I have the feeling that the last few posts might have given people the impression that I'm a bit of a Marxist. Although I have some pretty grave reservations about capitalism, I'm not sure I'm yet ready to be comfortable with that categorisation, so I'd like to redress the balance a bit with a thought that occurred to me the other day.
Ok, so strictly speaking, Proudhon's aphorism about property is really anarchism rather than Marxism, but it taps into a very important idea that is central even to more "statist" forms of communism. At the core of most left-wing ideology is the concept that the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small elite is undesirable. If I may be permitted some very broad generalisations, liberal-capitalist society is founded on encouraging each member to further themselves as far as they can without unduly impinging upon the freedom of others, while left-wing systems see this as a destructively divisive mentality, and instead emphasise the importance of collective action and shared values. I have a lot of sympathy with this latter idea. Why should our whole culture be predicated on the idea that my own efforts should only really benefit me? It's an idea that's deeply rooted in our consciousness now, but when you stop to examine it, it really isn't obvious that it has to be that way. We're highly social creatures who derive an enormous amount of benefit (both practically and emotionally) from collective endeavour. If I work to create something, why shouldn't my default position be to share it rather than to keep it purely for myself?
This is a well-worn argument. Pointing to the limited nature of both human effort and natural resources, the capitalist will now say, "That's a lovely sentiment, but you can't share a pair of shoes with a whole society - they become useless if they're divided up. We have to have a means of dividing things up in a tolerably efficient way, and of prioritising our effort towards those things that are most needed. Only markets can achieve this." And then the argument rapidly descends into the question of whether it is in practice possible to replace capitalist markets with some sort of system (centralised or otherwise) that works to distribute resources on a more altruistic basis. Ultimately, the communist wants people to share as much as they practically can, to use what they have and what they make for the benefit of as many people as possible. The capitalist just can't see that working in practice.
Now at this point I'd like briefly to wheel in one of the standard explanations for the failure of Soviet communism. According to this line of thinking, the key problem was that communism wasn't universal. The fastest way to undermine a system based on sharing and redistribution is to have some people very visibly not playing by the rules and doing well as a result. Think, for example, of the enormously heated response to the spectre of "benefit cheats". The idea that we're all paying our taxes in good faith, but someone is just lazing around living off the fruits of our labour arouses a very strong response: we feel that we've been duped. Doing more than you have to for your fellow man quickly becomes synonymous with being a schmuck, being taken for a ride; one does what one must, but no more. The only solution to this is to ensure that the "system" is universal, so no one can get one over on anyone else. Then we can all relax and enjoy our lovely co-operative socialist utopia. In the meantime, we may need to have some pretty heavy-handed border controls, censorship and ideological policing to ensure that the purity of the system isn't polluted from outside. Sounding familiar?
The observation that struck me the other day is that this is not just a problem of practical politics. It's a fundamental logical problem with the idea of talking about describing this sort of redistribution as "social justice". The reality is that the world is a deeply unequal place. Natural resources are concentrated in particular locations; climactic, ecological and other geographical factors have an enormous impact on the prosperity of civilisations; people get lucky with where, when and to whom they are born. The communist wants to try and even out these differences by sharing these local benefits across a wider society. But how wide? We've already mentioned the idea that perhaps communism needs to be global to succeed. But why stop there? What about animals (certainly advanced ones like dolphins)? If it's objected that animals are somehow disqualified as insufficiently sophisticated, what about potential life forms from other planets? If that's too fanciful, what about a wide colonisation of other worlds by human beings, whose values and culture begin to diverge substantially as a product of radically different environments? What gap is so wide, which boundary so strong, that it can be sufficient to block the moral necessity of the equalisation of resources and opportunity?
Furthermore, it should be noted that the reductio ad absurdum of redistribution is the heat-death of the universe. If we remove all local concentrations of everything, we reduce creation to a thin chaotic soup devoid of life, motion and significance. Even when we step back from this physical exaggeration of the principle and return to real politics and sociology, it is a common charge levelled at communism that it crushes the human spirit by attempting to homogenise everything about our existence. I don't think it's controversial to suggest that there must be limits on the degree of "equalisation" that should take place.
