Discover more from The UnPopulist
Markets Advance Social Justice: A Conversation with Nick Cowen
They challenge existing hierarchies, diminishing exploitation and oppression
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Reimagining Liberty, a project of The UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell and this is a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom.
We can take the social and economic concerns of the left seriously while still embracing free markets. In fact, if we understand the nature and effects of markets correctly, it can become compelling to view them not as antagonistic to those concerns but as the most powerful solution to them available.
I'm joined today by Nick Cowen. He's a senior lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln in the UK and the author of the book Neoliberal Social Justice, which defends commercial society on progressive grounds.
A transcript of today’s podcast appears below. It has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: One of the frustrating things about the political landscape is that you have people who genuinely argue in favor of free markets and the power of markets to improve the state of the world but those people tend to be very dismissive of the political and social concerns that people on the left tend to raise.
Then on the other side of things, you have people on the left with these concerns who are just deeply hostile to markets and in favor of state intervention at a gut level. They're not taking seriously the concerns that many of us have about not just the benefits of markets, but the real problems that can arise from empowering the state in the ways that people on the left typically call for. What's going on there? Why do we have this odd split of dismissiveness and not taking each other seriously?
Nick Cowen: Well, that's a very good question and it goes back to an observation that John Tomasi made in his book Free Market Fairness about a decade ago now, where he noted in political philosophy especially, that there were these camps that are labeled “high liberal” and “classical liberal”. Obviously, you might expect there to be a little bit more criticism and hostility between warring camps across the political spectrum. Among hardcore Marxists, they have a respectable, but in my opinion, the wrong approach to criticizing markets.
Then among paleoconservatives, you'll have people who might support markets, incidentally, because they happen to think that it helps shore up elites in some way. You don't hear that expressed too often, but if you'll dig into some aspects of the conservative movement, you'll see that as well. Liberals— high liberals and the classical liberals — at least formally, are interested in both freedom and equality.
Both sides think that's very important, and yet intellectually, they seem to be very, very far apart in the sense that for a long time, there was very little discussion between these ideas. Occasionally you would see a representative figure cross over and become the person that would be criticized. For a long time, among high liberals, Robert Nozick would have been the representative of classical liberals or libertarians in their field. That they can get their head around because they went, okay, this is someone who's coming from a very, very different perspective—natural rights, deontology, rights as side constraints—so therefore excluding matters of social justice.
They can get their head around—“well, we don't believe that, but we can understand that if you believe that, then we can understand where you're coming from.” The notion that you might share a lot of values that are much closer to what is now called high liberalism or maybe progressive liberalism, and yet still think that markets are really important and actually you need things like constitutional protections to prevent the state from interfering with markets. That is quite a difficult thing for some people to get their heads around.
I think part of the answer is that a lot of people's experience of politics, especially morality around politics, is probably quite concrete. If you've observed business people behaving badly, mistreating, exploiting people, as happens all the time, and that's your main experience of immorality or violence or conflict, then whether that's direct experience or whether that's mediated experience from what you've been reading or what you've been seeing on the television or what family members and other members of your community have highlighted, then you're probably going to be quite critical of untrammeled markets and you're going to get very, very suspicious when people start talking about freedom of equality and unregulated markets. It's going to look very, very strange to you.
On the other side, if your main experience of exploitation or violence would be something like the police knocking down people's doors, taking away recreational substances, or interfering with what appear to be harmless private actions and that's your experience and that's what you're inducted into, then, by contrast, you'll be quite suspicious of states, of the main representatives of the states, of the enforcement arm, and especially you'll be keen to try and keep them as far as possible out of what you see as harmless private commercial transactions.
I think it probably comes to these early and quite different experiences and the way you fit together the world in some way. I think a lot of ordinary people probably have concerns about both. But once you start getting ideological, then you start seeing extremes. I suppose if you've got a group of people who are interested in freedom and equality, like in a kind of mix of the two, and you're trying to appeal to that group that are impressionable on that front, you're going to have to do a lot to differentiate yourself from the other side.
