The Trail of the Human Serpent

I want to share this passage lovely in both content and form from Louis Menand's essay “Laurie Anderson's United States” in his collection of essays American Studies.

. . . most of the songs and stand-up routines Anderson delivered in United States were wan ironic tales about daily life in postindustrial–what we now call the digital–age, with repeated references to airplanes, televisions, petrochemicals, missiles, and outer space. The gadgets and the spaceships may have given people the idea that United States enacted a disaffection with creeping dehumanization, that it was a cri de coeur against the disenchantment But its effect on me was exactly the opposite. I took the point to be that the world can't be disenchanted, because enchantment is the mode in which human beings experience it. The trail of the human serpent (said William James) is over everything, even answering-machine beeps and aircraft safety instructions. Our electronics is no less an expression of ourselves than our poetry is.

I don't like Laurie Anderson, but I'm glad Menand does.

21 thoughts on “The Trail of the Human Serpent”

  1. It’s very common to read Rawls as a sort of luck egalitarian, based mostly on taking a few bits out of context, but it seems to me that the better readings show that this isn’t right. For good arguments to this end see Samuel Scheffler’s excellent paper “What is Egalitarianism” in Philosophy and Public Affairs 31 (Winter 2003), and, especially, Samuel Freeman’s “Rawls and Luck Egalitarianism” in his Justice and the Social Contract. The best defense of luck egalitarianism that I’ve seen will be out soon (I hope!) in the Journal of Philosophy by KC Tan. I still think it’s wrong, for reasons like those you give above, but it’s the best I’ve seen. Also, most luck egalitarians are cosmopolitans so that bit in your argument is wrong, I think. Finally, while some really hard-core luck egalitarians hold as strong of a view as you present here (Larry Temkin is the best example- a truly crazy view), most hold more modest views that distinguish between what is and what is not properly attributable to luck (though often not in very compelling ways, I think.) The classic example here might be Dworkin in Sovereign Virtue.

  2. If you see him, tell Tan to put his prepub paper online. Justice demands it, I think. And Freeman’s book is ridiculously expensive. What kind of racket are these moral philosophers participating in!?

  3. I’ll see if I can get a copy of Tan’s paper for you. (I read it a while ago but don’t think I have a copy any more- I’ll see him this weekend and will ask him to send me a copy. ) I hope Freeman’s book will be out in paper-back before too long. The racket of keeping things in hardback for a terribly long time is awful, I think. It’s beyond me how it’s profitable for the publishers, even, but I guess they’d know better than I do. (I’d be happy to mail you a physical copy if you email me an address.)

  4. One definitely non-professional take:
    If I play the lottery and win, should I divide my winnings by the number of players and apportion one unit to each player? No! That makes the lottery an uninteresting, zero-variance donation to the government.
    Humans need to be able to choose their level of risk, whether it’s lotteries or entrepreneurship or a job hunt.
    Insurance markets often help with this.
    But since life is a random walk, with some feedback loops thrown in, people can get stuck in a crappy situation, where they start needing a LOT of luck to get back to an OK spot in life. (The odds of recovering from alcohol-addicted homelessness are not great). Insurance cannot help me if I already fell into such a pit. But OTOH, we shouldn’t incentivize falling into pits. This becomes just a straight utilitarian “socialism versus prosperity” balancing act, which can be resolved in the usual compromise way (limited redistribution).
    Also, birth is a sui generis event in that I (an unborn soul?) cannot opt out of the “birth lottery”. Because of this, the risk of being born into a crappy situation needs to be somewhat socialized. It’s a mandatory form of insurance, reflecting the fact that unborn souls cannot “express their preference for risk” by, say, participating in voluntary insurance markets. Birth is just weird, and I think social insurance is a reasonable way to deal with the weirdness.
    Maybe one reasonable definition of a just social arrangement is “whenever anyone is born, no matter what their characteristics, the experts’ best guess is that they have at least a 90% chance of ending up above the poverty line.”

  5. Forgive me, but I can’t wrap my mind around the Big Bang Fallacy. Insofar as, I can’t see how it’s a fallacy.
    My understanding, perhaps erroneous, is that no, we don’t fundamentally deserve anything, but we must necessarily overlook this so that we can keep praising and blaming people to keep society from going to hell.

  6. “What’s the moral point of limiting the gains from good luck, once the downside of bad luck has been successfully limited?”
    I agree with this. It’s basically the concept of Pareto efficiecny:
    I don’t quite see your point about the lack of attention paid to “social insurance.” Seems to me you’ve got a pretty good rough sketch of a convincing rationale for liberal policy … so who cares how much attention it gets from “the academic left”? A good theory is a good theory — it doesn’t matter how many people have spouted it.
    I think I can answer your point about why liberals want to limit things within nation-states, but I don’t have time now — I hope to blog it soon.

