Ooooh, Mr Wilson, Oooooh Mr Heath

This guy has a sweet little thought experiment designed to sharpen up a few people’s intuitions about egalitarianism (like all we cool blogger people, he has dispensed with the outmoded concept of permalinks; scroll down, you lazy swines). The experiment:

At the beginning of class I ask my students how many of them are in favor of progressive redistribution — taking from those who have a little more and giving it to those who have a little less. About half to 60% of the class stands up (I make them commit to their position by standing up.) I then tell them what I actually was thinking about was the progressive distribution of their grades, taking a few grade points from those who are above the median grade and distributing those extra points to those below the median. (I also propose less severe redistributions that would not put everyone at the median, but still would have the effect of collapsing the grades to the class median.) The immediate reaction is that almost all the students sit down, only one or two students actually remain standing or stand up. Assuming that most of them thought I was originally referring to income (or wealth, not the same thing), I then ask them to explain why they were in favor of income/wealth redistribution but not grade distribution.

And what do his class do? Well, start rationalising away like fury, apparently, rather like everyone with a weblog who’s commented on it. Grades aren’t like money because they’re meant to be about people’s real ability (bollocks) they can’t be exchanged for things in the economy (yes they can). Of course, this apparent inconsistency between people’s views about what ought to be done with other people’s money versus what they say when it might affect them, is taken as great evidence of leftist hypocrisy. And to be fair, to a pretty significant extent, it is.

But at base, I still think it’s a trick question. Here’s why:

1. Try another thought experiment at the end of term. Get all the ‘B+” students to stand up. Tell them that at the end of the year, three students have bad enough results that you will have to throw them off the course. Then offer them the deal that if the “B+” students standing agree to be marked down to a flat “B”, you will let the flunked students stay on. I’m interested in the finer grains of this prejudice against redistribution of grades and suspect that the B+s will agree to a bit of fudging in order to save people from really desperate straits.

2. But the real trick is in the ambiguous phrase “progressive redistribution”. Is it a pleonasm1? Not really. Progressivity and redistribution are not the same thing when one applies them to a tax system. If I get it into the tax code that every year we have to take a $100 bill from Bill Gates and burn it then that’s progressive (the incidence of the tax increases as one goes up the wealth distribution) but it’s not redistributive. Progressivity is quite a specific feature of tax economics, and it’s not just as simple as “taking from the rich and giving to the poor”. The point of view that taxation should enforce a smoothing out of the income distribution is actually quite a stronger point of view that simple support for progressivity in the tax code. One might believe what William Petty did, that there were a number of necessary expenses to the running of the state, and that the incidence of paying for those expenses should fall for the most part on those “with the greatest interest in the public peace”.

Since the “grade tax” proposed above is just a pure redistribution rather than a financing of necessary expenditures (you can’t use grade points for feeding the poor or defending your class against its enemies), the analogy is testing a stronger view than the one the students would really support. I must say that myself I can’t really see the point in a progressive tax policy just for the sake of evening out the counters, but I’m quite passionately in favour of the principle that people ought to be given a fair go of things, that “a fair go” is a much more substantial concept that most people’s view of “equality of opportunity”, and that the rich should pay more for this important social good. After all, if there was a revolution tomorrow then my binman would presumably still be in his old job, but Warren Buffet would be looking at a seriously reduced standard of living. So Warren Buffet ought to pay more than my binman for the cause of keeping the proles contented. But that doesn’t mean that I’d necessarily support the principle of taking Warren’s wallet and sharing it out pro rata.

3. Possibly, therefore, one could try the following experiment, again at the end of term rather than the beginning. Say “the department has informed me that I need to reduce the GPA of this class until it fits on a curve. Sorry, not my fault and all that, but as an aggregate, you lot are going to have to be docked some points. Now how do we decide who to dock them from?”.

I suspect that the class would agree to some sort of progressivity in the redistribution schedule, but not as much as they might suggest for the marginal rate of income tax. The difference between the answers would be a useful quantitative measure of exactly how hypocritical left-wing students are, a question that I suspect a lot of us would be mildly interested in.

1Look it up, look it up!

Endnote: I only posted this here because I couldn’t get his comments section to work. I saw the link onJunius


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