24 June 2005

A Poor Argument About Poverty

One of the most difficult aspects of Rawls's work—ok, I know I've just put about 2/3 of my potential readership to sleep, but it's my blawg!—is rhetorical. The main criticism that I have of Rawls's work is that it doesn't take sufficient care in distinguishing between relative and absolute conditions. The Perfesser's post this morning on the "corporate law perspective on Rawls" demonstrates this, whether inadvertently or otherwise. He says:

I often feel that if I have to listen to one more candidate presentation by one more 20-something wannabe describing how s/he has solved some Rawlsian puzzle, I will throw up my guts.

Well, so do I—but usually because the candidate (or, worse yet, published article) persists in trying to adapt Rawls to his/her preconceived notions of what Rawls should mean, rather than what Rawls said. Perhaps the best example of this is in a footnote to a piece the Perfesser quotes in his own critique:

John Rawls and his followers argue that risk averse individuals operating from behind a veil of ignorance would choose a society, under a social compact, that contained some kind of social safety net.25

25. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971). The underlying assumption is that need is perfectly correlated with no fault on the part of the needy and that the needy bear no responsibility for their condition.

This exposes two economic terms of art, and one introduced term, that purportedly mean the same thing… but they don't, despite being used interchangeably—constantly by "interpreters" of A Theory of Justice, and with distressing frequency by Rawls himself. Here's the problem:

{poverty} ≠ {poor} ≠ {needy}

Although I don't claim the authority of the French dictionary police, these are three distinct concepts.

  • Poverty is a state of being, the parameters of which vary both temporally and culturally. For example, What we would call "poverty" today—probably some combination of low income, low education, poor nutrition, and poor housing conditions (by our standards) would be considered a desireable and upward condition for most of the population in 12th-century France1 or 20th-century Lesotho.
  • Poor is an economic classification expressing the relative wealth of a given population segment. Consider, for example, a utopian society like that portrayed in Bellamy's Looking Backward (1887). Although Bellamy's rhetoric isn't clear (and his mechanism is absolute garbage), society has succeeded in wiping out poverty. However, it's unintentionally clear from some of the descriptions that some members of society have more wealth and influence than do others, meaning in turn that some members of society are "poor" in the absence of "poverty."
  • Needy is a psychological/perceptual state, often driven by economic "need" in Rawls's work. The key problem, though, is that "need" is closer to (but not congruent with) "escaping poverty" than to "not being poor". One who is comfortably middle-class can perceive that he (or she) is less-well-off than others, and thereby become "needy." Too, of these three terms "needy" is the most pejorative, as in modern American English it leaves aftertastes of "fault," "greed," and "unjustified perception."

Orwell's wonderful little essay "Politics and the English Language" bears some consideration here.

In certain kinds of writing… it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words… are strictly meaningless, in the sense that not only do they not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader…. The word fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.2

Thus, with due respect to the Perfesser and Professor Carney, who are struggling with a needlessly complex rhetorical puzzle, I can't agree with the particular criticism raised. This appears to be due more to the inadequacies (and sheer sloppiness) of contemporary English than to anything else. In turn, perhaps that implies that Potter Stewart was a little bit wiser than we often imply.

In saying this, I imply no criticism of the Court, which in those cases was faced with the task of trying to define what may be indefinable. I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court's decisions since Roth and Alberts, that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.3

Substitute "hard-core poverty" for "hard-core pornography," and I think we just may have something. What, I don't know for certain; but certainly something capable of supporting a law review article or three.

  1. <SARCASM> One might argue that anything American should look good to the French of any time period, but that might be going just a little bit overboard. Of course, we don't subsist on snails, either. </SARCASM>
  2. For those pedants (and inexperienced journal editors at both student-edited and peer-reviewed journals) who equate "passive voice" with "bad writing," note that almost this entire passage is in the passive voice… and that it would be both needlessly strident and probably inaccurate if mechanically cast into the active voice.
  3. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964) (Stewart, J., concurring) (footnotes omitted). A possibly apocryphal anecdote—reported, if I recall correctly, in The Brethren—says that when one of Stewart's clerks later asked him if he (Stewart) ever had seen any hard-core pornography, he responded "Once—off the coast of Tangiers," apparently on a troop ship prior to Operation Torch (the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa in 1942). What this, in turn, implies about economists who claim to have seen "hard-core poverty" is left as an exercise for the student.