Saturday, October 15, 2011

The 99%, the 53%, & Distributive Justice*

The battle cry of the movement that’s occupied Wall Street and spread around the country and the world in recent weeks is “We Are The 99%.”

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?

This marine doesn't dig the Occupy Wall Street movement.

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)


  1. Exactly. This guy's problem is that he thinks it is manly to serve some vague ideal he summarizes as God bless the USA Even though that ideal is in fact an abusive slavemaster empowered and sustained by corporate greed and hired killers like himself. He has come worship his abuser because it is the only thing that has offered him a sense of manly virtue.

    When he says he doesn't blame Wall street he is admitting that there is some injustice evident in his situation of being a college educated marine with 2 jobs and no health insurance. His refusal to look in the direction of Wall street is likely to be simply be a macho intellectual prejudice that prevents him from seeing the way things are.

    If he is against whining why whine about people exercising democratic means of public expression. Why isn't that part of God bless the USA. Isn't that the same as Don't tread on me and no taxation without representation and we hold these truths to be self evident etc.

  2. I think the guys of (OWS)have all my admiration for the courageous to talk loud of the injustice of this situacion. As of the guy standing in the picture, he is wrong, he is just I guess leaking his own wounds of misery and trying to make a point without sucess!

  3. I'm in a local Occupy movement, and speaking only for myself, this post is a train wreck.

    1. In a post about justice, would it be too much effort to credit or link to Chris Sims for the Batman-as-1%er picture?

    2. I don't know about anyone else, but when I protest, I don't think of some 20-something Marine as exemplar of the viewpoint I'm protesting against. I particularly wouldn't pick out some random guy posing for a right wing site and make up scenarios about how he wouldn't help his neighbors put out a fire in the neighborhood.

    3. The world needs many things, but another explanation of how Nozick hand-waves through the justice of original acquisition is not one of them.

    Thanks for the support, but...

  4. 1. The Batman picture has been all over the place lately. It's popular and well-known, as it deserves to be. (It's extremely funny and well-done.) I don't think it's provenance is a secret. By all means, though, all glory to Chris Sims.

    2. I don't think the guy in the picture (who's probably in his early 30s, FWIW) is an exemplar of what *anyone's* protesting against. If you re-read the post, a bit more carefully this time, you'll see that not only did I never say, imply, or suggest that he was, but that everything I say assumes a view of his role that's actually incompatible with that claim. Saudi women who want to be free to wear whatever they want aren't protesting against their veil-wearing sisters. Roman slaves joining Spartacus weren't doing so out of anger against slaves who accepted their lot. In the final analogy, he's not the fire.

    Which of course, brings us to:

    "I particularly wouldn't pick out some random guy posing for a right wing site I particularly wouldn't pick out some random guy posing for a right wing site and make up scenarios about how he wouldn't help his neighbors put out a fire in the neighborhood."

    Where to start?

    First things first, I'm not picking the guy at random. Again, popular picture, widely-discussed. (See, for example, the linked open letter to him on the Daily Kos.) Moreover, dissecting his implicit moral argument no more appoints him spokesman of anything than carefully explaining to an Intro student why the thing he just said in the class discussion of phil of religion appoints that Intro student as the universal spokesman of theism. Perhaps you don't think this is a worthwhile activity. (More on that below.)

    But, really......

    "....and make up scenarios about how he wouldn't help his neighbors put out a fire in the neighborhood."

    Good God, Rich, are you one of these people who's incapable of understanding abstraction? Like an Intro to Philosophy student who objects to discussion of the Frankfurt examples about free will because 'that science fiction crap doesn't exist in real life'?

    To spell this out, the claim is that this guy's stated rationale for opposing the "whining" of the 99% is analogous (in respect of both rationality and moral virtue) to someone who wouldn't help his neighbors put out a fire because working together is a kind of communism. You can agree or disagree with that, think its a fair or unfair analogy, and we can have a little argument about that. But to claim that I'm making up scenarios about what that guy would actually do if a fire threatened his neighborhood is, to put it nicely, borderline illiterate.

    3. It's interesting that you go to a website called "Occupy Philosophy" and get all shocked that time is being wasted there on a discussion of....philosophy. It's even more interesting that you start your comment by claiming to be speaking only for yourself, but you deny me the same privilege. Apparently, I'm required to blog exclusively about things that the world needs. I'm not sure why that should be, and I'm even less sure if I understand how you can simultaneously be speaking only for yourself and be in a position to inform me about what the world currently requires of me.

    "Thanks for your support, but..."

    Actually, chief, we're both participants in the same movement, along with many thousands of our closest mutual friends. I'm not your supporter. Good thing, too, because, judging by this comment, I'd have a hard time working up much enthusiasm for that particular project.

  5. I guess I'll have to be more clear. The problem with discrediting Nozick via original acquisition is not that you're dong philosophy, it's that it's been done many, many times already by philosophers, who you don't reference and add nothing to. The problem with your going into a description of various possibilities of what the guy in the picture might mean isn't "abstraction", it's that his pictured text really doesn't supply much information about what he means. Right-wingers have, of course, written justifications that you could look at philosophically, but that would involve actual work. You're free to make up "this means that he wouldn't help his neighbors put out a fire" if you want to, but the proper response to that isn't to agree or disagree, say it's a fair or unfair analogy, but just to point out that you're using him as a prop.

