Perhaps more significant is circumstantial luck in terms of the opposition you play, and how well they perform. Consider the fact that Liverpool have played Arsenal twice this season. The first time, in August, Arsenal had suffered a number of injuries, and were just about to be pummelled 8-2 by Manchester United. Earlier this month, they had the momentum of a rousing 5-2 victory against Spurs. We played much better in the more recent match; yet we one the first and lost the second. This, I think, would be recognised as luck by most football fans, though it is rarely discussed. It could be that these things ‘even out’, but it is also possible that some teams have to contend with more in-form teams raising their game.

Finally, there is resultant luck: luck “in the way things turn out”. This is used to describe occasions where basically the same action has different consequences. Nagel’s example is of a reckless driver whose actions are much more significant if a child runs in front of their car. Things like deflections, or uneven bounces and ricochets, what is often called ‘the run of the ball’ will come under this. So will incidents like speculative shots, where a player connects well with then ball, and hopes that their shot is accurate enough.

However, to treat all resultant luck alike is to miss something important. Commentators often respond to flukey goals with the observation that “If you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win the lottery”. In other words, people deserve credit for the success of calculated gambles. This intuition is recognised by philosophers in the distinction between brute and option luck. Ronald Dworkin argues that option luck – “whether someone gains or loses through accepting an isolated risk he or she should have anticipated and might have declined” – is morally unproblematic, unlike other forms of luck. Brute luck comprises the various forms of uncertainty that we do not have any control over. Winning the lottery is a form of option luck, while inheriting a large sum of money is brute luck. I think most people would recognise that there is a relevant difference between brute luck and option luck in football, between sheer randomness and calculated risks paying off.

Yet as Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen observes, the dividing line between brute and option luck is not always a clear one: there are often cases when we have no sure bets, and are forced to choose between different risky alternatives. For example, a footballer may find himself in a situation where he is one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He could try to to chip the goalkeeper, with x% chance of success; try to shoot under their body, with y% probability of scoring; or try to take the ball around them, with z% success rate. To treat any outcome as option luck ignores the fact that there is no choice but to gamble. Lippert-Rasmussen argues that “we should often think of a given piece of luck as a mixture of brute luck and option luck where the exact mixture depends on the extent to which one could influence the expected value of the outcome of one's choice”.

With this caveat, I think the best account of luck in football is the difference between the actual success of a team, and the outcome you would expect given their performance – their tactics, effort, decisions etc. A team is lucky if it does better than its expected outcome, and is unlucky if it does worse. The notion of ‘expected outcome’ might still be a bit vague, but I think it is intuitively captured by the idea of ‘playing the percentages’ – you are unlucky to the extent that you play the percentages and lose.

If this definition of luck is a good one, then it means that the concept is often invoked inappropriately. I don’t think there is anything unlucky about a team dominating possession or territory, but failing to win (As Spurs did against Man Utd, or as United themselves did against Liverpool). This means that they have failed to create chances, which obviously lower. the outcome they can expect. Similarly, creating a lot of chances and failing to convert them is often not unlucky – it simply demonstrates poor finishing. The winning teams in such games certainly enjoy circumstantial luck, in that giving away many chances usually spells defeat – but there can be no such excuse for the losers.

It should be clear, though, that it is very hard to differentiate bad finishing from bad luck. Striking the woodwork usually means doing everything almost perfectly. But striking the woodwork as often as Liverpool have done suggests a more fundamental problem with the team. The arguments will doubtless rage on, because we will never know enough to know who is truly unlucky,

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Can Conservatives be Feminists?

The presence of conservative women in a number of prominent political positions has reignited an old debate about the relationship between conservatism and feminism. Last summer, when both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann seemed like influential voices within the Republican party, Naomi Wolf insisted “these women are real feminists – even if they don’t share policy preferences with the ‘sisterhood’”.[1] In last year’s British general election, the Conservative party doubled its number of female MPs, with many of the new intake promising to offer a ‘Tory feminist’ voice.

Now the mere existence of conservative women in itself means nothing. Being a woman and a politician does not automatically make you a feminist. It is well established that historically women have tended to be more socially conservative.[2] But this endorsement is insufficient to demonstrate conservatism’s feminist credentials. Just as an autocratic party can win votes from a majority of the electorate without becoming democratic, so women can use the rights won for them by feminists to move society in an anti-feminist direction.

