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View Diary: Taxing the rich: it's not about "fairness" (182 comments)

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  •  Asabiya (12+ / 0-)

    A historian whose name I cannot recall once wrote a book about why some societies seem full of energy where others are pathetic losers. He assigns the difference to what he calls "asabiya", an Arabic word that might be translated as an amalgam of "solidarity", "civic responsibility", and "brotherhood". It's a sense within a society that it is doing great things, and that each person should contribute to the grand march of triumph.

    Part of asabiya is the sense that "we're all in this together" or "all for one, one for all". Economists sometimes use the term "social capital", but I think that notion falls short of asabiya. Social capital is more like mutual trust and confidence; asabiya has a more optimistic tone.

    Let's combine this concept with another one that has been nailed down by psychologists. There's a classic experiment, whose name I again forget, that runs like so: the experimenter recruits two people and tells them that he will give them $10 to divide among themselves. One of the subjects gets to decide how the money will be divided and the other can veto the whole deal if he considers the division unfair. This experiment has been carried out hundreds of times with thousands of subjects in many different cultures, with surprising results. Strictly speaking, the second subject should approve any deal that gives him any amount of money, but in fact, people veto deals that don't split the money "fairly". The definition of fairness varies from culture to culture, but the basic principle seems clear: people expect a fair shake, and will punish others for violating their standards of fairness. In many of the experiments, any offer less than $4 would be vetoed.

    Combining this with the concept of asabiya, we see that people expect an egalitarian distribution of wealth. If that expectation is violated, they veto the social contract. They do so in a variety of ways. In the extreme, they resort to violent crime to even things up. Few do this, but a great many people who think that they're getting a raw deal resort to petty acts of defiance or noncooperation. Littering and vandalism are likely symptoms of this behavior.

    The moral of this story is that a more egalitarian distribution of wealth is not a matter of being nice; it's a prudent policy that lubricates the wheels of society and keeps things running smoothly. It's in my self-interest to insure that the Gini Index for my society never rises too high.

    •  America has never been a "one for all" sort (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      VClib, Sparhawk, nextstep

      of place, yet we've had one of the most dynamic cultures and economies for a few centuries now.  Or: we falsify the theory advanced.

      •  Actually, it has (4+ / 0-)

        Asabiya is sometimes seen as a variant of patriotism, and you'll surely agree that America has always had a surfeit of patriotism. However, the word "patriotism" doesn't quite catch the meaning of asabiya; "solidarity" remains the closest match in English. And America had oodles of that. In the colonial period, it was inculcated by the strong sense of isolation and the insecurity against Indian attacks. In the Revolutionary period, it was very high, and indeed it was only the fervor of asabiya that kept the republic together in its earliest, rockiest days.

        The Civil War triggered a bifurcation of asabiya; both sides fought with considerable élan. Afterwards, the settling of the West again fostered a sense of "one for all, all for one" among the pioneers, although that quickly evaporated once things settled down.

        American asabiya went through a low time from, oh, maybe 1880 to 1930; although there was enthusiasm for World War I, it wasn't until the Depression and World War II that Americans once again found their sense of togetherness. This held on through the post-war period until the 60s, when American solidarity collapsed over Vietnam. It has never recovered; there was a brief spike after 9/11, but it was too ephemeral to stick to the ribs. That's why we have so much polarization now; American asabiya is at a fatally low level. As a society, we're rotting.

        •  For another colonial example (0+ / 0-)

          I like the example of colonial schools.  In almost every place people gathered in early America, you could be sure they would build two things - a church and a school.  The teacher was paid by goods produced by the community.  

          I think you may be correct about the low time from 1880 to 1930, but the Populist Party certainly provided a counter-example during that time - for many agrarian communities, it was a high mark of cooperation.  

      •  or else your opinion is an "outlier" / nm (0+ / 0-)

        The "extreme wing" of the Democratic Party is the wing that is hell-bent on protecting the banks and credit card companies. ~ Kos

        by ozsea1 on Mon Nov 26, 2012 at 09:40:26 AM PST

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    •  I was IN an experiment like that once! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Yasuragi, Sychotic1

      "Politics is like driving. To go backward put it in R. To go forward put it in D."
      Four More Years! How sweet it is!!!

      by TrueBlueMajority on Sun Nov 25, 2012 at 07:52:20 PM PST

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      •  And what did you do? n/t (1+ / 0-)
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        "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox." -- Willie Stargell

        by Yasuragi on Mon Nov 26, 2012 at 06:11:34 AM PST

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        •  the main question was (1+ / 0-)
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          would I agree to an unfair split if they gave me information about the other person doing something good for someone else.

          so the initial split was less than 50% for me, and I said no, and then they said well what if we told you that the other person spent all morning helping a friend move?  And I said that doesn't matter--I'm a good person too and deserve an equal split of found money that neither one of us earned.

          So the money was split down the middle.

          This experiment was being done in a public area in Harvard Square some years ago.

          "Politics is like driving. To go backward put it in R. To go forward put it in D."
          Four More Years! How sweet it is!!!

          by TrueBlueMajority on Mon Nov 26, 2012 at 07:08:54 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

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