Social Justice, Liberty

What’s in a Word?

Here, just in time for holiday fun, is some old-fashioned ordinary-language, probably worthless, rumination.

It is often said, when criticizing institutions, that such and such political arrangement systematically hurts the poor and vulnerable. But how is that different from saying that such and such political arrangement hurts the poor and vulnerable? What is the meaning of the qualifier “systematically”?

The more I tried to think about this, the more puzzling the issue became. The word “systematically” is noticeably obscure. Two things can be said about it. A first implication is that the system (the legal system, say) causes harm to the poor. A second implication is that such harm is unfair. For consider the following statement: “The criminal law systematically hurts criminals.” This is silly: the very point of the criminal law is to hurt criminals. Now compare with this statement: “The criminal law systematically hurts poor families.” Now this doesn’t sound silly. The idea is that because most criminals are poor, the criminal law unfairly hurts their innocent families.

There are other ambiguities:

1) Sometimes the word “systematically” is used to indicate that the rules of the system are designed to unfairly harm or favor certain people or groups. For example, in apartheid South Africa, the rules were designed to exclude non-whites from market benefits, job opportunities, and the like. Thus we can say that apartheid systematically harmed non-whites, where the qualifier means that the legal system itself does this. Or consider crony capitalism. We can say that the system (with its subsidies to inefficient industries, etc.) favors the rich friends of the government. What we mean is the same as in the South Africa case: the legal rules, the political system (the subsidies) unfairly favor these people.

2) But in other cases the speaker means the opposite of (1), that is, he means a lack of deliberate design. Obscurely, the qualifier sometimes suggests something bad and unintended. Take the example above of the criminal law. When we say that the criminal law “systematically” hurts poor families, we imply that this was not the intended effect of the criminal law, and it is unfair precisely for that reason, because it obliquely hurts innocent persons. The direct intent of the criminal law is to punish criminals, and this is not unfair; the oblique, unintended effect is the harm suffered by poor families, and this is unfair. The qualifier here (perhaps) discloses unintended bad consequences of social institutions.

Now consider an ideal libertarian political system.  In a free market, where the legal rules protect property and contract, the poor are those who cannot compete as effectively. They cannot produce enough stuff that others want and so have a lesser income. But then, to say that the free market hurts the poor is true but trivial: it will always be the case that some people will do worse than others. The “system,” that is, the market (legally enforced by rules of property and contract) rewards those who can offer stuff that others want. By definition some will do worse than others.  Is this what people mean when they say that a libertarian political arrangement “systematically” hurts the poor? That is, is the idea that the rules of property and contract (the legal system, thus the word “systematically”) under which the market operates produce winners and losers?

This allows us to see that the qualifier plays a derogatory role in the sentence. If we interpret the phrase “libertarian institutions systematically hurt the poor” as descriptive, it is trivial: it merely says that some people will do better than others. But the speaker is not describing libertarian institutions, he is condemning them. The phrase “the free market systematically hurts the poor” means something like: “In a market system, everyone is legally free to use their powers (natural and material) in order to produce goods that they can exchange. Some people will be more successful than others, and this is unjust.”

So the expression “political system X systematically hurts the poor” is ambiguous, because it does not allow us to tell whether it refers to (i) the trivial fact that, left to their own devices, some people will do worse than others; or (ii) the non-trivial fact that the system unjustly wrongs people, as in the apartheid example. The critic of libertarianism must explain why the fact that some people will do better than others is unjust. Of course, he has many resources at his disposal to do that; for example, he will say that libertarian institutions are unfair to those who are naturally or materially disadvantaged through no fault of their own. This is not a trivial statement but a substantive criticism of those institutions.

But he can say this without the aid of the word “systematically.” The word is conclusory and describes nothing. It condemns that which is described by the rest of the sentence. It has no place, therefore, in social science or philosophy. Any political arrangement has to be defended or criticized by substantive argument. Presenting the issue as one where the arrangement “systematically” does this or that is not very helpful.

Needless to say, my point is entirely conceptual. As such, it is agnostic about the merits or demerits of libertarian (or any other) institutions.

  • Paul Gowder

    I always thought the word meant “not in an isolated or incidental fashion.” Something that systematically hurts the poor doesn’t just hurt the occasional poor person. Rather, it hurts the poor as a class as a result of something that is central to, not peripheral to, the institution being discussed…?