The side that's saying, "We need a bit more freedom here," you're really going to be pushing on that front. Then in response, the other side are going to start getting more and more extreme and “galaxy-brained” in their examples. By the end, you find out that one side is saying, "Well, it wouldn’t be so bad if we legalized heroin tomorrow," which is not a great way of reaching out to either the median voter or the other philosophical liberal who's going, "Well, that's a commercial transaction where people can very easily be exploited or harmed."
Aaron: It seems too that there's an element — so you mentioned looking out and seeing bad market actors. Any time you have lots of people who are free to behave how they choose, many of them will choose to behave badly, but it seems there's almost a fish doesn't notice the water angle to this as well. One of the frustrations I have with friends on the left, is they don't seem to recognize how much of what they have that's really good—and how much of not just what they have or what you and I have—but people who seem to be suffering now, are suffering far less than people in similar social strata did 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 1000 years ago. How much of that is the result of these markets? It's not just a focusing on, here are the handful of bad actors, but almost an assumption that what we have now is the default, how things normally are, the quality of life that we have now is not the product of this long process of economic growth powered by markets.
Nick: Yes, I think that is very interesting and it's why I find that in almost any discipline—I happen to teach criminology quite a lot of the time these days. I find that it's the power of comparison, of looking at different environments is very important. Sometimes when I was in the United States and I'd go to conferences because the United States is so big, it's possible for people to kind of be like this, but imagine the US as the default. The level of wealth and income that you see in the US and in other similar Western countries is phenomenal.
If you're not seeing the way other countries are run or experiencing everyday life in those countries, if you're a tourist, you're not really getting the real experience either. If you're trying to struggle away and you're working full time, trying to figure out how to afford rent and groceries and those kinds of things, these things are very important. Yes, that's right, only really commercial societies have made those things consistently accessible to ordinary members of the public, to citizens. The systems of socialism developed to some extent but they nearly always made various key essential goods inaccessible or made them conditional on having the right political views or being in with the right crowd. I think actually that's the great thing about commercial society, it's not just that it produces high income and high wealth but it does so in a way that involves or at least has involved perhaps up until recently, relatively anonymous trading interactions, which means that you as an individual, you are slightly anonymous and therefore a bit more autonomous.
In other words, if you can make a contribution to the marketplace in some form, then you can draw on all the consumer goods, all the services that are being made in society, including public services ultimately without that being conditioned on your membership or your identity or a specific identity. It's really that combination that I find very attractive about commercial society.
“If you can make a contribution to the marketplace in some form, then you can draw on all the consumer goods, all the services that are being made in society, including public services ultimately without that being conditioned on your membership or your identity or a specific identity. It's really that combination that I find very attractive about commercial society.”
I find myself among left-wingers, people who care very, very deeply about making the world a better place on regular occasions and that's the thing I'm normally trying to press onto them, but in addition to whatever else they're trying to achieve, they should try and find a space for commercial society because we have very good theoretical reasons, and we have even better empirical reasons or empirical evidence to suggest that commercial society is absolutely central to the well being of ordinary people.
Aaron: I want to highlight that last mini-argument you made because I think that this one is really important. The anonymity of market transactions and the ability to have them not conditioned upon social standing or class membership or other categories, because a lot of people on the left make an argument that inequalities exist in markets, which is true. Domination can exist in a market society, which is true.
We want to get rid of inequalities and domination, therefore, let's move things out of the market sphere and into deliberative bodies, social councils, worker collectives, other mechanisms for decision-making and distribution. Their vision is that this will strip away the categories that allow for domination in the marketplace, which is basically wealth or income level, and replace it with this flattened, non-hierarchical democracy.
What they wildly overlook is that it will create new systems of hierarchy that are arguably much more domineering—it will privilege the people who are if nothing else, the best speakers with the best rhetoric, or the people with the social connections, or the people who are the most attractive, or the people who are in the high-status social groups and a lot of those are things you can't dig yourself out of.
If you're in the low-status social group, you're in the lowest caste in India say, there's really nothing you can do to get out of it. Whereas in a market, as you said, one can still engage in these market transactions, you may not have access to as many options as the person who's wealthier but you're not having your very identity held against you in a way that seems inevitable in the systems that a lot of more far left people—it's not that they don’t envision these other forms of domination but I think they just don't recognize how inevitable they will be.
