The Paradox Of Corona Privilege
Here’s a thought experiment I don’t have a great answer for. A rich man X has a great life, a big house, servants, all the comforts and cares one would need, no insecurity about either his future or the future of his children. Life is good. A poor youth Y comes from an at-risk household and community, drops out of school and engages in the daily struggle and hustle that is life. He has no roof above his head, no guarantee of a single meal for the day, and his life is constantly in danger from either physical harm from others, or disease, or starvation. Now obviously it is taken for granted that X pays substantially more tax than Y, he has more to give, there isn’t any argument against this, from each according to his ability. But let’s say X and Y both murder somebody. Is it self-evident that the conditions for fairness and justice are met when they both get the same punishment, ie life imprisonment? Isn’t there an argument that X’s life in prison will be an infinite plunge compared to life outside while Y’s isn’t changed as much? If the point of retributive justice is to make you worse off as punishment, then why is one person made infinitely more worse of than another for the same crime, if indeed the law is blind and doesn’t discriminate against X?
It’s the same discomfort I have with the current rhetoric of privilege around the Coronavirus tragedy. At the start of the crisis, I had assumed it would be the death of the liberals. In the face of this existential risk, it seemed untenable to shout about microaggressions, LGBT pronouns, and equal rights for illegal immigrants. Thankfully it hasn’t died, it’s only been focused onto the only liberal cause that I’ve ever considered worth the extent of emotional outrage, poverty. But it is strangely illiberal in its execution. Whichever way you look at it, Covid is going to be disproportionately catastrophic for the poor. If there is no lockdown, the disease runs rampant through more vulnerable sections of society, spreads more rapidly and virulently where preventative conditions and personal space are low, and kills more extensively where medical facilities are practically nil. If there is a lockdown, the resulting economic disaster disproportionately hits those at the bottom. They are the most fragile sections of society, and a shock like this is catastrophic to them.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Anti-fragile, the wealthy who can bide this over with depth in resources and reserves. Good for them, we don’t need to worry about them at all. But there’s something in the middle, a large section of society that wasn’t fragile before but always just one shock away from fragility. It’s no coincidence that life satisfaction is negatively correlated not with your absolute station in life, but with downward mobility. And not all downward mobility is created equal. A large chunk of the lower middle class is going to slide downwards during an economic recession, and the threshold between the lower middle class and borderline poverty is not a smooth line, it’s a gaping abyssal drop-off. It’s of course one thing to say a reduced standard of living, even if it’s a substantial reduction, is nothing compared to the visceral specter of starvation and death that the fragile section of society faces. It’s a whole other thing to say that everyone else is privileged, that you’re privileged to have a room to isolate, savings to bide you over for more than a month, access to information that lets you take sanitary precautions. It’s like telling the rich man X in prison that he’s privileged he has the memory of an amazing life that he will never have again. Seems gratuitously cruel.
During a seismic shock event like this, we only have the antifragile, fragile and immediately urgently fragile sections of society, where the language of privilege is hopelessly incomplete, unhelpful, and unwelcome. One needs to be ridiculously privileged to even consider a concept like privilege at a time like this, the luxury of considering only the upsides and none of the downsides, so perhaps we might check that privilege first and stop using the word. I’m very aware of my longstanding bias, probably half-assed, against this idiotic buzzword. I’ve always considered Privilege as just the new avatar of Godwin’s Law. So in the interest of intellectual honesty, could it actually have a positive role in developing a more rounded personal moral philosophy? Of course. I think my main problem has been treating it as a single issue when it is at minimum 2 different ones, and not reducing them to these components means I can argue with myself and past myself, as if debating why quantum electrodynamics is better than general relativity.