  7. The left is traditonally worried about exploitation, with the general assumption (not always true but often observed) that those making up the rules and paying the wages can put their thumb on the scale a bit. Gini coefficients can thus serve as an indicator of (potential) exploitation.
    The argument from simple insurance assumes all distributive outcomes are already somehow optimal/ efficient, but looking across just EU economies, who is to say which of Finland or the UK is more optimal?

  8. Will, presumably you don’t think that Dworkin’s hypothetical auction/ hypothetical insurance market model, articulated way back in the stone age origins of the luck egalitarianism literature, is the sort of thing you have in mind, or you’d have mentioned it…? If not, I’d be curious why not.

  9. It seems to me the hardcore luck egalitarians are in a bind when it comes to the efficacy of actually implementing a redistributive apparatus via the state.
    If there are no predictable patterns of human behavior/interaction that facilitates minimal levels of “success”, then how can those in government be expected to follow through with their functions in a way that can actually accomplish a welfare state? Are we relying on coincidence and “good luck” when imagining how those in government will make the social safety net actually work out for the poor?

  10. Elizabeth Anderson’s “What Is The Point of Equality?” (Ethics 1999) makes some similar points, and is very reading if you haven’t seen it. Argues for a ‘democratic equality’ view rooted (I think; been a few years) something like the necessary conditions to participate on roughly equal terms in the political sphere. Or something. Ugh, bad memory.

  11. Hi Will, good post. In addition to the Scheffler paper, you should read (if you haven’t) “What is the Point of Equality” by Elizabeth Anderson (Ethics 109:2, 1999). She, a Rawls student, agrees with you, Freeman and Scheffler that Rawls shouldn’t be simply lumped in with Luck Egalitarians. Also, the first half of her paper does a very nice job of introducing a number of the major strands of luck egalitaranism (Dworkin, Arneson, Van Parijs, Cohen, Ragowski) and does a marvelous job of demonstrating the futility of this line of reasoning. (She also wins me over by being unusually frank about things–the opening sentence is “If recent academic work defending equality had been secretly penned by conservatives, could the result have been any more embarrassing for egalitarians?” I suppose it’s possible, but….) She defends an alternative normative justification for egalitarianism that she calls democratic equality, which is vaguely in the vicinity of your social insurance justification in some ways, but goes beyond it in some some other important ways.
    Count me as someone who wants to see the Tan paper too, Matt.

  12. As to this:
    Could it be because a scheme of redistribution from the lucky to the unlucky that minimizes the harm from bad luck might do too little to limit the gains from good luck? Maybe. But that strikes me as a spiteful worry, hard to credit morally. What’s the moral point of limiting the gains from good luck, once the downside of bad luck has been successfully limited?
    One possible answer, I think is that the two simply can’t be analytically separated so neatly. I’m a big fan of Ian Shapiro’s recent book The State of Democratic Theory for a variety of reasons; one salient point relevant to this concern is his entreaty to democratic theorists to concern themselves a great deal more than they are inclined to do with power. It should worry democrats, liberals, etc. that just hierarchies (potentially products of non obviously unjust inequalities) have a tendency to ossify and/or metastasize, and become forms of domination (and, on his view, democracy’s central purpose is to limit, prevent, or ameliorate domination). Substantial concentrations of wealth, over time, become substantial concentrations of power. often that power form of power is exercised in informal ways that may not be compatible with democratic accountability, the rule of law, etc.

  13. Will, is there any data supporting the thesis that more compulsory state “social” insurance produces higher levels of entrepreneurial risk-taking? People claim that it should be true all the time, but I’ve not seen anything backing up the claim beyond intuition and anecdote. And I can give intuition and anecdote the other way just as easily (the US’s lower levels of “social” insurance coincide with high levels of entrepreneurship; it’s unclear whether those most inclined and likely to be successful entrepreneurs actually care as much as the rest of us about the downside risks that “social” insurance ameliorates). Furthermore, note that you have to show not just that it increases entrepreneurship ceteris paribus, but that it increases it enough to outweigh the effects of the taxes on entrepreneurs’ gains required to pay for it.

  14. DJW- if you’re still around email me (I don’t have your email) and I’ll send you Tan’s paper. You can get my email via the link in my name.

  15. Good post – I think it is interesting that the academic left doesn’t embrace the social insurance viewpoint more in their philosophical discussions. One of the more basic viewpoints of redistribution of wealth that I don’t see discussed here at all, however, is the basic premise that wealth is created on the backs of the commonwealth and should be given back to the degree that it provides social insurance and is the foundation upon which future generations (not from the lucky sperm club) of any socioeconomic class can also create wealth. This is the premise of the estate tax and the philosophy to which wealth creators like Warren Buffet subscribe. Any thoughts about this perspective?

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