Nick: Yes. I suppose that argument is the one that comes closest to perhaps a more conservative argument in some respects, not in the sense of the policies that such an argument leads to, but rather in the acknowledgment that seeking out hierarchy is a natural feature to some extent of human societies. Any level of complexity is going to create hierarchies at some point and the question is “What hierarchies do you want?”, not “Can we get rid of them altogether?”
What is attractive about commercial society and hierarchies or rather about liberal society because let's be fair, commercial societies do end up with a lot of rankings, a lot of Yelp reviews or ratings and that kind of thing, and of course differences in income and wealth. There are all of the metrics and things that appear to be ranking people, and people might take them very seriously but the advantage of having a large civil society is that someone can find other forms of status and esteem in the groups and associations that they find and that they can establish for themselves.
It's freedom of association, also the freedom to form one's own governance arrangements. People might find in religious institutions or sporting institutions and other things, a place where they're able to meet each other as equals. If one is so incentivized, one can seek a more dominant position within these things, but then once you've left that particular association for the evening, you just go back to being just another anonymous citizen and there's something I find quite attractive about that, so it's not the lack of hierarchy but rather lots of crisscrossing and adverse, hopefully non-correlated hierarchies.
That's the best we can hope for in terms of instantiating the freedom and equality that we are committed to, rather than a flattening out which is just a very, very unstable situation. Because no sooner have you flattened everything out, then people through their use of words, through their appearance, through whatever they can get people's attention with, will attempt to establish a more dominant position in that flattened situation. So we go for complexity in crisscrossing hierarchies, so as to avoid an overarching hierarchy from emerging.
“No sooner have you flattened everything out, then people through their use of words, through their appearance, through whatever they can get people's attention with, will attempt to establish a more dominant position in that flattened situation. So we go for complexity in crisscrossing hierarchies, so as to avoid an overarching hierarchy from emerging.”
Aaron: It puts me in mind of the argument in Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice, about how we have these various spheres and inequalities of power and relationships can exist in those but what we don't want is inequalities in one sphere, say wealth, to bleed into inequalities in politics and so on and so forth. I want to go back to something you said earlier, just in passing. We were talking about the benefits of commercial society and recognizing how those can benefit particularly progressive and left values.
What are those values that are characteristic of the egalitarian left that we're talking about?
Nick: Well, that's a good question. Fundamentally, you've mentioned non-domination, so they are opposed to oppression. That's pretty central. Thereafter, there's harm, so that's the other value that they're concerned about, it's harm versus well-being and health, it's the sense of physical and social security. Those are the main things they're going for. What we're interested in saying is that an advanced market society is probably the best way that you can avoid domination both by individual businesses or firms and also by the state.
One point I make in one paper— Basic Economic Liberties: John Rawls and Adam Smith Reconciled—is that you don't want a situation where the state is the only employer because that's precisely the situation where if you find yourself with the wrong boss, you might find it very hard to switch. It's also incidentally very hard for the state to figure out what skills and talents are required and what human capital to be developed because there's no market to generate it.
Morally, the important thing is that you're going to find yourself in a position of domination if you have a monopoly employer, whether that is formally a privately owned employer or a public employer. I think it's that ability to exit and to move between relationships that we're looking for—that's a way of avoiding oppression. That's not quite so convincing for some people on the left who would rather see the institutions themselves reformed. We see the reform happening through competitive pressure. You force people to behave better by basically giving the people they're dealing with other outside options. Instead, there's this notion on the left that somehow if only you could just overthrow the wrong people and put the right people in place, whether it's a private firm or a bad state, then everyone's going to be happy. You won't have to exercise mobility, which might be problematic for some people.
I think when it comes to things like harm, what people on the left will draw a lot of attention to is the externalities of markets, so things like pollution which have bad impacts on people's well-being. I think a very current thing that's happening at the moment is the debate about what kind of energy we should be reliant on. Should we be relying on fossil fuels, nuclear power, or renewables?