    • Whatever the connotation and implications attached to the word, I think you have it right. Systematically means continuously, or an invariable result of the mechanism.

  • I think there is an additional thought conveyed when people say things like “a libertarian political arrangement ‘systematically’ hurts the poor.” This is the thought that ‘the poor’ designates a distinct class of people (like ‘the serfs’ in a feudal society), so that systematically hurting the poor means hitting the same poor souls over and over again. But the more libertarian a society is, the more everyone has an opportunity to better his position. So the people who are relatively poor at time t1 are not the same people as those who are relatively poor at time t2. Paul seems to be invoking this point in his comment, when he talks of the poor being a class. In fact, the poor are not a class – at least, not in a sense any stronger than that of a classification. Like many other people in market societies, I began poor, but I am now well off (I don’t even have to work).


      Totally agree. Many people here condemn Wal-Mart because it pays entry level workers what is, in the eyes of the critics, a low wage. But what is missed is that the vast majority of those people won’t be working that same job forever. It is the first step up on the employment ladder, not the last. But, as my wife is fond of saying, you can’t get a promotion without first having a job, nor can you get a better job without first being employed.

      • Puzzled

        Right – Walmart should be criticized for entirely separate reasons.

    • good_in_theory

      Some people moving from one class to another has nothing to do with whether or not the poor exist as a class. In fact, income and wealth inequality is exacerbated over time, with significant portions of the elderly retiring with no income other than that derived from entitlement programs, and no wealth to speak of. Anecdotal and even large scale occurrences of income and wealth mobility over one’s life don’t affect the existence of large scale income and wealth immobility over the lives of others.

      • Kyle Nearhood

        Not sure how much I agree with that. I remember seeing studies that showed that the wealthiest quintile was mostly not the same people who were in that quintile 30 years ago. Certainly there are some people who are mired in poverty but that is due to many personal reasons. Including mental instability, criminality, and substance abuse.

        • good_in_theory

          Movement in and out of the top quintile is even more irrelevant than movement in and out of the bottom quintile. The causes of poverty are also besides the point. There exist a significant number of people who remain poor throughout their lives.

          • Kyle Nearhood

            Well, o, I guess my response is. So?

          • good_in_theory

            The “point” is that it’s sort of silly to blurt out “durable socio-economic class doesn’t exist” everytime anyone uses the word “class” when there are groups of significant numbers of people who spend the entirety of their lives… in a particular socio-economic condition. I guess the point is that denying the reality of class is… pointless.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I really love the way you make up arguments, and then triumphantly refute them. If Danny’s actual point was not sufficiently obvious to you, let me direct your attention again to what he actually said: “In fact, the poor are not a class – at least, not in a sense any stronger than that of a classification. Like many other people in market societies, I began poor, but I am now well off (I don’t even have to work).” The distinction he is drawing between “class” and “classification” is between attributes that are immutable and those that aren’t.

            Being white, black, Asian, etc. are examples of the former, while being poor, unemployed, or underemployed are examples of the latter. This is why he points out that he started out poor but ended up otherwise. The fact that many people start and end poor is irrelevant to the existence of the referenced distinction, because it is entirely possible that those who do so are responsible for this situation through their own bad decisions, while the concept of personal responsibility does not apply to those who start off life Asian and end up that way. Attacking a strawman and then employng sarcasim when caught is not very becoming. Perhaps “good in theory” is not the best moniker for you.

          • good_in_theory

            You’d have to be making up the meaning of words to think that “class” implies an immutable characteristic. The gesture towards something being ‘just’ a classification is unhelpful. Being ‘French’ or ‘American’ is likewise mutable, ‘unlike’ race and gender (but then, even those are mutable in particular ways). ‘Mutability’ alone doesn’t pick out something helpful (nor does ‘immutability’).

            Talking about ‘personal responsibility’ doesn’t do anything to mitigate the relative psychological and sociological durability of some ‘classifications’ as compared to other kinds. Mutability is a spectrum, not a binary, and the capacities and powers necessary for any particular transformation depend upon how ‘mutable’ a category really is. ‘People who have cereal for breakfast on tuesdays’ is perhaps ‘just’ a classification. ‘People who are poor’ is not. It’s just not true that ‘systematically hurting the poor’ does *not* mean hurting some of the same people over and over gain. It’s also clearly true that some people who are relaaltively poor at t1 are also relatively poor at t2, and t3, and t4, &etc.

