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Culture War Roundup for the week of July 31, 2023

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He claims that we should ensure that even stupid and untalented people still have some minimal level of material comfort.

I'm not convinced that his point is this simple. First, stupid and untalented people do have some minimal level of material comfort in every rich country around the world today. You could argue that it's not enough comfort or that it leaves out people who are psychotic (and children of people who are psychotic) or who have other problems much larger than "lack of talent" but then it becomes mostly a question of what is the necessary "minimal level of comfort." Second, and more importantly, I have never, ever heard someone who argues for "equality of opportunity" say that they want stupid/untalented people to not have some minimal level of material comfort. This seems to fundamentally misunderstand the debate about "equality of opportunity" vs "equality of outcome." If this is Freddie's whole point then it's like weighing in on an argument about taxation to say that we shouldn't execute people who don't pay their taxes. It's fighting a complete strawman of a position. Third, deBoer is an avowed socialist, of the pretty-much-a-communist type and I'm not convinced he doesn't favor a pretty radical program of wealth redistribution.

DeBoer, in this essay, does not claim that we should use money to reward people for being good.

At the very least, he seems to think that most people arguing for equality of opportunity think this. Otherwise it's hard to explain this line: "Core to that whole conception of justice is the notion that talent and hard work are something inherent to the individual or under the control of the individual." My point is that, no, that notion is not at all core to the argument for "equality of opportunity" and also, the best argument for "equality of opportunity" is not really about "justice" in the way that people normally use the word.

In defense of inheritance, one could argue that letting parents pass on their wealth to their children encourages the parents to work harder and thus leads to better social outcomes overall.

I agree that this is a reasonable argument for allowing inheritance (and for not taxing it too heavily). It's also an argument easily overlooked by people too invested in the "virtue theory of money." The children who inherit their parents' money did not do anything virtuous to earn it so (some people think) why should they get it?

First, stupid and untalented people do have some minimal level of material comfort in every rich country around the world today.

So yes, this is true to some degree. But as I mentioned before they are manipulated into' like spending their money on fast food, building credit card debt, financing cars at ruinous interest rates, and you quickly see how it's quite difficult for these people to handle themselves in the modern economy.

Effectively while the poor do have a minimum level of comfort, they need more protection from rapacious capitalists who see them as cattle to be exploited. The underclass are consistently manipulated and coerced into ruining their own lives, and we sit back and do nothing to stop it.

Do you want to make stupid people wards of the state, including having their decisions made by the state? Because that's what it would take to keep them from making bad decisions. You cannot protect them without confining them.

I wrestle with this. I really do.

I’m not a dummy, but I can’t get a grad degree in everything. There are plenty of products whose failure modes are unobvious even to the brightest layman. Some financial products or construction techniques or faulty equipment are considered so risky that we don’t allow their sale. In domains where I lack expertise, I may not bowl strikes, but I can at least keep out of the gutters.

I briefly worked in an adult ed classroom. The students did not, in casual conversation, clock as intellectually disabled. They were almost all employed, and most were parents or heads of a household. They were all perfectly capable of independent living. But fractions and decimals were a genuine challenge. They had to work to internalize the difference between .1 and .01. They had to pause and think through whether 1/4 was bigger than 1/8. Most of them got it. Some could memorize techniques but never seemed to grasp the underlying concept.

Mostly I don’t think this was their own fault. As children, they probably had the raw horsepower to learn these concepts at a gentle pace in a stable environment. Perhaps they lacked the extra horsepower to learn despite a chaotic home or classroom. I’m sure there was no positive feedback loop for them, where success at learning was enjoyable, so they learned more, which made learning more enjoyable, etc.

These adults could all legally contract for an auto loan. With no true understanding of interest rates, they’d be incredibly vulnerable to terrible decisions. The system is designed to protect consumers of my skills, not theirs. They need bumpers on their bowling lanes, and there are none. Adults are generally insulted to be given any.

These people were not without merit. They didn’t, in some cosmic sense, deserve poverty or low status. I admired them for enrolling in the first place, instead of pretending they didn’t need these skills. I was very much rooting for them.

I don’t know how to set them up for good lives without infringing somewhat on their dignity or agency. I really don’t. The very things that produce our fabulous wealth make our society less navigable for them.

The best I could come up with was: don’t kid them about where they stand. Don’t lie about what’s possible or likely from here. They need to know what they don’t know, so that they know when to seek help.