When it comes to car driving, are we going to be using petrol or gasoline or moving over to electric? It's interesting because it matches up with some cultural conflicts, a bit of the culture wars. On that front, I tend to think that the basic thrust of what progressives are trying to achieve is actually quite right. There are a lot of externalities that come from our current reliance on fossil fuels. It's not just climate change. It's literally the urban environment that we're in.
There's a lot of social harms out there. What they slightly miss is the dynamic aspect of this, that these technologies themselves were at some point ways of solving other problems. We're not born into a world where externalities don't exist and then we just introduce them. We're always already in a position where we are engaging in activities that are beneficial to the immediate parties but have some impacts on people around them.
Normally, or at least hopefully, these individual actions are small enough that they don't require direct intervention. When the level of activity, say the amount of car usage rises enough, and suddenly, it's having visible effects on people's health. Also when technology changes such that it's possible to track that behavior, to track that activity, and there's new alternatives that come in, then it is time to transition. How does that transition happen? It is going to happen substantially through things like innovation and incentives coming out through commercial society. That's the way that I try and pitch our position.
As market liberals, we shouldn't be married to a particular set of institutions or set of technologies, regardless of whether they emerge thanks to the state or thanks to the market—or as is realistically the case—a combination of the two. We always have a lesson about the process by which we're going to move from a relatively worse position to a relatively better position. The other thing is that we're nearly always talking about relatively better positions, not ultimately the best position. We don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good in our political economy.
“Morally, the important thing is that you're going to find yourself in a position of domination if you have a monopoly employer, whether that is formally a privately owned employer or a public employer. I think it's that ability to exit and to move between relationships that we're looking for — that's a way of avoiding oppression.”
Aaron: How do we handle situations where we're in, call it a bad equilibrium? We're producing negative externalities or the overall setup is perhaps harmful in a lot of ways, but we seem stuck in it. We don't have—so the way out of the gasoline cars is changing technology, makes cleaner sources, not just cheaper, but more efficient and desirable compared to internal combustion engines. We naturally move in that direction.
The good stuff of environmental protection is like a bonus of it, but it needn't be the motivating factor necessarily. As you were talking about that, one of the other areas of the economy that people gripe about a lot, is having really negative externalities is social media and online communication— surveillance capitalism is what it gets called.
This where everything is ad-driven, is about sucking up data, is about as getting as many people as you possibly can in order to customize ads to them. This has huge ramifications for privacy and bad incentives—you want the most engaging stuff to appear in front of people because then they'll stick around. That turns out to be the stuff that makes people angry and it's divisive and so on. This is the argument, but that seems to be one where there isn't an alternative business model that seems obvious to that because in this case, people don't want to pay for social media, which would be the alternative business model.
It's not clear how the story that you would tell about gasoline would get us out of this thing where all of these people are making what from the outside look like destructive decisions, but from their own personal perspective, Facebook is free and I like free. Is there a story about how to solve those kinds of problems in this market way that's not just saying, well, the state should step in and say ban Facebook's business model?
Nick: I think it's a really interesting and very current question. I think there are a few ways of thinking about it. One part is to look for comparisons with other products, and services that might cause us harm. Sometimes I think about social media as almost being similar to a super stimulative diet. High-calorie foods are another thing that progressives think are products of the market. Normally, market liberals on the one hand will go like, "Well, isn't it great that we've got so many calories on hand at least?" This is an uptown problem, just to some extent.
We can be a little bit quick to dismiss it, or when we do engage with we're like, "Oh, did you know about corn subsidies? That's the reason why you've got such terrible sugar in the United States." Then we're back on track going like, "Oh yes, the bad health is actually caused by subsidies." There is a problem that we are constitutionally are quite easy to stimulate and thereby we end up in this situation where in order to taste anything, we need these super caloric foods and these extra additives and things that are not so healthy.
I think social media is quite similar in that it tickles an important part of what we're up for, which it's a combination of visual stimuli, but also social interaction. We're on those platforms. It's not just because of the literal content in front of us, but because of the opportunity to share it, create some of it ourselves, and try and engage in interaction. The thing about social media is it's co-produced. Most of it is not actually produced by the companies. They're merely hosting it and they're finding an audience.