            And yet for some reason we’re invited to follow along a train of falsehoods that goes from ‘nothing repeatedly hurts poor people’ to ‘no one is relatively poor across time’ to ‘the poor are not a class’ to ‘the fact that I’m no longer poor demonstrates all this’ to ‘the fact that some rich people are no longer rich and some poor people are now rich demonstrates this’.

          • Kyle Nearhood

            Again my question is So What? I really do not get why you are so worked up about this. I concede that there are poor people, there always will be in every type of system and society. I also concede that some people will always be poor because they lack whatever it takes to lift yourself out of poverty.

            However, I do not understand why it make any difference whether a policy can be condemned because it “systematically” hurts the poor. That is immaterial, and not worthy of discussion. Each policy much be examined on it’s own and whether it (1) accomplishes it’s task, or (2) is likely to have unintended consequences. and (3) is logical from a cost/benefit analysis.

            Whether it will hurt or punish a class of people is of course only one of many factors which are included in these analysis.

            The “poor” may be worthy of sympathy or your personal largesse, but they are not more worthy than anyone else of the benefits or protections of the government.

          • good_in_theory

            Whether a policy hurts the poor is internally related to its costs and benefits.

            Whether or not the poor are specifically worthy of government largesse is a political question. I would argue they are. Clearly you think otherwise.

            As to the ‘why’ of the question, if you agree that ‘the poor’ exist as a meaningful class which one can analyze, then there’s no problem. My objection is to the notion, put forth at the beginning of this particular sub-discussion, that there is no such thing as ‘the poor’, just individuals who randomly, or solely in accord with their own personal will, float across socio-economic conditions, sometimes being in poverty, and sometimes not, independent of any larger conditions which constrain and partially determine their movement.

            It seems to me your question should be, “why try to treat the world as if ‘the poor’ don’t exist as a durable class, shouldn’t we just argue that the poor, relative to any other individual or class, deserve no special consideration as a group in virtue of their poverty”, or something along those lines

  • CFV

    Without passing any judgment about the substantive issue involved here, perhaps “systematically” means the same as in “systematically misleading expressions” (!)

  • martinbrock

    “The criminal law systematically hurts criminals.” This is silly: the very point of the criminal law is to hurt criminals.

    A fugitive slave law reenslaves fugitive slaves. Reenslaving a fugitive slave presumably hurts him, so a fugitive slave law hurts fugitive slaves. Where slavery is lawful, fugitive slaves are criminals. Hurting fugitive slaves is the very point of a fugitive slave law, and the truth of this statement doesn’t seem silly to me.

    Hurting pot smokers is also the very point of anti-pot laws.

    Is this what people mean when they say that a libertarian political arrangement “systematically” hurts the poor?

    It could be, and your critique of “systematically hurts the poor” seems reasonable enough if “property” refers only to fruits of labor and if productivity and trade are the only paths to goods; however, neither of these assumptions is true.

    If opponents of “libertarianism” are strict egalitarians objecting to any inequality for any reason, your critique is spot on, but hardly any critics of “libertarianism” are strict egalitarians, because hardly anyone generally is a strict egalitarian. Strict egalitarianism is largely a straw man.

    Most critics of libertarianism are critics of corporatism and a rentier state that they identify (wrongly in my way of thinking) with libertarianism, rather than critics of any and all inequality.

  • Kyle Nearhood

    This is an artifact of the long going attempt to acquire the language for political purposes by (mostly) the far left. Anytime you see the substitution of obtuse or redundant language there is a political motive at work.

  • purple_platypus

    This reminds me of a paper on Parfit’s Repugnant Conclusion that I once read where the author said something like “it is not clear what Parfit means by “repugnant”; I will assume he means something like “obviously false”…”.

    This struck me as deliberately obtuse. By “repugnant”, Parfit meant “repugnant”, not something completely different. There’s plenty that’s genuinely obscure in academic writing; it’s dumb and perverse to insist on seeing even more of it than there already is.

    Same here. Call me weird but by “systematic”, I would think people generally mean “systematic”. I.e. as a predictable, repeatable feature of some aspect of a system (what system should generally be clear from context). It has nothing to do with design and even less to do with derogation. It is not mysterious or sinister; it simply means what it means, not something completely different.

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