Indeed the lesson that high-profile female politicians need not be feminists ought to have been learned from the most high profile of them all: Margaret Thatcher famously declared that “I owe nothing to Women’s Lib”. An interesting contrast, though, is that many modern conservative women are happy to self-identify as feminists. Earlier this year the Observer profiled a group of MPs willing to be labelled ‘Tory feminists’.[3] Sarah Palin has used the symbol of ‘mama grizzlies’ (who apparently juggle careers and child rearing) to represent her “emerging, conservative, feminist identity”.[4]

The idea of ‘conservative feminism’ is usually invoked with a sense of subversive irony. These are two terms, it is universally acknowledged, that do not normally go together. On some views this is just a matter of historical accident. It just happens to be the case that those who have been feminists have tended to be on the left. For others, the idea is oxymoronic: any attempt to marry the two inevitably ends up watering down feminism or conservatism.

This essay is not an exercise in reconstructing the ideas of these modern conservative feminists. The question of whether any politician has succeeded in reconciling the two theories is set aside. Rather, the intention is to examine the ideological compatibility of the two. Is it, in principle, possible to combine conservatism and feminism and maintain a coherent philosophy?

A couple of caveats. The term ‘conservative’, as used here, refers to the philosophical and ideological tradition. It does not necessarily refer to any party. Parties are not wedded to any normative commitments, and so there is no necessary restriction on what a member of a given party can believe. Nor should conservatism be confused with libertarianism, though the two are increasingly inseparable. Libertarianism is a distinct political theory that has come to hijack conservatism in recent decades.[5] To see the difference, consider that consistent libertarianism often calls for radical measures, like the dismantling of the welfare state, or the legalisation of drugs. Such ideas are anathema to conservatism, which, if it believes anything, believes in avoiding dramatic departures from the status quo. The extent to which libertarianism is consistent with feminism is a fascinating but distinct question, basically hinging on the extent to which feminism requires state intervention.

The difficulty with conservatism is that it is easier to say what it is not than to provide a positive characterisation. Numerous attempts have been made to set out the core beliefs of conservatives – faith in custom, the idea of human imperfection, an organic conception of society, a devotion to property as protecting freedom – but no single list is fully convincing.[6] As much as anything, this is because of the anti-intellectualism of conservatism, eschewing abstract theories and generalisations. Fixed principles are much too rationalistic a way of doing politics: conservatives would rather rely on custom and intuition.

One of the few features of conservatism, though, that most can agree on is the resistance of excessive and unnecessary change, and defence of the status quo. Conservatism, after all, must involve conserving something. This raises the thorny question of when conservatives can favour change. Oakeshott offers perhaps the most plausible account of conservatism, when he describes it as a set of strategies for managing change: place the burden of proof on the innovator; make change as organic (as opposed to being imposed) as possible; innovation should address defects, and not seek to correct the satisfactory; change should be slow, not rapid; and that the timing of new projects is crucial.[7]

Even this minimal sketch of conservatism seems to conflict with conventional understandings of feminism. Feminism is usually thought to be about change, about addressing injustices and unfair social structures, even if this involves major disruption. Feminism has generally been a philosophy of critique, exposing the myriad ways in which women are oppressed and subordinated. Conservatism’s place has always been to resist critique to defend the existing order, and to explain the dangers of radical change.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of different ways in which feminism and conservatism might come together, at least on one understanding of feminism. Let us tentatively define feminism as the promotion or defence of equality between women and men. While this definition is likely to be controversial, it should be broad enough to cover most understandings of what feminism is about.