They're just playing a matchmaking game there. When we look at a new institutional economics perspective, we realize that they're providing not quite a private good. They're providing some common-pool good, some club good that benefits from economies of scale—from network effects. Effectively what they're setting up is what people in the antitrust world call two-sided markets.
We know that these things can generate slightly exploitive arrangements because once you find yourself as the maven like Facebook, then you can start to profit a great deal and it's going to take some time for somebody else to peel away some of that business because you want to meet everyone else who's on that platform. Unless you can persuade people to move platform, you are not going to be able to produce the same product.
That's where the exploitative arrangement—and especially using data in all kinds of ways that people are not aware of, but perhaps wouldn't consent to, and wouldn't appreciate if they were made aware of it. If we're looking at solutions, I look back to the way that the internet used to work, it was governed by open protocols. I think that in time, that kind of technology will catch up again. I think it's often the case that you get private firms that see the equipment of an open field and they realize that they can benefit if they get in there, fence it off a bit, get the right people, and get the right configuration. In so doing, they cause some social harms, but having shown how it can be profitable and how it can be beneficial, it's then possible for more superior systems to emerge. I think not just the ideal but even the obtainable result might well be the case that we don't see social media being run forever by private firms.
It'll be something more like mutual firms, some arrangement where the users own the platform in some sense. We see some of this already. Wikipedia is not a for-profit firm and it's a very successful information aggregator and participant-based encyclopedia. If we see, in the offline world, we see that there are plenty of examples of partnerships that work. They might be worker-owned partnerships or consumer-owned firms in some way.
I think once we've got to the stage where we can be a little bit more imaginative, commercial society can improve the situation by having some more radical formulations of the way we do things. Is it Mastodon that’s meant to be the replacement for Twitter? Because I've heard it's quite hard to get it set up and it's got the network effects problem, but I'm confident that either that or something else, maybe a little bit more user friendly will come along sooner or later and it will have the effect either of displacing or disciplining the social media platforms that we see today.
On that front, I'm not saying we're ever going to get to a situation where everyone has nothing but a lovely time on social media, because social media is a place for free discourse. As you just said, if you give people freedom, quite a lot of people are going to behave badly. We're not going to get some wonderful situation where hatefulness or polarization is abolished, but we can get to a situation where it's much more likely to be ameliorated than in the current environment.
Aaron: You mentioned the difference between the ideal and the achievable. I want to ask about that in the context of political theory, because you talk about robust political economy, which is effectively doing political economy-type thinking in the real world with a recognition of the capabilities and limits of institutions and ourselves, to achieve the things that we might aim for. My favorite footnote in political philosophy comes in Will Kymlicka's Contemporary Political Philosophy, which is very good for listeners’ introduction to contemporary political philosophy.
I think it's in the chapter about liberal egalitarianism. I pulled it, this is in the footnote, footnote 42. He says, "It seems clear that liberal egalitarian theories have operated with over-optimistic assumptions about state capacity." Then he gives some examples and he closes by saying, "One looks in vain in the corpus of the major left-liberal political philosophers for a discussion of the extent to which the state can or cannot fulfill the principles of justice they endorse," which seems like a problem.
If you're going to do political philosophy, if what you're arguing for is unachievable, then that's an issue and one you ought to wrestle with. At the same time, it seems like there can be value in saying “What does say a perfectly just society look like even if we can't get there?” Because it gives us something, it gives us a direction, it gives us a metric to judge what we are doing, and so on.
How much does the fact that the state might not be able to accomplish the things that many people on the left would task it with, in an ideal world undercut or change the terms of the debate about the role of markets and other institutions in achieving these ends?
Nick: I see. I suppose if you're responding to the liberal-egalitarian kind of — well, this critique of liberal egalitarianism, famously we have Jerry Cohen who just says political philosophy is not about action in the world at all. It's just merely specifying what we mean by words. For Jerry Cohen, justice just is equality—with some understanding about the way that actually would be actioned in some particularly ideal world.
