Morality, inequality, and charity

If Tim is correct that he has a higher IQ than Polly Toynbee, then this is unfair. Dissembling nature has blighted Polly with lesser abilities to perform certain kinds of cognitive acts, abilities that Tim has in such abundance that he is able to demolish my feeble arguments in less than a paragraph.

Polly and I both have powers of reasoning inferior to that of Tim Worstall. These are brute facts of reality. We are each born with a different set of endowments, and this places limits on what we can achieve. Life is unfair. And Tim is right that calling these brute natural inequalities “immoral” is a misuse of words, and I concede the point.

Something can be unfair without necessarily being immoral. We speak of something being “immoral” when it falls within the realm of human choice. It is unfair that Tim is cleverer than Polly Toynbee (as he assures us he is), but it wasn’t Tim’s decision (or anyone’s decision) that this should be so.

But sometimes things are both unfair and immoral. Society, being the product of human choice, is a realm in which we can say that because something is unfair it is immoral. Society is the way it is because people have chosen that it should be that way. Our society is riddled with inequalities of power and wealth that are not the result of nature. And this is unfair and immoral.


Readers will be familiar with the arguments of the philosopher John Rawls, whose big idea was that justice is fairness. There are arguments along Rawlsian lines that a certain degree of inequality is justifiable, because it is necessary to reward those gifted individuals who can improve the collective human condition to such an extent that even the very poorest are made better off than they would be in a more equal situation. But these arguments only enter into consideration after we have established the idea that the first and fairest way of distributing humanity’s finite resources is equally. Equality of resources should be the baseline, and any deviation from that equality should be determined on a case-by-case basis.


Put it like this: if, at some point in the future, humanity develops technologies that enable us to improve our cognitive capacities in various ways, including perhaps elevating poor old Polly Toynbee to the intellectual heights of the likes of Tim Worstall, then it would be fairest to distribute that technology as equally as possible. It would, I think, be immoral to restrict such a technology to only those with enormous wealth and power. At this point one’s IQ would cease to be a brute fact of nature, and would become a question of fairness. We – that is, humanity – would have  to choose how to distribute the gifts of intelligence, just as we now choose how to distribute the gifts of material wealth.

And this brings us back to charity. If you accept that chosen inequalities are morally objectionable, then any situation where one person has surplus wealth that they can choose to give to someone in need of that wealth, in turn becomes morally objectionable. Charity becomes an issue of private virtue and public vice. On an individual basis, charity is laudable, but when politicians start praising charity or calling for a ‘big society’, we should be more condemnatory. Politicians should be in the business of making a better society, not in perpetuating the inequalities of existing society. The better society is one with robust and non-voluntary social supports, not soup kitchens.


Anyway, Merry Christmas.



Hobbes endorses the ISO

The following extract is from Thomas Hobbes’ The Elements of Law:

In the state of nature, where every man is his own judge, and differeth from other concerning the names and appellations of things, and from those differences arise quarrels, and breach of peace; it was necessary there should be a common measure of all things that might fall in controversy; as for example: of what is to be called right, what good, what virtue, what much, what little, what meum and tuum, what a pound, what a quart, &c.

For in these things private judgments may differ, and beget controversy. This common measure, some say, is right reason: with whom I should consent, if there were any such thing to be found or known in rerum natura. But commonly they that call for right reason to decide any controversy, do mean their own.

But this is certain, seeing right reason is not existent, the reason of some man, or men, must supply the place thereof; and that man, or men, is he or they, that have the sovereign power, as hath been already proved; and consequently the civil laws are to all subjects the measures of their actions, whereby to determine, whether they be right or wrong, profitable or unprofitable, virtuous or vicious; and by them the use and definition of all names not agreed upon, and tending to controversy, shall be established. As for example, upon the occasion of some strange and deformed birth, it shall not be decided by Aristotle, or the philosophers, whether the same be a man or no, but by the laws.

(my emphasis)

In praise of hierarchies

In which your humble correspondent has a minor disagreement with Chris Dillow.

Blogging titan Chris Dillow does not like managers.

As you would expect from such a luminary, Chris’s reasons for disliking the Boss Class are astute and well-thought-out:

The pursuit of efficiency – managerialism’s main goal – cannot be a value-free exercise. “Efficiency” has many conflicting meanings. Does it mean increasing GDP per head, Pareto-optimality, utilitarianism, maximizing Rawlsian primary goods or maximizing capabilities, in Amartya Sen’s sense? How do we choose a meaning of efficiency from this menu? And if we choose utilitarianism (as managerialism often does) what is the moral justification for imposing costs on some – up to and including death, Mr Hoon – so that others can gain?

