The appeal to intuitive principles of economic justice implicit in highlighting the grotesque imbalance between the wealth, power and privileges of a tiny minority of the population and those of the other 99% seems clear enough. Given the large amounts of human suffering caused by the distribution of wealth and power in America and other contemporary capitalist societies, the prima facie injustice is certainly clear enough. Utilitarians, Rawlsians, Marxists (of both Hegelian and G.A. Cohen-style “analytic” stripes) and so on can all quite easily make the case that this distribution is massively unjust.
What, then, about the perspective of this fellow?
His use of the phrase “the 53%” is a reference to the bizarre right-wing myth that only 53% of the population pays taxes. (Apparently the payroll taxes still paid by those working people too broke to afford to pay federal income taxes don’t…um…count, for some reason?) That bit of silliness aside, though, what should we say about him?
Max Udargo makes some reasonable points here about ways that the fellow in the picture might plausibly change his mind later. (What if he gets sick?, etc.) Imagine, though, that he sticks to his convictions through thick and thin. No matter how bad things get, he won’t “blame Wall Street.”
Who he does blame isn’t clear. Given the emphasis on his own hard work and dedication, it’s unlikely that he’s taking Herman Cain’s advice and blaming himself for his own negligence in not having the good sense to be born into a rich family. Nor, given the enthusiastic reference to “God” at the bottom of the sign, does it seem likely that he’s blaming the deity for that particular bit of natural evil.
Perhaps the question of “blame” doesn’t arise for him. He could tell two sorts of stories according to which “blame” would be a non-issue.
First, it could be that no one is to blame because he’s perfectly content with his lot.
He was happy to work 60-70 hours a week while the rich kids had all the time they needed to study.
He doesn’t need as many as four consecutive days off in four years since he can have all the fun he’d ever want in three.
He doesn’t mind his lack of health insurance. If he gets cancer, he’s happy to stay home from the hospital and hope for the best. Or he’ll accept that the God who he invokes as blessing American capitalism in the last line of his sign wouldn’t give him cancer without a good reason, and he thinks it would be inappropriate for him to interfere with God’s will. Perhaps he thinks that doctors won’t be necessary—he’ll just grit his teeth and hum the Marines’ Hymn over and over again until his cancer chickens out and goes into remission.
(From the halls of Montezuma....)
Of course, even if so, all of this would be morally irrelevant, and certainly wouldn’t justify his charge that everybody else is just whinin’.
By analogy, the fact that many Saudi women would voluntarily wear veils hardly justifies the rest of them being legally forced to. The fact that many slaves in ancient Rome were content with their lot—some accepting their servitude, for example, as the will of various Gods—doesn’t add up to a terribly convincing moral objection to other slaves joining Spartacus in revolt.
Hardly anyone chooses to live in poverty. The tens of millions of Americans who, like our friend the Marine, can’t afford health insurance, aren’t choosing to forgo it. (Maybe the sign-holder would refuse socialized medicine on principle—it would be interesting to find out if he takes advantage of the services of the Veteran’s Administration—but, pretty clearly, most would not.) If circumstances of those even at the bottom rung of current casino-capitalist realities aren’t even close to as bad, in many obvious ways, as those of Saudi women or Roman slaves, it remains the case that they have legitimate grievances, and despite the sociologically-illiterate babble of the Herman Cains of the world, it’s impossible to seriously argue that the difference between their circumstances and those of the Wall Street profiteers are entirely, or even mostly, under their control.
Of course, somewhat more charitably, we could assume that the 53-percenter in the picture doesn’t think in terms of blame, not because he thinks that if he doesn’t mind his economic circumstances, it somehow follows that no one else has a legitimate complaint about those conditions, but because he regards the situation as morally just.
And, to be fair to him, “morally just” is quite compatible with “unfortunate and depressing.” By analogy, if your wife or boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or whatever leaves you, and you loved them very much, it might make perfect sense for you to be (a) utterly devastated by that turn of events, without (b) going crazy and forming the belief that your partner should have been forced to stay with you, or that they didn’t have a moral right to decide to end the relationship. Perhaps the Marine in the picture thinks his economic situation is like that—the natural result of consensual economic activity everyone involved had every right to engage in.