Although it's curious that actually, it’s clear that Jerry Cohen did think that it had some influence or rather should have some impetus in the real world, even if he didn't think that his political philosophy could push in that direction. You're right that Rawlsians would say, you need an ideal to aim for. Then Gerald Gaus pushed back a bit and said, actually there are circumstances where if you have some ideal, you might all agree on the ideal, and you're pushing from the status quo and you push in that direction towards the ideal, you might end up worse off. You might be worse off than in the position that you're in because failing to achieve that goal puts you in a worse status than trying to achieve a more intermediate goal.
That was the classical liberal case for saying we need to temper our sense of what the ideal is. One curious thing I find about liberal egalitarianism is that actually, when you dig in, you don't find that much opposition to markets, at least market mechanisms.
That's something I found quite helpful in my own work. Rawls and many others realize the efficiency properties of markets and are quite happy to include them on that front. Now, they don't want to make them constitutionalized. They want to always be able to intervene. That's where your state capacity issue comes in. Can you have a state that's powerful enough to fix every bit of a market failure or every little bit of externalities while not at the same same time empowering it in such a way that the wrong people are going to get in charge and start using it for their own ends?
I actually think the much more fundamental problem for liberal egalitarians is likely to be the family. This comes up a bit in the literature that you can get some really quite absurd—well, not absurd. Let's not call it absurd. Let's just say that it's very radical positions—basically that you need institutions and you need a moral ethos because they admit the institutions are not going to take you all the way. The general rules aren't going to do it. You need an ethos that really pushes against any familial preference whatsoever.
In other words, concern for one's children and investing in your children, investing in their human capital and their social capital, making sure that they are thriving among their peers and have the skills and capabilities to thrive. That is a very natural thing for many people, to be concerned about their own children. Not that they don't care about other people's children, but they're always going to be very concerned about their own children.
That will be an important part of their lives, a very important and valuable aspect of their lives. Liberal egalitarians want parents to stop doing that quite so much and be much more egalitarian in the way that they are concerned about the next generation. Alternatively, institutions somehow compensate for all that. But there is no state welfare, there's only a limited amount that even civil society can do, to make sure that every child is loved as well as children in loving families are loved.
There is almost no replacement. That's a tough one for people who are aiming at equality, because it has all these implications for hierarchies in the future, in income and wealth inequality, in the way that people are going to invest their resources—because I think that's a great deal of the motivation that's going on.
For conservatives, that's just civilization, so don't even peer into it. That's just the way that it's going to work. For liberal egalitarians, it just seems like they are going very directly against a very natural impulse. What do classical liberals look at? I think classical liberals find the institutions around family life to be acceptable and often admirable and are going to look again at that crisscrossing civil society that tries to increase opportunities for the next generation rather than necessarily trying to provide equality of opportunity. At least the substantive equality of opportunity that liberal egalitarians are pushing towards.
Ultimately, if we're just dealing with markets it's fine. You just get to the end of people's lives and you redistribute, you can do massive inheritance taxes. Doesn't really impact market mechanisms as such. If you're doing that and you're doing it against what people actually are working really hard towards, which is to actually support their immediate family or maybe their local community, or other people that they feel they have a particular affinity with, then that expropriation of resources really, really bites.
People are going to try and find ways of avoiding being expropriated and there are ways of doing it. They'll focus more on the human capital of their children than collecting the material capital that they would otherwise be able to pass on. There’s lots and lots of things that go wrong when you go against that ethos. I think one thing that classical liberals tend to be okay with is working with those natural motivations rather than against them.
“People are going to try and find ways of avoiding being expropriated and there are ways of doing it. They'll focus more on the human capital of their children than collecting the material capital that they would otherwise be able to pass on. There's lots and lots of things that go wrong when you go against that ethos. I think one thing that classical liberals tend to be okay with is working with those natural motivations rather than against them.”
Aaron: Is there a concern though, and I can imagine a left egalitarian, a progressive listening to all of this and listening to the way that classical liberals think about these issues and saying, "This sounds an awful lot status quo bias. I, the person on the left have recognized great injustices in the world and ways that the world is very far from the ideal, and out of a sense of compassion for the people I share the planet with, I want to move it a lot closer to that because they will be better off if it's a more just world."