Chris makes the important distinction between managerialism and management. Managerialism is the ideology of the managerial class, and as such is the ruling ideology of our age. Management, or technocracy, is the application of science to the problem of achieving certain ends given certain resources, and is therefore a branch of engineering*.

I disagree with Chris that all top-down management is harmful. My reasons for thinking this are as follows.

An industrial society requires specialisation. Our world is too complex for one individual intellect to encompass any more than a tiny fraction of it in any depth. In order to function, our industrial society requires that people specialise and develop expertise in particular areas. We need teachers, nurses, paramedics, electrical engineers, baristas, taxi drivers, geologists, science fiction writers, booksellers, economists, entertainers, and economics bloggers. No one (contra Heinlein) can learn how to excel in every one of these areas.

Specialisation requires informational transfer. Individual people, with their individual specialisations, need a way of communicating. It is only through communication that these individual experts will be able to co-ordinate, and it is only through co-ordination that they will be able to deliver the products, projects, and services that we desire.

How is this co-ordination to be achieved? There are two broad answers to this question. One is hierarchy, and the other is… Something. I’m not going to say ‘markets’ because I’m fed up with that word. Call it decentralised co-ordination.


I know what a hierarchy is. I understand what a hierarchy is. It is a situation in which one person is vested with authority, and this authority entitles them to tell other people what to do, and it requires that those people do actually do what the first person tells them to do (within various limits and subject to various contextual caveats yaddah yaddah…).

But what is a market?


At this stage a market might as well be an invisible unicorn that grants magical wishes, or a pair of intersecting lines on a page of a textbook, or a place you go to at weekends to buy overpriced honey with bits of honeycomb left in it. I honestly don’t know any more. “The market” means so many things to say many different people that I give up on trying to understand it.

So instead of market, I will use the term decentralised co-ordination. This encompasses a much broader set of behaviours than just whatever markets are taken to be. When motorists are traversing a roundabout they are engaging in decentralised co-ordination. The crowds who walk down Oxford Street are engaging in decentralised co-ordination when they avoid bumping into each other (most of the time).


De-centralised co-ordination has a problem. This problem is best illustrated by an example. Suppose we want to build an aeroplane. This is a complex task and therefore requires specialisation. Specialisation requires co-ordination. Co-ordination requires communication. The problem is that within a completely  decentralised system of co-ordination each individual would have to communicate with each other individual. This results in a combinatorial explosion in the amount of communication that has to go on.

If you have, say, 300 engineers working on the design, manufacture, and commissioning of your aeroplane then, in a completely decentralised situation, each engineer would have to engage in 300! interactions (that’s factorial 300) in order to co-ordinate her individual efforts with her fellow engineers.

How much is 300 factorial? If we assume that each interaction will be a “brief chat”, how many “brief chats” will our engineers have to engage in so as to design, manufacture, and commission our aeroplane?

According to Wolfram Alpha, about this many:











Wow. OK.

So, what do we do?

A far more sensible option is to divide the engineers into functional groupings and have each group sub-divided into smaller groups, where each group reports to one particular engineer who digests their information and then passes it up the chain, whilst receiving instruction from those above based on what she has told them; in other words, a hierarchy.

If we have one engineer at the top of the chain, and if she has seven engineers reporting to her, and they have seven engineers reporting to each of them, and they have seven engineers reporting to each of them… we end up with a potential capacity of 1 + 7 + 49 + 343 engineers. What are the total number of “brief chats” required now?

Well let’s see, we have one to seven, then each one of those seven to seven, then each one of those seven to (substantially less than) 343.

So it’s 7 to the 4 right? That’s how many brief chats are going to have to take place. Which according to Wolfram Alpha is:


Which is a lot, yeah? But a lot less than we’d be dealing with if we expected our engineers to communicate on a completely non-hierarchical basis. Two thousand four hundred and ten is a tractable number. You can do business with that kind of number.

This is why hierarchies exist. They are more informationally efficient than non-hierarchies. We have managers because if we didn’t, we couldn’t have cheap flights, we couldn’t have a nuclear deterrent, we couldn’t have the Internet, we couldn’t have electricity. We couldn’t have almost all of the goods and services afforded by our wonderful industrial society.

Bosses exist for a reason; if we didn’t have them, we’d have to create them. Or live in mud huts and grow all our own food.

