The Corner

Jonathan Chait Is Intellectually Dishonest: A Series

Jonathan Chait at New York magazine takes issue with my recent piece on inequality politics:

Much of Williamson’s essay is dedicated to the straw man argument that liberals propose “eradicating” inequality, as opposed to the actual liberal position, which is to ameliorate it slightly while still accepting not only significant inequality but more of it than nearly any other advanced economy.

As is usual with Chait, he ignores the actual substance of the piece in question, which was not about redistributive taxing and spending but about progressive arguments for much more radical interventions into family and private life, such as abolishing private schools and treating the fact that some families read bedtime stories to their children as a political problem, worrying that such parenting should be regarded as conferring unfair advantages that illegitimately deepen inequality.

This is classic Chait-ism: I write about a philosopher with some loopy but not uncommon ideas about social organization — that we parent at the sufferance of the state and that our best educational institutions should be abolished in the name of equality — and Chait completely refuses to address the substance of the question, instead offering up his usual: “Here are some charts!” Well, hooray for the charts; I was writing about something else.

Progressing from the dishonest to the foolish, Chait demands to know: “If inequality simply reflects individual qualities, why can we observe such stark differences in its level over time, not to mention between different countries?”

Seriously — he asked that question, in writing.

Perhaps somebody could explain to Chait that economic conditions change over time. The brief answer is that if the integration of global markets increases returns to talent/education/skills/luck/etc., and if those are not equally distributed within any given population, then we’d expect globalization to be accompanied by rising levels of inequality in very different countries, such as Sweden and the United States—which is, of course, exactly what we’re witnessing. That the world’s economy is very different today from that it was in 1973 is not mainly a matter of Swedish policy or American policy but of broader and deeper changes in the way the world works. 

To reiterate, Chait here is engaging in intellectual dishonesty with malice aforethought — my piece was not an assault on a “straw man” as Chait put it; Adam Swift really does want to abolish private schools, and he really does think that we should be worried about the inequality that results from good parenting. A straw man is an argument attributed to an opponent for rhetorical purposes, e.g. claiming that conservatives believe that “Paris Hilton and her dog” are the “products of individual merit and superior upbringing,” in case Chait would like to see an actual straw-man argument right at the top of his own illiterate column. My characterizations of Swift’s views, on the other hand, are not exaggerations or caricatures of his positions; they are his positions — not that Jonathan Chait could be bothered to acknowledge as much or address my actual argument, or that his editors at New York could be bothered to insist upon a modicum of honesty or basic intellectual standards. 

Read Swift for yourself if you doubt me.

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