The Matter With the Ownership Society
November 14, 2010

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Apropos of yesterday’s post about how Westernization can sometimes be conflated with modernization, there was a piece up at Good a couple of days ago arguing that developing countries would be ill-advised to adopt America’s culture of ownership.

 As the East develops, and the size of the middle class grows, there is a push toward individual ownership. With increased incomes, the incidence of joint families reduces, and sharing resources is less of a financial necessity. However, if the East starts to choose individual ownership more readily over communal access, emerging economies will likely struggle to manage these patterns of consumption, particularly with regard to pollution and waste.

From an economic development perspective, Western practitioners are guilty of seeking solutions for the poor that are based on these American values. It’s only natural; this ideal is integral to the West’s notion of progress. Solutions to a lack of access to clean water, sanitation, healthcare, and education often cater to the provision of individual ownership: a faucet in every kitchen, a toilet in every home. However, this paradigm is wasteful, and thus, may not be ideal or sustainable for developing world countries.

Of course, as the article points out, this cuts both ways: the United States has been practicing an unsustainable level of consumption for awhile now. Luckily, the collaborative nature of the Internet has engendered some positive trends on that front.

To me, this isn’t just a matter of allocating resources responsibly: there’s a political and (self-parody alert) philosophical dimension. Pooled resources and communal interdependence are naturally going to foster more of a community-minded spirit. On the other hand, our culture’s over-emphasis on individual ownership has created* an illusory sense of independence. Instead of depending on our neighbors, we’ve just wound up depending on bigger, more abstract forces. And sure, we’re never going to be wholly not dependent on those things. But these aren’t forces that one can necessarily feel a sense of collective responsibility towards, and that sense of collective responsibility is an important and (in the here and now) hugely undervalued ingredient in the glue we use to build nations.

*And/or been caused by, but let’s stay away from the chicken/egg implications for now.

New Salon Column
October 2, 2010

This went up yesterday. It’s basically an attack on arguments for public policy—but specifically taxation—that put a high premium on notions of what people earn and deserve as central to justice. I do this adapting certain arguments from John Rawls and Peter Unger, the latter of whom originally presented what I turned into the kayak thought experiment in his book Living High, and Letting Die. You should read that book! And also my column!

Just for kicks, you could also check out this weird and confusing rebuttal from Roberty Stacy McCain’s sidekick, Smitty. In it, Smitty:

  • Makes several claims about my beliefs that are either irrelevant (I’m pro-choice), flatly untrue (I don’t believe that it’s immoral for rich people to be rich, nor do I think that “equality of opportunity is meaningless”), or both.
  • Condemns abortion (a legal procedure) and then turns around and adopts a baffling sort of legal-realism-on-crack, in which someone deserves something as long as they didn’t violate the law to acquire it.
  • Implies that my entire argument was dictated to me by my parents and, weirdly enough, Rousseau. (Evidently, Smitty believes that people in Rousseau’s state of nature are subject to a progressive income tax.)
  • And, lastly, gives this as the moral case against progressive taxation: “The moral case for tax cuts is that honest people don’t spend money they lack.” Which I’ll admit I found more than a little mystifying.

Smitty’s post was actually kind of a bummer, because I’m interested in hearing some more sober, coherent rebuttals. I know I’m taking a minority view here, and that a lot of really smart people disagree. But to the extent that Smitty provided anything useful or instructive, I think it was a lesson in the perils of adopting an attitude in which anyone who presents a competing conception of justice is evil or stupid, and just wants to confuse you with his lies. It blinds you to the actual arguments they’re making, and your withering contempt for them obstructs your own ability to persuade. So in the end, nobody really learns anything.

In conclusion: “Smitty” is a fun name to say out loud. Smitty.

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