This may sound strange. Many people think of hierarchies as barriers to communication. We see them as controlling, fusty, bureaucratic, and inefficient.

But really they’re not. Like democracy, hierarchies are the least bad solution to the problem they are intended to solve.


Some guy on Twitter disagreed with my disagreement with Chris. So what about Kaizen? Well Kaizen is all very well. But the other pillar of the Toyota production system is something called Just In Time. JIT is not a system that spontaneously arose because of the self-interested actions of atomistic individuals working as equals. JIT requires enormous amounts of discipline, morale, and managerial gumption to implement in the first place, and then requires that workers maintain that level of discipline consistently for a long period of time.

So how does one ensure that the workers maintain that level of discipline? Whose responsibility is it to ensure the workers are kept in line?

Well, the bosses, of course.

Once again, the question devolves to an issue of who benefits. Are workers better off for being corralled and controlled? Are the fruits of hierarchical, specialised industrialisation such that workers are – on the whole – better off for being managed? I honestly don’t know.

The real problem here is…


Chris has a point. Left Outside has a point. Hierarchies lend themselves to rent-seeking and power-grubbing. Here’s a points from Left Outside:

I’m thinking more along the lines of avoiding bad news, important people overriding the more knowledgeable.

This happens. But I submit that this will happen in basically any situation involving human beings ever. This is a problem of power, not hierarchy, per se. The problem, as ever, is politics. It is about the morality of the right of some people to dictate to others, as opposed to the effectiveness of the right of some people to dictate to others.

Kaizen is a good thing to have, but it only works if you treat your employees with respect. I don’t know what ‘respect’ means in this context. Some people would argue that demanding that people work for a capitalistic enterprise is inherently disrespectful, but there you are.

Bosses are always going to exist. I’d rather they were all elected by their peers, rather than being appointed by our capitalist overlords; but the fact remains they are necessary. Any socialist utopia worth living in will have bosses, because any socialist utopia worth living in will need the kinds of products, projects, and services that can only be provided by hierarchical organisations.


Like any technology, hierarchy can be used for malicious and anti-social purposes. But that doesn’t mean the technology is intrinsically harmful or that it isn’t worth using in the first place.

*Chris calls technocracy a practice, in the sense used by Alasdair MacIntyre.

Some distinct arguments in favour of free markets

What follows is a list of arguments in favour of free markets. I have made no attempt to critically analyse each argument, as my intention is merely to present and label various arguments so that I can refer to them at a later date.

It should be noted that many arguments in favour of free markets present markets in opposition to some alternative, usually something called ‘central planning’.  This opposition strikes me as a false dichotomy, as it is entirely possible to imagine a system that incorporates some elements of central planning with some elements of markets. In fact, we don’t have to imagine such a system because we actually live in one; the real world of economic activity is characterised by an intermingling of central planning (e.g. within firms and governments) and market systems (e.g. between firms, households, and sole traders).

Anyway, without further rambling, I present the arguments…

Markets as disciplined pluralism

In The Truth About Markets John Kay argues that what makes markets really useful is that they allow for what he calls ‘disciplined pluralism.’ Markets are pluralistic because they allow people to ‘propose’ different projects, usually in the form of business ventures. Markets are disciplined because if these business ventures provide goods or services that are not in demand then the business will fail, and the resources used by that business will be allocated elsewhere.

Kay distinguishes the disciplined pluralism of the markets with the lack of discipline and pluralism one often finds in government-controlled enterprises. Because governments wield a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, government-supported projects can survive long after they have been shown to be inadequate or wasteful. Kay illustrates this point with examples like Concorde and the British AGR nuclear power stations. Both of these ‘white elephant’ projects cost billions of pounds and survived long after a private company would have gone bankrupt.

Furthermore, Kay argues, governments tend not to be pluralistic; they encourage industries to speak in ‘one voice’, or simply ignore alternative viewpoints altogether, with the result that potentially good ideas are not given a fair hearing.

Disciplined pluralism means markets act as filters, allowing good ideas to pass through and spread, whilst suppressing bad ones. This pro-market argument explains how markets provide for dynamic efficiency in the form of innovation, invention, and technological progress. Good innovations are rewarded with increasing market share, and bad innovations are allowed to fail.

