Embracing Relativism (The Inequality List, Part 3)

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

When I was in graduate school, I coached the undergraduate parliamentary debate team.  As a matter of self-selection, such an activity inevitably finds itself heavy with just-out-of-high-school kids (almost all male) who have recently discovered the joys of arguing about slippery slopes.  Many of them have read some poorly-written novels that tend to excite adolescent boys in particular (as well as some vice presidential candidates), and they come to the debate team filled with certainty that the way to win an argument is to prove that the other side's argument is on one of those slippery slopes.

Part of the job of any debate coach is to help those students grow up.  The realities of life require all kinds of line-drawing exercises, and adults learn that not all slopes are all that steep or all that slippery.  This horrifies the purists, who are sure that any "unprincipled" distinction (or, just as often, one that is based on principles that the purists do not understand or accept) must be rejected, because it is the first step on the road to, well, something really, really bad.  That there are adults out there who never outgrew this fascination only makes it easier for the truly committed to dig in their heels.

In my post last Monday, Living Like Kings and Not Loving It (The Inequality List, Part 2), I discussed an argument that comes up frequently during discussions about inequality.  The definition of "poverty," we are told, is unprincipled because it is all relative.  The people we call poor today would be rich in another place and time (medieval kings are a favorite example), so people who purport to care about poor people are being mindlessly relativist, by this way of thinking.

The point of last Monday's post was to say simply that this obvious point -- that poverty and wealth (and everything in between) are only meaningful in a relative sense -- is indeed obvious.  We have known forever that attempts to define poverty, or to establish cutoffs for "middle class" and other designations, are inherently relative.  Those who then argue that advocates of redistributive policies are somehow on weak ground, because they are merely arguing about a relative rather than an absolute problem, seriously misunderstand what is going on.  Everyone is arguing about relative concepts.  As I said in that post, a person who wants to argue against redistributive policies on this basis is defending the current distribution of wealth and income.  But if the argument is, "Hey, you liberals have to understand that the people you're defending are doing quite well, relatively, so you shouldn't do anything," then the reply is, "Yes, and the people you're defending will still be doing quite well, relatively, even after I've had my way."

And if that is not the argument from the right, then they are merely back to choosing an arbitrary baseline to defend.  That is, once they have lost the claim that relativism in defining rich vs. poor cuts in favor of either side of the debate, then they end up having to defend the status quo by saying that the current relative distributions are non-arbitrary.  But of course, all distributions are based on arbitrary collections laws of property, contract, and so on.

This is not to say that liberal redistributionists automatically win by pointing out that their opponents are arguing arbitrary and relative positions.  The point, instead, is that because everyone is arguing about relative positions, everyone should move on to the next stage in the debate.  The idea that "there is no such thing as poverty," after all, is merely the first argument on the "taxonomy" of arguments that anti-redistributionists run through.  Yes, there is such thing as poverty, and there is such thing as "being rich."  And yes, the lines will be arguable.  Medical doctors know that there is inherent arbitrariness in calling a child autistic or not, or in calling a mole pre-cancerous, but they do it.  And doing so allows seroiusly good interventions to happen.  (Or, as a judge in a tax case once put it, we need not be taken in by "old scholastic questions" about where a horse's tail ends and the horse begins.)

The further point, therefore, is that it is not only acceptable but necessary to have honest discussions about what counts as being poor, being rich, and so on.  "What counts," of course, is determined by considering what it takes to be a functioning person in society.  Most people, for example, agree that it is a marker of poverty when a parent has to choose between feeding her child or buying her child's medication.  That is still, of course, an entirely arbitrary criterion, especially considering how many people never have access to certain medications (including medieval kings, but also including many current poor people in the U.S. and around the world).

The discussion about "what counts" is also driven by what we are trying to accomplish.  "But so-called poor people have cellphones!" is a relatively stronger argument if the discussion is limited to whether "creature comforts" are a meaningful criterion for defining poverty, whereas the argument is utterly mockable if part of our concern is with giving people an opportunity for upward mobility.  If "a job is the best anti-poverty program," then we need to worry about making it possible for employers to communicate with potential employees.  Refusing to call someone poor because they possess the means of possible escape from poverty is perverse.

Of course, if we are really simply having a relativistic discussion about what counts as poverty, we will not only be unable to achieve the kind of certainty that my former late-adolescent students craved, but we are also left to deal with how our own definitions of poverty and wealth change over time.  The evidence is clear, for example, that what people think of as being "rich" is essentially a moving target.  None of this means, however, that we can simply dismiss the entire exercise as being meaningless.  It merely means that it will not be satisfying to a particular mindset.

In short, I am not merely acknowledging that defining and measuring income and wealth are relativistic and imprecise exercises.  I am embracing it.  This is why, for the purposes of the writing that I have done so far on this blog and on Verdict, there is no relevant distinction between "inequality" and "poverty" at the low end.  That is, if we are talking about relatively less-well-off people, then calling them poor is no different from decrying inequality.  In that context, therefore, the terms are essentially interchangeable.  Where inequality's meaning broadens, of course, is in its embrace of the entire spectrum, rather than only the low end.

For future reference, therefore, when I use the term "poverty," it is safe to assume that I am talking about a relative concept, looking at the low end of the income distribution.  "But how low?" my former students moan.  When we need to draw those lines, we will.  At this point, it is only necessary to say that it is possible for reasonable people to decide democratically that there is a limit below which people should not fall.

When I launched this series, the idea was first to lay out the arguments that have been made against redistributionist policies, and then to go through them relatively systematically to determine the weaker versus the stronger arguments.  The argument that "there is no such thing as poverty, because you cannot define it cleanly" is a threshold argument that surprisingly returns again and again in discussions about inequality/poverty.  We can, however, have meaningful discussions about relative concepts that are hard to define and measure.

So far, I have treated poverty as entirely a matter of economics, that is, as a condition that would most meaningfully be defined by access to goods and services.  In a post next week, I plan to broaden the discussion to include matters that are not purely economic.  Those issues, by the way, lend themselves to definitions poverty that have cleaner demarcations -- although certainly not the bright lines that would make life so much easier.  For now, however, the important point is that we are all living in a world where concepts like rich, poor, wealthy, and destitute can only be relative concepts.  No matter where one comes out on the specifics, a healthy conversation can only begin once we sweep away that idea that this will be easy.


Previous Entries on "The Inequality List":

-- A Taxonomy of Excuses for Poverty and Inequality (The Inequality List, Part 1)

-- Living Like Kings and Not Loving It (The Inequality List, Part 2)