The other new French book on inequality

by on May 19, 2014 at 1:13 pm in Books, History, Philosophy, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

It is The Society of Equals, by Pierre Rosanvallon, and it is a transatlantic look at how the notion of inequality has changed over the last three centuries.  It strikes me as the sort of book Crooked Timber would have a symposium on.  Here is one good bit:

Thus there is a global rejection of society as it presently exists together with acceptance of the mechanisms that produce that society.  De facto inequalities are rejected, but the mechanisms that generate inequality in general are implicitly recognized.  I propose to call this situation, in which people deplore in general what they consent to in particular, the Bossuet paradox.  This paradox is the source of our contemporary schizophrenia.  It is not simply the result of a guilty error but has an epistemological dimension.  When we condemn global situations, we look at objective social facts, but we tend to relate particular situations to individual behaviors and choices.  The paradox is also related to the fact that moral and social judgments are based on the most visible and extreme situation (such as the gap between rich and poor), into which individuals project themselves abstract, whereas their personal behavior is concretely determined by narrower forms of justification.

Roger Berkowitz has a very good review here, excerpt:

As does Piketty, Rosanvallon employs philosophy and history to characterize the return of inequality in the late 20th and now 21st centuries. And Rosanvallon, again like Piketty, worries about the return of inequality. But Rosanvallon, unlike Piketty, argues that we need to understand how inequality and equality now are different than they used to be. As a result, Rosanvallon is much more sanguine about economic inequality and optimistic about the possibilities for meaningful equality in the future.

And:

…inequality absent misery may not be the real problem of political justice. The reason so much inequality is greeted with resentment but acceptance, is that our current imagination of justice concerns visibility and singularity more than it does equality of income.

Recommended.

Just Another MR Blogger May 19, 2014 at 2:45 pm

“inequality absent misery may not be the real problem of political justice.”

And definitely regulatory capture, the free flow of capital and restriction on labor, information asymmetries, and corporate lobbying are absolutely not the real problems of political justice either.

Steve Sailer May 20, 2014 at 1:32 am

“The Bell Curve” suggested that a system of testing tends to strip intellectual talent from the working class over the generations, leaving fewer and fewer to speak up for their needs in a manner that elites recognize as appropriate discourse.

JWatts May 20, 2014 at 10:42 am

Indeed, it did suggest just that. And that the result would be a bifurcated society. And another little known book followed up on that theme: “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation”

dearieme May 19, 2014 at 2:45 pm

It’s a pity that the “good bit” wasn’t translated by a native English speaker.

Willitts May 19, 2014 at 2:51 pm

“I propose to call this situation, in which people deplore in general what they consent to in particular…”

Am I mistaken, or did he in the previous two sentences say that people deplore the particular result but accept the general conditions that produce it?

The only people I hear deploring income inequality are a small minority of radicals.

Current inequality is different because innovations can generate enormous wealth by picking up pennies around the globe as opposed to only those within local reach.

derek May 19, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Aren’t the most vigorous promoters of Piketty also the most vigorous defenders of Geithner and Bernanke writing unconscionably large checks to enormously rich Wall Street bankers?

F. Lynx Pardinus May 19, 2014 at 6:01 pm

No

Michael May 19, 2014 at 6:56 pm

Wow. Do you really think that’s how QE works? lol

Jan May 19, 2014 at 7:19 pm

Maybe in your head?

ladderff May 19, 2014 at 11:12 pm

Good point.

prior_approval May 20, 2014 at 12:16 am

‘The only people I hear deploring income inequality are a small minority of radicals.’

Well, Germany is full, and I mean packed to the rafters, with radicals then. Such as the proposal from the current coalition government of Christian Democrats (a notably radical political party) and the Social Democrats (an even more notably radical political party) to limit executive pay of publicly held companies to a fairly restrictive multiple of a company’s average worker’s pay.

A position supported by just about everybody – except those executives, of course. And we all know what a radical socialist hell hole Germany is.

Cliff May 20, 2014 at 2:38 am

I guess the German tradition of privately-held family businesses will continue to thrive. I guess if capital is not important for growth, it won’t matter…

JWatts May 20, 2014 at 10:49 am

“Such as the proposal from the current … to limit executive pay ”

LOL, get back to us when and if it passes. While Willits nomenclature of a “small minority of radicals” is IMO incorrect, it’s clearly been a minority or that proposal wouldn’t still be a proposal. It’s not like income inequality is a new topic. It’s been an issue of debate for decades. Well in reality it’s been the topic of debate for centuries.

Engineer May 19, 2014 at 4:03 pm

It strikes me as the sort of book Crooked Timber would have a symposium on.

Yes, a simple idea expressed in a jargon-y paragraph that mentions “epistemological dimension” and “individuals abstractly projecting themselves into extreme situations” is catnip for them.

dearieme May 19, 2014 at 5:39 pm

I stopped reading Crooked Timber because of the ugly English – though, to be fair, perhaps they thought they should match their English to their ideas.

Jan May 19, 2014 at 7:30 pm

That’s the same reason I stopped watching the Vicar of Dibley, though I recognize Dawn French is actually Welsh.

Sam May 19, 2014 at 6:16 pm

The first quote reminds me of something Robin Hanson would write.

Dismalist May 19, 2014 at 11:21 pm

It’s all French to me. :-)

Frederic Mari May 20, 2014 at 6:34 am

“When we condemn global situations, we look at objective social facts, but we tend to relate particular situations to individual behaviors and choices”…

Comments so far have tended towards glib.

Yet this dichotomy/paradox/cognitive dissonance is pretty important (imho) to understand my conservative friends. They often state that they do not like the crony capitalism we got and would want any proven criminal behaviour of big corporations punished (though they do doubt that corporations commit crimes at all. Unlike those immigrants who are well known law-breakers…) but they cannot move past the idea of ‘personal responsibility’ and that your circumstances can only be a consequence of your choices.

On top, it happens to be technically true.

Frederic Mari May 20, 2014 at 6:35 am

… but try to explain that this is not the whole picture and, oh boy, it’s a struggle…

JWatts May 20, 2014 at 10:56 am

“Comments so far have tended towards glib.”

Wasn’t your comment glib as well? I don’t see how you were doing anything than making a partisan comment.

At least, I very much doubt, that judging the big picture by one set of standards, but deviating from those standards when judging particular cases, is really confined to your “conservative friends”. That type of behavior is common to everyone of all stripes.

michael svehla May 20, 2014 at 9:01 am

… but try to explain that this is not the whole picture and, oh boy, it’s a struggle… –

Frederic Mari, here is my email, would you like to have a longer conversation about that technicality? trillion5770@yahoo.com

Axa May 20, 2014 at 9:01 am

On the second link, this:

“The inequality debate has little to do with poverty or the impoverished and everything to do with the increasing gap separating the superrich from the merely rich and the middle class.”

That’s what wonders me. The discussion is not about all the people living and dying with less than 1 dollar a day but the “hardships” of the middle class in developed economies.

JWatts May 20, 2014 at 10:59 am

Indeed, the discussion isn’t really even generally about the “poor” in developed economies. Though, that may be just a side effect of having very few “poor” after you count transfers and benefits.

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