- Absolute vs Relative Privilege: We are not a binary species, we exist on a biological continuum and cannot think but in analog terms. I’d rather be me than poor. I’d rather be poor than a stray dog. I’d rather be a stray dog than a factory-farm pig. So on. And yet the language of privilege seems neither relative nor analog, instead absolute and curiously neat in its classification, you’re either privileged or you’re underprivileged, with nothing in the middle that is neutral-privilege. I consider relativism to be a copout so the absolute privilege is an easier confusion for me to tackle. One way for me to convince myself is to say privilege is just the other side of the coin of injustice. Take the thought experiment I was considering at the end of this piece. I could say then, that everything to the left of that X-intercept (absolute injustice) constitutes absolute under-privilege, and everything to the right constitutes absolute privilege. In this case, there is no neutral-privilege. That’s technically fine but it’s so superfluous when you already have a pure version of it called justice, why bother with a buzzword as ambiguous and airy fairy as privilege that isn’t adding anything other than the convenient refuge of alacarte obfuscation.
- Evolution Of Inflection: The X-intercept is a dynamic quantity. Every person has a different inflection point after which they would press the button and make the trade. Let’s say for mathematical purity it is possible to abstract a certain minimum common values that everyone can agree on and therefore we remove the variability among individuals. What about variability with time. I have different priorities at different ages, I press the button at a certain value at 23 and another value, potentially to the left if I’m alone or to the right if I have a family, when I’m 43. Let’s say for mathematical purity it is possible to abstract a certain minimum common value across time and we remove the variability of age. What about one-time seismic shocks? As soon as Covid hit, many people around the absolute inflection point of privilege are moving down the curve. By the time Covid ends, they will be much below the inflection point. In the meantime, not only would their individual preferences have changed remarkably since their Weltanschauung is now considerably different, they’d also have been called privileged by society while this downslide is happening. Now while designing the system we could say that every individual needs to price into their decisions the disproportionate shocks of black-swan events like this, but that strikes me as a highly conservative and inefficient strategy, like everyone building a nuclear shelter in their backyard and continually stocking and restocking canned food. There is a certain level of risk-aversion below which individual pricing of risk makes no sense, and society loses out. This is precisely the case in countries like India where we stupidly hoard cash and befuddle macroeconomists trying to figure out how to balance savings, consumption and investment. It’s far easier in the case of seismic shocks, to protect the margins of the X-intercept based on sensitivity. What is elasticity -dy/dx of privilege Y in the face of a shock X? Maintain a range Z as a buffer zone where -dy is unacceptable. This is neutral privilege, thanks I’ll let myself out.
- Do you have the right to call someone privileged: Either noone has the right to do it, or everyone does, or some people do based on relative privilege? This is what makes me very uncomfortable about the language of privilege, it’s very similar to my post about PC earlier, that it has no place outside the sphere of personal interactions which are themselves already bound by enough social norms to ostracize the obnoxious and reward the empathetic. I have a singular aversion to the notion of high-order punishment, which says it isn’t enough to punish those who flout social norms but that it’s also additionally necessary to punish those who fail to punish those who flout social norms. Practically it’s necessary in a society as interconnected and non-isolatable as ours, but theoretically I find it reprehensible. Curiously enough, I have no moral reprehension against the same high-order dispensation should we transform into an enlightened society that deals in compensation and not punishment. Suddenly, I’m no longer averse to the idea. Let’s say I am owed compensation due to a flouting of a social norm, someone called me a curryface call center boy (based on a true story) and owes me $100. Let’s say I fail to collect, it’s not worth it I’d rather just go about my day. I am not at all averse to the idea that anyone in society having witnessed this transgression is now allowed to collect on my behalf, if and only if I am given a % of the earnings. By this logic, anyone should be allowed to point out a transgression of ‘privilege’ in an interaction that they are themselves not a part of, regardless of whether their own privilege is higher or lower than the person they call out, if the basic condition that there is harm caused theoretically due to the transgression is met?
I’m now hopelessly stuck in the reeds and know only that I don’t know enough about why I hate the language of privilege and whether the bias needs rethinking. For another day.