What you, Nick, the classical liberal are saying is if we move too fast we'll break things, that a lot of what you want to achieve is not achievable, that some of the hierarchies or the social attitudes that seem to exist now we probably can't change. You can give Hayekian reasons or Gausian reasons for this, but what it sounds like to me is you're saying you should just learn to accept the way things are and be satisfied with incremental changes to them rather than idealistically going out there and striving to make the world a radically better place.
That can be an off-putting message to someone who is recognizing genuine and stark injustices in the world. What do you say to people who have that worry?
Nick: I suppose up until relatively recently, there wasn't that much that one could say about how to radically change the world under the circumstances of commercial society. Thanks to various institutions around the effective altruist movement, there's now more of an opportunity for people to put their money or their efforts towards precisely what one might imagine would be extremely important.
If you want to save many lives in very poor countries, then there are now charities that can document with very strong evidence what they're achieving through this work. Or if you want to do it in a non-paternalist way, you can donate or campaign for people to donate to Give Directly, which is just giving resources directly to the people who on a leftist account have suffered a great deal of exploitation.
You can compensate directly through these institutions or support people that you think are in greatest need in these institutions. I've actually come across a number of liberal egalitarians who are like that. They don't impoverish themselves but they will give 10% of their income because they realize, yes, that is morally biting. That's what they do. They're helping to transform the world in a direction that they actually want to achieve and in a way where you have a reasonable epistemic warrant that you're going to be improving the situation dramatically.
That's really thanks to radicals like Peter Singer, a utilitarian somewhat in between the egalitarian liberal and the classical liberal, but taking a slightly off-key approach and said, "This is a big problem for global justice," and not just keeping it in a book but inspiring a few people and doing quite a lot of work himself to actually set up institutions that allow that particular drastic injustice to be ameliorated. I make donations into that milieu sometimes myself, but I know that it's a far from perfect environment.
As we discovered last year, there was a big blow-up, especially among the “long-termist” effective altruist charities as opposed to the ones that are just giving directly to help the very poor. I think it was interesting that the problem turned up in that particular part of the movement. All organizations can succumb to fraud and opportunism. But that's the thing that one could point to and say, "No, you don't actually have to sit here passively. You can make a difference right now."
One other thing that I tend to notice at least in political philosophy or in academia, is that academics are very status-seeking individuals. They give up a lot of income and potentially influence in other environments in order to have the title and have the ability to hold forth with a captive audience three or four times a week and a bit longer if you include the seminars where students don't think they're necessarily a captive audience after all.
That's what academics are extremely motivated to achieve. At the same time, they seem to think that they're going to change the world this way. For any Ph.D. students out there now or people who might be thinking of it, that's probably not going to be right and it's probably not why ultimately you are following the path that you're thinking of going down, or the path that you're halfway down.
Ultimately, whether you believe you're doing this or not, you are highly impressionable towards your immediate social environment and whether you are getting status cues. Some people might say that is the sociology of humanity. I think there might be something a bit beyond any particular society. I think it's a bit of a human universal. In that sense, that’s what you are doing, unless you are making costly signals to say I am dedicated to improving this situation now. I'm not just shouting about it, I'm not just looking cool while doing it.
You may have good beliefs about justice but ultimately the reason why you're talking about them and shouting about them is because they're highly salient and attractive things to be talking about in the immediate community that you’re in, whether you are in person or online.That's okay, because we're all human and we're going to spend an awful lot of our time making sure that we're not hungry, that we are not uncomfortable.
And thereafter, we're going to be looking for status in a community. If it so happens that we can hinge or put that sense of status, we attach that status to doing well more broadly, to treating humanity better in general then that's good. But it always has to come down to that somewhat more self-centered motivation. Apart from the occasional saint and even the people who get called saints often don't count, you are nearly always going to be quite concerned about your own position in your environment when you're trying to do good.
We need to bear that in mind and we need to have institutions that acknowledge that.
“We're going to be looking for status in a community. If it so happens that we can hinge or put that sense of status, we attach that status to doing well more broadly, to treating humanity better in general then that's good. But it always has to come down to that somewhat more self-centered motivation. Apart from the occasional saint and even the people who get called saints often don't count, you are nearly always going to be quite concerned about your own position in your environment when you're trying to do good.
We need to bear that in mind and we need to have institutions that acknowledge that.”
