Attention, Redistributionist Liberals!

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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An iconoclastic and fecund blog post from economist Noah Smith potentially redirects the Democrats’ redistributionist impulse in a more promising direction. Smith looks at the types of equality nominally pursued by various tendencies in American politics–a) “‘equality of outcome’, usually meaning equality of wealth” (liberals), b) equality of “opportunity” (centrists), and c) equality before the law (practically everyone)–and feels there is something missing. That something is “equality of respect.” This is essentially the same conclusion I reached in the early ’90s, when the redistributionist Democratic party seemed to be in crisis at the end of the Reagan era.** “Redistribute wealth?” Smith asks. “No, redistribute respect.”***

Smith makes several essential points, most obviously that you don’t have to achieve equality of income and wealth to have “equality of respect”–which is a good thing because “every society on Earth has wealth and income distributions that follow some kind of power law, where a small fraction earn and command much more money than the vast majority.” The example Smith uses of widely distributed respect is low-paid sushi cooks in Japan (where he lived) who are routinely addressed with an honorific (“sushi-ya-san”). He thinks (and I’d agree) that America is in some danger of losing its broad tradition of democratic respect–or at least there’s less of it than there used to be. If there were a Gini coefficient that measured social equality like there is for money equality, it would be going in the “unequal” direction.

Smith is well aware that in Japan respect is often packaged within a status hierarchy, but the experience still taught him that “respect doesn’t have to be all about money.” Compared with equality of incomes, in other words, equality of respect is an achievable goal.  In chasing after a more equal distribution, Smith says, mainstream liberalism “ignores achievable types of social equality while questing after the unattainable.”

He doesn’t say–in this post, at least–how to achieve these “achievable types of social equality.” That’s a question that led me in one peculiar direction (expanding the public sphere) but may lead him somewhere else. It will also be interesting to see how Smith handles the inevitable blowback from the left, including from more economistic economists. His charitable critics will probably say, somewhat condescendingly (as they’ve said to me) that ‘yes, yes, “respect” and “social equality” are good things–but so is money equality, and why not pursue both!’ In anticipation, Smith notes:

1) There are–as Ezra Klein argues in a similar context–always tradeoffs between the various types of equality. Pursuing one may take us further away from the other–Smith hints that pursuing wealth redistribution at all costs, for example (as opposed to full employment) might harm the social egalitarian cause. Even if there aren’t inherent tradeoffs there are always political tradeoffs. What if Republicans offered to create a socially-equalizing WPA jobs program, or an unstratified Medicare-for-all system, but only if it were financed by a flat tax? Money redistributionists would say no way. Respect redistributionists would say ‘Hmm. Let’s talk about that.’ Respect redistributionists would also be less likely than Obama’s advisors to sign off on a four or five-tier system of providing what they (rightly) say is an essential human good, health care.

2) The liberal obsession with income inequality itself makes income more important in the public mind than it should be. Smith:

I think American liberals have also made the mistake of focusing too much on income and wealth as the measures of success. Every chart and graph we see about America’s increase in “inequality” is about either money, or the likelihood of getting money. Sure, disparities of wealth are distasteful. Sure, money is one thing that confers social status. But by focusing on it obsessively, I think liberals are helping to cement its paramount importance as the end-all and be-all of social outcomes.

Finally, Smith opens a fresh line of inquiry into whether people are happier in countries with more social equality. I’d bet yes. Respect (from one’s fellows) seems an innate Darwinian serotonin-raiser.**** People often say “it’s about respect” when describing their feelings or actions.  The longer I live the more I’m convinced it’s always about respect. When people get into fights, it’s almost always about respect (or its opposite, a “dis”). When people are repulsed by Leo DiCaprio’s character in the Wolf of Wall Street, it’s largely because of the disrespect he shows for non-rich working stiffs (like the FBI agent who rides the subway to work, the prostitutes he degrades, or the retirees he fleeces). I suspect New York Mayor de Blasio could get a lot further, in terms of popularity, if he focused on eliminating the symbols of class disrespect (e.g. double-parked black cars of investment bankers?) and less on a futile attempt to narrow city’s the widening income gap.

Smith tweets that he has other posts on “redistributing respect”in the works. Watch that space.


**–I called the missing goal “equal dignity” or (most often) “social equality ” in my book, but I think it’s the same thing. I occasionally used “respect” (see, e.g. pages 139 and 162) and Smith uses “social equality.”

***–Greg Mankiw suggests “redistributing” might not be the right concept, since you don’t have to deprive a high-income worker of respect to give a low-income worker respect. But you probably do have to respect money less (as Smith argues) and respect other things (e.g. work, if not work in particular occupations) more. The key thing, for egalitarian respect, is that there’s a reciprocal social recognition–we must be “equal in the eyes of each other,” as … well, I don’t want to tell you who said that. Let’s just agree with Smith that pursuit of the non-economistic version of equality is a potential bridge between the entrenched left and right.

****–It’s tricky, though, as the Japanese example shows. Workers can have respect for performing their roles in a highly hierarchical society–the king’s tailor, or his loyal serf. That’s why lamenting that “America is separating into peasants and scholar gentry” doesn’t quite frame the happiness issue.  Even a loyal peasant can have a form of  respect, and it probably boosts his serotonin. But that respect comes packaged with an acknowledgement of his inferior place in the great feudal chain of being–a dis and a downer! “Equality of respect” would dispense the upper without the downer. …

See also Tyler Cowen for other complications, and an initial gathering of data.

Mickey Kaus