Robert Nozick thought that this would be sufficient to justify any economic outcome. In Anarchy, State and Utopia, he argued that even the most extreme end-state inequalities could be morally justified if they’d come about the right way. He had many interesting, challenging arguments for this view. Others have poked interesting holes in them—like G.A. Cohen’s point that Nozick’s most famous thought experiment shows only that historical considerations are relevant to the justice or injustice of end-states, while Nozick insisted on treating them as if they were decisive—but there’s a much simpler and more important reason why Nozickian considerations are not, and could not, even be relevant to the justice of the complaints of the 99%, rising up in all corners of the country, and now the world, to demand justice from the Wall Street profiteers.
To see why, consider Nozick’s two conditions for a given distribution of resources being just:
First of all, we have to start with just acts of original acquisition, so that at the beginning of the story, everyone clearly has a right to their possessions. (For example, we imagine starting by people claiming bits of unowned land, clearing them off to start farms, and so on.) Then, as long as all changes in distribution since then result from what Nozick calls “capitalistic acts between consenting adults” (i.e. transfers in which force and fraud are not used), whatever final distribution we end up with, even one far worse than the one we have, even one that involved 1% of the population living in opulence and the other 99% living in the conditions memorably described by Louie CK in the clip below—living just long enough to be hungry, then starving to death immediately thereafter—it would be just, because of its immaculate origins.
The argument between Nozick and people like Cohen about whether this hypothetical, immaculately-conceived version of capitalism would be morally just, is a fascinating philosophical debate, and it’s the sort of complex question about which intelligent people can reasonably disagree. It could not, however, possibly be less relevant to the current real-life struggle between the actual 99% and the actual Wall Street aristocracy, for the simple reason that, whatever one thinks of hypothetical, immaculately-conceived capitalism, that’s not what happened here.
Anyone who’s ever cracked a history book and at least skimmed through it for fifteen or twenty minutes knows that the just-original-acquisitions-followed-by-consensual-transfers story could hardly be further from the real origins of our system. American capitalism was built on the back of slaves taken to the New World in chains. The fields where those slaves were forced to work were, far from having been claimed from some sort of state of nature, part of lands taken by force and genocidal violence from the native population of the continent. When we turn from America to the rest of the world—capitalism, after all, having always been a globally-interconnected system—we see capitalism emerging from feudalism, aristocrats becoming industrialists. Turning to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we see a trail of corpses in Europe and America, as trade union organizers, radical agitators and others who threatened those industrialists’ profits were often murdered by thugs or locked up on trumped-up charges or using blatantly oppressive laws. As a 19th-century German guy who, like Robert Nozick, was a Philosophy major in college, but who, unlike Nozick, was as interested in empirical data about economic history as he was in philosophy, put it in one memorable passage, capitalism came into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Turning to 2011, we see conditions exactly that brutal still in force in many of the third world countries whose sweat shops are integral to the high profit margins of the American 1%. (See the death squads employed by Coca Cola in Colombia as a case in point. You have to ignore an awful lot of recent history, in Latin America and elsewhere, to will yourself to believe the case to be entirely out-of-character for American corporate behavior in those regions.) And, here in America, the 1% successfully lobbied for the reversal of regulations that had prevented financial institutions from becoming “too big to fail", committed a thousand varieties of mathematically inventive fraud as they rode high on exploiting the housing bubble, and, when it all came crashing down around them, far from comporting themselves as Nozickian rugged individualists, they successfully directed their bribed political representatives to bail them out using tax money collected from the rest of us. Since getting back on their feet, they’ve cautiously hoarded their wealth while things have gotten worse and worse for everyone else.
Whether one focuses on origins or outcomes, the injustice of this situation—and the legitimacy of the 99%’s complaint—is overwhelming and undeniable.
And the guy clutching that sign proudly proclaiming his refusal to blame, or to whine, as if this refusal on his part was just supremely virtuous?
He’s like someone who refuses to help his neighbors put out a fire coursing through the neighborhood, even knowing perfectly well that, if left unchecked it will consume his house as well, because he thinks working together is a kind of communism.
There are a lot of things you could say about that attitude.
“Virtuous” is not one of them.
*(Batman pic via Chris Sims)