    And lastly, I wasn't thanking you for supporting me, but rather the movement.

  6. "I guess I'll have to be more clear."

    No. You'll have to start to pay attention. There's a difference.

    "The problem with discrediting Nozick via original acquisition is not that you're dong philosophy, it's that it's been done many, many times already by philosophers, who you don't reference and add nothing to."

    Um, really? I name-checked one of Nozick's most important philosophical critics, respectfully gestured at the existence of an extensive and complicated debate about the matter, and went on to make a pretty basic point about the relevant empirical realities people like the 53%-er in question are in denial about.

    As a side-note, I actually take Nozick a lot more seriously than you seem to. For example, I don't regard his arguments as "hand-waving", or as decisively refuted in some sort of nothing-more-to-see-here way. Even if I did agree with you about the state of the debate, though, that seems beside the point here. If someone posted on a blog about the intersection between philosophy and the right-wing assault on public education by mentioning some comment by some local school board creationist somewhere that had been making a lot of waves, and that exemplified typical creationist thinking, and, in the course of the post, they threw in a couple paragraphs saying "Of course, what this person was saying is basically just the Teleological Argument", mentioning Paley and the watch on the beach, and then quickly pointing out one or two of the more obvious empirical problems with creationism, would you make the same objections?

    I am, of course, as you mention later, using the guy in the picture as a prop. What of it? The point of posing with a sign like that is to be used as a prop for the opposition--"hey, look at this guy who has it as bad or worse as most of these whiners--he doesn't blame Wall Street!" What on earth is wrong with using the same sign as a prop to teach a better thought-out lesson?

    "The problem with your going into a description of various possibilities of what the guy in the picture might mean isn't 'abstraction'..."

    The abstraction comment had a context.

    That ain't it.

    Re-read my last comment, a bit more carefully this time.

    "Right-wingers have, of course, written justifications that you could look at philosophically..."

    Like, say, Anarchy, State and Utopia?

    "You're free to make up 'this means that he wouldn't help his neighbors put out a fire' if you want to..."



    Of the two of us, right now, one is making stuff up. It's not me.

    Or at least, God, I hope you are. If, despite it being painfully obvious in its original context, and it having already been carefully re-explained to you in my previous comment, you honestly can't tell the difference between a claimed analogy between the flaws in the morality and prudential rationality of the fellow in the picture's attitude towards OWS "whiners" and the attitudes of the hypothetical non-cooperating neighbor, and a claim about this particular guy would actually do....

    Hell, if on the level of basic reading comprehension, you seriously can't tell the difference between a simile and a literal assertion, I don't know how to help you.

  7. @Rich and @ Ben....ok guys. I am going to step in here and remind you both that the spirit of Occupy philosophy is one inclusiveness and respect...I suggest we take a collective breath, and perhaps let some other voices into the conversation! Thanks guys.

  8. Well, this guy is a right-wing populist, and that's unfortunate, both for him and for those people who work even harder than this guy does. The other unfortunate thing is that there's a kernel of truth in what he's saying, only it's not the 53%, but somewhere between 80% and 90%:

    .... Whatever, I have no sympathy for anyone who signs up for the military. If he wants to go through life getting screwed at every corner, well, I guess that's the "American freedom" he "fought" for. But it's also true that OWS is a bunch of white-collar elites.

  9. @IBerlan444: The article at the URL you posted presupposes that a "first glance" assessment of the movement is sufficient to determine--contrary to the occupiers' consistent statements--that "the demand" is forgiveness of student debt. I watch the live feed everyday, I read a lot about the movement, and I participated in the DC events. I have no student debt, and none of the people I got to know at the event were motivated by student debt. So I guess it's my assessment against theirs.

    And aside from that, the remaining proof that this is an upper middle class movement is ... Macs and iPhones? Can this really be taken seriously? My parents run a hardware store. My family of 4 lives on my stipend of $26,000/yr. (in an expensive area). I bought a Mac with financing, after saving my money with discipline (mostly because I use BibDesk and TeXShop constantly). I suppose it follows that I'm upper middle class?

    But suppose we grant the dubious assumption that #Occupy is an upper middle class thing. The upper middle class is part of the 99% so the claim that "we are the 99%" isn't false. That is, unless it's taken to mean that "we are an accurate proportional representation of the entire 99%." This reading of the claim is unreasonable.

    Maybe the soldier in the photo above is on to something, and maybe not. But either way, neither your comment nor the link you posted sheds any light on the matter (as far as I can tell).

  10. J.McMahan--Yes. (The "first glance" in the linked article also doesn't seem to have lingered long enough on the scene to pick up on the massive union participation even relatively early in the NYC events--Teamsters, Transit Workers, etc. Presumably those folks belong in the "Working Class" pie segment.)