Ok, ok, Shakespeare’s spinning in his grave. But what the hell, the guy’s been moldering there for 400 years – let him enjoy a good spin or two.

In my last post I suggested that a good part of the explanation for gridlock in Washington – and the extreme division in the country – has to do with our inability to navigate between the poles of liberty and equality. I posed two deceptively simple questions: What is the responsibility of a wealthy liberal democracy to its citizens? What are the responsibilities of citizens of these republics to their governments and their societies?

A whole lot of smart people have thought and written about these issues, but most of it happened in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, when democracies were rare and fragile. The world is a very different place today, with modern democracies wealthy beyond imagination and the liberal democratic form of government utterly dominant. We need a more contemporary conversation to guide our thinking.

In that spirit, let’s start with views on liberty-versus-equality from the modern political Left.* The Left emphasizes equality over liberty and that approach tends to resonate, at least in a Maslovian sense: since we’ve got a lot of liberty, we tend to worry about equality. (If we had a lot of equality – if we lived in, say, North Korea – it would be liberty we would yearn for.)

When I consider modern Leftist approaches I think immediately of my Harvard Law classmate, Roberto Mangabeira Unger. Unger and I studied Contracts Law under old Jack Dawson. The course consisted mainly of Dawson and Unger arguing with each other while the rest of us stared out the window and wondered what the hell they were talking about. A few years later, I was wearing Army Green and wondering why we were fighting in Vietnam, while Unger was already on the Harvard Law faculty and already getting tenure at the ripe age of 23.  To show his gratitude, Unger co-founded the Critical Legal Studies movement, which nearly destroyed the Law School.

In any event, Unger’s core, three-volume work, Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory, appeared in 1987. It constituted a radical update of Marxist theology and an insistent critique of liberal democracy. If you first pop a Valium or two, Unger’s thinking is remarkably interesting. However, I’m apparently the only person outside the universities who’s ever heard of him** – Unger’s ideas have influenced mainly a tiny cell of leftist professors.

The same can’t be said of John Rawls, who also overlapped with me at Harvard. When Rawls’ A Theory of Justice appeared in 1971 it was immediately acclaimed around the world as an ex post justification for the Global Triumph of Socialism. And, indeed, by 1970 the entire world, ex-US, was in fact socialist. But a funny thing happened on the way to the celebration: socialism collapsed.

It collapsed suddenly and everywhere: in Europe, in the USSR, in Maoist China, in India, in Latin America, in Africa. And it collapsed most spectacularly in those nations that had pushed it the furthest, all the way to socialism’s dark cousin, Communism. The Soviet Union was destroyed as a state and China, just then teetering on the edge of anarchy, was saved only by the remarkable Deng Xiaoping. Comrade Deng had the bright idea of simply abolishing Communism, replacing it with capitalism but keeping the old slogans. Henceforth China would be governed not by a Dictatorship of the Proletariat, but just by a good old-fashioned dictatorship.

Still, Rawls’ A Theory of Justice remains a kind of bible (albeit one that is never read) to the Left. Many people who advocate quotas, set-asides, affirmative action, “retrospective  compensatory redistribution” (the phrase is actually Unger’s) and so on have no idea that they are following Rawls, but they are. In the context of a wealthy modern republic, justice-as-fairness (the nub of Rawlsian philosophy) is the core value of an egalitarian mindset.

There is much of value in the Rawlsian world. But the problem with justice-as-fairness (in the real world, if not in theory) is that along the bright road to perfect equality there is no principled place to stop and notice that we’ve entered La La Land. Because equality can only be assured by holding back the successful (unfairly!) and rewarding the unsuccessful (unfairly!), societies that are animated mainly by “fairness” can’t behave fairly at all in any useful sense. Worse (well, equally bad), a society that punishes the successful and rewards the unsuccessful can’t compete against societies that do the opposite. Justice-as-fairness inevitably leads to sameness of outcomes, to leveling, stasis, and defeat. Socialism considered itself to be the only morally acceptable form of government, but in the long run the winners in this global competition will simply redefine moral goodness in their own image – as socialism did.

All this is too bad if you ask me. The nice thing about folks on the political Left is that they actually care about the disadvantaged, care about them enough to elevate considerations of equality above considerations of liberty. It would be extremely valuable to have coherent ideas about equality written in a modern idiom. Alas, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that nothing interesting has been thought or written by the Left since Rousseau and Marx.

But if you think the Left is bad, consider the political Right. See my next post.


* [I know, I know, there’s nothing more annoying than footnotes – well, endnotes – in a blog. WordPress, the blogger’s software, doesn’t even know what footnotes are, you have to enter them manually. But I love footnotes. When I read something written by someone else I always look at the footnotes first. If they’re no good, I don’t bother with the main text.] In case you’re interested, the terms “Left” and “Right,” referring to political stances, originated during the French Revolution, when members of the French general assembly who sat on the left side of the room supported the revolution and those on the right opposed it.

** What I mean to say is that no one has heard of Unger’s ideas. He’s well-known in Latin America, where he’s been active in Brazilian politics for years. A gray-haired version of him still lectures at Harvard.


Next up: Liberty or Equality? Alas, Poor Yorick, That Is the Question. (Part 2)


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