Along with the movies it makes, some good, some not, Hollywood spews out an unending stream of goofy left-wing political sentiments. Attacking them is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel; it usually isn't worth it. But several months ago a news item about a dinner to benefit Oxfam, the hunger-relief organization, caught my eye because it perfectly illustrates the obstacles we face in fighting to preserve the principles of individual rights.
Certain questions will doubtless leap to the reader's mind. Is equal distribution of food the proper measure of whether capitalism works? Could the poverty of low-income countries have anything to do with the fact that they do not have capitalist economies? Do people in middle-income countries normally eat on paper plates? But let us put aside these obvious questions in order to concentrate on the philosophical essence of the event.
The Egalitarian Worldview
John Rawls argued that society may treat individual ability as a social asset.
Philosophers have constructed elaborate rationalizations for this worldview. Marx adopted an extreme form of environmental determinism, according to which one's fate is determined by the class one is born into, along with the ineluctable laws of economic production, which guarantee that the capitalists will get richer and the working class poorer. The Harvard philosopher John Rawls (pictured at right) admitted that differences in economic success could be traced to differences in individual ability and effort but argued that we don't deserve the traits we are born with. People with great ability, and great motivation to achieve, are merely lucky winners in a lottery by which Nature distributes these "gifts." Therefore, he argues, society may treat individual ability as a social asset, and distribute the products of effort to the less able and industrious.
More often, however, the egalitarian view is adopted without argument. The hallmark of this approach is an obsession with statistics on the distribution of income and wealth: the share going to the top 1 % (or 5% or 20%) as against the share going to lower brackets. The media have lately been reporting every new wrinkle in these statistics, in order to prove that inequality increased during the Reagan era. In the global economy, likewise, one often hears complaints that the U.S., with only 7% of the world's population, consumes 23% (or whatever) of the world's resources. Or as Roger Donway once said by way of parody: It's outrageous that the French, with only 1% of the world’s population, have 12% of the world’s fun.
Wealth is not found, but created.
Despite the use of numbers, this entire discussion is dominated by an image, the image of a pie that has appeared somehow on the table and must now by divided up. It is a false image, a mirage. Wealth, unlike fun, can be tallied numerically, but like fun it is not a collective phenomenon. Wealth is the product of individual thought, ability, and effort. Wealth is not found, but created, and the identity of the creators is a matter of public record. They are the inventors, entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers, and producers in every other line of work, who earn what they receive in voluntary exchange with others.
In our mixed economy, of course, not all exchanges are voluntary. Some individuals prosper by turning government regulations to their (short-term) advantage, or finding some other way to wallow in the stream of government largesse. And even in a completely free economy, some people would still be victims of prejudice or other forms of injustice and irrationality. But the very fact that we can make such judgments implies that we can discriminate degrees of merit and commensurate reward. One would think the notion that there is no link between merit and reward, that one's economic fate is a matter of sheer luck, that "the goods are here" (as Ayn Rand put it) and it doesn't matter how they got here, is too fantastic even for Hollywood to accept.
Once again, the obvious objections leap to mind. Surely it is fatuous to assume that a wealthy movie star who eats rice on the floor one evening, and then drives his Range-Rover home to Malibu for a real meal, has had a powerful experience of poverty. But once again, let us leave aside the obvious and attend to the philosophical essence: the assumption that one must actually experience another person's condition in order to understand it.
The Anti-Conceptual Mentality
"Experience" in this context means the perceptual level of cognition: direct perceptual awareness of a phenomenon, as opposed to abstract conceptual knowledge of it. As Ayn Rand pointed out, it is impossible for human beings to function solely at the perceptual level, as animals do. Every distinctive human need or capacity—from language, to morality, to science and technology, to social institutions—depends on our ability to grasp and reason with abstract ideas. What is possible—indeed, all too common—is the syndrome she called "the anti-conceptual mentality," the syndrome which "treats abstractions as if they were perceptual concretes."
It is impossible for human beings to function solely at the perceptual level, as animals do.
The anti-conceptual mentality regards a concept like “wealth or “justice” as a given, as something that requires no logical process of integration and definition. This syndrome is motivated by the desire to retain the effortless, automatic, and infallible character of perceptual awareness, and avoid the mental independence, effort, and risk of error that conceptual integration entails. In the anti-conceptual mentality, "the process of integration is largely replaced by a process of association." People who function this way are typically unable to define their terms; for them, the meaning of a word is a jumble of memorized examples, emotional connotations, and floating images. And their convictions tend to be held as slogans, detached from logic and evidence. On any issue involving values, such people rely heavily on emotions, which, like percepts, are experienced as automatic, effortless, and infallible.
According to a recent article in the New Republic, a course on "Poverty and Culture" at American University allows students to get credit for begging on the street. "The one student who chose to spend an hour-and-a-half approaching strangers at Dupont Circle said she ended up feeling 'very close' to the real homeless people there."
Principles and Ideologies
The anti-conceptual mentality represents a tremendous obstacle to a free society.
Any political ideology—from individualism to socialism—can be formulated in terms of principles about the proper relation of the individual to the state, the proper functions of government, etc. At the level of principles, no ideology can be understood, much less consistently practiced or advocated, by those who function non-conceptually. That is why anti-ideological pragmatism is so popular. But the nonindividualist ideologies have a concrete model they can use to convey their view of society: the model of the family. The political left stresses the nurturing role of the family, its unconditional support of every member. Conservatives stress the authority of the parents in teaching virtue and enforcing standards of behavior. These aspects of the family are understood by preconceptual children, and can be grasped in a primitive form by anti-conceptual adults.
Those who think of society as a giant family cannot understand why the government may not take just a little bit from the wealthy to help the poor. Isn’t that what families do? They share. But government is not a loving parent. Government is an institution invested with the power to use force. Its function is to protect individual rights, including property rights, and it must apply that principle uniformly, in accordance with the rule of law, regardless of the degree of property any person has. To violate the rights of wealthy individuals is to abandon the principle of rights in theory, and to set a precedent that jeopardizes all rights in practice.
Government is an institution invested with the power to use force.
Again, those whose sense of reality is limited to what they can perceive cannot fully grasp the nature of a free market. This fact can best be illustrated by Frederic Bastiat's distinction between what is seen and what is not seen. The government creates a make-work program that employs a certain number of people. These people are seen. But money for the program is raised from taxes, which are taken from the private sector, which reduces the capital available to create private employment. The jobs that are destroyed in this manner are not seen. We cannot point to the specific people who are deprived of work. To grasp the destructive character of government intervention—in this case and countless others—one must think in terms of principles. To those who do not think conceptually, only what is seen is real, and they will always provide a ready market for politicians selling intervention.
Egalitarians By Default
Those of us who care about liberty, and all the values it makes possible, need to be concerned about this crucial precondition. Our liberties will be secure only when people are capable of grasping the principle of rights, when they understand that wealth is not a pie to be divided and passed around the table, and when the notion of addressing world hunger by eating rice on the floor is too goofy even for Hollywood.