Markets as aggregators of tacit knowledge

‘Tacit knowledge’ or ‘tacit knowing’ is a theory introduced by the polymath Michael Polanyi. It denotes the idea that a great deal of our day-to-day knowledge is deeply personal, intuitive, and cannot be reduced to a set of written or spoken propositions. Friedrich Hayek applied this concept to economics, and argued that much economic activity relied on this kind of in-expressible knowledge; and for so no central planner could ever hope to co-ordinate economic activity, because the central planner could not express the commands necessary to instruct people to do what they needed to do.

Markets provide a solution to this problem. Individuals no longer have to communicate explicit instructions for everything every other individual has to do. Instead, individuals use the price mechanism of the markets to transmit information between themselves.

Markets as systems of co-operation

In The Market System Charles Lindblom characterises the market system as a tool that enables co-operation. This notion has something in common with the idea that markets aggregate tacit knowledge. I discussed Lindblom and his book in more detail in this post.

I suspect that this argument in favour of the market system can be collapsed into one of the other arguments, possibly the tact-knowledge aggregation argument or the decentralised optimisation argument.

In fact, this isn’t so much an argument in favour of markets as a description of what markets are for, without necessarily demonstrating that markets are superior to alternative means of co-operation. Lindblom is very clear that markets have both positive and negative characteristics.

Markets as decentralised optimisation systems

It is possible to show that, under certain highly restrictive conditions, market systems can achieve something called ‘static efficiency’, whereby scarce resources are, in some sense, allocated in an optimal fashion. The most complete expression of this view is to be found in Gerard Debreu’s Theory of Value.

I have yet to read Theory of Value, but I am reliably informed that it contains some elegant and beautiful mathematics; however it is not clear that the theories that Debreu presents has and relevance to the actually-existing economic world. Indeed, it seems that Debreu himself was at pains to point out that his theory had no real-world implications. In fact, it could be said that Theory of Value constitutes a negative result, essentially demonstrating that the conditions required for markets to achieve optimal results are so restrictive that they will never be met in practice.

Markets as revelation of democratic preference

I am vaguely aware that certain people argue that markets are tools for revealing the collective ‘will’ of diverse groups of people. Without wishing to burden this notion with more credence than it can support, I shall include this in the list, if only to ease future referral.


Subjective experience, language, Husserl, and MacLeod

The following quotation is from Literary Theory: An Introduction, by Terry Eagleton:

For phenomenological criticism, the language of a literary work is little more than an ‘expression’ of its inner meanings. This somewhat secondhand view of language runs back to Husserl himself. For there is really little place for language as such in Husserlian phenomenology. Husserl speaks of a purely private or internal sphere of experience; but such a sphere is in fact a fiction, since all experience involves language and language is ineradicably social. To claim that I am having a wholly private experience is meaningless: I would not be able to have an experience in the first place unless it took place in the terms of some language within which I could identify it.

[emphasis mine]

I actually disagree with the emphasised part of this. Animals probably have experience. Small children have experiences. People who were raised by wolves and have no language nevertheless have experiences. I find the idea that subjective experience requires language to be a little odd. There is so much about the world as I experience it that is so utterly beyond language that I really don’t know where to start with disagreeing with it.

Ken MacLeod holds a similar belief:

Subjectivity is inseparable from language. Although emerging from animal sensation, animal emotion and animal signalling, conscious reflection and self-awareness are unique to human beings. We can name the prey, but they don’t name themselves.

Again, I disagree. Or at least, I would argue we cannot (yet) be so certain. Dogs and cats experience things; they certainly experience pain. The point is we don’t yet really understand the nature of subjective experience; but for the time being I remain un-persuaded that animals do not experience pain in a similar fashion to people. Animals are not automatons (or perhaps they are, and perhaps we are, but we are still automatons that possess qualia and intentionality, whatever these things may be). In Straw Dogs, John Gray tells us that:

Plato and Descartes tell us that consciousness is what marks off humans from other animals. Plato believed that ultimate reality is spiritual, and that humans are alone among animals in being at least dimly conscious of it. Descartes saw humans as thinking beings. He declared he knew he existed only because he found himself thinking – ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) – and that animals were mere machines. Yet cats, dogs and horses display awareness of their surroundings; they experience themselves as acting or failing to act; they have thoughts and sensations.

Despite an ancient tradition that tells us otherwise, there is nothing uniquely human in conscious awareness.

This is one of those areas where I find myself more in agreement with John Gray and Montaigne than with MacLeod and Eagleton.  But the dispute ultimately returns to the gap between the subjective and the objective, between what we feel and what is true, between the object and the subject. This gap between the subjective world of individual experience and the “real world” that (we suppose) exists “out there” is the mystery. I look forward to further progress in this regard.