Aaron: If I am a liberal egalitarian or progressive or person on the left who's just listened to the last 50 minutes of this conversation, I'm thinking to myself, “Okay, Nick is saying that I can hold to the values that motivate me but that commercial society and markets are a better way to achieve a lot of them. Or that these can move things in the right direction. In the policy world, what are some of the things that I am likely to be supporting now that you're saying I shouldn't be, or what are changes that I ought to be advocating based on the arguments you're making that would advance my progressive values?”
Nick: There's a lot that one could point to but I suppose I'll point to the central one because it's very, very critical in the United States and in the United Kingdom right now. I wouldn't want to judge what's going on elsewhere. We need to do some comparative political economy and some careful analysis but housing policy is incredibly important. It's got the direct issue that housing can be very expensive in areas where there are jobs. Where there are high-productivity jobs and or where people might be able to basically increase their incomes and increase their welfare by living in better places and the way they're excluded by things like zoning or land use planning rules in the United Kingdom. It has these knock-on effects to do with things like health and well-being. Driving and a long commute are not good for one's health. It means that we don't get outside as much as we should, whereas walkable cities are a much better way to live.
It also means that we massively increase our energy consumption. The other thing that we're dealing with right now is an energy crisis and the environment. These things are all connected, and progressives will often agree, they do see the benefits of better city living and densification and that kind of thing, under the right circumstances. Actually, I would go so far as to grant that under certain political economy arrangements, I'm in favor of public housing.
It can go wrong but if it's the only way of getting new housing built, then I think that's acceptable. I think there are market ways of handling it. What I would say is this is a classic issue with the difference between outcomes and policies based on status. What you often see in areas where there's bad housing policies, you find landlords treating tenants very badly because the tenants are captive. There's no outside option.
You see the people attracted to that kind of arrangement are—the way that you end up behaving when you are given that kind of power as a landlord, someone who's owned a property for 20 or 30 years since before the crisis emerged, is you're going to charge higher prices, you're going to take your time fixing things. It might be that things like mold might develop. In this country, we've got this problem of nasty situations with poor-quality housing that's going to impede people's health and it's not being dealt with.
The policy world has its unfortunate dynamic where you think, okay, landlords are bad and evil people. We need policies that punish landlords. What happens there is the more marginal landlord, the one who doesn't actually want to act evilly is pushed out. They think, "I don't like the situation. I don't like also the status that I'm being given. You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to sell that health house to somebody else who will be able to put up with the heat and whatnot."
At the same time, very often it will make offering housing harder. It's like, "We're going to put more regulation, we're going to punish these people." That has an unfortunate dynamic. The slightly perverse answer is if you've got bad landlords, from a classical liberal perspective you don't want fewer landlords, you need more of them because then they're going to compete with each other. It's like a slightly weird jujitsu move you want to do. You want to penalize the current landlords. You want to make it much easier to be a landlord and get more people in and make the sector more competitive.
“If you've got bad landlords, from a classical liberal perspective you don't want fewer landlords, you need more of them because then they're going to compete with each other. It's like a slightly weird jujitsu move you want to do. You want to penalize the current landlords. You want to make it much easier to be a landlord and get more people in and make the sector more competitive.”
I can see why it might be perceived as perverse because it means that some actually existing incumbents are not getting the punishment that they deserve. Actually, they might be beneficiaries immediately of a policy that was more permissive on housing. But it's better for tenants, and in the long run, it actually forces landlords to behave better.
It's one of those unfortunate perverse incentive arguments, but that's the dynamic that we're in at the moment. Basically, the popular responses to bad housing policy are to make the housing policy worse so long as it has a chance of hurting some of the people who are behaving morally badly at the same time. That's what I'd focus on. More permissive housing policy is something that an increasing number of progressives actually agree with. We've got some specific ideas about how to achieve it, but that's what we need.
That's what we need right now to make human flourishing and also ecological problems much improved.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to ReImagining Liberty. If you enjoy this show, please take a moment to rate and review it on Apple Podcast. You can also join our Discord listener community and book club by following the link in the show notes. ReImagining Liberty is a project with The UnPopulist and is produced by Landry Ayres.