Firstly, some people might think that while feminists of the past were right to be critical of their societies, all the fights that need to be won have been won. On this view, gender inequality is a thing of the past, and feminists ought to devote their energies to ensuring that we do not slide back towards it. Conservative feminists of this ilk would observe that women have reason to protect the status quo, and conservatism is the ideology with the best tools to defend it. This argument mirrors Samuel Huntington’s suggestion that modern liberals should strategically embrace conservatism: “Today, however, the greatest need is not so much the creation of more liberal institutions as the defense of those which already exist. This defense requires American liberals to lay aside their liberal ideology and accept the values of conservatism for the duration of the threat”.[8]

Alternatively, the alliance between feminism and conservatism could be based on shared substantive beliefs, and not just tactical convenience. Conservatism generally involves defence of and deference to customs and traditions. Feminists have usually treated existing practices as oppressive and unfair to women. Things like the gendered division of labour, or norms of behaviour and appearance are seen as constraining and biased in favour of men.

However, conservative feminists may see the destruction of these traditions and expectations as damaging for women and gender equality. They might believe that men and women’s roles in society ought to be separate but equal, and that blurring the boundaries is bound to cause only confusion and disappointment. Worse, they might think that undermining traditional gender roles necessary involves deprecating the ‘woman’s sphere’. Thus, on this view, the demand to be more than a housewife and mother implicitly suggests that there is something wrong with being a housewife and mother. This may be based on a caricature of the orthodox feminist position, but it is still a coherent set of ideas: women are more likely to find fulfilment and equality in conventional gender roles, and so they ought to protect and defend these conventions.

In what sense are these two positions feminist? Recall the two elements of the definition offered above: feminism involves promoting and defending gender equality. Tactically conservative feminism believes that there is nothing left to promote. Rather, it sees the greatest threat to gender equality in regression to the past, and so seeks to defend the status quo. Traditionalist conservative feminism interprets the promotion of gender equality as involving adherence to custom, and so aims to protect and enforce these customs.

None of this is intended as an endorsement of conservative feminism. There are major problems with the both the idea that there is no more progress to be made on gender equality, or that women’s conventional roles are their most fulfilling. All this essay has attempted to do is to show that conservative feminism is a coherent position, though it might require some ideological gymnastics. This is an advance on most discussions of the topic, which treat it as self-evident either that feminism is equally germane to left and right, or that conservative feminism is an impossibility. The fact that these assumptions are flatly inconsistent with one another shows that they clearly are not self-evident; in fact, neither is fully correct.

Whether conservative feminism deserves recognition as a class of feminism depends on whether we accept the formulation or interpretation of feminism offered above. Discussing Sarah Palin’s appropriation of the ‘feminist’ label, Nina Power sees “a fundamental crisis in the meaning of the word”.[9] If it can be used so broadly and in such contradictory ways, she argues, it is practically vacuous. To make progress, “we may simply need to abandon the term, or at the very least, restrict its usage to those situations in which we make quite certain we explain what we mean by it”.[10]

This essay has tried to clarify the dispute, and so illuminate the battleground on which feminists can reclaim their ideology from conservatives. They can deny that a concern for gender equality is sufficient to mark out a theory as feminist. They can emphasise the folly of complacency, and demonstrate that progress on gender equality is as important as defending achieved gains. They can highlight the poverty of a ‘separate but equal’ approach to gender roles. A more forceful argument on these points, and people will feel compelled to choose between feminism and conservatism.

[1] Wolf, ‘Reactionaries are feminists, too’, The Globe and Mail, August 6, 2011

[2] Duverger, The Political Role of Women (Paris: UNESCO, 1955); de Vaus and McAllister, ‘The changing politics of women: gender and political alignments in 11 nations’, European Journal of Political Research 17 (1989).

[3] Hinsliff, ‘Tory feminists: the true blue sisterhood’, The Observer, January 8, 2012

[4] Daum, ‘Sarah Palin, feminist’, Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2010

[5] See, for example, Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), for a bitter attack on Thatcherism and its perversion of conservative principles.

[6] See Kirk, The Conservative Mind (London: Faber & Faber, 1954); Quinton, ‘Conservatism’, in Goodin and Pettit (eds.), A Companion to Contemporary Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993) and Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) for three different lists of conservative attributes.

[7] Oakeshott, ‘On being Conservative’, in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1962), 172.

[8] Huntington, ‘Conservatism as an Ideology’, American Political Science Review 51 (1957), 472-3.

[9] Power, One Dimensional Woman (Ropley: O Books, 2009), 8.

[10] Ibid.

This article was published in The Oxford Left Review Issue 6