A note on hypocrisy

This is a long-standing pet peeve of mine. Many people, and most noticeably many journalists, do not seem to have a clear understanding of what hypocrisy is. To keep things simple, let’s go with the everyday definition of hypocrisy as “saying one thing, while doing another.” This is fine, except that it’s important, when accusing people of hypocrisy, to pay careful attention to what they are saying. In particular, it is important to pay careful attention to the distinction between what people would like the general rule to be, and what their preferences over their own actions are, given the existing rules. (Viktor Vanberg and James Buchanan introduced the term “constitutional preferences” and “action preferences” to distinguish the two, which is maybe not the best terminology, but their discussion of the distinction is invaluable.)

Let me give a concrete example. I was reading a little article the other day about Bill Gates’s five favorite books of 2014. One of them was Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which I think is kind of hilarious. Here is what Gates said “I agree with his most important conclusions: inequality is a growing problem and that governments should play a role in reducing it. I admire his work and hope it draws in more smart people to study the causes of, and cures for, inequality.”

Some people’s knee-jerk response to this will be to say “Hypocrite! If you’re so keen on reducing inequality, why don’t you give your money away?” Of course, Gates has given away an enormous amount of his money — more that you or I will ever earn — and he has also made it clear that he is placing strict limits on how much money he intends to leave for his children. Nevertheless, he remains rich as Croesus, and he could certainly make a big dent in inequality by giving away a couple more billion dollars. So isn’t he “saying one thing, doing another” by calling for government to take a more active role in reducing inequality, while doing less than he could to reduce it on his own?

The answer is “no,” and the reason why hinges on the distinction between constitutional and action preferences. Most people think that the amount you are obliged to do, as an individual, to solve some particular problem, depends in part upon how much other people are doing. At the same time, you might wish that others were doing more, and you might also be prepared to do much more, if others were as well. So you can quite consistently support a rule change, that would force everyone, including yourself, to do x, while at the same time not volunteering to do x in the absence of such a rule. This is a really simple and obvious point, but often one that gets neglected in public debate. (I have always thought that G.A. Cohen’s book, If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? could have been a lot shorter, if he had just made this one simple point, although come to think of it, one of the defects in Cohen’s work is that he may not be able to avail himself of this point.)

Anyhow, I think that taxes on the 1% should be higher, but I don’t voluntarily pay more in taxes — on the contrary, I have a crafty accountant who uses various strategies to reduce my tax liability. I think university professors should teach more, but I don’t volunteer to teach extra classes. I think we should be doing all sorts of things to combat climate change, yet my own carbon footprint is clearly not at a sustainable level. None of this makes me a hypocrite.

That having been said, it might not be a bad idea to come up with a term to describe the person who makes overly self-serving use of the “everyone else is doing it” excuse, or the “I’m happy to go along, once everyone else does too.” For example, the Government of Canada’s current position on climate change is that, at the constitutional level, we are all in favour of a binding regime of carbon mitigation, but at the action level, we are not prepared to do anything until absolutely everyone else has agreed to a plan. An analogy on the individual level would be a person who says ‘I think everyone should pay their taxes honestly,” but then as long as there is someone, somewhere, who is in some way avoiding them, says “why should I pay?” and engages in all sorts of dodgy tax-avoidance.

The general idea is that, if you have a constitutional preference in favour of action x being mandatory for all, this does not oblige you to choose x in circumstances in which is it not mandatory for all, but the constitutional preference should at least loosely constrain your behaviour — like you shouldn’t be choosing things that are totally antithetical to x. It would be nice to have a name for this sort of moral failure — “hypocrisy” clearly is not the right name for it.

Oh yeah, I suppose if you wanted a canonical example of hypocrisy, it would be this:

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A note on hypocrisy — 3 Comments

  1. The newly appointed deputy mayor of Toronto is a great example for someone who does not understand the distinction in play here.

    From the Toronto Sun:
    “Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong says it is pretty clear residents don’t want to pay more taxes. Minnan-Wong drew that conclusion based on a report received by the executive committee Wednesday that showed just 218 taxpayers out of around 786,000 tax bills opted to pay more than the tax they owed the city last year through the city’s voluntary contribution program. … he reminded his colleagues the voluntary donation form idea came after they heard from speakers earlier in the term telling them that people want to pay more taxes.”

    The last sentence goes to show that M-W is not the only one at City Hall who fails to understand what people mean when they say they want to pay more taxes.

    Minnan Wong didn’t use the term hypocrisy but he came close:

    “Minnan-Wong speculated those who claim they want to pay more, might only want others to pay more. ‘They don’t want to pay more taxes, they want everyone else to pay more taxes,’ he said.”

    Of course, what he doesn’t understand is that what (many) people (like Joe) want is for everyone – including themselves – to pay more taxes.

  2. In collective action terms, it boils down to knowing what a free rider problem is. I think everyone can understand free rider problems, but almost no one bothers to think of the world in that way. And so they try to fit what you’re saying with the simpler and more intuitive hypocrisy idea.

  3. I don’t think Bill Gates is a good example. He through his company violated the law pretty seriously in many ways. Also, just because someone *says* he would like the law changed in a way that would benefit most people but ostensibly harm themselves, does not imply that this is what they really want, or that they would have wanted it before they made off like bandits at the expense of society at large. The idea that Gates giving away much of what he “earned” makes him a good guy is suspect also, given that he “earned” it by extracting it from many not-so-well people. Nor is Gates “giving” it away in reality. What else could he do with it? He buys himself the adulation implicitly contained in this article. And that he limits the amount of money transferred to his children? Big deal. I think we can be sure they won’t want for anything.

    It is definitely correct that one cannot rightly accuse a person of hypocrisy merely because they engage in behavior that is currently legally allowed while at the same time expressing a wish that it be legally disallowed. But Gates is not a good example of this.

    There is a lot more to wealth that just money. I have not read Picketty but I wonder if he considers this to any great extent. People at the lower socio-economic scale, if they have *enough* (cf. Frankfurt “On Equality”), arguably have no complaint on that score. But if their daily activities are limited in the possibilities available to them (as they are, in one way, by the secret, proprietary Microsoft software), they arguably do have a complaint about that.