Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Debate Over Agency

Catherine Rampell of the NY Times finds some commentary from the president of Tax Analysts, interesting in that he makes a solid defense of the rich as not being wealthy merely because of luck but because of hard work.
I’m all for a progressive income tax system. And I’m all for a strong estate tax for the idle rich. But the people I know who are well-off work hard for their money. They worked hard in school and worked hard in business. They took risks, which weren’t backed by government safety nets. They created things. And, as they rose, they learned that there are some in this country who like to demonize success — even fear it.
Rampell writes:
But even if the word choice was not deliberately intended to provoke class warfare, it does seem to epitomize one of the key fault lines between liberals and conservatives: to what extent the wealthiest (as well as the poorest) members of society have earned, or rather simply received, their present fates.
I think this is right.  And I think it doesn't get near enough attention.  The deepest divide between conservatives and liberals is their very different views of human agency.  Liberals tend to believe that we are social creatures, largely determined by circumstance.  Conservatives tend to believe we are individuals who determine our own destinies.

But I think much of the confusion lies in the fact that both these sentiments can be true simultaneously.  We can be a society that is held responsible for the outcomes of its citizenry, who are then in turn held responsible for their individual actions.  The two - macro and micro - are inseparable, and part of a broad continuum of shared responsibility.  In much the same way as a parent is ultimately responsible for their child's well being, the child must be held accountable for their actions.

In this way, the rich may indeed have achieved their wealth through hard work and innovation, but their ability to do so was built upon a framework of agency that they were lucky enough to have had developed in them;  their desire to work hard was learned from some prior experience; their ability to take (intelligent) risks was likely due to a combination of learned intelligence and innate personality.  These are all behaviors that should be encouraged and rewarded (to a degree), but we cannot pretend that they originated in a vacuum, that there was not a vast array of human and social factors lining up in just the right way.  The individual simply cannot take complete credit for them.  The evidence for this is just overwhelmingly clear.

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