So it seems that we must draw some arbitrary boundaries around redistribution: both to the number of those to whom we extend it, and to the degree to which we extend it to them. But once we do that, we cannot avoid the persistent question: why these boundaries? Why not boundaries of class, race, or nationhood? Why not tribal, or even family boundaries? Why not only a very small part of our disposable income? There are no easy answers to these questions, which is not to say that we shouldn't keep asking them, and keep trying to improve our solutions to the problem through practical experiment. But I think it's extremely important to recognise that the idea of some sort of objective "natural social justice" is a dangerous myth that is all too often used as an excuse for the pursuit of destructively impractical policies. There is nothing mystical about an arbitrary group of living organisms sharing an arbitrary degree of equality on some arbitrary set of qualities. Where equality can help us get more out of shared experience (and in many cases I'm sure it can), then let's try and further it; but we must always be thinking about where the boundaries lie.
This all becomes especially challenging as our societies get bigger. 500 years ago, the average person had a close connection with a few hundred people, some indirect connection with a few thousand more, and a very weak national connection with a couple of million others. Now we live in "communities" of millions, nations of tens/hundreds of millions, and a world of billions, to all of whom we have closer practical connections than our ancestors did to people at the other end of the same country. But as the number of people in each social grouping has grown, we haven't thought hard enough about the implications for our ability to relate to them. Having a meaningful relationship with an ever-growing number of people is extremely hard; most people already struggle to feel connected to the entirety of the nation in which they live, let alone to humanity as a whole. So what justifies taking on this increasing burden?
It should be clear by now that the answer "because it's right to do so" doesn't satisfy me: our notions of things like "human rights" have been too fluid for me to believe that any current position is the "right" one (or even close to it). Even if one appeals to some notion of more or less continuous historical progress on the matter (a contentious claim in its own right) one still has the problem of setting an ultimate limit to our widening responsibilities, for the reasons discussed above. No, there are no convenient absolutes here: we must experiment and see what works.
Such experimentation, however, relies on our ability to measure success. What are we trying to achieve by sacrificing some of our own resources to help others? In part, it's a matter of practical insurance. I help others when I can because I hope that when I need help myself, they are more likely to help me in return. In large enough communities this can be institutionalised into something like a welfare state. But I think this only goes so far. First, I think such behaviour has diminishing returns beyond relatively modest sizes of community. The cost of maintaining social cohesion rapidly outpaces the value of socialising all but the most extreme risks . Second, I think it ignores a much more important reason for altruism: we enjoy helping others.
Humans are hardwired to value being part of a social group. It is one of our basic desires to create bonds between ourselves and others. For me, one of the most negative consequences of capitalism is that it encourages people to see themselves as fundamentally selfish, which is simply not true: most of us need to do things for others to be happy. The temptation, however, is to move from this observation to the assertion that we have a general imperative to "help our fellow man"; and this is just as false. One cannot generalise the need to form direct personal relationships and live in some form of society to a requirement to identify with any human community, no matter how large or how remote. But this is increasingly what we are asked to do, and the consequences are frequently disastrous. When you push people beyond their ability to relate with others, they naturally seek justifications for their failure to be as generous as they "ought to be". Instead of simply ignoring people who fall outside their community, they feel forced to stigmatise them as "unfit to be helped". What could have been a passive indifference becomes cultural divide, racism and sectarianism.
And this is the thesis I've been working up to: we cannot compensate for all life's inequalities, since our charity is a limited psychological resource which we must spend wisely. The idea of social justice is a dangerous fiction, because it suggests instead that there is some absolute level of universal charity from which we can fall short; and when we inevitably do, we justify it by turning to social and racial stigmatisation. I believe that the parable of the Good Samaritan is frequently misread. It tell us not that we must help everyone in need no matter who they are; for this is impossible. Instead, it warns us against the much worse error of systematically excluding whole classes of our fellows from the possibility of our aid based on dogmatic classifications. We should help those whom we wish to help to the limits of our ability to do so; and we should remain ever conscious of how we draw the boundaries of our charity; but we should not fall into the trap of feeling guilty for failing to be more than we can be.
 Read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel if you haven't already for a really compelling historical account of the significance of the "geographical luck of the draw".
 This is a complex area in its own right. Many people would argue that we rely on large societies that can support heavy specialisation to maintain our technological development. They'd also point out that such large societies are necessary to socialise some very dramatic risks (natural disasters, war). I think it's questionable whether a) the cost outweighs these benefits beyond a certain point and b) there aren't other ways to solve both of these problems that don't require us to engage in heavyweight commitments of a "social justice" variety. I want to expand on these ideas considerably in my next post.
3] I accept that this isn't a fundamental part of capitalist ideology; it just happens to be a practical, psychological consequence of running most of your society on a for-profit basis.