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: