Monday, May 7, 2012

Identity is not the same as flourishing

Just following on from the last post, one major problem in politics is that so much of the dialogue in the last generation has revolved around identity - gender, ethnicity and race, sexual orientation - and associated claims for equal respect.

But identity is not the same as flourishing. A label is not the same as achievement or happiness or fulfillment. Labels are ultimately empty.

Equal respect in the abstract can drain away any respect for developing human potential or helping people flourish in particular cases. People shouldn't be respected equally. Respect should come at least in part from what people have done as individuals, rather than simply members of an abstract group. Abstract universalism does not work.

I think this is why arguments about tax policy, for example, can grow so venomous. It's not just about money, of course, but about recognition. On the left, success or achievement is not seen as something worthy of respect, so much as simply obligation to give back more. On the right, people increasingly see elevated parts of the culture (the leading universities, the arts, the mainstream media) as simply snobbery and condescension.

We can't agree on legitimate ways to distribute resources. The welfare state doesn't work, as it destroys incentives. The market doesn't completely work, as it is incomplete in motivating behaviors we want to see (less CDOs, more happy relationships.)

And the soaring efficiency of the economy is likely to undercut the labor market, as the nature of our needs become less material.

What we have to do is stop discussing these issues as a matter of tax policy or economic incentives. It's not a matter of incomes and redistribution, or even dollars and cents. Dollar measures tend to conceal actual needs or incentives or motivation.

The issues can only get solved at a higher level of discussion, about what we want to achieve as a society and how we flourish and live better lives.

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